By Rory Winston
‘Luxurious?’ Not in that typically gauche way. ‘Opulent?’ –Wrong track; nothing vainglorious. ‘Posh?’ Well, for a five star hotel with the finest design and amenities it’s actually more friendly than snobby. Elite…? Yes, certainly; but not in that trying-hard-to-make-an-impression kind of way – nothing parvenu about it.
I was confounded. I had stayed at one of the most enchanting Parisian hotels but my entire repertoire of superlatives had degenerated into vague gestures followed by oddly sussurant sighs. Even metaphors had abandoned me. The property was a seductive realm but made no spurious allusions to the Ancien régime or anything even remotely imperial; it was Parisian but didn’t contrive to reinterpret the Louvre, hint at the Bastille, or leave subtle reminders that Baron Haussmann had frequented the august establishment. In short, it was one of those rare boutique hotels that abstained from the theme-based gimmicks. There was no attempt at recreating a jewel box, a gallery, or a historical set. Although ensconced within a wonderfully ornate 19th century neighborhood, the property’s interior eschewed facile nods to late great epochs. Entirely devoid of kitsch or faux historicity, Hotel De Nell was a proscenium for showcasing the best of Paris rather than itself.
When the lauded architect/designer Jean-Michel Wilmotte was asked to design the hotel, few would have assumed that the man behind anything from the Louvre’s newer wings to the apartments of François Mitterand, to the street lights for the Champs-Élysées (and even the Mandarin Oriental Hotel) would have opted for minimalism when it came to a property located in the 9th Arrondissement – an area famous for grandiose visions like the Paris Opera (2nd empire style) and the Galeries Lafayette (elaborately Art Nouveau).
No; Hotel De Nell isn’t some premeditated about-face in an attempt to jar with its surroundings, nor is it some laboratory for asceticism. Rather, it is a multi-textured tranquil world signed by understated design and highly refined choices. Exuding warmth and comfort, it creates an unobtrusive space from which to take in the surrounding area. With special wellness and treatment rooms (ingredients from the reputable Cinque Mondes), heated parquet floors, wheat-toned organic Swedish carpets, expansive windows that embraced natural light – there is, undeniably, a Scandinavian aesthetics at play. Even the Italian rainfall shower and Japanese marble soaking tub in each room had more to do with a constructivist bent – where altering geometric shapes unassumingly redefine space- than any contrived evocation of eastern themes. Although neither as retro nor as strictly functionalist as Alvar Aalto’s motifs, there’s a desire to attain a subdued form of elegance.
Ironically, it is probably Wilmotte’s love for period architecture – in all its pomp and flourish – that guided him to create suites that maintain a relatively monochromatic tone. Looking through the expansive windows, one begins to take in the Napoleon III style area with its spot of Gothic revival (from the pre-Belle Epoque period) in the form of church of Saint Eugène and Saint Cécile. Each suite is a room with a view, a watchtower into another world with eyes uncluttered by fake emulations (a common and often misguided tactic used by many hotels desperate on creating that “historical feel”). Wilmotte was right. Understanding history means avoiding a fetishistic delight in antiques. It means giving the past a platform to speak for itself. No matter how long ago something was built, it must have felt inherently fresh at the time. For some, things were always changing too quickly. The moody little street on which Nell was located was no exception.
Smack dab in the middle of the Grand Boulevards and a newly burgeoning bobo (bohemian bourgeois) district, this corner of Paris had a special vibe: Restaurants that would be hits in Tribeca, clubs that would thrive in the Lower East Side and hipsters that wouldn’t look out of place in either the Village or Williamsburg. A haunt for educated young marauders hitting the city of lights, night after night, the area lacked pretention while nevertheless hosting some most distinguished local and foreign artists. Low on tourists, high on foreign students and vigor, the area is an oasis of popup clubs, bars, and bistros.
As bistros go, Hotel Nell’s very own, La Régalade, is undoubtedly up there with the best. The décor –as in the rest of the hotel – is designed to enhance the given experience. With sleek black and white chess set tiles and clean but subdued lighting, the focus is on the food. This is a good thing considering that the food is coming from Chef Bruno Doucet, a culinary virtuoso who spent two years working for Guy Kreuzer, one year with the internationally renowned Pierre Gagnaire, another with Jean-Pierre Vigato after which he came to La Régalade and – almost immediately – won himself the Gault Millau’s Young Talent of the Year award. Hailing from Touraine, a region known for game, Doucet excels at fowl and wilder fare while also having mastered fish and seafood.
Opening with a complimentary terrine (Pâté de campagne) served in a large white porcelain terrine with sweet and sour gherkins, one is quickly thrust into a rustic world of herbs and pork – a keen reminder that Paris (which once housed Les Halles) has always been the epicenter to which farmers from all regions of the country had flocked with their finest products. Swimming in a remarkable Albufera sauce, chicken breast fillets filled with foie gras and earthy black truffles beach themselves on the soft and nutty shores of turnips and Jerusalem artichokes. Soon, shellfish, mussels, cockles, a salmon steak and a remarkable selection of smart wines…. And all of it ending with several desserts, one of which is Duce’s very own mother’s recipe for Rice Pudding. The juxtaposition of an haute cuisine approach to regional cooking with savvy ‘Nouveau’ takes on otherwise decadently heavy traditional foods is indicative of Duce’s understanding of how far one can extend the concept of Bistro without downing out its essentially casual air. Inventive but never sacrificing authentic flavor, Duce is to Bistro what Wilmotte is to boutique hotel design.
Although, for me, hotel staff only becomes an issue when they are either unnervingly obsequious (which makes me want to sneak in and out unnoticed) or unabashedly phlegmatic (which makes me understand rock stars setting suites on fire), Hotel de Nell calls for a different response. Relegating the staff with mundane words like pleasant, accommodating, unobtrusive would be misleading because they are more than that – they are genuinely exciting young Parisians as interesting as they are interested. Sharp witted, urbane, and with a knack for suggesting the most amazing off-the-radar hot spots in the city, the concierge was more than adept at his job; he was positively inspiring. Like the hotel itself, the staff instinctively knows when to create space and – almost as if by telepathy – when something is missing. Before departing on Sunday, I sat by my window listening to the bells of Saint Eugène and thought ‘but how would I describe this place when the time came’: ‘Cultivated?’, ‘noble?’, umm, ‘unadulterated’, implied…’ sod it, you fill in the words. I knew then and there that Hotel de Nell might as well remain ineffable.