Le Meurice in question was one Charles-Augustin Meurice, the entrepreneurial postmaster of Calais – the Continent’s first port of call for British aristocracy visiting Paris or setting off on their Grand Tours. Here in 1771, he started greeting these tourists and providing them with accommodation at his coaching inn within the town whilst also arranging their transport to the capital or elsewhere aboard his coach service. Business was good and in 1817, he expanded, building a second inn in Paris. After his deathin 1835, the hotel named after him moved to its present, sublime site on the rue de Rivoli, where it also earned another label, the ‘City of London’. This was on account of it being the abode of choice amongst well-to-do British travellers. Even author, William M. Thackeray recommended it: ‘If you don’t speak a word of French, if you like English comfort, clean rooms, breakfast and maîtres d’hôtel; if in a foreign land, you want your fellow countrymen around you, your brown beer, your friend and your cognac – and your water – do not listen to any of the messengers but with your best British accent cry heartily: ‘Meurice!’ and immediately, someone will come forward to drive you straight [there].’ Even Queen Victoria stayed here during her 1855 state visit.
For the following century and a half or so, the hotel’s reputation grew as it played host to royals and world leaders; the succession of kings, princes, sultans, maharajas, dukes and duchesses that frequented it or, literally, called it home, secured it its second sobriquet, ‘l’Hôtel des Rois’. When Alphonse XIII of Spain was dethroned, he moved into Le Meurice; the Shah of Iran was dethroned whilst he stayed here. Picasso had his wedding at the hotel; Dali spent a month each year there. And, of course there are some stories – any Parisian institution worth its salt has a Dali tale to tell – including, for instance, that he demanded a flock of sheep be brought to his room only to fire blanks at them. Another time he asked for a horse, although the hotel’s employees knew better by then; he paid staff five Francs for every fly they caught him from the Tuileries Garden across the street; whilst he gave others autographed lithographs as Christmas tips.
A top class, five star hotel must have a top class, three star restaurant – and indeed it does. Restaurant Le Meurice earned its third étoile in February 2007, making it currently Paris’ only palace hotel* offering such an haute standard of cuisine. However, it was only as recently as 2003 that it boasted just one star, but under the aegis of Chef Alléno, that swiftly changed.
This Lozère native with modest beginnings was inspired to cook by his mother or, more specifically, her pots and their intoxicating odours. After growing up in Saint-Cloud, one of Paris’ western suburbs, and completing his CAP in cooking, then baking, he was introduced to Manuel Martinez by his father, with whose help he landed a position as pastry apprentice at the Lutetia Hotel. A year on, he moved on to the Hôtel Royal Monceau as a commis for Gabriel Biscay. The next year, Alléno spent some time in Japan, where the sophistication and attention to detail of the local cooking impressed him immensely. On his return, he joined the Hôtel Sofitel Sèvres with Roland Durand before becoming chef de partie at Le Meurice, at that time headed by Marc Marchand. After two years, he moved to Drouant as an adjoint under Louis Grandard – from whom he claims to have learnt most of his trade and the essence of the profession: ‘he taught me everything you can learn including meticulousness’. In 1999, he represented France at the Bocuse d’Or, bringing home the Bocuse d’Argent (the silver). The competition raised his profile greatly and was the start of a rewarding relationship between Paul Bocuse and himself. In fact, the former referred Alléno to the Hôtel Scribe, who then appointed the latter as head chef at its Les Muses restaurant. Here he won a Michelin star that same year and then another in 2002. In 2003, Le Meurice wanted him back, but this time, in charge. He accepted and gave up his unassuming basement at the Scribe for the palace dining room on the rue de Rivoli.
As soon as he arrived, he refurbished the kitchens – three sit alongside each other underground – adding new ovens and a rotisserie as well as installing thirty-three of his former staff in both kitchen and FOH. The rewards were immediate; within six months he had a second star and the next year, an espoir. As mentioned, the missing macaroon came in 2007: ‘this third star was my dream! It is the result of twenty-two years of work, passion and a desire to be the best at all times. Yet it also marks the beginning of a new life. This third star is a tremendous responsibility and it is now up to me to make it shine.’ This last point is one that he seems reassuringly concerned about – ‘the guide gives us confidence and we must not disappoint our customers.’
Nearly two hundred years of history had taken its toll and, in 2007, über-designer, Philippe Starck and daughter Ara, were called in to refurbish the whole hotel, including the restaurant. Manager, Franka Holtman, stated ‘I see Le Meurice as the most French of places…I want to make it a new destination where people will…be transported by gastronomy. I asked Philippe to…create a mood that would enhance and respect the beauty and proportions of this magnificent palace. His response is what I had secretly dreamed of.’ Evidently, Madame Holtman was having dreams of Grand Siècle grandeur as this response was a redesign of Le Brun and Hardouin-Mansart’s late-seventeenth century Salon de la Paix at the Château de Versailles.
Four low-hanging crystal chandeliers; epic, carved marble fireplace; double-barrel marble columns with gilded capitals circling the room; antique, tall, bevelled mirrors in each corner; big bay windows bordered with more rare marble; are all only some of the fabulous furnishings and features of the restaurant. On one side of the room, a central ice sculpture is surrounded by white settees, immense square tables and Louis XVI-style ivory armchairs; on the other, stand decadently distanced circular tables, all upon a mosaic floor featuring laurel wreaths against buff backgrounds. Three Theophile Poilpot paintings, relics of the room’s first renovation in 1905, frame the space; one round picture rests above the fireplace and is reflected by another on the opposite wall, while the third, larger, oval piece covers most of the twenty-foot high ceiling. A champagne table and six-hundred-and-sixteen bottled, walk-in, refrigerated wine cellar that opens onto the dining room are more modern modifications. Immaculate white linen tabletops are laid with little bouquets of red roses, silver salt and pepper shakers, Christofle cutlery and custom crockery. This crockery is made by J.L. Coquet, but is actually a collaboration between the Limoges porcelain company, an elite car designer and Alléno himself. It took the trio two years to create the Plate Onde – an inner, white dish stamped with the chef’s initials in relief that sits atop a reversible, treated porcelain ring (the bronze side used during savouries and then flipped to reveal its golden surface for the sweets service). The plate has a small hook in one corner; the result of a chip in a trial run, which Alléno liked the look of and incorporated into the finished motif. Along with these, he also helped create a new carbon tray, using the latest technologies from the car industry that is both lightweight and ‘literally unbreakably’. The room’s faux-Baroque interior is tasteful, elegant and, in my opinion, rather lovely. There is a lightness and brightness to the room that is welcoming, sumptuous and serene.
The menu at Le Meurice is a lively one. You can be sure that it is very seasonal, but little more besides that. Alléno likes to draw up recipes depending on what the markets are offering and creates some hundred new dishes each year. The carte is even printed in-house, allowing him to chop and change it as he likes. When it came to deciding what to order myself, I was unsure of how to proceed. Actually, I did know that the chef de patisserie, Camille Lesecq, is a talent and the desserts here were something special, but little else. For that reason, I enlisted the help of Monsieur Wilfried Morandini, the maître d’hôtel, whom I had been informed beforehand had excellent judgement. For the record, Monsieur Morandini has great pedigree having worked at la Tour d’Argent and l’Espadon, then le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons (at the same time that Marco Pierre White was there). After returning to France, he spent five years as assistant maître d’hôtel at Louis XV in Monaco, followed by stints at Le Cinq and Le Bristol prior to his appointment at Le Meurice. I asked him to compose a menu for me…
Amuse Bouche 1: Gelée de langoustine, crème d’avocat et crevettes. First amuse to arrive was a bowl bearing a small bright green mound of mashed avocado at its base bathing in lucent, auburn langoustine gelée; a gavotte, garnished with a streak of grey shrimp mousse and marinated whole prawn, balanced over the cup’s mouth. The jelly was instilled with a surprisingly strong shellfish savour, which found a natural counterpart in the coarsely crushed, buttery avocado; a little lemon here helped bring out both aspects. Crunchy crepe dentelle readily gave way to the crème de crevettes grisses it carried, which was also packed with deep flavour whilst the crevette bouquet burst with sweet, light fruitiness imparted from its olive oil marinade.
Les Pains: Baguette; pain complet; pain au sarrasin; pain au levain; et pain aux céréales. A pleasing silver platter proffered five breads that had been baked on the premises. The baguette with bite was yeasty and well-seasoned; wholemeal and pain au sarrasin were both decent; while sourdough was crisp and slightly tangy. The cereal roll, seedy and crusty with almost moist middle, was the best of the bunch.
When it comes to butter, anything other than Bordier and it is a compromise; I mean I will still spread it on my bread, but I won’t be smiling silly as I do it. That being said, I think I have finally found an excellent stand-in – Pascal Beillevaire’s beurre cru de baratte à la fleur de sel de Nourmoutier. This maître fromager’s creamy, soft unpasteurised butter is from Machecoul in the Loire and flecked with fine, salty crystals of sel gris that accentuate both its taste and texture.
Amuse Bouche 2: Oeuf Brouillé et mouillette avec beurre d’algues. Gilded open egg shell, brimming with sea urchin emulsion that concealed scrambled egg, was served with a toasted soldier and seaweed butter in bonbon wrapper. The warm, airy froth was briny-sweet and surrendered rich, runny semi-firm oeuf; seaweed butter (also Beillevaire’s) accentuated both. On a practical note, even though already small, the mouillette’s width made it difficult to dip into the egg.
Entrée 1: Fins coquillages ouverts à cru au corail d’oursin, gelée de chou rouge relevée au genièvre. Alternating raw elements of oyster, romaine lettuce, red-cabbage-marinated scallop, cockle, sea urchin roe and barnacles, all garnished with grated juniper berries and dotted with sperificated seawater-oyster juice, surrounded red cabbage jelly. The odour of the ocean was obvious at once and evidence of the dish’s freshness, as were its bright colours. The scallops, thinly sliced, were succulent, sweet and firm whilst the juniper berries picked up on the earthier cabbage, bringing the woods to the waterfront. The shellfish had clean, marine savours, with the mineral oyster especially standing out; bubbles of oyster juice and sea water added briny sharpness whilst the cabbage jelly had been pickled, preserving its redness and giving it a sweet-sourness that lightened the iodic intensity.
Entrée 2: Poireaux à la Béchamel; Truffes cuites en papillote avec un beau morceau de moelle. A single leek, its bulb and most its stem bound in Béchamel sauce, sat alongside three thick slivers of black truffle, brushed with jus de veau and vin jaune and topped with wholemeal croutons and cubes of bone marrow. At first sight, the skin of white sauce appeared heavy, even viscid. Looks can be deceiving; this mother of a sauce was light and delicate, its mild richness drawing out the mellow sweetness of the leek. The truffles, croutons and marrow had been baked ensemble with the Château-Chalon, jus and a little walnut oil en paillote or in a tightly sealed pouch. Each ingredient’s flavour infused the others and all the flavours fused together to deliver subtle spicy, savoury nuttiness. The unctuousness of the moelle was matched by the crunch of the croutons whilst the veal jus mixing with the Béchamel evoked La Varenne’s original version.
Plat Principal 1: Queues de langoustines aux agrumes confits; Fines feuilles de navet et cuisson foisonnée à l’huile d’avocat. The dish, drizzled with avocado oil and turnip honey then strewn with thin slices of turnip and warm crumbs of citrus fruit, was crowned with a couple of the chubbiest langoustines, shelled and stuffed with fennel shoot and its feathery flowers. Lime green avocado oil had an interesting nutty warmth that worked well with the turnip, itself sweet with distinctively nutlike. The moist shavings melted in the mouth. Sour morsels of mandarin, lemon and grapefruit had been cooked ever so slightly giving them a faint crispiness. The langoustines, whose aroma had filled the air, were tender, fat and juicy. Within, al dente fennel has firmness that contrasted with the soft meat and delicate aniseed that had harmony with it.
Plat Principal 2: Poitrine de pigeon frottée aux baies de genièvre; Chartreuse modern de légumes d’hiver; Cuisses preparées en cocotte aux truffes, comme une alouette sans tête; Purée moelleuse de pomme de terre. A pair of roasted pigeon breasts encrusted with juniper berries, sat either side of two winter chartreuses that stood in jus rôti and trickled with vegetable butter. Cooked extremely well, the delicate, crimson meat imparted just a little bit of blood. However, it lacked the gaminess expected from it and although the hearty, sharp berries tried their best, they were unable to bring the bird to life. What surprisingly stole the show were the chartreuse crammed with cauliflower, yellow and orange carrot, beetroot and fennel, enclosed within crisp, bubbly cabbage. The snappy vegetables burst with freshness enhanced by the light butter and underscored with the beefy, intense jus.
To my delight, as I devoured this dish, another smaller one was delivered. The pigeon’s thighs had been cooked with truffle and foie gras all rolled together to resemble a headless dove (alouette sans tête – an allegorical name for a Provençe recipe of stuffed beef). This plump boudin had punchy depth and serious aroma; the truffled cooking juice it lay in was just as tasty, whilst the mash, indeed moelleuse, but substantial and seasoned well.
Dessert 1: Mousse légère de marron rafraîchie à la mandarine; Segments glacés et jus en petites perles acides. In the plate’s centre, a couplet of columns, both composed of mandarin sorbet and its caviar encased within gavotte cylinders and crowned with chestnut crème and confit, gold leaf and meringue baton, were partnered with three separate pairs of mandarin segment each glazed in Bourbon vanilla gelée and upon its particular smear of mandarin coulis. As complicated as this was to describe, it was that easy to eat. The fruit wedges, exuding the full-bodied fragrance of vanilla, were lovely and juicy, their sugariness contrasting with the spicy, sticky coulis. The wafer-thin cracker-like wrapping offered crisp texture and toasted flavour before the cold, refreshing sorbet spiked with bubbles of tart-sweetness was tasted. This was surrounded by the smooth, earthy chestnut mousse and then comforting confit, which worked off the starchiness of the gavotte and biscuit base of each brace.
Dessert 2: Pâté d’amande imprimée aux pétales de rose; Fraises de bois au jus réduit de grenades. A roule of rose mousse, its marzipan manteau embedded with rose petals, was layered with chunky lemon caviar and lay in between two banks of wild strawberry quintet, both dressed with reduced grenadine jus. With the fragile pâté d’amande fractured and cream rummaged, a sablé bar buried in the roll’s middle was revealed. This had a nice crunchiness that complemented its thickly whipped, Chantilly-like medium. The delicate essence of rose was unmistakeable here, as was the distinct almond of its envelope. The petites boules de citron it bore had stimulating, creamy zing whilst the ethereal petal was delicious and strongly sapid. The strawberries were fruity and forceful, dissolving on the tongue into a grainy, seedy, sweet paste; the sugary-sour grenadine that covered them was equally potent.
Petit Fours: Poire rôti et crème de marron; choux à la crème; et biscuit de chocolat avec menthe. A sterling tray supplied some extra treats. Le moins petit petit fours was a shot, half-filled with honey roasted pear imbathed in its jus rôti beneath chestnut crème, the glass capped with a fine caramel circle. The airy, fluffy chestnut and light, crackly tuile were very good, but the sweet pear was a little watery. Pâte à choux, piped full of vanilla cream, peppered with pistachio and surmounted with caramelised hazelnut was light, nutty and reminiscent of Ferrero Rocher. Finally, two squares of salty chocolate biscuit sandwiching mint choc mousse were very tasty – the brittle, bitter cookies coupled pleasantly with fresh, cool, clean menthol.
Migniardises: Gâteau citron glacé sucre. To finish, iced lemon cakes decorated with more gold leaf. Well-made, spongy and sugary, their sour citron savour cleansed the palate.
The service was everything one can expect from an institution such as this – attentive, polite, friendly as well as adaptive and reactive. With a staff of seventy-four serving forty-five covers this should not be a surprise. All the serveurs I spoke with were well-informed, patient and obliging. Monsieur Morandini was the model of a maître d’hôtel. Hospitable, gracious and enthusiastic, he would drop by my table to see how I was doing, ensuring all my whims where met. As service was wrapping up Chef Alléno came out of the kitchen to speak to each of the remaining guests. This is a regular habit apparently, but not an exercise in vanity – he has admitted to modifying recipes based simply on post-meal remarks he has received. After we met, I was certainly impressed. Whites stained, shirtsleeves rolled up, he looked the sort of chef who was not afraid to get his hands dirty. Focused, interested and full of energy – he also had tangible intensity and charisma.
As to the food, I am sitting on the fence, but scouring for a safe place to land. On the positive side. Everything was cooked flawlessly, ingredients were excellent, presentation appealed, but I was just not overwhelmed by deliciousness. The amuses were decent; the first better than the second. The coquillages course did what it was supposed to – delivering the sea to me – but I doubt I would order it again (as a matter of personal preference though). The poireaux was good, the flavours pleasing, but there was almost the sense that something may have been missing. The langoustines were tasty – delicate and subtle; simple and refined. The pigeon that followed was very capable; hearty and rich for sure, but it did not wow. The marron and mandarine dessert was probably the pinnacle of the meal with a wealth of textures and savours coming together brilliantly. The dessert that followed this was also enjoyed, but had a hard job trying to better the first.
What I wanted to see more of was the originality and imagination of Alléno, which I had read much about. Ingredient combinations were more traditional, or at least tried-and-tested, rather than inventive or surprising – although it has to be said that one of the few new parings I tried, mandarin and chestnut, worked tremendously well. Additionally, flavours were definitely distinct, but not really moving or thrilling – they were harmonious, subtle and composed instead.
Alléno himself describes what he does as ‘Parisian cuisine’ and has often been quoted as saying, ‘Paris has no soil, France is its garden.’ Considering that the city lies firmly in the country’s butter half and its local produce – peas, asparagus, mushrooms, beef, veal, pears, apples, cherries, wild strawberries – were rarely seen, he maybe referring to the capital’s culinary classicism. The seat of kings and birthplace of Carême, his approach plays to that image of refinement and exquisiteness – whereby recipes have been worked and worked until an ultimate, superior absolute is achieved. I am not staying that this was achieved, but it is what the aim seemed to be.
If I were asked to ascribe Alléno’s cooking to a specific style, I would find it very difficult. Nouvelle cuisine is the term that appears to offer itself most readily, but I would not claim it a perfect fit. There is indeed a focus on fresh ingredients; a healthier aspect to the food; and use of modern methods and equipment. However, though the chef may practise some of this school’s axioms, he is certainly not constrained by them; some heavier sauces can be found; classic cooking and dishes inspire some of his repertoire; and beyond but a superficial simplicity, the food is at times intricate in thought, technique and implementation. To develop on this last point, take for example, the fins coquillages ouverts à cru. Nominally minimal – a ring of shellfish around red cabbage – a closer look reveals hidden sophistication. First, the shellfish are of five varieties; the scallops have been marinated in red cabbage; the central chou rouge itself has been made into a jelly and pickled with vinegar; juniper berries have been grated on top; and amidst all these, meticulously made spherificated beads of oyster juice and seawater had been secreted. As already pointed out this was not even a course I particularly liked, but it was effective and appreciated.
In my opinion, some of the themes that dominate Alléno’s cooking are the relative, but not absolute lack of saucing; the finite use of herbs and spices; significance (but not subservience) to a fundamental aesthetic; a preference for using produce in its natural form and entirety; and a strong seasonal bias. The poireaux, as a paradox to the nouvelle notion, boasted the heaviest, most classical sauce of the meal (with the Béchamel), but it still felt to me to need more/a stronger binding element. That said it does nonetheless illustrate those initial points – no discernable herbs or spice added; a clean, uncluttered arrangement; the leek whole; and fresh produce at its organic optimum. For the record, regarding his raw materials, the chef sources the majority from Parisian market, Rungis, but as evidence of his thoroughness, he has a total of one-hundred-and-twenty individual suppliers.
In a word – rigorous – is how I would summarise this cooking. These dishes are the rigorous result of vigorous effort. Painstaking, methodical, light-handed, confident, restrained are other adjectives I would add were I allowed to waffle on. An extreme care has gone into these meals, no short-cuts taken or corners cut, which may not be clear at first, but it is certain. There is a profound restraint, which though it may not have come off every time, can be commended – the temptation to add and alter a dish is difficult to resist, often leading to an overworking of the produce or overcomplicating of the plate. In this respect, Alléno shows self-assurance and an appreciation that less can be more. The technique displayed today was very impressive to say the least. However, I cannot help but feel I did not experience Le Meurice at its best. This might have been because I did not order myself, but this was not the restaurant’s fault – in truth, I hold it to Monsieur Morandini’s credit that he tailored me a carte based on what he discussed, rather than just serving the existent tasting menu. Additionally, I have read that the restaurant may be enjoyed more in the summertime when Alléno’s delicate touch can be felt better, but I have also heard that the winter months, with their wild fish, shellfish and ‘forgotten roots’, are his favourite – indeed the fish-course was my favourite of the savouries – this may have been a reflection of the chef’s fondness for Japanese cooking and its affinity for seafood.
The fact that the kitchen produces so many new dishes – eighty to a hundred and twenty a year – is intriguing. Such a terrific rate suggests that either Alléno is still searching for a ‘style’ of his own or is testament to the hard work and creativity of a perfectionist. I believe it must be a mix of both, but I really cannot judge so much on a single meal.
Whatever the case may be, I know that I liked Le Meurice. The grand, hate-it-or-love-it dining room (and though I know it is essentially an ersatz majesty, I was quite taken with it – read into that what you will); the pampering one receives from an army of serveurs; but most importantly, a clearly talented, driven chef who seems still to be maturing (i.e. getting better); were more than sufficient to leave me satisfied.
I think that one of the nicest compliments one can give a restaurant and a true testament to its quality is to pay it a return visit. This is precisely what I hope to do.
Le Meurice, 228, rue de Rivoli, Paris 75001
tel: 0033 1 44 58 10 10
nearest métro: Tuileries