March 07 2012
The distinctly decadent exhibition about the Aesthetic movement, Beauty, Morals and Voluptuousness in the England of Oscar Wilde, first showed last year at the V&A, travelled to Paris, and recently opened in San Francisco: I saw it at the Musée d’Orsay. It features some notable Whistlers, a lot of exquisite decoration (or shallow self-indulgence, take your pick), and some lovely William Morris designs for wall coverings, of which Mr Wilde would certainly have approved.
The sort of wallpaper of which he did not approve once hung in L’Hôtel d’Alsace, a short stroll into Saint-Germain-des-Prés from the Musée d’Orsay. “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death,” he declared. “One or the other of us will have to go.” The wallpaper triumphed; in any case, Wilde was – as he put it – living above his means.
Renamed simply L’Hôtel, the scene of Wilde’s final aesthetic battle is now one of the most beguiling places to stay in Paris: from the brick-domed hammam in its vaults to the top of the sinuous spiral of its staircase, it breathes intimacy and glamour. Saint-Germain may have lost much of its intellectual chic, but L’Hôtel has the history of Saint-Germain in its DNA.
It also has a fine restaurant, draped in rich velvets, although the air of belle époque grandeur was, on my visit, slightly subverted by a muted soundtrack of 1980s British pop. The food is splendid: chef Julien Montbabut, who took over last year, ticks quite a few modernist boxes – micro-salads, foams and the occasional jelly – but his technique remains firmly rooted in classic French cuisine. Classic French ingredients, too. Frogs’ legs, for instance; but the herbs that might traditionally have flavoured an accompanying slick of garlic butter instead coloured a neat, emerald mound of fregola (a Sardinian pasta, like hefty couscous).
Then the fish called Saint Pierre in French; here translated (in rather over-familiar fashion) as “Johnny Dory”. The “St Pete” was a fine chunk of fish, sharpened with green apple, and followed by bay-roasted red-leg partridge, bathed in a purée of root vegetables to which Jerusalem artichoke lent its earthy smoothness.
Next came sablé de Wissant, a beautifully voluptuous raw cow’s milk cheese from near Boulogne, its rind washed in bière blanche to pungent effect. Montbabut pairs it sympathetically with raisin rye bread and red-apple compôte: he has a delicate touch and a fine palate.
A friendly sommelier picked excellent whites from Alsace, St Joseph and Limoux; mignardises and coffee were superb (unusual in Paris, where espresso is both ubiquitous and awful); and, as my aesthetically very pleasing companion and I lingered over digestifs, I recalled Oscar: “I have the simplest tastes. I am always satisfied with the best.”