Wednesday, March 7, 2012 at 19:31
The just opened W Hotel behind the Opera Garnier in the heart of Paris is a curiously discordant property. To wit, they're many things to like about it--I thought the pointe de Hongrie (herringbone) style style black-stone floors in the bar and lobby area were brilliantly witty as a riff on the parquet upstairs, the staff is not only almost embarrassingly good-looking but refreshingly serious about doing their jobs well, and the subtle lighting of the exterior facades of this triangular 19th century former office building visually awakens the back-stage warren of chopped up little streets behind the Opera and in front of the big department stores.
On the other hand, there's no logical flow in the public spaces--you can't figure out where you are, which is probably done on purpose with the idea of creating some sort of Alice-in-Wonderland effect, the background music is seriously wrong in a city that doesn't really like background music, and the complicated fiber-optic installation at the heart of the hotel doesn't quite come off. It's meant to justify the theme of 'The Spark," which is a way too cerebral reference to the energy of W Hotels hometown, New York City, and Paris as the city of Light. No one is going to get this.
These were my thoughts as I wandered around trying to find my pals Alex and Mary, with whom I was having dinner at the hotel's restaurant, Restaurant Arola, which is being run by the very talented Spanish chef Sergi Arola and his second, Swede Thorston Sorssen; no one is saying for the time being, but it seems most likely that Arola will return to Spain once this place is up and running.
Anyway, I eventually found Alex and Mary and then we went up and downstairs a few times trying to find the restaurant, which we finally got to by walking through a service kitchen. Though the welcome was very cordial, and the parquet floors are beautiful, the decor here looks as though it might have been done by a B team of set and costume designers for Pedro Almodovar and Rossy de Palma--the Spanish gypsy shawl inspired floral motif table runners just aren't campy enough to come off, the lighting is too hard, and we had to ask to have the bloody music turned down.
A pleasant waiter promptly arrived with a kit to produce Catalan style pan tomate, or toasted rolls which you rub with a garlic clove and then annoint with some crushed tomato, salt and olive oil. I love pan tomate and eat it constantly in tapas bars and cafes whenever I'm in Catalunya, but in Paris in early March, the concept fell flat for the simple reason that the tomatoes weren't ripe enough. And this detail proved to be a preview for much of the rest of the meal, which, as our waiter explained, would be served according to the "Pica Pica" (shared small plates) concept.
"Rats--I hate small-plate formats. You always end up going home hungry and sort of cranky after this kind of a meal," Mary muttered under her breathe while Alex was taking a phone call from California. Small plates to one side, the real challenge of translating Arola's cooking to Paris is that it's completely produce centric and relies on everything being stunningly fresh. This works in Barcelona, because the city is still ringed with small farms that supply delicious baby artichokes, calcots (green onions), and other vegetables, and to a lesser extent in Madrid, but it's a real stretch in Paris.
So we had our amuse bouche, a shot glass of cream of asparagus topped with truffle foam, which reminded me that Spain is still mad for espumas when Paris has pretty much moved on, and looking out the windows of the dining room at Paris street on a rainy night, it also struck me that the Pica Pica format is fun when you're on a large sunny terrace with the Mediterranean in the distance but is dinstinctly less satisfying in a low-ceilinged dining room with handsome formal 19th century French moldings.
So the meal began with a deconstructed Caesar salad that was tasty enough but too twee by half--the chopped chicken and croutons were dry and lacked the punch of Parmesan and authority of anchovy you find in a real Caesar dressing, which you were meant to wrap in baby lettuce leaves; a coyly provocative dish of white asparagus points sticking out of a grainy loam of black oven-dried tapenade on top of a bed of bland mayonnaise and almond cream, and an eminently forgettable bonita salad, dishes which were consumed with over-chilled and over-priced glasses of Chablis from a short and rather uninteresting wine list.
In the sequence of warm dishes, the potatoes bravas--turned spuds with delicious tomato-onion-garlic-and-pimenton (paprika) sauce were terrific, the octopus daintily cut into finger-food sized bites didn't grab anyone, and Parmesan glazed canelloni stuffed with chicken, pork and veal in a bechamel sauce were sublime and easily the best dish of the evening. Not only were the canelloni beautifully made but this dish created a small logical bridge between Arola's contemporary Mediterranean cooking and Paris. Overall, though, this kitchen needs more assertive seasoning and more rigorous sourcing.
Curiously, since they're not a Spanish forte, desserts were the most memorable part of the meal for being both gorgeous and very satisfying. Mary loved her Iberian take on tart Tatin with a concentric dribble of caramel, while Alex seemed very happy with an exuberant looking banana, chocolate and hazelnut cream riff on a millefeuille.
If this was a pleasant enough meal, it was leagues away from what Arola does in Madrid or Barcelona. To be sure, this place has just opened, and I suspect the kitchen will do a lot better working with summer produce than it does with winter, but overall Paris just doesn't seem to be the right place for the cooking style of this very good chef. I doubt it will matter, though, since Starwood has major promotional artillery, and for the French, this cooking may be perceived as an appealing novelty.
Walking home from dinner, though, I couldn't help but thinking that the brand-name chef game which has come to dominate up-market hotel dining rooms all over the world has evolved into a serious obstacle for anyone who loves good food. With the huge resources at their disposal, wouldn't it have been infinitely more interesting and original for W to have launched its own year-long talent hunt by offering six likely local candidates a chance to run the kitchens here before finally chosing a head chef? Though I've enjoyed Arola's food in Madrid and in Barcelona, I really don't want to eat it in the heart of Paris. And given the rise of an astonishing number of incredibly talented young chefs in Paris recently, I just know there's someone out there who would and could have used the showcase of being head chef at the W Paris Opera to emerge as a real star.
Restaurant Arola. W Paris Opera Hotel, 4 rue Meyerbeer, 9th, Tel. 01-77-48-94-94. Metro: Opera or Harvre-Caumartin. Open daily. Average 60 Euros.