Last year, Paris’ esteemed food critics found themselves noisily spluttering into their confit de canard. This sort of choking fit happens rather a lot in Paris, an act that, one would imagine, does very little for the starched linen tablecloths of restaurants across the arrondissements.
It’s easy, you see, to raise the opprobrium levels of Parisian critics to the heat of a rotisserie chicken spit. Anything that disturbs the idea that French dining reached its creative zenith around 1909, and therefore cannot be improved upon, will induce fury. The idea of a chef who uses both Snapchat and a spatula is just plain offensant.
And so to the howls of pastis-breathed anguish from the gourmet establishment regarding the appointment of Jean Imbert as the resident chef at Hôtel Plaza Athénée.
You’ll know the hotel even if you haven’t stayed there; it’s the one on Rue de Montaigne with the overflow of cardinal red-hued geraniums on every balcony. You might not, however, be aware of Monsieur Imbert. Winner of France’s Top Chef TV competition in 2012, Imbert has since opened two restaurants with American rapper/record producer Pharrell Williams.
Venerable food critic François-Régis Gaudry called Imbert’s appointment “bling-bling”. “He has neither the CV nor the experience for such a place,” Gaudry added, claiming that Imbert’s celebrity selfies and brand tie-ins were “extra-culinary”.
The uproar was only heightened by the man Imbert replaced: Alain Ducasse; chef at Hôtel Plaza Athénée for more than two decades and a national figurehead for all that is elegant, subtle and restrained about fine dining.
What went largely unreported among the French press was the fact that 40-year-old supposed enfant terrible Imbert was actually trained at the Institut Paul Bocuse – the eponymous, elite, higher-education culinary school set up by the late Lyon-based chef who, even before he died, was referred to by other chefs as ‘God’.
It’s also worth pointing out that French chefs have always been keen to court celebrities. Auguste Escoffier himself, the founder of French cuisine as we know it, named his peach Melba dish after his friend, the opera singer Nellie Melba. If he were around today, there’s no doubt Escoffier would be doing corporate tie-ins with Chrysler and Chevalier and comping minor-league Kardashians.
At the time of Luxury London’s visit, the full-scale Imbert dining experience had yet to open in Ducasse’s former La Cour Jardin space. The less formal experience in the Le Relais Plaza bistro was, however, well up and running, with lunch tables some of the most in-demand and bickered-over in Paris. Though to call Le Relais Plaza a ‘bistro’ is like calling Catherine Deneuve a soubrette. For this is one of the most beautiful dining rooms in all of France.
Deneuve, by the way, is on the wall of the narrow corridor that leads to Le Relais Plaza; her signed photo is surrounded by others of Ava Gardner, Sophia Loren and Naomi Campbell, the last of whom scrawled in pen underneath her picture that the visit to the Plaza made her feel very ‘Parisen’ (sic).
The dining room is an Art Deco museum piece; apt for the city that started the whole movement back in 1925 following the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. Built a decade later, Relais is a miasma of banana leaf plants, zodiac stained glass, sunbursts, zigzags and, most spectacularly, an immense gold lacquered tree-scape fresco behind the bar.
The chandeliers are original René Lalique and they give the place the kind of honeyed, amber-tinged lighting that takes you to Golden Age Hollywood more than Europe. This is a space where you can imagine corpulent executives from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer dining with a petulant Joan Crawford, all blowing cigarette smoke at the varnished ceiling over vast martinis.
And so, what of the food? Well, the Parisian food traditionalists need to radically upscale their definitions of a chef ‘disrupter’. There’s nothing radical or nauseatingly novel in manner of serving ‘cassoulet inside a Michelin tyre’ or ‘sex on le plage’ cocktails here.
Imbert has created a notably concise menu of six starter choices and 10 main courses; a welcome change from the vast, bland ‘international’ style brasserie menu here before; one that was seemingly tailor-made for international guests who want every restaurant to serve the sort of food dished up by their golf club in the Hamptons.
Around me is a theatrical assemblage of Parisian figures. The Ronseal-tanned, Côte d’Azur-based octogenarian, sipping Moët with his mistress, both having flown into the capital for a carnal weekend of giflé et chatouille. The still lithe-legged matriarch, blonde bangs frozen in place, conspiring with her daughter at a corner table, both competing in a scarf war for who has the longest film spool of cashmere around their necks. An aspiring popstar, dressed in too-new leather, being cajoled by a despairing-looking female assistant in pin-striped culottes into ordering more than just a café au lait.
The food is, apparently, inspired by Imbert’s grandmother’s and is defiantly ignorant of contemporary trends. There’s all but nothing here for veggies, vegans and the gluten-free; perhaps the closest Imbert gets to being genuinely contrarian.
I opt for the foie gras terrine and porto jelly and am served a margarine tub-sized portion to smear on my spike-ended mini baguette. Not too cold and wonderfully taut, the jelly bursts on impact with my spoon to reveal acres of goose liver that avoids the mousse-like smoothness of inferior foie gras for something that glories in its own fat and doesn’t shrink from the back note of livery offal that it should possess. I ate and I ate and I thought I heard trumpets.
For main, there is a Gascon-style decadence to the dishes. ‘If I lunch on the beef fillet and foie gras in brioche pastry with dauphinoise I’m going to stay lunched for a year,’ I thought, before plumping for the only slightly less-sybaritic daily special (served every Thursday) of sausages in brioche.
Served with an admirable lack of sauces and reductions (a mere beaker of vinaigrette salad was the sole side), this was two slabs of slipper-soft brioche with a disc of pistachio-flecked sausage pressed into each slice.
Garlicky, herby and, above all, unapologetically musky and malodorous, this is the Platonic ideal of sausage mince. Lean but not emasculated of its piggy-ness, it’s a bold dish, emblematic of a chef whose confidence in himself has only risen in the face of a chicken-stock tsunami of criticism that serenaded his arrival here.
Imbert was working a shift while I dined. His hair is a feat of gravity; gravy brown and thick as a bramble bush, it stops just before the chandeliers. He grins at diners but never stops moving for a second as he makes a brisk tour of meet-and-greets.
By 12.25pm there was not a spare table in the place. Noticeably, since customers have actually started eating his food here, Imbert has been uncharacteristically quiet on social media, and the establishment critics have penned not a pejorative word.
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