The Bristol Hotel is in the exclusive Rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré. The dining room lacks natural light, but makes up for this with impressive light wood panelling, very thick carpet and plenty of chandeliers. The wine list arrives in a handsome red leather binder, and covers the classic regions of France in depth. In a brief nod to current vinous reality, there is a token page of foreign wines, such as Ken Forrester Chenin Blanc at EUR 50 for a wine that costs about EUR 15 retail. The mark-up policy is curious, seemingly getting worse as you get higher. Riesling Trimbach Cuvée Frederich Emile was listed at a hefty EUR 130 for a wine that you can buy in the shops for around EUR 36, while as you move up the list Cos d’Estournel 2001 was listed at EUR 310 for a wine that you can buy for around EUR 55 in the shops, while La Mouline Guigal 2001 was EUR 830 for a wine that can be obtained for around EUR 180. The only relative bargain I could see was Mas de Daumas Gassac 2004 red at EUR 90 for a wine that costs up to EUR 50 retail. A glass of Moet and Chandon was a ludicrous EUR 26, yet a glass of Krug was a fair EUR 36, for a wine whose retail price is perhaps four times higher than the Moet. The menu is fairly classical, with just a few modern touches. Food prices were heart stopping: starters were around EUR 75, mains EUR 85 or more (sometimes much more), desserts EUR 35. A bottle of mineral water was EUR 10.
The meal began with a capable foie gras and sorrel mousse (18/20), a cocktail stick with excellent tuna with a little wasabi paste with sesame seeds (18/20), and a cucumber jelly with oyster tartare, which was not to my taste. Breads were very good indeed, a selection of country bread, olive bread, bacon, multi-grain and baguette; these had plenty of flavour and nice texture (19/20).
An amuse bouche was a thick horseradish and celeriac emulsion with a jelly of pot au feu, this worked well, the richness of the savoury jelly needing the spiciness of the horseradish (19/20). My starter of langoustine maki certainly had good langoustines wrapped in cucumber, resting in an emulsion of foie gras, langoustine stock and citronella (a relative of lemon grass). The stock had plenty of intensity, and the subtle citronella balanced the foie gras, yet I somehow could not get excited about this dish, despite its technical skill (18/20).
Scallops a la plancha with black truffle potato gnocchi and parsley juice with yet more black truffle grated on the top, were of very high quality and were perfectly cooked (19/20). This was better than macaroni stuffed with black truffle, artichoke and duck foie gras, with a topping of mature Parmesan. This dish was desperately rich, and was crying out for something to balance it, such as a salad with a slightly acidic dressing (17/20).
The best dish of the day was rock pool red mullet, with a little aubergine roasted in a courgette flower, with a sauce of yellow pepper and argan oil. The mullet had superb flavour and was perfectly cooked, the courgette flower and aubergine giving a light but earthy balance, the sauce having great intensity of flavour (20/20). Blue lobster was spit-roasted, prettily presented with polenta, green asparagus and Vaucluse black truffle. The problem was that the lobster was, not to put too fine a point on it, slightly chewy (16/20).
Pan fried sand sole tasted fresh and was carefully cooked in a meuniere sauce (browned butter, lemon), the fish stuffed with leeks, yet more black truffle, and fish stock. A simple but classic dish, very well executed, but some green vegetables would have been welcome (19/20). My main course was another classic, Bresse hen cooked in a pig’s bladder, served with crayfish, chicken giblets and (surprise) black truffle. This was a very well made rendition of the dish, the bladder looking spectacular as it is brought to the table and then carved open, the chicken very moist and having the sort of wonderful flavour that chickens in England never attain, the truffle adding its special fragrance. For me the crayfish seemed superfluous. The chicken innards were then returned later in the form of a rich chicken bouillon with truffle (19/20). A very fine dish, though at EUR 240 for two, so it should be.
The cheese board had the usual array of classics, though I have to say that the cheese was in merely good condition rather than the perfection which I often encounter in top restaurants in France e.g. a St Maure goat cheese was distinctly dry, Camembert fairly ripe but not quite at its best (18/20). The affineur used is a Mr Quentin.
A pre-dessert of grapefruit and campari sorbet was resting on a bed of red fruit jelly, garnished with tiny pieces of grapefruit segments – the grapefruit sorbet had utterly perfect texture, the taste of the campari fortunately subdued (a strong 19/20). A “dark and creamy” dessert consisted of a crispy shortbread, coffee glazed hazelnut biscuit with caramel emulsion, topped with silky coffee ice cream and a banner of chocolate. This was rich but delicious, the coffee ice cream having great depth of flavour (19/20). I was very impressed with apple oven-cooked for ten hours, attractively presented with an iced cider sorbet and an “apple” made of spun sugar. The apple had lovely, deep flavour, the cider sorbet adding light touch to the dish. The flavours were clean and it is hard to see how this could be improved upon (20/20). A snowball of lychees was presented inside a meringue that was flavoured with rose, pear and lemon. I’m not sure about the wisdom of the rose flavour, but this was certainly well made (19/20).
The service was as efficient as you would expect in a restaurant of this calibre, but was not warm. An example was at the beginning of the meal when we asked if we could each see a copy of the wine list; at this point there was just one other table seated, so this was hardly going to inconvenience the sommelier, and yet he complied through gritted teeth, for reasons I fail to understand; I’d have thought he would be pleased to see diners taking an interest in his list.
Overall the Bristol showed some very impressive cooking, with a few truly top notch dishes, such as the red mullet and the apple dessert. Yet I was surprised by the slightly chewy lobster and the over-rich macaroni dish. For me this was somewhere around a very strong 18/20 and a weak 19/20, i.e. a very strong two star, but maybe not quite a “true” three star. If I had an 18½ in my scoring system that is what I would give it. It would certainly be better than any cooking of this type in England (better than the 3 star Gordon Ramsay, say), but I slightly preferred, for example, the currently two star Amphitryon in Brittany.
The main caveat is the price. With no dessert wine, a pre-dinner drink, a bottle of EUR 84 white wine and two glasses of red wine, the bill came to EUR 798 for two i.e. EUR 399 per person. Of course as an Englishman paying in sterling, a currency currently rated by the markets at banana republic levels, this hurt even more than it might someone in the Euro zone, but it still seemed painfully expensive to me.