The Truth is Plain to See
Like a forest fire, raging, sparking, keep ‘er lit, l’enfer, burning everything in its way with gusto, the desire, the lust, the greed, no make that the need to be and see and be seen and be paid to see and be paid to be seen… at the latest greatest eating house as it consumes London. London’s burning. Just as every other developer in town introduces his high density scheme as “inspired by the meatpacking district”, so the Manhattan trend for chasing restaurants for a fleeting 15 seconds has well and truly arrived in the English capital. Last year it was Balthazar, last Christmas it was Il Ristorante, last month it was Hoi Polloi, next month it will be Ham Yard. Now, very now, so now, right now, right on, it’s Chiltern Firehouse. Right?
With a three month waiting list for bridge-and-tunnel nonentities, the only alternative is to longingly gaze through the lead paned windows as girls-about-town celebrities Lily Cole, Lilly Allen, Lil’ Kim, bask in mutual glow, relishing the comforting closeness of riches and recognition, enjoying the peace and prosperity of the city. There’s always Monocle café across the street. At The Wolseley, Scott’s, Le Caprice, dining numbers dip slightly while the cameras flash outside The May Fair or Dabbous or The Ivy (weekend lunch menu Saturday 14th September 2002, £17.50, plus £1.50 cover charge in main dining room) and then it’s business as usual as Kate Moss, Kate Middleton, Katie Hopkins, return. In this feverish race to trip the light fantastic, skip the bright fandango, flip the trite almighty, moths fluttering up the lampshade of life, there are burnouts. Bistro K, where art thou? Senkai, why oh why? Enough. It’s time to tango in Paree.
The restaurant with a palace attached. No ifs, no buts. A ballroom (turn cartwheels ‘cross the floor) abuts the dining room abuts the marble staircase. A swimming pool fills the basement. More hôtel than hotel. Where the red carpet is always rolled out. Welcome to the Cristal Room at Baccarat, the hôtel particulier at 11 Place des États-Unis, 16th Arrondissement, a plumped up cushion’s throw from the Arc de Triomphe. Louis Quatorze, Quinze and Seize meet the current King of Design, Philippe Starck Première, Deuxième and Troisième. Where the past is never passé, lending a presence to the present. A place transcending our time, deserving of its own hard backed Assouline tribute. There are no equals.
The ghosts of the great and the good reside at no.11. They’ve all dined here. Not all at once. La Majesté Impériale le Tsar Nicholas II; Empereur de tautes les Russies; La Majesté Mozaffar-al-Din, Shah de Perse; Le Duc de Windsor et La Duchesse de Windsor; Comtesse Jean de Polignac; Monsieur Salvador Dalí et Madame Gala Dalí; Monsieur Alberto Giacometti; Monsieur Francis Poulenc; Monsieur Jean Cocteau; Monsieur Luis Buñuel; Monsieur Man Ray; Monsieur Marcel Duchamp; Madame Peggy Guggenheim; Mademoiselle Chanel; Mademoiselle Lee Miller; Mademoiselle Kiki de Montparnasse (ok maybe not her); Messieurs Lavender’s Blue. The crowd called out for more. Once the residence of les grands fromages Vicomte Charles de Noailles and Vicomtesse Marie-Laure de Noailles, their descendants lease the hôtel back to Baccarat.
Mirrored lipsticked lips snogging niches shriek of decorative welcome from the leafy square. Staggeringly strange explosions of rarity erupt amidst terrifying grandeur. Like an emissary from a modernist future, a marble head utters eloquent profundities. A chandelier, Baccarat no doubt, drowns in a glass cube of water (dry chandeliers are priced €20,000 to €120,000). A jaguar (glass objet d’art, not a car) in the library is ours or yours for €25,000. A gargantuan chair lords it over the landing. Upstairs, ladies lunch (“You simply must come to Munich”), boys do late brunch, eating, meeting, sat in satin seating. Le ciel, c’est les autres. A social whirl, the dining room is hummin’ harder, metaphoric symbols of cymbals clash in ironic oxymoronic cacophonic supersonic discordant harmony. Crystal (natch), mirror, gilt, chalkboard, linen (a whiter shade of pale), scaglioli, marble, wood, exposed brick (au natch) and trompe l’oeil (the sky’s the limit) rise as a realised Piranesian fantasy. Vasi, Candelabri, Cippi, Sarcophagi… “Vous êtes là!” the waiter randomly points on our opened map. We are, we’ve arrived. On a sultry late afternoon in August, fellow diners desert post dessert and we embrace the dining room to ourselves.
Appetites ablaze, we consume Michelin starred Guy Martin’s natural white asparagus, pecorino espuma and bresaolo in pesto garlic followed by Pollock fish cooked a la plancha with leeks and radishes in a dashi broth. C’est bon. C’est très bon. “Do you wish to continue outside?” Terrace for two, s’il vous plaît. Exquisite Harcourt is served alfresco. This is a light pistachio cream and crispy biscuit speckled with gold leaf as if fallen from the cornice. Let the rich eat cake. We call out for another drink, the waiter brings a tray. And so it was later.