Possibly the most terrifying meal of my life took place in Paris. Having proposed marriage quite soon after returning from our first trip (and been accepted!) the wedding took place in July 1995, a week after my graduation from Southampton.
My uncle, who’d very kindly employed me during the university holidays as a kind of anxious layabout in his tremendously succesful commodities firm, very generously offered to pay for the honeymoon as our wedding gift.
Where did I want to go? ‘Paris.’ ‘But I’ll pay for you to go anywhere … New York, Hong Kong, the Seychelles, just name it.’ ‘Paris, definitely Paris.’ ‘Ok, then I’ll get Chris to sort you out at the Crillon, don’t worry about the bill.’
In those days it wasn’t so easy to look places up on the internet. But I discovered enough to learn that the Crillon was a big deal. For a start it was on Place de la Concorde – scene of the execution of Louis XVI and the destination point for the Bastille Day parade.* Second it was where Madonna stayed in Paris. And of course Ashley stayed there so I knew it wasn’t exactly going to be a shithole. His tastes had escalated quite spectacularly since a mis-spent youth as part of the crowd of faces in the Halfway House on Southend seafront.
Our check-in at the hotel was markedly different to that of the Hotel de Liège. At the H de L we handed over our passports, paid cash, got the key and headed up to the room in a rickety microlift. At the Crillon we were passed through a succession of ever more senior (and beautiful) people until, almost imperceptibly, we’d floated up to the room. Or should I say rooms. The suite was bigger than the house I grew up in. So imagine the restaurant.
You don’t need to – there’s a picture of it up there. Details of the meal are vague. I was wearing a jacket from Burton’s and shoes from FH&W (look it up kids). The waiters, all one thousand of them per table, had the threads of Fred Astaire and the look of people I’d paid to watch at the National Film Theatre during their Godard season. I think I’ve got PTSD from the whole experience.
The highlight of the food was a dover sole that was delivered under a silver dome on a trolley, then expertly de-boned tableside by the maître d’. I watched slack-jawed in admiration at the sheer skill of it all.
On the drink side of things my panic at the sheer heft of the wine list (a comparison to the Bible would be both clichéd and inadequate) taught me a good lesson in restaurant-going. If you don’t have the skills to decode the wine-list ask the Sommelier for advice and don’t be embarassed to tell him/her your budget. It’s their job to match the wine to both the food and the consumer and they’re good at it. This guy picked us out a Chablis for about 200F (remember Francs?!) that was like the nectar of the gods.
At the end I looked at the bill. It was nearly as much as the budget for the catering for our wedding reception. But fortunately it wasn’t mine to pay. Thank you Uncle Ashley.
* Jacques Chirac was reviewing the troops that day. I could have reached out from the balcony of the reception the hotel held to celebrate Bastille Day and stroked his balding bonce. I’ve had a soft spot for him ever since.
To see other restaurants I’ve been to (possibly near you!) go to the GoogleMap …
Blue Badge guide to London and academic specialising in early twentieth century history. Blogging on history, academia, and food and culture in the capital (and occasionally elsewhere).