At Le Bristol, luxury has a Parisian accent

Le Bristol food and beverage director Kevin Chambenoit, head sommelier Bernard Neveu and chef Éric Fréchon, with Epicure director Frédéric Kaiser. (Marie Hennechart)
Jun 30, 2016

There is likely no street in the world where fashion, art, luxury and politics are closer neighbors than Paris’ Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. The Elysée Palace, at #55, has been the official home of French presidents since 1848. Next door, at #59, sits Boutique Pierre Cardin. About 100 yards west, Christian Lacroix. And just across the street, Hôtel Le Bristol Paris.

Le Bristol, a converted mansion, opened in 1925. It housed the American Embassy during World War II and later became a favorite of celebrities such as Rita Hayworth and Charlie Chaplin. But like its neighbors, Le Bristol’s Epicure dining room is utterly French.

The decor leans haute couture: draped in thick burgundy, with a flower-studded chandelier and floral-patterned curtains, lush matching banquettes with cushy pillows, and small bouquets and iridescent glass butterflies atop each table. Windows look out on the hotel’s manicured garden (where guests can take lunch in the summer). Servers are smartly garbed in pale cream jackets; black suits and ties identify the wine service team.

Le Bristol’s culinary rise began with the 1999 arrival of Éric Fréchon, now 51, as head chef. Michelin stars followed, the third in 2009, and a recent visit showed no evidence that Epicure’s grip on them is loosening: Fréchon’s kitchen, and the wine service staff led by head sommelier Bernard Neveu, 35, is all about quality and precision.

Fréchon oversees a classic brigade de cuisine, but his dishes, steeped in French tradition, are utter originals. Leek from Île-de-France arrives whole, roots attached, well-charred. A server opens the surgically sliced trunk, filling the cavity with a tartare of petite Perle Blanche oysters, onions and lemon juice.

Neveu adeptly selects a juicy La Colombe Chasselas Le Brez 2013 ($25 by the glass), a Swiss white from the Féchy AOC, just across the border from the Rhône. It’s an off-the-radar wine but a classic pairing in principle—briny oysters and tart lemon juice counterbalanced by viscous tropical fruit and mineral salinity.

Fréchon’s signature Bresse pigeon, glazed with spicy honey and garnished with a peppery jus, “à la diable,” is sublimely paired with the Jamet Côte-Rôtie 2006 ($50 by the glass), which is now shedding its burly grip and shining with iron and pepper.

“The spicy notes of this dish need a strong, racy wine,” Neveu says. “The 2006 [is] quite round and smooth, which accords perfectly with the tender pigeon. The fennel puree and onions flavored with cumin reinforce the pairing.” Neveu says his wine-pairing philosophy is driven by just one rule: “The pairing [must] be the most harmonious, without ever overpowering or outshining the dish.”

The decade-old Jamet is an example of Neveu’s efforts to ensure that every wine served by the glass is in its ideal drinking window. Other reds include Mas de Daumas Gassac Vin de Pays de l’Herault 2005 ($27), Domaine de l’Arlot Nuits-St.-Georges Clos des Fôrets 2008 ($47) and Grand-Puy-Lacoste Pauillac 2001 ($59). Among the by-the-glass whites are Rolet Arbois Vin Jaune 2005 ($27) and the sweet Foreau Vouvray Moelleux 2003 ($36).

The 2,000-selection list, backed by nearly 100,000 cellared bottles, is overwhelmingly French. There’s a heavy emphasis on Burgundy, with nearly 200 grands crus reds alone, including bottlings from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (Vosne-Romanée Cuvée Duvault-Blochet 2009, $800; Romanée-Conti 1990, $19,900).

Beyond Burgundy, Epicure’s list is strong in the Rhône, with Hermitage reds from Chapoutier (L’Ermite 2001, $760) and Chave (2005, $880) and more than a dozen of the rare Châteauneuf-du-Pape whites (including Rayas 2000, $700). Depth in Bordeaux includes verticals of the first-growths, Cheval-Blanc and Pétrus, but there’s also some emphasis on (relative) values, including Brane-Cantenac 2003 ($280), Calon-Ségur 2005 ($340), Léoville-Poyferré 2000 ($395) and Monbousquet 2010 ($429).

The list is not entirely French, however. Among the international gems are eight vintages of Spain’s Vega Sicilia ($430 to $2,100) and mature Barolos, including Massolino Margheria 2007 ($310).

Like the restaurant’s innovative approach to classic dishes, its wine program doesn’t shy from breaking with tradition in the name of progress: American sommelier Jaimee Anderson, formerly of the Beverly Wilshire Four Seasons, joined the staff this spring, in training to become Epicure’s first female head sommelier—an American in Paris, waiting to welcome visitors to a bastion of French cuisine.

Read the entire 2016 Restaurant Awards package, including the cover story, "Guide to the Growing World of Restaurant Wine," in the Aug. 31, 2016, issue of Wine Spectator.

Paris Dining Out Restaurant Awards 2016 Grand Award Winners 13714