A taste for Cantonese
Paris can boast more than its fair share of the great restaurants of the world but, until recently, it was more or less a wasteland for anybody who wanted to eat good Chinese food.
Not any more. In September, amid much fanfare, the Shangri-La Paris opened the first Shang Palace restaurant in Europe.
It is also, according to general manager Alain Borgers, 'the first Chinese fine-dining restaurant of this hotel category in France', and already the Parisians are developing a taste for Cantonese cuisine. Alain Ducasse likes to drop in for dim sum.
Ducasse is only one of a number of famous faces frequenting the hotel. You know for sure that you are about to enter one of the places to be seen in the city when you step aside at the entrance to make way for Charlotte Rampling.
The Shangri-La Paris has been open for almost exactly a year (December 17, 2010) and, in a city which is definitely not short of great hotels, has still managed to generate a significant buzz.
There are a number of reasons for this. One is the building and its history. Located on Avenue d'Iena, just across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower, the hotel was originally constructed between 1892 and 1896 as a palace for Prince Roland Bonaparte - great nephew of Napoleon - who lived there until his death in 1924.
Subsequent changes of use took their toll on the building, but the interiors have been painstakingly restored to their Belle Epoque glory, and many public areas now look very much as they did more than a century ago.
The restoration was deemed so successful by the French Ministry of Culture that the hotel has been declared a listed building.
Another reason for the attention paid to the newcomer is that Shangri-La is a Hong Kong luxury hotel operator, and although Parisians are proud of such 'grand dame' hotels as Le Meurice, The George V, The Ritz and The Crillon, they know that in matters of service Asia sets the standard.
The Shangri-La Paris' concept of fusing, as Borgers puts it, 'the Asian art of hospitality and the French art of living' has intrigued Parisians and international travellers alike.
'We were the first,' Borgers says. 'Mandarin came in after us and there will be The Peninsula, but that will take another two or three years. We're proud to be here.'
Much attention, naturally enough, has focused on the hotel's food and beverage outlets.
Shang Palace is something distinctly new in a city where Chinese restaurants are usually not very good, and have a pronounced Indochine influence.
As the newest venue, it is garnering the most attention, and chef Frank Xu and his team of four ex-Hong Kong chefs keep things authentic, but to anybody familiar with any of the Asian Shang and Summer Palace restaurants, the menu, service and interior design will be familiar turf.
The hotel's other outlets have to compete with established Parisian classics on more equal terms, but in the La Bauhinia restaurant lounge and Le Bar the Oriental card is played again.
La Bauhinia offers a mixture of French and Asian dishes with a particularly strong emphasis on Thai and Malaysian favourites.
In Le Bar, head barman Christophe Leger mixes classic cocktails, and also his own Asian-influenced creations made with ingredients such as wasabi, soy sauce, Sichuan peppers, ginger and kaffir lime.
Le Bar also pays tribute to a chapter in the palace's history when Elsie de Wolf, the interior design pioneer and a 1930s Paris socialite, lived in private apartments there with her husband Sir Charles Mendl.
De Wolfe was known, among other things, as the originator of the Pink Lady cocktail, and Leger has developed four variations of it specially for the bar. Borgers and executive chef Philippe Labbe, who oversees all three of the hotel's restaurants, will have to wait a couple of months to find out how they are rated in the 2012 Michelin guide which will be the first published since L'Abeille, the hotel's gourmet French restaurant, opened in March last year. The inspectors have been in, however, and even without stars anybody who wants a table in the restaurant needs to book some considerable time in advance.
Chef Labbe was previously executive chef at the Michelin two-starred Ch?teau de la Ch?vre d'Or Hotel in Eze, near Monaco, and his reputation alone has proven a potent attraction.
Another standard bearer for an Asian style of luxury hotel management is Mandarin Oriental, which opened its Paris property in June.
Both Shangri-La and Mandarin faced the challenge of recruiting staff who would be comfortable with an Asian rather than a European style of service, and both general managers say they hired on the basis of attitude.
'As with all Mandarin Oriental hotels, attitude is extremely important,' says Mandarin Oriental Paris general manager Philippe Leboeuf.
'We looked for staff who are motivated, adaptable and proud to be a part of the team. Training is of course also very important, and is an ongoing exercise, to ensure that we deliver the standard of service that our guests expect. A lot of our colleagues have already worked in Asia and are familiar with the high level of service. For instance, our chef, Thierry Marx, spent four years in Japan and we have key staff at the front desk who have worked in hotels in Hong Kong.'
The Mandarin Oriental, which is centrally located on Rue Saint Honore, has no Chinese restaurant, but chef Marx's Japanese experience is apparent in many dishes and aspects of presentation in the fine dining restaurant, Sur Mesure par Thierry Marx, and in the all-day dining restaurant Camelia.
He has also been influenced by Thai and Cantonese cuisine.
Like Labbe, Marx will be awaiting the Michelin inspectors' findings. He spent 10 years at Ch?teau Cordeillan-Bages, a Relais & Ch?teaux hotel in Pauillac, where from 1999 onwards he held two Michelin stars.
Both hotels have rooms and suites that have recalibrated wealthy visitors to Paris' expectations of luxury accommodation in the city, but in Paris the restaurants are at least as important as the rooms.
'The French are very much food and beverage oriented,' Borgers says. 'In Paris, there is a lot of competition, so attention to detail is crucial.'