Visiting luxury Paris as it emerges from lockdown
The French capital remains a global bastion of fun and elegance
European cities are starting the gentle process of tentatively waking from their Covid-induced slumber, and are beginning to welcome guests once again. Paris - an institution of luxury and beauty like no other in the world - is at the forefront of that reawakening.
The Covid hangover continues to be visible, but for every lost piece of normality, there is something unique to be gained by visiting the French capital now. The virus’ impact on visitor numbers has transformed Paris into a calmer, more spacious city, and while it has taken a beating, it has come up fighting - and is now eager to please.
It remains a global bastion of fun, elegance and luxury, and while things are different, the version of Paris emerging from lockdown is just the latest iteration of a city that has got back to its feet time and time again.
Paris is, after all, a moveable feast.
Where to stay
The Renaissance Paris Vendôme Hotel is a boutique five-star property in the 1er arrondissement in downtown Paris. It sits a block away from the Place Vendôme and a range of world-class boutiques, and it is moments from Opera Garnier, Musée des Arts Décoratifs and Palais Royal. The Louvre is also just a short walk away from the chic neighbourhood, through the beautiful Tuileries Garden.
The rooms - like the rest of the stylish hotel’s decor - are spacious and modern, with distinctly Parisian touches, and a classical foundation reflected in marble floors and bathrooms.
We stayed in the Parisian Corner Suite, the interior of which was remodelled in 2018 by the French designer Didier Gomez. The contemporary, chic design was cast in the best light by four large windows which opened out onto the Parisian streets, and allowed the hum of the restaurant below to drift into the room.
The hotel is kitted out with a range of luxury features, including a cutting edge spa and fitness centre, which includes a heated indoor pool lit by a skylight. When we stayed, Covid restrictions meant that only one room was allowed to use the spa and pool at one time; fortunately, we got access whenever we wanted, and having the place to ourselves added to the luxury experience.
Where to eat: Le Clarence
Le Clarence is one of the best fine dining experiences in a city where competition for accolades is high; Paris is the unquestionably the world leader in the league table for quantity of quality restaurants.
We arrived and were led up the main staircase into the plush grand salon, where we started proceedings with glasses of Jacques Lassaigne Les Vignes de Montgueux champagne, accompanied by a maritime medley of squid tempura and plump whelks, and Comté cheese Gougères.
Our eye-balling of the other diners was interrupted by the sommelier bringing us the wine menu on an iPad. The selection was so vast that the restaurant had presumably decided that shelling out for a few tablets was better for its reputation than the wide-scale deforestation that would be caused by printing off the wine list in hard copy.
The sommelier asked to choose what we fancied; preferably something that would go with a tuna starter and pigeon main.
About five minutes into the 78-page menu, boasting wines more expensive than most mortgages, we popped the tablet back on the table and decided we’d let the sommelier decide for us. When we told him, he looked relieved; if Covid has taught us anything, it’s that we need to appreciate expertise.
The pairings at Le Clarence were in a different league - it felt as though the wine was an essential extension of the food, as if they had been one entity temporarily separated into dish and glass, and brought back together by the genius of the sommeliers.
The food started with a bouche-amusing langoustine in crunchy filo, topped with pig’s ear and melon, and finished off with raspberry shavings and kimchi juice.
Next was tuna, dressed in three different ways - one dish with lobster coral juice and sorrel, another brushed with fermented blueberry and radish, and the third in a vinaigrette, combined with prawn and sitting on a nasturtium flower alongside a tender prawn.
The starter was paired with a Rodolphe Demougeot 2017 Meursault, a gently citrusy white with a good minerality and oaky and buttery notes.
The main was tender pigeon breast dressed with cooking jus, purslane and tuna bottarga. The ever growing satellite of plates orbiting the pigeon included pigeon heart and Colonnata bacon, alongside courgette and caviar with Karashi mustard, fried mashed potato balls, dauphinoise potatoes with cumin and béarnaise sauce, and a toasted brioche from a central Parisian bakery thrown in for good measure.
The accompanying wine was Le Clarence’s own Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan 2007 - a ripe mix of red and black fruits with a long, classy finish that elevated the taste of the pigeon to near-impossible heights.
Pudding was a feast of many wonderful parts, and a sum that was even greater than them. A strawberry zabaglione with almond biscuit was served alongside fragrant mara des bois strawberries and a strawberry and blackberry sorbet on a bed of cottage cheese. Next was a pistachio baklava and honey, followed by an iced chocolate mousse and small ball of chocolate chip marshmallow.
The desert wine was a Clarendelle Amberwine Monbazillac 2015, a smooth and elegant wine created by Le Clarence owner Prince Robert of Luxembourg.
Where to eat: Balagan
Le Clarence was the pinnacle of fine dining, but our choice the following night was the height of fun - though not without an impressive food offering.
After starting off with cocktails in the Balagan bar - a tequila and absinthe-based “Sassy Frenchie” and elderflower Collins-esque “Le Persifleur” - we moved on to the chef’s table.
We had the best seat in the house to watch the Balagan chefs, led by Elior Ben Arosh, demonstrate their craft with creativity, talent and genuine joy.
The chef at our end of the station had one eye on preparing the food, but kept the other on us, personally taking charge of making sure we were enjoying ourselves. He took the time to recommend us a bottle of wine and have it brought to our table, and chatted to us about our time in Paris while casually preparing dinner for a busy Friday night clientele.
When the food began to arrive, it didn’t stop coming. Tuna tartare dressed with almonds with nectarines, dates and herb salad started us off, accompanied by a fattoush salad and generous helping of perfectly prepared babaganoush.
The main course of octopus fillet was the stand out dish, cooked in a charcoal Josper oven to give it a delicious barbecued taste and satisfying meaty texture.
For presentation, pudding was certainly the stand out act. The music in the restaurant was turned up loud as a large sheet of baking paper was rolled along the chef’s station in front of us, and each chef took it in turns to slam down another element of dessert on to the surface. Brownies, baklava, banana and blueberries were scattered liberally alongside dates, chocolate and biscotti.
Every member of staff and a fair few diners gathered around the chef’s station clapping and singing to the music, while the head chef conducted proceedings by bellowing through a megaphone.
After managing what we could, we returned to the bar - by this point absolutely packed - to find a bartender celebrating her 30th birthday by having her friends behind the bar lead a song for her, while the whole room joined in.
The megaphone reappeared, and the bartender gave a moving speech which would have admittedly made more sense if the wine hadn’t been flowing so freely, and I’d tried a bit harder at French A-Level.
The next day we bumped into one of the waiters who asked if we were having a good afternoon, and suggested completely accurately that the morning might have been more of a struggle. “You really joined in. We love that - that’s what we want.”
What to see and do
In the momentary pauses between dreamy food and drink, we took a quintessentially Parisian journey down the river on which the city was built, the Seine.
Paris Luxury Boat offers private cruises down the Seine, giving customers the choice between the impressive runabout Kim, or the even more striking Shivas, which belonged to Sofia Loren during the 60s.
Cruising down the river and taking in the beautiful city from the water, the trip was undoubtedly the most film-star experience of the visit - though I was forced to concede that the numerous heads turning from the riverbank were more impressed by the boat than the journalist sitting in the back.
A must-do when visiting Paris is to head out of the city on a trip to the Palace of Versailles. Hidden Gems Tours offers private tours which takes tourists from the centre of Paris to the Palace by car, and returns them home after their visit.
Visitors are taken on a tour of the extensive gardens before heading inside the Palace itself. While it is striking to look around, it is the knowledgable and affable tour guides’ engaging descriptions of the history of the place that make the experience truly worthwhile. Lorenzo - who studied French history at the Sorbonne University - was the perfect person to show us around.
The Palace is currently welcoming just a fraction of the visitors it would usually see, which means you won’t have to stand around in long queues.
Similarly, we found our trip to the Louvre was pleasantly without queues - a big improvement on a previous visit, when I had spent two hours waiting outside. Even the queue to see the Mona Lisa was just about bearable, though why people are so interested in the archetypal plain Jane, I will never know.
How to get there
The Eurostar goes throughout the day from St Pancras International station in central London, and gets you into Gare du Nord in the centre of Paris in less than two-and-a-half hours.
For a first class experience, travel Business Premier. There are plenty of extra perks and comforts to make the most of your time on the train, as well as before and after.
There’s a dedicated ticket gate in London and Paris, meaning you don’t have to head for the train until ten minutes before departure, compared with the two hours you could be hanging around an airport.
If you’re the type of person who likes to arrive ahead of time, the Business Premier lounges in London and Paris are comfortable and and quiet, and a little taste of luxury. There’s a wide selection of drinks - alcoholic, soft and hot - snacks, magazines and free wi-fi.
When The Week travelled, Covid restrictions meant that food wasn’t being served on board, but Eurostar has reintroduced the service. The Business Premier menus on board were designed with Michelin-starred chef Raymond Blanc and are a three-course offering.