No one has fully explained why the virtues of urban life collected themselves in one place and offered Paris to the world. That is not to say that the city is without the usual menu of urban problems and some of its own invention. On the day of my most recent arrival, the Yellow Vests were out. I had been warned not to visit on a Saturday, when they would protest and cause mischief for reasons no two of them appeared able to voice in unison. But by this time, like lawyers attending a late party at a conference, they could only cluster in small groups, not quite sure what to do with themselves. Farther on, street repairs snarled traffic and had all but sealed off my favorite shop for gifts of vintage jewelry, on a small street around the back from the Hotel de Ville. And someone was surely on strike somewhere.
The barriers to the approach to the cathedral of Notre Dame had been moved backward, and tourists were out to survey the damage. From the front, the cathedral shone in the sun, fresh from the scrubbing that had been part of the restoration project that had accidentally caused the fire this year. From the Pont de l'Archeveche - the narrow southern bridge facing the nave - the wounded Gothic masterpiece looked like a seated lion brooding over a bad fight.
But troubles in Paris are only detours to its pleasures, many of which have a history of being controversial. Depending on your point of view, the recent addition of e-scooters, their riders speeding merrily along roads, sidewalks and just about anywhere else hard and smooth, is a new blessing or a new curse. Riders abjure helmets, and a strict rule that two people may never share one scooter is strictly ignored throughout.
I was again in Paris as a representative of my law firm to our overseas clients and colleagues. That is why, after a BYO baguette interlude in a compact but fun fifth-floor Airbnb walk-up in the bohemian Le Marais district, I chose to return to the Hotel Plaza Athenee - long my favorite in Paris. Before arriving, I had filled out an online form, asking that the temperature of my junior suite be set to 21° Celsius on my arrival and that the soaps not be perfumed.
Over the course of three agreeable days, I greeted colleagues and friends for coffee, pastries or drinks in La Galerie, the long parlorlike lobby that serves as a clubhouse for visitors and Parisian society, sometimes to the accompaniment of a harpist. The last renovation, by the architect Bruno Moinard, widened the center and generally enhanced the allure of settling into a comfortable chair with a cappuccino - or whiskey.
At the hotel's spa, the Dior Institut, a local colleague stayed on to treat herself to a facial that she found remarkable for attention to detail (perhaps it helps that she has a strikingly fine face); next door, at the fitness center, I worked out to tame my newly found calories. More about that presently, but the point is that, when you set up your meetings at a premium hotel or within putting distance nearby, people will gladly come to you.
My suite had a view of the courtyard, the hotel's signature red awnings slanting from the opposite winders like the brims of hats worn just for show. I set up one side of my living space as a bedroom and the other as an office, and I had room aplenty to stow my suitcases, drop the parcels from my usual shuttles to gourmet markets and stack my daily-delivered copies of The Times of London. Each morning, our breakfast room served pastries so fresh and unique that adding eggs or pancakes to them seemed like an afterthought. My favorite was a dessert-worthy cupcake with a bomb of raspberry preserves hidden at the core.
And so started my gourmet days in Paris. You will read much food criticism online with comments about fine Parisian restaurants that go along the lines of, "I had high hopes for the meat course but there was too much vinegar in the Bearnaise sauce." That does not mean: (a) that the reviewer knows what he is talking about or, even if so, that his palate is anything like yours; (b) that the Bearnaise sauce would be made exactly the same way when you visit the restaurant; (c) that you will order a dish that comes with Bearnaise sauce; or (d) that the restaurant is not perfectly capable of serving marvelous dishes that require mastery of other sauces. Gastronomy is about the totality of the experience, from the food and wine to the decor and the service - all the way to the dress and deportment of fellow diners. In short, the whole means more than the parts, and fretting about the details of any one dish is usually self-defeating. And so:
After checking in, I joined a colleague at Marigny, le Restaurant, which had recently opened in the restored Theatre Marigny, a working playhouse in the gardens off the Champs Elysees. The restaurant has broad views of the park and tastefully displays photographs of what are likely some of those famous actors I always fail to recognize. The menu references classic brasserie cuisine. Maybe it was knowing that we were in a theater, but I felt as if I had entered a townhouse owned by a European movie star with uncompromisingly good taste.
Later, on a surprisingly quiet street off the rue de Rivoli, in the part of town most frequented by foreign visitors, I returned to a small restaurant I enjoy known as Le Souffle. The name is an exemplary form of literalism because you can have a three-course all-souffle meal. I started mine with a vegetable "petit souffle" appetizer, followed that with a bœuf bourguignon main-course souffle and concluded with a Grand Marnier souffle - the last one being to souffles what Levi's 501s are to blue jeans: sure, there are great alternatives, but there is no beating the original classic. So confident is the restaurant of the strength of its dessert, the waiter leaves a bottle of Grand Marnier cognac, opened and unattended, on the table of anyone who orders it, daring you to admit when enough truly is enough.
Much of that had been in walking distance, but for my next lunch, I explained to my visiting guest that we would not be heading out but that it would be, "Alain Ducasse pour dejeuner." Which is to say, the breakfast room converts at midday, like the change of set during intermission at the opera; tables are removed and place settings laid out, and it becomes the main restaurant of the master chef - the one in Paris where he holds three Michelin stars. Since my last visit, the decor has been lightened. Spotted with tables of polished oak, it no longer struggles to splice contemporary style into the hotels' classic lines - although I miss the one-handed clock that reminded you, contrary to basic theories of horology, not to keep track of time where it stood. Far more important is the lightening of the menu, which prominently features seafood. I chose a surprise tasting of the day and was awarded with caviar over jelly of eel, followed by lobster with radishes. Everything, needless to say, was done brilliantly.
Even light haute cuisine being a feast, after first considering an experiment with the French paradox (the mystery why the typical Frenchman or woman can seemingly eat just about anything and stay respectfully trim), I made sure that dinner that evening, at a nearby bistro, stayed modest and light.
The next day, at Hotel la Maison Champs Elysees, another luxury hotel nearby, the midday sun took advantage of the ample glazing and helped gently illuminate La Table du Huit ("The Table for Eight" or simply "8"). The restaurant had been suggested by local business associates, who joined me there for lunch. I went off the small menu and secured for myself a simple green salad as an appetizer so I could enjoy the chicken with eggplant - and because I knew what would be coming my way at 8 that night.
My final business dinner (yes, business was discussed throughout my stay, at memorandum length) was on the opposite bank of the Seine, opposite the tip of the Ile de la Cite, in a formidable neoclassical building commissioned by Louis XV as the home of the Paris Mint. This was to be something of a rematch: I had booked Restaurant Guy Savoy the year earlier, only to be stricken by food poisoning the night before I was to dine there - from a satanized bowl of soup at what had seemed like a charming local place a mile or so distant. I was at last to experience what, for two years running, the review aggregator La Liste has rated as the best restaurant in the world (with Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athenee named No. 3 in the world).
Chef Savoy has short white hair, a touch of a beard, and a manner one-part diplomat, one-part impresario. He stood at the ground-floor entrance, greeting diners as they arrived. We ascended a stairway grand enough for a duke. The dining rooms, in contrast, were perfectly intimate. After a culinary huddle, my guest and I agreed to split the appetizers. For the first, as instructed, we dipped truffle-spiked bread into artichoke and black truffle soup. Then came langoustine (sometimes known as Norway lobster), which arrived virtually whole in appearance until the forward exoskeleton, complete with head, was removed by the waiter with the precision of a rocket booster separating from the second stage. The robust flavors that came forth were skillfully softened with duck liver.
The main course was stuffed chicken for two, and as we were enjoying that, Mr. Savoy, wearing a kinetic smile, arrived at our table. When I asked him if he could summarize his philosophy, barely had the question gone out before he emphatically replied, "Product, product, product. I give a second life to good products." The langoustines are flown in each morning from Norway, he explained. A cornucopia of black truffles had arrived earlier that day from Australia (where, with its inverted seasonal calendar, they were now ripe), and to prove it, he brought over a plate and let us inhale their incomparably complex aroma that is one-part mushroom, two parts shear mystery. I asked what Chef Savoy saw as the future of haute cuisine. "If I knew the future," he replied, "I would do it today." A lawyer or anyone trying to master just about any profession would do well to heed that advice.
Dessert and petit fours came our way in variations from iced strawberries with some much rarer Sil-Timur berries to a corn-filled chocolate bar. The sun had set upon the Seine. A black Peugeot was waiting downstairs to carry me back to the Plaza Athenee. The night cloaked Paris with forgiving darkness, allowing the slowly dimming City of Light to ready itself in peace for another day.
The Hotel Plaza Athenee, part of the Dorchester Collection, is one of the great hotels of Europe. It is located on the avenue Montaigne, which is quieter than addresses in the main tourist areas and where it is possible to give directions by saying, "Head past Dior and make a right just before Salvatore Ferragamo." 25 avenue Montaigne; +33 1 53 67 66 65; https://www.dorchestercollection.com/en/paris/hotel-plaza-athenee.
Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athenee; +33-1-53-67-65-00; www.ducasse-paris.com. Ducasse has restaurants from Beirut to Tokyo but this one is the Alain Ducasse; no true foodie can know his cuisine (or, really, know haute cuisine at all) until making the pilgrimage to the avenue Montaigne.
Guy Savoy: 11 Quai de Conti; +33-1-43-80-40-61; www.guysavoy.com. The cuisine is well-known, but the hospitality matches. For my visit, Chef Savoy's graciousness permeated from the start: When the reservations clerk heard that illness had forced me to cancel previously, she graciously let me skip having to confirm my booking online.
Le Souffle: 36 rue Mont Thabor; +33-1-42-60-27-19; www.lesfouffle.fr.
La Table du Huit: 8 rue Jean Goujon; +33-1-40-74-64-94; https://latableduhuit.fr.
Marginy, Le Restaurant: 10 Bis, avenue des Champs-Elysees; +33-1-86-64-06-40; www.marignylerestaurant.com (under construction at last visit).