Virtual Gourmet

  July 10, 2005                                                        NEWSLETTER


Menu from the Copacabana Nightclub, 1950

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Grande Cuisine at Grandes Hotels in Paris: The Crillon and The Ritz by John Mariani

NEW YORK CORNER: Montebello by John Mariani


G rand C uisine at G rand H otels in Paris
by John Mariani
The Crillon Hotel at the Place de la Concorde


       "W hen I had money," said Ernest Hemingway, "I went to the Crillon," and the deluxe hotel--currently the only grand palais still in French hands--is mentioned in several of his works, including "The Snows of Kilimanjaro."  It was at the famous Long Bar here that Jake Barnes was stood up by [Lady Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises.  Hemingway also loved The Ritz, which, while on assignment in 1944 for Collier's, he and a group of G.I.s "liberated" by clearing out a pocket of German soldiers, celebrating the event by ordering 50 Martinis. After the war he frequented The Ritz's "Little Bar," since enlarged and re-named "The Hemingway Bar," where today Brit bartender Colin Field keeps Papa's memory burning.
        I honestly have no favorite, for the two hotels have different styles, the Ritz's more effusive, the Hotel Crillon's more refined.  Both have restaurants of extraordinary quality, and, while dining at either Les Ambassadeurs at the Crillon (10 Place de la Concorde; 1-44-71-1616) or L'Espadon at The Ritz (15 Place Vendôme; 1-43-16-3030) can be among the most expensive nights out in Paris, I truly think they deliver on all accounts, from decor and service to exquisite cuisine of a kind not easy to find in France anymore.                                                                                        Hemingway at The Ritz
Les Ambassadeurs,
once a 17th century ballroom, is certainly one of the most dazzling dining rooms in the City of
Light.  While it has lost none of the rococo exuberance that gives the Crillon its special style, a careful balance of colors and light by decorator Sybille de Margérie takes full romantic advantage of the swirling evening panorama on the Place de la Concorde.
    The room now seems warmer than it used to and more intimate, despite extraordinary expanses of variously colored marble, gold Baccarat chandeliers, and huge mirrors that create the illusion of Versailles-like spaciousness.
   Since bringing in Chef Jean-François Piège last year, Les Ambassadeurs has garnered two Michelin stars, and I imagine he'll have three before long.  The meal I enjoyed here was not only glorious in the indulgent way that grand luxe dining should be but in stylistic innovations Piège of a kind  I haven't seen much of in Paris recently.  Along with Le Cinq at the George V Four Seasons, the Dining Room at the Meurice, Alain Ducasse at the Plaza-Athenée, and L'Espadon at the Ritz, Les Ambassadeurs shows that this level of cooking and service is now more likely to be found at a  hotel than in a free-standing restaurant.  Witness Alain Senderens this month throwing in the towel on his posh three-star dining at Lucas Carton because such extravagance is impossible to mount without the benefaction of a supportive hotel that doesn't mind losing money on its restaurant as long as it brings prestige.
     Piège is from southeastern France, believing he'd grow up to be a gardener, and I'm sure he would have been an exceptional one.  Instead he turned culinary, working in Courchevel and on the Riviera, then a stint at the Crillon with former chef Pierre Constant, next at Louis XV in Monaco, then as chef de cuisine at the Plaza-Athenée.  Now at Les Ambassadeurs he is clearly defining his own character and style, and in so doing, has crafted a smaller menu than any of his colleagues. It is also uniquely drawn up each day and presented on a wooden paddle.
     Meanwhile sommelier David Biraud maintains the Crillon's extraordinary cellar.  Having once been a chef himself, he seems particularly attuned to the way food and wine interact on the palate.  Patrice Willems is the new maître d'hôtel, and his mission has been clearly defined to erase all Gallic hauteur from the service at Les Ambassadeurs.
      Dinner began like a glorious breakfast, with an egg shell inside of which was an uncooked yolk literally showered with black truffles.  Salt butter was also truffled. There was then a "variation of tastes and textures": 333mine was leeks in a vinaigrette, a spiced bouillon, and flamiche; my wife's was scallops with celery and black truffles. (Piège happily will do an entire meal based on truffles, if you wish, for 180€  [$220], with service and tax included.)
      Osietra caviar followed with a nage corsée and sweet, tempura-fried langoustines and cream of langoustines' essence, an absolutely stunning rendering of simple, if expensive, ingredients. Volaille de Bresse--the famous tasty chicken of Bresse--was set atop a form of French "spaghetti carbonara," which itself has eggs in its preparation--a little gastro-joke. For the meat course I had excellent riblets of baby lamb from Limousin, with sweet peppers and Tome cheese, while my wife thoroughly enjoyed some of the finest turbot we've ever tasted, served simply with sea salt and lentils. For dessert there was a kind of deluxe "Eskimo Pie," transcendent passion fruit ice cream in a chocolate-coffee wrapper, and a lovely dish of wild strawberries with rose glace and strawberry sauce.
      Not a single dish was strained nor garnished into gaudy silliness. The ingredients were all the finest and their essential flavors kept intact, and textures matter very much in Piège's cooking.  I expect that he will be one of the true young powerhouse chefs in the years to come in Paris.
    With a 32-page wine list, there is little anyone could possibly want to drink that is not available at Les Ambassadeurs.  There are four bins of Clos de la Roche,  five vintages of Romanée-St.-Vivant, a very big selection of Pommards, a good number of Rhône varietals,  even California's cultish Harlan Estate, which I've never seen in Paris except here.
     First courses at Les Ambassaduers run 65€ to 75€ ($80-$91), and main courses 65€ to 115€ ($80-$140).

     rrrhhhhhhhhhtThe chef at the Ritz—only the ninth since the hotel opened--is an Alsatian named Michel Roth, 46, appointed in 2001 and holder of the prestigious title Meilleur Ouvrier de France, and laureate of the Bocuse d'Or culinary competition.  His résumé includes positions at illustrious restaurants like Au Crocodile, Auberge de l'Îll in Alsace  and Ledoyen in Paris.
     With 80 people in his brigade, Roth is resolute in upholding the grand luxe traditions established by the Ritz’s first chef, Auguste Escoffier, while bringing them into line with modern culinary concepts and techniques. Pastry is handled by Eddie Benghanem, who employs a glacier, a  chocolatier, and a bakery staff of eight.
     The main dining room at The Ritz  is named, curiously, L’Espadon (below, right)--"The Swordfish"--still with its original blue-sky-and-white-cloud ceiling framed by carved ivory and gold-flecked woodwork and set with  mirrors and arched windows.  It is at its most beautiful, I think, during the day, when the Paris sunlight glows throughout the colorful, high-ceilinged Beaux Arts room, reflecting onto the Louis XV-style furniture,  Murano glass sconces, Hache porcelain, Christofle silverware, and Baccarat crystal stemware.  All tables, in the Ritz tradition, are round, for more conviviality. Olivier Boucachard is a supremely genteel maître d', whose staff wears tailored tuxedos and tails not much different from those they donned a century ago.k;
      One might begin at L'Espadon with a "trilogy" of langoustines with crunchy vegetables and peppered olive oil, or a fricassée of the sweetest white and green asparagus of the season, or a cup of chilled mushroom cream soup with luscious sautéed duck foie gras and spices.  Modernity is well exhibited in dishes like Roth's marinated grilled tuna with artichokes drizzled with a Caesar-style dressing, and in his marvelous scallops with black truffles (below).  Red mullet, juicy and not in the slightest fishy, is roasted to give it a slight crispiness to the skin, accompanied by herbed calamari and sweet peppers.
     If you are in the mood for fine French Provençal beef, here it comes as a pan-fried filet mignon with meat from the shoulder tucked into a crust of brioche pastry.  The cheese cart is superlative, and for dessert, simply pay heed to the season--right now in summer there's a poached peach with
hibiscus and raspberry infusion, coconut and litchi sorbet.  Then again, to appreciate the classic balance of the Ritz, there is a traditional chocolate soufflé that is ethereally light but decadently rich, withwwwwSicily pistachio ice cream. And for those who have forgotten the charms of a napoleon of fragile millefeuille puff pastry, The Ritz's is a small masterpiece.
    Chief sommelier Frederic Cornation is the proud overseer of one of Paris's deepest cellars, a 53-page list as rich in  bottlings of Burgundy and Bordeaux as it is with fresh, new regional wines.  There are seven pages of Champagnes and sparkling wines, 8 vintages of Château d'Yquem, 11 of Latour, 12 each of Margaux, Cheval Blanc, and Corton-Charlemagne, a substantial Alsace selection, and some of the best labels out of California, including
Ridge Santa Cruz, Heitz, Shafer Hillside Select, and Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignons.

      À la carte appetizers run 49€ to 86€, main courses 52€ to 75€ ($62-$90) at dinner; a 7-course tasting menu is available at 180€ ($220). A 4-course lunch, with coffee, is 75€ ($90).

     By the way, smoking--allelujah!--is not allowed in the dining rooms of  Les Ambassadeurs and L'Espadon, further proof that Paris and Parisians are not fighting what is inevitable at a time when smoking no longer carries the cachet of sophistication it once did.

by John Mariani

120 East 56th Street

     iiiI'm eating as fast as I can.  But even I can't get to every restaurant, everywhere, even in New York. So for 15 years the charms of Montebello passed me by until a friend told me about this very friendly ristorante on East 56th Street between Lexington and Park Avenues.  Joseph and Chef Daniel Bozic have apparently never wavered in their belief that good food and wine, prepared with integrity and consistency, along with an enthusiasm for every guest's presence is sufficient to sustain one's success, and they are absolutely right.  Montebello has a very faithful and fervent clientele for both lunch and dinner, and all are welcomed by the Bozics with respect and a sure knowledge of what they expect.
     Montebello is a particular kind of Italian restaurant, whose setting and menu have achieved a classic New York styl back in the '80s--soft lighting, misty murals, white tablecloths, and candlelight, with food that stays with traditional favorites rendered impeccably, both by virtue of Chef Daniel's refined taste and fifteen years of perfecting each dish.  The wine list is substantial, with 160 selections,  and menu prices are far from the most expensive in town. Appetizers run $8-$12, pastas (full portions) $18-$21, and entrees $18-$32, with a sought-after prix fixe lunch at $20.12.
      Look at the photos of the food: Simple, basic good cooking of good ingredients.   If you are even the slightest bit hungry, you know this is what you feel like eating.  You might begin with pan-seared jumbo scallops in a delicious sauce of brandy, saffron and herbs, or a carpaccio of beef with baby arugula, shaved parmigiano, lemon and olive oil. Octopus salad with steamed potato, red onions, capers, olive oil and lemon is as tender and as evocative of the sea as any  in New York, and that old misunderstood standby, eggplant parmigiana, is as full of flavor as it's supposed to be. All it takes is first-rate, ripe tomatoes, sweet eggplant, and fresh basil, just as the scallops must be creamy, the beef of impeccable quality, and the olive oil the best available.21212
     For pastas, I hardly know where to start. If you want a stuffed pasta, go with the veal ravioli in a herbed tomato-veal sauce (right). If, as I do, you cannot resist gnocchi, have the lovely spinach-ricotta dumplings in a creamy truffle sauce. Pici are hand-rolled little pasta nubbins served with ricotta and a lamb ragù, while perfectly al dente rigatoni is abundant with eggplant, tomato, basil, and diced mozzarella.
     My favorite main course at Montebello is the whole fish, branzino or orata, roasted with rosemary and shallots in a garlic sauce, its meat flaked from the bone and suffused with flavor. Sautéed sole is given a benediction of fresh thyme and served with artichokes in a lemon-white wine sauce.  eeeeFor meat dishes, I recommend the massive veal chop (left) with a salsa verde or the vitello alla milanese, lightly breaded and sautéed crisp on the outside and succulent within, topped (if you like) with arugula, red onions, and cherry tomatoes.  Pork tenderloin comes grilled with a deeply satisfying barolo and balsamic reduction, with bitter-salty spinach.
     Desserts are the usual Italian confections, as good as most, if no better--cheesecake, crème caramel, tiramisù and so on.
   Montebello is undoubtedly a throwback, which is another word for classic, of which New York still has many such enduring restaurants, thank heavens.  It is the kind of place where, when you think about, you get hungry for your favorite dishes.  And it's the kind of restaurant where, if you haven't been there for a few years, the Bozics will remember you, where you sat, and probably ask you if you've lost weight.  Montebello does just about everything right and won't stop doing so for years to come.



"From our first flimsy dime store glitter tiaras, we've moved up the royal chain to real rhinestones and even a working tiara that doubles as a sun visor.  Someday, we're gonna have tiaras bedecked with cubic zirconias (but only if lots of people buy this book, so spread the word.)  Believe us, everything looks and tastes better when you're wearing a tiara." --Karen Adler and Judith Fertig (right), The BBQ Queens Big Book of Barbecue.

OUR CHANGING TIMES: Icons of Great Hamburger Ads anan

Clara Peller selling Wendy's Hamburgers, 19842tr

    Paris Hilton selling Carl's Jr. Hamburgers, 2005


* Each Tues.-Thurs. from now to September, Gabrielle in New Orleans will offer a 3-course menu for $20.05. The menu will change nightly.  Call 504-948-6233.

* From July 12-Sept. 18 in New Brunswick, NJ, the NJ peach will be celebrated at The Frog and The Peach’s First Annual Festival of Peaches. Chef Bruce Lefebvre will offer a 5-course tasting menu at $55 pp or $100 with wine pairings.  Call 732-846-3216.

* On July 18 Allied Domecq Wines USA and El Meson restaurant in Houston  will present a  5-course Spanish food and wine dinner hosted by cookbook Author Joyce Goldstein, and her son, Master Sommelier and head of Allied Domecq’s Academy of Wine, Evan Goldstein. $60 pp. Call El Meson at 713-522-9306. . . . On July 20 another Spanish dinner with the Goldsteins will be held at Bin 36 restaurant in Chicago. $70 pp. Call  312-755-9463.

* From July 21-23 in Lenox, MA, the Tanglewood Wine & Food Classic brings the best of wine, food and music to the Berkshires, incl. a winemaker reception, private wine tastings in some of the most beautiful homes in the Berkshires, and the 2nd Annual Wine Auction Dinner,  prepared by J. Bryce Whittlesey of Wheatleigh (Lenox), and Frank McClelland of L’Espalier (Boston), paired with wines provided by visiting vintner Rob Sinskey of Sinskey Vineyards, culminating with the Classic’s signature event, The Grand Tasting, at $95 pp.  To view the complete schedule or to purchase tickets call 888-266-1200 or visit

 * On July 19, the Dining Room at Woodlands will host its next monthly “Wines of the World” wine tasting and paring dinner. The theme of July’s event is “Travel in Napa Valley.” The evening begins with a one-hour wine tasting reception at 6:30PM followed by a 4-course  dinner by  Chef Scott Crawford will prepare a summer season menu paired with hand-selected wines.  $74 pp. Call 843-875-2600.

* Boston’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel will again present its “Puttin’ On The Ritz on The Roof” events on July 22 & 29, Aug. 19, Sept. 23 and Oct. 14.  The evening begins at 7 PM, with dancing from 8 PM to midnight to the Ritz-Carlton Orchestra. A light summer dining menu is served. $35 pp. Call 617-912-3355. For a more extensive menu, reservations may be made for dinner in The Café off the hotel lobby. . . . The Ritz has also introduced premium kosher wines with a “New Elite Kosher Wine Menu.” Guests who plan their family celebrations, business entertainments and holiday festivities at The Ritz-Carlton, Boston now can toast with these new discoveries.  The Café and The Bar will be featuring selections from the "New Elite Kosher Wine Menu" for the public.


MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly.  Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Contributing Writers: Robert Mariani,  Naomi  Kooker, Kirsten Skogerson,  Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Suzanne Wright. Contributing Photographers: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery,  Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.

 John Mariani is a columnist for Esquire, Wine Spectator, Bloomberg News and Radio, and Diversion.  He is author of The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink (Lebhar-Friedman), The Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink (Broadway), and, with his wife Galina, the award-winning new Italian-American Cookbook (Harvard Common Press).  

 Any of John Mariani's books below may be ordered from by clicking on the cover image.

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copyright John Mariani 2005