A sleek Citroën Déesse was parked outside the Hôtel de Crillon on the early summer’s evening we walked across the Place de la Concorde from the Metro, as the setting sun glimmered kindly on the point of the Ancient Egyptian obelisk that has stood here since 1836, and on the golden dome of Les Invalides across the river. There’s a good chance that more Crillon guests arrive by vintage car than by public transport, and the very lucky ones are apparently decanted from this 1970s beauty whose name is a play on words: DS in English but transliterated, here, into the French for ‘goddess’. Still, I was glad to take the measure of Paris’s largest square – eight hectares, the size of the Richebourg Grand Cru, and linked to the Left Bank by a bridge that contains stones from what was, until 1789, the Bastille.
I was reading Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country, the gripping story of social climbing beauty Undine Spragg, published in 1913 and written, largely, while Wharton lived at the Crillon. Not for lack of alternatives: she had owned a house in the Rue de Varenne since 1909. I have a lot of time for Wharton, who may have inherited wealth but educated herself in defiance of an upbringing that believed women of her class should be beautifully dressed, advantageously married and barely literate. She wrote terrific novels that far out-earned her inheritance and responded to the outbreak of World War I by raising $100,000 for refugees in under 12 months. Nonetheless, it was hard not to feel a little Undine Spragg at the thought of someone taking a suite at the Crillon when they had a perfectly good home just 20 minutes’ walk away.
We were staying elsewhere, at Grand Pigalle, a smart, very modern hotel owned by the Experimental Group, which began as a cocktail club, updating Prohibition classics for Parisians. But dinner involved a rather different style of modern twist: late last year, L’Ecrin, the Crillon’s Michelin-starred restaurant, switched to matching food to wine, rather than the reverse. A list of principal ingredients is handed to you along with the wine list – or, head sommelier Xavier Thuizat assured me, we could indicate our preferred styles of wine and he would align one with the other.
The room, seating a maximum of 25, looks out onto a leafy interior courtyard. The décor is plushly taupe, with artfully tarnished mirrors and low lighting: neutral enough to ignore, excepting a vast sculpture hanging like a chandelier, or a gold and bronze cobweb, from the ceiling.
Our table was as blank as an empty page, save for two large-bowled wineglasses laid on their side: a necessity, since they had stems but no foot. Marie Antoinette gave her guests glasses like this, explained Thuizat as he filled them with Pol Roger, so that, unable to put them down, they would drink more. Despite her predilection for this sort of thing, I have felt a sneaking sympathy for the ill-fated Queen ever since reading of her arrival at the French border from her native Austria where she was required to undress completely, hand over all Austrian possessions and servants, and reclothe à la française: a symbolic divestiture of one nationality for another that, even in an age almost devoid of privacy, can’t have been easy for an overprotected 14-year-old, shivering in a tent as she was forced into a ritual enactment of her abandonment of home and family. I hadn’t known that on arriving here, she lived at the Crillon as she learned Frenchness: the building would have been, then, a mere decade old, and the Place outside named for Louis XV, the reigning king and the young bride’s grandfather-in-law.
The unconventionality of our dinner went farther than the conceit of its service: astonishingly, for fine dining in France, it included wines that weren’t French. Iwa may have been created by the country’s modern equivalent of royalty – Richard Geoffroy used to oversee Dom Pérignon – but it is a sake, made in Japan, and a magnificent one; a Lustau Fino del Puerto was even more surprising for a country that has never learned to love sherry. The iodine foam on our Brittany shellfish perfectly complemented the seaweed note in the sake (served in a perfect little glass flask that might have pleased Marie Antoinette); the drink’s creamy texture soothed the saltiness on the plate. Succulent turbot and a lemon and garlic mushroom cream coaxed out the umami and citron in a Chassagne Montrachet Les Embrazées 2012, by Thomas Morey; and that Fino was a clever match for the cheese board.
Only a Gevrey-Chambertin, Domaine Marchand-Grillot’s Petite Chapelle Premier Cru 2013, didn’t quite work with confit of lamb, the powerfully savoury gravy too pronounced for the shy herbaceousness of the wine. However, the meal ended in great style with Thuizat pouring from a magnum of Barsac, Château Climens 2012, accompanied by a dessert whose flavours – lemon, bread pudding sauce, a ginger snap and pineapple baked in a clay pot broken open, theatrically, at the table – were like a wine tasting note on the plate. Perhaps in deference to Her tragic Majesty, we did not eat cake.
She would surely have enjoyed this hedonistic, performative meal but, I wondered, would Wharton? She apparently cared little for wine, although there is a beautiful line in The Custom of the Country about the intoxicating air in Siena: ‘The sun, treading the earth like a vintager, drew from it heady fragrances, crushed out of it new colours.’ Perhaps she found harvesting more poetic than the juice in her glass.
Wharton would likely have understood, as the Jacobins, for all their guillotining, never did, that if you upend the hierarchy, you had better put something equally robust in its place. At the Crillon, the food still generally arrived before the wine – hardly a major complaint, when both were so good, but a sign of the ancien régime, nonetheless. And the service was distinctly uneven: marvellous one moment, invisible the next.
I sound like a spoilt heiress which, sadly, I am not. Although in that storied 250-year-old building, it was impossible not to reflect on the cons as well as the pros of inheritance. I thought of Marie Antoinette, learning how to be French here just before Frenchness changed in ways that made her head as superfluous as her wineglasses’ feet; and of Wharton, at a time when a woman’s place was still largely in the home, opting for a wilful, luxurious displacement.
Wine is also an inheritance, of course, the vines tended through the generations, and a meal like this was an attempt to provide the perfect setting – l’écrin, in French – to honour what is handed down.