A couple of nights ago, my husband asked me to show up at his office in a taxi cab at 7:30pm on the dot. He was taking me somewhere to celebrate a special occasion. I was given very few clues as to where we might be going: Please put on a fancy dress, bring your camera, and most of all don’t be late! He often does this, these sorts of surprises. And it never gets old. I’m a sucker for surprises.
The taxi, with me inside, pulled up right on time at his office near Madeleine in the 8ème. He promptly joined me inside and told the driver to head toward Concorde, to Les Ambassadeurs. Before this moment, he hadn’t wanted to tell me the name of the restaurant thinking that I might know it or Google the name and ruin my surprise. Apparently, he still doesn’t know me well enough to know that I would never knowingly ruin a surprise!
A few minutes later, we pulled up to the Hôtel de Crillon at the Place de la Concorde, just at the end of the Tuileries gardens beside the Louvre. A voiturier opened the door of the taxi and ushered us down a carpeted walkway toward another doorman in a tux who indicated our way through the large rotating door.
Now, for those of you who know the Crillon, you’ll know it’s a pretty swanky place. It’s the Dorchester of London, the Breakers of Palm Beach, Hotel Danelli in Venice. It is also host to the age-old French tradition of the autumn debutant ball which takes place in November. Last year, Andie MacDowell accompanied her youngest daughter to the ball along with Bruce Willis and Demi Moore’s middle daughter who danced and mingled among dozens of titled European debutants and their young princely escorts. In short, it’s one of those wonderfully opulent settings that makes you think of eras gone-by.
Making a right in the large marbled hall we came to the entrance of the restaurant. A maître d’hôtel, decked out in a finely tailored waistcoat and bow tie, took our coats and led us to our table overlooking the place de Concorde toward les Invalides.
The room was spectacular. As the former ball room of the hotel, several large crystal chandeliers hang from a 30 foot ceiling. The walls are covered with pink-veined white marble. I felt like I was sitting down to a meal at Versailles. With only a dozen tables spread lengthwise along a large set of ceiling-high windows, our table was adjacent to that of a Japanese princess dressed in a traditional Kimono and surrounded by an entourage of eight. At least, I think she was a princess. Either that or a Japanese film star – my husband’s old-world decorum and modesty prevented me from procuring further details. All I know for sure is that as I was taking discrete, no-flash photographs of the room, a member of her entourage summons the maître d’hôtel and a moment later I was asked not to take any photos of their party. Of course, I hadn’t. I was just trying to capture the moment so that I could share it… in part with you. When we arrived only half the tables were full. But to our left, opposite the Japanese party, sat a lovely couple of a certain age; he in his dinner jacket, her in her strains of pearls, all very reminiscent of Downton Abbey.
Within a moment of being seated, a sommelier arrived at our table with a mahogany and sliver trolley filled with bottles of champagne on ice. He offered us a choice of several vintages, one being a Dom Pérignon. If the ambiance and the sheer splendour of the room weren’t overwhelming enough, this wonderfully polished man greeting us by name sent the whole experience over the top of lavish. That kind of service is hard to come by, even in the gastronomy capital of the world.
Following the champagne, the meal progressed in one giant wondrous blur of sensational creations by the chef Christopher Hache. I remember the food in fragments, blissful flavors swelling up in my mouth as I went from the warm foie gras entrée prepared table-side to a veau à la châtaigne through to a cheese course and on to la pièce de résistance.
Once we’d placed our order, the sommelier returned with an academic text length wine list. Designed like an accordion, the white wines were on one side and the reds on the other. Desiring something we’d never tried before, my husband asked for the sommelier’s opinion which led to our introduction to two outstanding wines. With my veau, I sipped a robust but fruity Volnay (Pinot Noir) 2003 while my husband went with the less fragrant but equally full-bodied Bourgueil (Cabernet Franc) 2007 with his beef. I’d honestly never tasted a wine quite like the Volnay (my husband said after his first sip: “très fruité, robuste et original”). With an odor like grape juice, the flavor was rich, full, more aromatic than the Bordeaux or Medoc we drink most frequently.
Another interesting tidbit about these types of restaurants is that the lady is given a menu without the prices listed. This has happened to me on one other occasion in France in the Jules Verne restaurant at the Eiffel Tower. It’s a touch of old-fashioned French chivalry. I suppose at restaurants like this you aren’t supposed to care about the price. Hence, of course, the reason this was the first time in nearly seven years I’d ever stepped foot into this restaurant.
Throughout the meal, we enjoyed a number of mise en bouche, tiny between-course portions to cleanse and prepare the palate for the forthcoming dish. Our first mise en bouche at the very beginning of the meal was a delicate salmon and cabbage-flower mouse. After the main course, before the fromage, came several bonbon glacé – the cutest little wrapped balls of strawberry sorbet served in a frosty ice sculpture.
The cheese course was presented on a cheese cart, as is common in fancy French restaurants. Some twenty different selections were described before we chose a sample of as many as we pleased. I tried a walnut flavored Tomme de Savoie, a fig goat’s cheese, an aged Comté and a Échourgnac from Périgord.
Dessert was a special touch given our occasion. We ordered the Poire Belle-Hélène, a delicious French dessert featuring stewed pears with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce drizzled atop. The presentation on Wednesday night was as original as I’ve ever seen for this particular dessert. The pear was suspended at the top of a tall glass held in place by the ice cream wedged in the neck of the glass under which lay a wonderful brandy syrup. As the waiter poured the heated chocolate sauce over the pear, the ice cream began to melt and eventually slide down into the golden sauce below.
I’ve experienced some remarkable restaurant meals during my tenure in Paris. Some have been swanky, dressed-up affairs; other have been scrumptious down home meals. Most have been excellent. Few were over-rated. Les Ambassadeurs was exquisite.
Many more pictures below: