The Glory of France at Jean Imbert au Plaza Athénée
Paris, October 2023
Long live the myth about the Plaza Athénée
We have seen the presidents of France hosting state dinners at the Château de Versailles or the Eiffel Tower, but they could very well emcee their prestigious guests at Jean Imbert au Plaza Athénée. Entering the Plaza Athénée has always been something special and will always be. The legendary hotel is the representation of what France is celebrated for: luxury, elegance, style, art de vivre and savoir-vivre. Lucky are the ones who elect the Plaza Athénée as their home while visiting the City of Light.
Maintaining twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year such high standards is not a walk in the park (or rather, in marble). It requires skills, patience, attention, and a staff of five hundred and fifty who, since 1999, have been guided by François Delahaye, Chief Operating Officer of Dorchester Collection and hotel general manager, a true professional. Part of the Dorchester Collection, which owns hotels throughout the world that can almost be considered as landmarks, the expectations are stratosphere-high for both the clientele and the team members when pushing the revolving entry to step in the property along avenue Montaigne, recognizable from far away with its distinctive red canopies and geraniums at each and every window, with La Grande Dame in the background.
Behind the doors…
As you push open — actually a staff member will do it for you — the black iron and glass doors of the restaurant, you are making a grand entrance into a room where French designer Rémi Tessier has left his imprint. Tessier is très familiar with the world of ultra-luxury, as his expertise is to decorate super yachts and private jets. You will immediately be seized by emotion of the beauty that Tessier has assembled.
How can you not when seeing the royal 12-meter table made of pink Breccia marble carved from a single block; the antique candelabras and candlesticks; the white table cloths, table sets and napkins from the linen artisan Renaissance, adorned with Christofle silverware, Bernardaud plates, glasses by Baccarat, and the brass “Goutte” lights with their Plaza-red lamp shade — all specially made — under a ten-meter-high ceiling, flanked with eight ionic-style columns along this temple of gastronomy? The majestic chandeliers are the originals from when the hotel opened on April 20, 1913. So, as I am writing these lines, they are one hundred and ten years old. Take a few seconds to gaze at their shining crystals gracefully dancing with the air. To elevate the harmony, the one-and-a-half-meter vases flanking the “communal” table are sculpted from the same marble and flourished with pink hortensias.
There is a well-established candle lighting ceremony (see it in the video above). It only takes five minutes for the team equipped with a lit candle to bring flames to the fifty bougies.
The Chef’s Table
If you decide to sail away for dinner in the privacy of the kitchen with the chefs, be prepared for a totally different décor experience. Remember that designer Tessier is famous for glamorizing yachts, therefore he has turned the chef’s table, called the “Cabinet des Conspirateurs,” into a dining room of a style that you encounter when floating away on the ocean. The evening I went, some of the decorative elements were about James Bond. Chef Jean Imbert is a movie fan and has a collection of artifacts related to the seventh art. So, he regularly alternates his memorabilia. Hopefully, the only conspiring you will be doing is to decide on the menu and the wine(s).
When comes the end of the evening, you should be amused by the way the bill is presented to you from a secret cabinet — well, not that much anymore as there is the video below.
The dress code has been revised. Gentlemen are no longer required to wear a jacket and a tie. They can just walk in much more casually than before. They are welcome, even if in jeans and chic tennis shoes. This is a significant and irreversible transition. Unlike we ladies who have a tendency to dress up when we go to beautiful places, the gents are not too keen on grooming up — I have yet to understand why. This somewhat daring move by the Plaza Athénée and chef Jean Imbert is going to start a trend: sophisticated dining in a sumptuous décor, with über professional service devoid of the “usual” formal atmosphere we are accustomed to. It is alleviating the, let us call it, sometimes pretentious side of things, setting the dining affair less intimidating and more approachable. It is a perfect illustration of the Plaza Athénée’s tag line: “Once upon a time, the palace of the future.”
Another surprising element is the table that I have referred to above as “communal,” and to which I have also attached the adjective “royal.” Would you think that when selecting Jean Imbert au Plaza Athénée to spend the evening to wine and dine, you would or could be sitting at a long table sharing it with others?
I have to admit that I had chosen not to. But, when it was time for the last part of the meal, I decided to give it a try with my guest. Oh, what a difference! And how great! You are in the center of the room, under candle lights and the chandeliers, at a slightly lower height, with an intimate connection with the marble. I highly recommend this unusual sitting arrangement for this genre of restaurant.
The Savory Feast
If Jean Imbert has elected to be a chef as a job, he does not like to be called “chef,” and he is almost never seen dressed in a chef’s jacket. Imbert’s profession is very deeply anchored on his love and passion for the culinary arts. It started at nine years old when he decided to cook for the family once a week. Even if he has spent time in the kitchens of highly-rated others, Imbert is proud to say that the most influential person in his cookery life is his grandmother. At a point, he named one of his restaurants “Mamie” (Grandma). She taught him the respect of the product. She infused her grandchild with the notion of the four seasons. For her, it is essential to respect nature’s cycle. It is a promise to extra freshness, therefore much better quality ingredients — and nowadays, a testimony to the environment.
After graduating from high school, Imbert entered the Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon and became the youngest student at seventeen. At twenty-two, he opened his first restaurant, L’Acajou in Paris, where many French celebrities and artists were seen. At thirty, he won French “Top Chef” season 3. In 202o, his knives crossed the musical notes of singer Pharrell Williams. The two opened restaurants in St. Tropez, Ibiza and Miami, after one of Imbert’s projects in New York ended in a flop. At forty, he succeeds Alain Ducasse at the illustrious Plaza Athénée, not an easy apron to put on.
The irony of Imbert is that he is not a chef with a conventional attitude, but he cooks rather, if not to say très, traditionally. No molecular gastronomy, thanks for that; a trend that is almost gone, as we now want “real” food, eschewing confusion on the plate. There is nothing too adventurous in his creations, unlike what we can see in some northern European kitchens. The product is honored (as Grandma wanted it), and not distorted whereas sometimes you have to guess what it is. Count on the power of the Plaza Athénée to have relationships with only the best purveyors. Imbert lets the product talks to you, first visually, then on the palate.
The homemade breads and the two Bordier butters are a must-start, before the Amuse-Bouches. Under the porcelain lid came a Daurade bathed in a well-balanced piquillo and vegetable sauce. In honor of the sovereign ambience, the caviar is presented in a dish called La Brioche Marie-Antoinette au Caviar and is not to be missed. Les Langoustines à la Parisienne have been patiently covered with vegetable scales. Le Homard Cardinal has been revisited as its head is flambléed table side. The Cardinal we are talking about is Cardinal Mazarin, who was delegated to the education of the young King Louis XIV. He left to posterity a sauce under his name, a Béchamel base with corail de homard, crème fraîche and anchovy paste. Since it was peach season when I dined, they were added to Le Pigeon Melba Sauce Salmis. The Melba sauce was made of cherry purée, instead of raspberry. Salmis is a preparation from the classical French cooking repertoire. It is when a roast or sautéed piece of meat is sliced and reheated in sauce. Another classic that night was Le Navarin d’Agneau, in lamb jus. And as you are in France, Les Fromages, which are rolled out on a cart, must be part of your French gastronomical festival.
In the competitive world of high gastronomy — apart from the service, which is a given in these restaurants — the Chef, sorry, Monsieur Imbert, is compelled to put his very own and personal signature to distinguish himself from his peers. Here at Jean Imbert au Plaza Athénée, it is unequivocal that the side taken is French classical dishes slightly modernized and elegantly presented at your table. I think it is a right and sound orientation to have been chosen. When it comes to our vital body function, eating, we need to feel comfortable and not be intimated by what is laid on the plate. We, no longer, want to get lost in some meli-melo of unrecognizable fish, meat, vegetables, herbs, sauces, condiments…
The Sweet Feast
Part two of the soirée starts with the bell ringing around 10 o’clock. While Courtiade announces “La Pâtisserie,” a screen comes down revealing the pastry chefs bringing the last touches to Les Desserts. Now that you are happily sitting in this splendid room, you might as well indulge in all of them.
Besides Le Fraisier, they are quite conservative. La Pêche Nelly is actually a peach Melba, plated tableside and for which you get the romantic history of its origin. The other famous French Cardinal, Richelieu, First Minister of State under Louis XIII, invites himself to table with Le Fontainebleau Richelieu, a fromage blanc emulsion topped with a raspberry mousse. La Crêpe Soufflée Cerises Jubilé triggers another blaze show with gin and cream of griottes. The copper pot in which La Glace au Calisson is stored leads the way to the first mignardises that you will discover under a copper dome hidden in a forest and exotic animals made of leather, a very fancy idea! The other mignardises, Les Tartelettes, are the final act. They are smoked at the table and the white cloud evaporating from them is, sadly, the curtain draw.
It is never an easy task when it comes to rating a restaurant as there are so many people involved. There is the chef, but she/he is not the only one ensuring that all is good from the food and drinks to the service and décor.
Putting all my thoughts about the savory and sweet dishes in balance — remember the rankings reflect only GAYOT’s opinion of the food — Jean Imbert au Plaza Athénée deserves a 17/20, which we qualify as “Excellent.”
The A Team
Jean Imbert is a workaholic. It means that he changes the menu very often. I was told that every minute he has an idea you have to follow. He also operates other restaurants (Monsieur Dior in Paris, La Palme d’Or in Cannes, the menu of the Venice Simplon Orient-Express, The Brando in French Polynesia). He is famous for cooking for stars like Beyoncé, Madonna, Gérard Depardieu, Robert De Niro, and being a judge on culinary TV shows.
So, to be honest to himself and his clients, the only way he can achieve this tour de force at the Plaza Athénée is because he is backed up by a team of veritable professionals from the service staff led by Restaurant Director Denis Courtiade to Jocelyn Herland, Chef des Cuisines, Mathieu Emeraud, Executive Chef, Master Sommelier Laurent Roucayrol, and Pastry Chefs Angelo Musa and Elisabeth Hot.
Courtiade has been at the restaurant since 2000 and knows all its ins-and-outs as well as the happy few diners. Herland and Emeraud, both from the former Ducasse staff, are orchestrating sixteen chefs along a stove of five meters long by three meters wide. The pastry chefs are in charge of a show (see above). Roucayrol has the daunting responsibility of a wine list of fifty pages, regrouping 40,000 bottles over 1,000 labels, mostly from France (98%).
Gold & Champagne
Gold & Champagne both have a special connotation and, funny enough, they are of the same color — though, I am not forgetting Rosé Champagne. Tessier and Roucayrol know it.
Tessier has achieved a beautiful job by layering the gold on the ceiling and the top of the columns with texture and depth, far away from a tacky and tasteless gold you can find at bling-bling venues. “God is in the details.“
Roucayrol is happy to have the Champagne cart strolling the room, so bubbles can be served tableside. If the bottle is to be opened for you, the sommelier will try the bottle first to ensure it can be poured in your glass.
By the way, you might have to break your gold bar to conclude the evening.