Category Archives: Hotels
On a UK Monopoly Board, Piccadilly is the sixth most expensive property at a whopping £280.00 and bears the colour yellow. To build a Monopoly hotel on the site will set you back £1,200.00. In reality, Piccadilly is a busy, multi-lane thoroughfare in London’s West End, running from Hyde Park Corner past Green Park to Piccadilly Circus. It’s home to the Hard Rock Café, The Ritz and the Royal Academy. Piccadilly is where Russian spy, Alexander Litvenenko visited a branch of Itsu just after he was poisoned by polonium, a deadly radioactive substance, in a modern-day Cold War power struggle. It’s where to browse through book stacks at the amply-stocked bookstores of Hatchard’s and Waterstone’s, ogle gourmet delights at Fortnum and Mason and Caviar House or refuel at The Wolseley, where weekend brunch tables are a hot ticket. With such esteemed neighbours, both historic and present, it’s no surprise that Piccadilly is where the French hotel chain, Le Méridien, decided to install their landmark London hotel – a stone’s throw from Eros and the Circus’s famed flashing signs. It has now resided at the Regency property of number 21 Piccadilly for a sound twenty-six years, since 1986, in a purpose-built building that first housed The Piccadilly Hotel in 1908 and Masonic temples in its basement.
I’m ashamed to admit that Le Méridien on Piccadilly is a place I must have passed thousands of times yet never once entered and I cannot fathom why. This has recently been rectified; not only have I now entered Le Méridien Piccadilly, I’ve also luxuriated in its underground swimming pool and snored soundly in one of its gigantic beds, oblivious to the busy West End traffic artery located mere feet from my head.
My recent stay at Le Méridien has also educated me in their all-pervading approach to art. The arrival art is what a guest encounters first. As part of Le Méridien’s re-branding at the hand of the Starwood Hotels and Resorts group since they took ownership of the chain in 2005, art has been incorporated into all areas of the guest experience, starting the moment you walk through the door. Before I’d even reached the check-in desk I’d already noted a display of limited edition umbrellas by designer Duro Olowu, with snazzy geometric prints that any connoisseur would be happy to shelter beneath in a London rainstorm.
Even the lowly key card has been welcomed into the LM artistic experience. My card, a work of art in its own right, sported part of a Yan Lei Colour Wheel, its design being part of the LM Unlock Art incentive: not only does the key card open your door it forms part of a collection by a contemporary artist. The current featured artist at LM Piccadilly is Langfang-born Yan Lei, a member of the LM100, the collective comprising 100 influencers who contribute to the LM experience, through their expertise across a wide selection of the arts, from art and design to cuisine and perfumery. Some of the previous Unlock Art card collections, by fellow LM100 members, Hisham Bharoocha and Sam Samore, hang in frames by the lifts, but form and function are only two facets to the LM key cards; they also provide free access to Tate Britain and Tate Modern exhibitions – all you have to do is tell the concierge which Tate exhibitions you’d like to attend so he can arrange access for you, then just flash your key card when you get there, unlocking a local cultural experience for free.
Yan Lei’s Colour Wheel paintings hang in the Piccadilly lobby, the bespoke carpets underfoot are awash with lines, thoughtfully reflecting the inspiration for the company’s name – the meridian lines which criss-cross the globe, and in the ground floor internet den the shelves are set with contemporary ceramics, smart and stark against a dark background. There’s a video installation, created especially for Le Méridien, playing on a loop behind the Guest Relations desk and, on your way to the Longitude Bar, you’ll pass an elegant series of black and white portraits of the people responsible for the overall artistic experience that a guest will enjoy at Le Méridien – the LM100. As for that subtle aroma wafting through the lobby? That’s the signature Le Méridien scented candle, LM01, created by more members of the LM100 clan, Fabrice Penot and Edouard Roschi. It’s a unique blend of frankincense, iris absolute and musk with cedar notes, gently adding to the sensory welcome so carefully constructed with a guest’s first impressions in mind.
The final and possibly most important part of Le Méridien’s atmosphere is the human component. In my time at the hotel I truly appreciated the comportment of the staff. From greeting to leaving, there was always a smile, a courteous hand, nothing too much trouble. Lift doors were held open without asking, a troublesome door catch dealt with immediately by not one but three kind and patient staff, an unusual breakfast order delivered on-time, without issue, a forgotten toothbrush taken care of, taxi doors opened and closed, a myriad small kindnesses. Whomever I spoke with on the staff seemed to genuinely care that I had a positive experience of Le Méridien Piccadilly. That’s what I call the Art of Hospitality, and in the travel environment it’s absolutely priceless.
A luxury hotel, lashings of fine dining and a whirlwind of contemporary art? Chez Epicurienne, that’s what I call a killer combination that I’d be happy to dive into on any day of the week. Courtesy of the Le Méridien hotel group, I was recently invited to partake of just such a tantalising synthesis of sensory stimulants during an arts-focussed stay-cation, based at their landmark hotel in London’s Piccadilly. I’m still recovering, in a good way.
A top hotel’s relationship to food is a no-brainer; the two go hand-in-hand, but where does art enter the equation? In this case, Le Méridien, the forty-year old international hotel chain, has incorporated art into its properties so that wherever guests look, art will meet their eyes – be it on arrival, on relaxing, even on using their key card. Steering Le Méridien’s artistic intentions is Jérôme Sans, the French art curator and critic, in his capacity as the LM Cultural Curator. What’s more, for the past five years Le Méridien has been a principle partner and supporter of an arts initiative called OFT – the Outset/ Frieze Art Fair Fund to Benefit the Tate Collection. Through OFT, the Tate is able to bypass purchasing bureaucracy to acquire work by emerging artists featured at the annual London fair for contemporary art: Frieze.
Over two days, our small group of bloggers along with various members of hotel management and Le Meridien’s PR company, Fleishman Hillard, managed to experience one art discussion panel, several types of unforgettable hors d’oeuvre, one unusual afternoon tea, six delicious meals, one international art fair, three world-famous art galleries, exhibitions various, two nights of sumptuous sleep, meetings with key art experts and personalities, a lesson in Le Méridien’s history and brand and various forms of London transport – including the water kind. For obvious reasons, I will not attempt to squeeze everything listed above into one post, lest it resemble a hefty artistic monograph. Instead, I invite you to join me on a multi-post tour of Le Méridien’s London art-u-cation. It’ll be an inspiration – for locals and visitors alike.
Photo above courtesy of the Le Meridien website, http://www.lemeridienpiccadilly.co.uk
A long time ago, in happy-go-lucky, freewheeling times, I lived in Venice. It wasn’t a long-term thing; just a summer internship over the course of a few months, but it was long enough for me to fall head over my Supergas in love with the place. When I returned to London, there remained some Venetian experiences on my Bucket List that would have to wait for subsequent visits. Quite unbelievably, if you think about my passion for food and drink, one such missed undertaking was to drink a Bellini at the erstwhile Hemingway haunt of Harry’s Bar.
As a student intern, my salary just about covered rent and food, but didn’t quite stretch to evenings, let alone just one drink at this eponymous venue, with the enduring reputation of being horrifically expensive. In the interest of keeping some Lira (yes, these were pre-Euro days) in the bank, I avoided it like the plague.
Some years later, I returned to Venice to introduce Monsieur to this grand city of canals. It was winter. For different reasons, I didn’t have a lot of dosh at the time, so, yet again, for reasons of economy, Harry’s Bar didn’t happen. Then, on my birthday this year, my dear French husband surprised me with tickets to Venice and boy, did he ever score brownie points. This time I was determined not to leave without sipping on a Harry’s Bar Bellini, all sixteen extortionate Euros of it.
Before we could even begin to factor Harry’s Bar into our trip, Monsieur and I found ourselves thirsty in Dorsoduro. We’d just about reached the white-domed magnificence of Santa Maria della Salute when we peeped through a gate to find a new hotel: the lush Centurion Palace.
Walking through the courtyard, we were surprised to find its elegant tables and seating areas empty at what was most certainly cocktail hour. Across the airy lobby we spotted a small terrace giving directly onto the Grand Canal. There were only a few tables, but all were free, so we sat and ordered a pair of Bellinis to celebrate our arrival in La Serenissima. It might not have been Harry’s Bar, but the view was hard to beat. Resting our feet we lazily watched the Venetian world pass us by on boats. Even the occasional scream of Vigili del Fuoco or Polizia sirens (also on boats) couldn’t bother us; this was bliss.
The Bellinis arrived after a suitable amount of time, which I must say I found comforting as it showed that our drinks hadn’t been poured out of a ready-mix cocktail bottle. One sip alone verified this. There was at least one whole fresh white peach involved per glass, blitzed with a healthy dose of gently bubbling prosecco. Ah, yes, we had lucked out in our impromptu cocktail stop and were now relaxing, the finest of godly nectars (I swear this is not hyperbole) slipping with ease down thirsty throats. What’s more, the generosity of measure and syrupy nature of the drink meant we could take time to smell the roses (or canals) before heading off across town to our dinner destination.
A while later, as we churned up the Grand Canal on a vaporetto, I snapped the terrace where we’d so enjoyed our first Bellinis of the trip. Sadly, this pic doesn’t do it justice.
The atmosphere was fit for bottling. Gondolas swaying in one direction:
Salute and San Marco beckoning from the other:
A crane in the background kept us firmly grounded in the current century, but it’s hard not to daydream when confronted by fairy tale palaces rising from the water:
In summary, the Centurion Palace would be hard to beat for a Bellini on the go. The drinks are fabulous, the vistas magnificent and the nibbles original and moreish (curry cracker, anyone?). If you’re a keen boatspotter, this is the terrace at which to imbibe.
A Bellini costs €15.00 here. Expensive, yes, but not quite as hefty as that establishment across the way where its forefather was conceived by a certain Signor Cipriani. All I can say is that if you feel like dropping €15.00 for one drink and a nibble or two, go no further; it’s money well-invested in a memory that will last a lifetime. As for Harry’s Bar? That’s a whole post of it’s own, but it had a lot to live up to after Bellinis at the Centurion. Suffice to say that I’ll never forget our evening there, for all the right reasons.
The easiest way to find the Centurion Palace: Take a vaporetto to the Salute stop. Get off and turn right immediately, heading away from the church. You’ll pass through an arch. A zigzag later will find the Centurion’s gate on your right hand side (Grand Canal side). Alternatively, if you’re made of moola, just whistle for a water taxi and they’ll drop you right next to the terrace I’ve been lauding above.
Marseille: an ancient city renowned for many things, among which number its huge commercial port, a small crime problem, the legendary Château d’If and fine bouillabaisse. The city lent its name to the French national anthem, la Marseillaise, pastis was born here and Marcel Pagnol took childhood walks in the lush Parc Borély. I suggest that we add to this hall of fame the Hotel Pullman Marseille Palm Beach, where Monsieur and I splurged for a night of luxury during our South of France ‘vacances’ last year.
Even for we two inveterate travellers, it had been a long day. We’d driven up from the Camargues, lunched at a sleepy Martigues and screeched into the last boat trip of the day around the calanques near the pretty port of Cassis. The driving in the vicinity of such a natural wonder is reputed to be fraught with tempers frayed by battles fought over parking spaces; sadly, we’d found it to be exactly so, yet somehow managed to escape without a single dent in our fender. Leaving the beauty behind as we entered the messy sprawl of the outskirts of Marseille, we were intent on a night of calm and relaxation. Fortunately, once we found the Pullman Hotel, calm and relaxation is exactly what we enjoyed.
I say ‘once we found’ because the Pullman is James Bond-esque in the way that it hides behind a curve in the Corniche, sinking its storeys below the coastal thoroughfare so that it’s barely visible from the road. We, as many others must have done before us, drove straight on past the entrance before recognising our mistake and navigating a U turn – no mean feat in the early evening rush of traffic – to return to our abode for the night.
A porter swiftly separated luggage from vehicle as a valet disappeared with the car down a ramp into what could have been Hades for all we knew – via the entrance to what we deduced must be the subterranean car park - very 007 once again. Inside, a vast lobby was populated by three or four staff and one of those life-size sculptures of a cow wearing far splashier colours than might be expected in your average milking shed. Elsewhere, the furniture was über chic in the fashion of a deconstructed Mondrian (read: hard-cornered squares and rectangles in primary colours) but quite uncomfortable looking – the subliminal message being that this was not a place to get cosy, although the view across the bay was spectacular and it would be quite possible to spend a couple of hours sitting here watching ships and yachts navigating the busy bay.
Fortunately, our room had its own, private view out to sea, and a balcony from which to enjoy it at our leisure. It was a hot evening, hazy and vaguely rose-tinted. We watched stand-up paddlers taking advantage of the calm waters.
Looking to our right the Corniche snaked against the coast, a gigantic propeller blade rising in dark silhouette against the sunset; this was the 1971 oeuvre of Marseille’s sculptor son, César, honouring the repatriation of people from North Africa to France.
To wash off the day’s accumulation of salt and sweat, we took a dip in the Pullman’s pool, which looked like this:
It was big enough to accommodate pre-dinner swimmers of all ages, from pre-schooler to retiree, and the water was just the right type of cool.
Later, as Monsieur and I basked in the last of the day’s sun, we flicked through guides in an attempt to decide how and where to dine. In the end, room service won. We would sup in our bathrobes, with the unsurpassable vista visible from our balcony, gathering strength for the serious task of exploring Marseille the next day.
The doorbell rang and our evening meal arrived. Seconds later, Monsieur settled down with comfort food: a burger and plump, golden fries with a verrine of coleslaw in a nod to the possibility of fresh produce, even if it hadn’t been ordered in quantity tonight.
I stuck to lighter fare. The smoked salmon was delicious, served with mini-blinis, a dollop of taramasalata and another of soft, herbed cheese. The salad leaves were unusually unblemished, natural, sans vinaigrette.
Then I allowed myself a small plate of cheese.
A glass of crisp, chilled white wine completed the experience.
And so, when last in Marseille, Monsieur and I unabashedly enjoyed our room service supper in our own time, watching all manner of seafaring vessel criss-crossing the bay as the sun sank in the west. It was the epitome of a holiday dining experience: good, simple food, great view, the privacy of our own room and no glad rags required. Not to mention the double bill of Engrenages (Spiral) on TV. A perfect evening, indeed.
This is a breakfast that works with a diet: inspired by the healthy breakfast menu at the Shangri La hotel in Singapore.
The field mushrooms are filled with low-fat cream cheese (I use Philadelphia light with chives), then sprinkled with low-fat olive oil and a little parmesan cheese and popped into the oven at 180C for about 10-15 minutes. Garnish with half a cherry tomato on serving. Looking at my attempt above, the mushroom could only benefit from a sprinkling of chopped herbs.
The egg is poached. The baked beans are Weight Watchers. The bacon is smoked back rasher, selected for having less fat, more protein present. 2 rashers should be plenty if you’re watching your weight. Make sure you pat them dry of excess fat with kitchen paper after frying.
When everything hot has landed on the plate, garnish with a handful of fresh leaves. You don’t really need dressing because the salad mops up the flavours of everything else on the plate.
I hope that, like me you’ll find this so simple and tasty that you won’t remember you’re on a diet.
Smoked salmon is so easy to get wrong. Buy the over-farmed or rapid-cure variety and you may find yourself pulling bits of bland stringy stuff out of your teeth, wondering whatever happened to the true taste of the smoked salmon of yesteryear. Get it right, from a fine farmer of happy salmon and the situation flips on its head; silken folds of fish dissolve on the tongue, leaving both a smoky taste - at once tart and salty and succulent with oil - and, of course, the desire for another mouthful.
I’m a massive fan of how they do it at the Hotel Metropole in Hanoi, where the salmon is traditionally served with all condiments, muslin-wrapped lemon and a shot of the smoothest sort of vodka that ex-pat oligarchs might use to toast the Mother Country. The star of the platter is home-smoked, from Norway and boy, is it ever good. So good, in fact, that it almost seems a shame to mess with its pure taste by putting anything with it. To spar with the salmon, two small rounds of toasted baguette crowned with different varieties of smoked salmon share the plate. One is marinated in beetroot, Russian-style, giving it sweet earthiness; the other is stained like piccalilli, hot and tart to the tastebuds.
There’s a taste of salmon roe, another of caviar, a shot of cool sour cream and one of softened cubes of onion, but my favourite condiment is that of minced onion with herbs – scattered onto a forkful of smoked salmon with a dash of sour cream, it gives the tastebuds a reason to put on their dancing shoes.
At $19.00 US this isn’t the cheapest of smoked salmon offerings to be found in an international restaurant, but if you like value for money, I’d say that with the generous serving of finest Norwegian salmon and attention to detail in both presentation and quality of ingredients, this is a platter that I won’t forget in a hurry. In homage to a great plate I hereby add it to the Epicurienne Smoked Salmon Hall of Fame.
We’ve been to the Red Flame Diner, the Frick Collection and the Whitney. Now it’s time to clear our heads of comfort food and culture so Monsieur and I head across to Central Park. Every time we’ve visited together, we’ve spent a little time in this glorious lung for the island of Manhattan, and every time, we’ve discovered new sights to enthrall. The last visit saw us wading through drifts of newly-fallen snow; this time, the sun was shining and New Yorkers were out in droves, soaking up the vitamin D.
Do you think this runner stopped for some Gatorade or a big, fat pretzel after his run?
This pair looked slightly uncomfortable on their carriage ride:
Their wives, hidden by the hood, looked far more enthused. Monsieur and I didn’t feel the need for wheels, no matter how romantic the notion of a horse-drawn carriage in Central Park, so on we walked.
The paths were busy with happy wanderers, like ourselves:
And then, in the midst of everything, we found our old pal, Rabbie Burns:
We passed the place where people’s endowments of trees for the park are honoured by plaques in a place called Literary Walk:
Further along, we found people sunning themselves like seals on a giant rock. We climbed up to see what they were watching and found the Wollman skating rink beneath the Midtown skyline. There was no mistaking who operates it these days – Donald Trump, his name emblazoned all around the rink:
We then headed for the Plaza Hotel and Fifth Avenue, spotting this colourful line up of carriages en route:
Now the carriages and tree-lined walks would be replaced by skyscrapers and New York yellow cabs, but not before we glimpse a horse proudly sprouting a bright purple feather from its bridle. It seems that even the horses in Manhattan know that in this part of world, anything goes.
DSK: a trio of letters synonymous with scandal, sex and the Sofitel Hotel in New York City. When Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then-head of the IMF found himself embroiled in a hotel housemaid’s accusation of sexual assault earlier this year, Monsieur and I were transfixed before the television, not because of yet another (yawn) politician making the headlines due to a certain lack of behavioural restraint, but because of the hotel at the centre of the scandal. The story broke while we were in France for a family celebration. The French news stations were saturated with back-to-back tales of Strauss-Kahn and his fateful stay at the New York Sofitel, where Monsieur and I have stayed quite happily twice – no straying politicos or maids-with-benefits involved. It felt odd to know the place where such sordid events unfolded; contrary to how it may have come across in this year’s press coverage of the DSK affair, the Sofitel is a serene and beautiful place to call home during a sojourn in Manhattan.
Monsieur and I are fans of the Sofitel chain, especially as the presence of plenty of French staff make Monsieur feel so at home. On our last visit to The Big Apple, we dragged our cases up to the Sofitel from Penn Station and were greeted with warmth and a couple of welcome drinks vouchers to be used at Gaby, the hotel bar. Once we’d settled into our room set in a quiet recess away from 44th Street we took our vouchers down to the lobby to join the Friday afternoon crowd for a drink.
It was still too early for the pre-theatre crowd so prevalent in Midtown, and too early for most office workers to kick up their heels at the start of the weekend, but there was already the beginning of a lively gathering at one end of the room. Our waiter was Buddhist in his calm approach to serving his patrons; so much so he was almost invisible. Menus and cocktail mix appeared before us, yet so quietly that it was as if they’d been conjured from thin air.
Perusing the drinks list, Monsieur decided to forego his usual mojito in favour of the Lemon Drop cocktail, his first sip causing an audible sigh of appreciation. I stole a taste: it was like intense alcoholic lemonade with the essence of lemon meringue pie mixed through it. Iced, this would be a grown-up’s dessert of choice, not far from that naughty Venetian after-dinner drink, the sgroppino.
Chocolate was on my mind, so I ordered a mochatini, but our waiter quietly returned to our table to say “I’m afraid we’re all out of the Starbuck’s liquor required to make the mochatini. Could I interest you a chocatini instead?”. I was more than a little surprised to learn that a French hotel served drinks made with an American coffee giant’s syrup, but I have to admit that Starbuck’s mocha flavouring is quite excellent (stone me, curse me, but I give credit where it’s due). Fortunately, the chocatini soon took my mind off the omnipresence of globalisation. The cocktail was absolute decadence in a glass, like syrupy, alcoholic chocolate milk.
Meanwhile, three suits had taken stools at the bar, self-importantly jabbing the air from time to time as they mentioned markets and calls and shorts and losses. Shortly afterward, three women dressed for the kill arrived and took seats a little further down the bar. Air-kissing commenced amidst drawling “how AAAAARE you”s, making me giggle at their own brand of theatre. By the time we left, the girls were exchanging meaningful nods with the neighbouring suits whilst pointedly preening long tresses and adjusting cleavages. DSK it wasn’t, but mating rituals in Manhattan still make excellent entertainment.
There are many good reasons to stay at New York’s Sofitel: it’s ideally situated for the theatre district and Times Square, is central for the main attractions of all the big Avenues, close to the major stores of Barney’s, Bendel’s and Bloomingdale’s and shares its address of 44th Street with the eponymous Red Flame Diner and the Algonquin Hotel of Round Table fame. Ready and waiting for you when you’ve walked your feet into a numbed fatigue, the Sofitel beds are there to envelop the tired wanderer in their rejuvenating cocoons of softness. The doormen and concierges go the extra mile, there are PC and printing facilities in a quiet corner of the lobby, and if you want to just sit and watch the comings of goings of visitors and guests, the sumptuous lobby armchairs provide the comfort from which to do so.
Highly recommended, especially if someone else is paying, and I think we can safely assume that DSK won’t be going back any time soon.
Paris on 27th December last was cold. Bitterly cold. It was so horribly cold that I figured Jack Frost was out and about, only this time on on steroids. In spite of coats and scarves and gloves with thermal lining it was too cold to venture across town in search of an evening meal; on this, Monsieur and I were agreed. Any sort of food-seeking trek was out of the question, however, in a demonstration of true courage (motivated by hunger) we did eventually manage to leave the hotel, although no further than crossing the street.
Luckily for us, on the rue de l’Isly, where we were staying, there were a few restaurants that had fairly decent internet reviews, including Certa - an informal bar-cum-restaurant. In our big, winter coats we ended up walking out of the warm hotel, several yards across the chilly street and straight into Certa. Our coats came off again mere minutes after we’d put them on.
The front of Certa was for drinking, filled with low, informal clusters of chairs, sometimes with a small table, and generally populated by hip young things with cocktails. As we’d indicated that we were here for dinner, our waitress led us to a table at the rear of the establishment, where the serious sport of eating was dealt with. We were the only tourists (pseudo-tourists at that, as Monsieur is genuine French produce); back here the people ranged in age from six to sixty and there was a happy burble of conversation in the air.
Unfortunately, that same waitress looked after us for most of the evening. If it was cold outside, it grew colder every time she passed by. This girl was so grumpy, surly and devoid of courtesy that by the end of the evening, if I’d seen her crack even the glimmer of a smile, I would have fallen straight off my chair. She seemed to have been born without the pleasant gene. I hate that. Angry wait staff affect my digestion (I kid you not).Thankfully, Monsieur and I were at Certa to eat, not to make friends with the grinch in the apron.
It was happy hour. As all true bar-hoppers know, ‘happy hour’ can mean many things: two for ones, half-price bottles, discounts, free glasses, silly hats and vouchers. At Certa, happy hour meant that Monsieur’s beer was cheaper, and my small glass of house rosé was upgraded from a measly 150ml to a slightly less measly 200ml.
What can I say to that? Quite a lot, actually. France is a land of fine wine, filled to the gunnels with grapes, vines and vintners, but can you ever get a proper English-size 250ml glass of wine? Not on your Nellie. If you want 250ml of your favourite grape, you have to order a pichet or small carafe and if you’re not sharing, you might get a look as if you’ve fallen off the latest twelve step programme. I digress. I’d been looking forward to this particular glass all afternoon and 200ml, even if 50ml of that were free, simply did not cut it. Added to which, the aforementioned happy-happy-waitress prevented me from ordering a second glass through negligence, so 200ml had to last a whole two courses. That’s simply not the way I was raised.
So far, so bad. We had grumpster in charge of our supper and ridiculous happy hour ‘bargains’. Heaven only knew what the food would be like.
Monsieur and I both decided that the Salade Italienne sounded good so ordered a matching pair as starters. We expected a modest selection of salad and antipasti. Instead, our plates arrived piled high with ingredients – like a small Matterhorn of Italian foodstuffs. The price per salad was misleadingly modest for central Paris. What sat on the table before us now was remarkably good value. Perhaps we hadn’t made such a dire mistake by coming here. This Certa place was finally showing promise.
A pillow of crisp, green leaves peeped up at us from beneath a panoply of colours and textures. Folds of paper-thin prosciutto, wedges of avocado pear, grilled rounds of marshmallowy eggplant and a rainbow of marinated capsicum – just looking at the array made me think of Arcimboldo, the artist who invented the vegetable-face portrait. A dollop of creamy ricotta sat on one side of the plate, artichokes hid beneath greenery on the other. It’s not possible to assemble an Italian salad without tomatoes, so they were there, too. A mosaic of slim, hard cheese (parmesan? pecorino?) squares sat like a tumble of upturned scrabble squares atop all, a shower of pinenuts and balsamic vinegar completing the composition.
The presentation of our salades Italiennes might well have been impressive, but Monsieur and I bore the brows of concern. Our plan for a light meal looked as if it had just been blown out of the Seine. These salads were immense and we’d already ordered main courses. Ah well. The diet would have to start tomorrow.
Surprisingly, once our cutlery got busy, we found that the salads were lighter than we’d presumed. I finished every last bite of Italian goodness without a problem. Monsieur also cleaned his plate. And yes, there was still room at the inn. Our mains would not be wasted.
But first, Grumplestiltskin made a rare appearance. She cleared the table, grimacing in her attempt to leave us with our cutlery from the first course, only to realise that it was too covered in olive oil/balsamic/ricotta to rest on the table without causing mess that inevitably she would then have to clean up. With an audible harrumph, she removed the cutlery with the crockery and returned to drop new knives and forks on the table with the careless tingtingting of metal on metal. Grace was definitely not a virtue with which this waitress was endowed.
As a main, Monsieur had carefully selected a beef burger with fries and salad. I’d be lying if I said it looked inspired, but my own, private carnivore declared it excellent – both in the quality of ex-livestock, and the special, spicy sauce which looked disturbingly like thousand island dressing. Burger aside, if Monsieur’s happy, I’m happy, so, as he munched happily on his side of the table, I tucked into a plate of pommes de terre écrasées (roughly translated as squashed potatoes, not to be confused with mash) served with a drizzle of sour cream and a gluttonous spoonful of caviar.
For anyone who has not yet tried potatoes with sour cream and caviar, please do so immediately. The combination is Guilty Pleasure with capitals G and P. On the menu, the pommes de terre écrasées were listed as NEW, their description appearing in its own little text box and the proprietor must have been interested to see which of his patrons had ordered this wicked dish, for he appeared table-side, genial in plaid shirt, suggesting that I sprinkle some sel des algues, or seaweed salt, over the potatoes. “Yes, please!” I enthused. My advisor’s face lit up with joy, for he had an adventurous eater at his restaurant. Too soon, he disappeared back into the kitchen, just as I started flailing about like a shipwreck victim at sea, trying to gain the attention of the waitress so I could enjoy another (small) glass of rosé with the potatoes. Apparently quite the invisible woman, I failed in my quest for pink grape juice, but the potatoes were such a success that a smile slowly spread across my face and stayed there for some time after.
It won’t surprise you to hear that we weren’t asked whether we’d like dessert or coffee (we didn’t want either) or that Grumplestiltskin effectively forced us to approach the bar in order to pay (no bill was forthcoming). She managed to charge our card on a machine, return it with paper chit and effectively ignore both Monsieur and me as she carried on a grumpy little conversation with the barmaid. She did not thank us or wish us a good evening. In fact, she was such a fine example of how NOT to treat paying customers in a dining establishment that I’d have to say she’d turned it into an art.
Would we return to Certa? Even though the food was excellent, I’d have to say no. Firstly, Paris is overflowing with opportunities to eat well in environments non-conducive to Grumplestiltskin-style staff, so why go to Certa if you prefer to be treated like a visible human being? Secondly, I have since successfully made my own pommes de terres écrasées with sour cream and caviar, hence removing the need to revisit that meal option at Certa. Admittedly, if you’re stuck for somewhere to eat around the Gare Saint Lazare, Certa will tick a few boxes, but if, like me, you resent feeling like poodle poop on a Christian Louboutin heel when paying for food, this is a place to avoid.
***If you work at Certa and happen to read this, please note that, by the simple act of ignoring my husband and me, Grumplestiltskin shaved a potential of at least 2 desserts, 2 double espressos and a pichet of pale pink wine off your takings from our evening with you. Worse still, she has lost you the value of repeat business from a couple who often stay at the hotel just yards from your door. The bottom line is this: in tough economic times, restaurateurs can’t afford to pay staff who lose them money, even when the quality of what you serve is high. In summary, it’s time to lose the sourpuss. Can you really afford not to?