Good to the Last Drop? Why Hospitality Matters

May 6, 2008

laferrandaise077.jpgA lovely May night in Paris offered two perfect lessons in what an enormous difference hospitality makes to the pleasure one finds at the table. First, I met a friend from New York for a drink in the bar at the Hotel Meurice, and was immediately surprised by the sullen and begrudging welcome of the bar waiter when I told him that I’d just have a glass of water until my friend arrived. This short but welcome window of time allowed me to notice how the Meurice bar has now become as crowded with tables and chairs as a railroad carriage, surely a fine idea in terms of making this square footage more profitable, but almost impossible for the waiters who work here. Two French ladies sitting next to me mumbled for twenty minutes about how no one had come by to pour them another glass of Champagne from the bottle they’d ordered, until one of them finally boiled over, stood up, and went to retrieve the bottle from the nearby ice bucket herself. This is a showier act of rebuke and rebellion than you might believe, since traditional good manners in Paris have that a woman never pours her own wine in public. Eventually a waiter galloped across the room to come to her aid, but the shock-horror of the event lingered on for a few minutes. Service at our table was disappointing, too–the waiter never remembered which white wine were were drinking by the glass, reacted with exasperation to a request for some bar snacks and was very slow with the check, all of which created an unfortunate under toe to a very pleasant reunion.

Was it something in the air? The evening’s hospitality problems continued across town when we went to dinner at Il Vino in the 7th arrondissement. For those who don’t now it, this is a Rubik’s cube of a restaurant that’s based on wine connoisseurship, the stock in trade of founding owner sommelier Enrico Bernardo, who won the best sommelier of the year award in 2004 when he was working at the Four Seasons George V. The idea is that you order your wine by the glass, and then the restaurant cooks something that will flatter it–there is, in fact, no food menu, only a list of wines by the glass. If you know a lot about wine, this is a very clever idea and turns out to be a lot of fun, especially since the kitchen here is excellent, pairing, for example a sublime Chambolle-Musigny with an impeccable risotto with morel mushrooms, or a magnificent Cote Rotie with a succulent veal steak with asparagus and morel. On the other hand, if you don’t know much about wine, this concept could leave you rowing in mid-air, which is why we were so surprised that the waiters here made no effort to describe or comment on the wines they were proposing. Expert or not, the fun of this meal would have hugely enhanced by a bit of warmth and charm. Curiously, Monsieur Bernardo only deigned to appear at certain tables, leaving most of the dining room to his staff, and this further deflated what should have been a glorious evening. It took forever for the bill to come, forever to pay it, and then no one bothered to thank us or wish a good night when we left at the end of a 350 Euro meal. Dommage!