The menu’s ‘structured and destructured’ beetroot, which is served as ravioli with foie gras candy, as a goats’ cheese confit, and breaded with mascarpone cream
I am standing in Bar 8 at Mandarin Oriental’s new hotel, in the chicest spot on the chicest street in the chicest city in the world, the City of Light, taking in the wood walls inlaid with Lalique crystals and the post-modern Murano-glass chandelier, tumbling to the ground like a waterfall. Behind me is the bar’s centrepiece, a nine-ton slab of caramel-coloured Andalusian marble, sculpted by craftsmen in Carrara; in front, a vast, square glass door, like the entrance to the Starship Enterprise.
‘Welcome to Planet Marx!’ says restaurant director David Biroud, smiling. Biroud, no slouch in the high-stakes wine game, also happens to be chief sommelier of the hotel. The vast glass door swings silently open on its well-oiled hinges, turning like the proverbial London taxi ‘on a sixpence’. It’s a feat of precision engineering which, I don’t think is too fanciful to say, will find its parallel in the technical brilliance of the dishes at Sur Mesure, Mandarin Oriental’s signature restaurant on the other side of the door. And suddenly I’m in, on board, countdown to lift-off begun. No intergalactic odyssey is going to hold a candle to the lunch I’m about to eat.
Soy risotto and oyster bisque with black truffle
The restaurant sign
Sur Mesure – tailor-made, or ‘bespoke’ in English – is the new domain of French celebrity chef Thierry Marx, whose 15-year stint at the Relais & Châteaux property, Château Cordeillan-Bages – owned by the Lynch-Bages family – near Bordeaux, earned two Michelin stars for the property, and fame for its dynamic chef.
One of the world’s leading proponents of molecular gastronomy, Marx, 48, was the obvious choice for Mandarin Oriental to bring in, even when the Paris hotel was still very much on the drawing board. An expert in Japanese martial arts, Marx is a devotee of Asian culture, a man for whom meditation is part of his daily ritual, and who – even in France – eats a great deal of his food with chopsticks. Winter vacations for Monsieur Marx are spent in a Buddhist monastery in Japan.
Persuading him to give up the good life in Pauillac (the Lynch-Bages estate) might not have been easy, but the lure of the Mandarin Oriental name and culture, the palpable synergy between the Hotel Group’s ethos and the chef’s interests and personal convictions, made it a no-brainer. Although the concept of the restaurant, a homage to the haute couture of the rue Saint-Honoré (Coco Chanel’s first salon was across the street) had already been decided, it fitted perfectly with Marx’s own aesthetic. The restaurant’s white walls, from where bolts of cloth seem to fall with an almost Dalí-esque fluidity, is a perfect match for the blank canvas on which the great chef – minimal in design, clear in thought and concept – likes to paint.
Marx is a devotee of Asian culture – meditation is part of his daily ritual
Executive chef Thierry Marx
Loaves of bread, baked on the premises
In fact, Marx loved working with the restaurant’s designers, Patrick Jouin and Sanjit Manku, incorporating his own designs for cutlery and china into the plan. And while French haute couture is at the heart of the concept, a strong Asian influence is always in evidence. At Sur Mesure, even the menu is printed on Japanese rice paper.
French gastronomy, many foodies feel, has started to play second fiddle to other European countries over the past few years; and it’s true that France, although a safe haven for tradition, has been slowly falling behind in the boundary-pushing, avant-garde gastronomic game. Though not quite toppled from gastronomic pre-eminence, the pedestal has certainly started to wobble. So the excitement caused by Marx’s arrival in Paris has been immense, and not only among French foodies. He’s Gagnaire, Robuchon and Adrià rolled into one, many people have suggested, and while you might substitute some of those names for others, what everyone agrees on is that Sur Mesure is the most simultaneously design-conscious and serious restaurant in Paris at the present time.
Boeuf Béarnaise, jus with red wine and shallot, a cylinder of potatoes, truffles, red onions and red cabbage, with a cromesquis with Béarnaise sauce on top
For someone so grounded, Marx can be mercurial. I came to Paris to talk to him, only to find he had left the restaurant half an hour earlier, called away for an emergency. At 4pm he was back, then gone again, fleetingly. He is everywhere, and nowhere, but at Sur Mesure and at Camélia – the hotel’s ‘second’, less formal, all-day restaurant and cake counter, with an exotic courtyard garden – his presence is always palpable.
I’ve met him before, however, at a gastronomic dinner he directed during the International Luxury Travel Market in Cannes, in December 2011. Talk about in and out. He arrived after lunch, cooked dinner for 120 people in the ballroom of the Carlton – a dinner which included his sensational, classic ‘crossed hands’ pasta – and, like Cinderella, left on the stroke of midnight. Or possibly just before. At any rate, he was back in Paris early the following morning, planning the day’s menus at Sur Mesure, checking on the breakfast service at Camélia.
He has good skin to boot, and a healthful glow he puts down to good diet. ‘I haven’t eaten bread for three years,’ he told me, when I finally caught up with him, without a trace of irony for a chef who started out as a baker in the kitchens of such illustrious establishments as Ledoyen and Taillevent, and whose bread and viennoiseries – all baked in-house at Mandarin Oriental – are among the best (and I do mean best) I have ever eaten. ‘I feel better for it, more dynamic,’ he says, and you’d better believe him. A third dan in judo, a fourth in ju-jitsu, Marx is a man who believes in feeling healthy, who needs to feel healthy. A marathon runner himself, every Thursday evening he takes his entire brigade on a run around the Tuileries, conveniently situated virtually on the hotel’s doorstep.
Soufflé with butternut mousse, Bigorre ham and black truffle cream
He is disciplined, but not austere. Despite the Lynch-Bages connection, he does not drink alcohol generally, though he’s not evangelical and will have the occasional glass of champagne, which he loves. ‘Champagne knows no conflict between tradition and innovation – I try to follow the same spirit in my cuisine,’ he says, a little enigmatically. I think it’s a comment on champagne’s versatility, its timelessness. An ex-UN paratrooper, it hardly requires a leap of imagination to see that many of the qualities it takes to be a good soldier are the same ones necessary in a top restaurant kitchen.
Marx’s cuisine is traditional, in the sense that he understands the essentials of good technique. Like any chef at this level, he favours high-end ingredients, and his menus are liberally sprinkled with the big players of French cooking, the likes of foie gras, black truffles and caviar. But by no means do they tell the whole story. Marx is a man who understands the greatness of simple things, that less is often more, that there is a special purity in humble ingredients. A dish of spinach, ‘structured and destructured’, is a beautiful example of how the intensity of flavour can be conveyed. Presented under glass, in a kind of bell jar, a spinach-wrapped quail’s egg reveals the green vegetable in all its earthy, minerally glory, elevating the quail’s egg, with its molten gold interior, in the process. Alongside it, around a disk of hazelnut-studded foie gras, sits a circle of jellied spinach, which seems to have almost medicinal qualities.
His menus are liberally sprinkled with the big players of French cooking
A chef preparing the shellfish mousse and caviar crostini
An upside-down pumpkin soufflé turns out to be a teetering tower, crowned with chestnut foam, spliced with crisp shards of Bigorre ham from the Hautes-Pyrénées. You can take the boy out of the southwest, but you can’t take the southwest out of the boy. (In fact, Marx was born in the Paris neighbourhood of Ménilmontant, to eastern-European Jewish parents.) Mind you, you can’t take the east out of the boy, either, it seems, with so many of his dishes redolent of the Orient, either in their spare, Asian presentation, or their exotic flavours, or in most cases both. Almost pagoda-like in appearance, this pumpkin soufflé is a wonderful dish: sweet and salty, shot through with the umami-like seduction of black truffle.
Created for Sur Mesure by Marx, semi-pris de coquillages with longuet caviar has already become something of a classic at the restaurant. A ‘soldier’ of toast with mousseline of chicken is topped with Aquitaine caviar, which Biroud evocatively, and accurately, describes as ‘a luxurious finger sandwich’. That’s just what it is. And alongside it, in a bowl, is the semi-pris, an emulsion, or lightly whipped mousse, of spankingly fresh shellfish, with the texture of shaving foam but the heady sea-salt tang of ocean spume. Eat them together and discover another kind of astral plane.
The bespoke interior, with a white draped wallcovering, was inspired by haute couture
In a soy and oyster risotto, another new dish that Marx has created especially for Sur Mesure, the graininess of Arborio rice is replaced with the unequivocal crunch of bean sprouts, another humble ingredient wondrously upgraded, this time with an oyster bisque, and anointed with black truffle. It’s almost Proustian in its earthy aroma. You may not have grown up in the fields, but the truffle in this dish takes you right back to them, knowingly and longingly.
Sweet Bento, a selection of desserts. Served bento-style, it includes chocolate pudding and red pudding with fruit and cherry
If his main courses are more traditionally anchored (veal with truffles, pan-fried beef with Jerusalem artichoke crème), and rather wonderful for it, desserts enjoy a brush with fantasy. The Sweet Bento comes in three shallow, interlocking white ‘boxes’ – like a precocious child’s toy. There’s sweet avocado with lemon oil (extraordinary), vanilla panna cotta with iced meringue and ylang-ylang, or Macassar-oil (remarkable), and dark chocolate mousse with toasted rice (indecent). ‘Enjoy!’ as they definitely don’t say at Sur Mesure.
Marx’s cuisine itself, it seems to me, mirrors Mandarin Oriental’s own culture brilliantly. ‘In my travels around Asia, I’ve long been a fan of Mandarin Oriental,’ he says, as if reading my mind. ‘I’m a fan of their traditional sense of hospitality. And the Group is open-minded, with a very modern sensitivity. I was delighted to be joining them in Paris.’ If not made in heaven, this was certainly a match made somewhere between the rice fields of Asia and the department of the Gironde.
A chocolate, mousse and jelly ‘Soleil’ pastry, served in Camélia
The ‘snagging’ of Marx and bringing him to Paris was a distinctly Mandarin Oriental-style coup. In the UK, though many had tried, it was the Hotel Group that tempted Heston Blumenthal away from the village of Bray in Berkshire, and into the ‘big smoke’ of London. In Spain, Carme Ruscalleda, and perhaps more pertinently, her son, Raül Balam (inextricably linked with the small town of Sant Pol on the Catalan Mediterranean), were persuaded, maybe even sweet-talked, into opening shop in the brilliant new Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona – and what a ‘shop’ Moments restaurant is. For Marx, Paris was the only way to go. As the Relais & Châteaux president, Jaume Tàpies, told me, ‘Even Cordeillan-Bages could not contain him. And his work, as a result, is now at an altogether higher level.’
Bringing Marx to Paris was a distinctly Mandarin Oriental-style coup
Shaving truffle over the soy risotto
But how hard was it for Marx to make the leap, I wondered, to leave the bucolic setting of the south and head north to the big city, because – unlike Blumenthal and Ruscalleda, whose home base is still out of town – Marx is not going back to the vineyards, at least not any time soon. ‘I miss the Gironde River,’ he says, a little wistfully. ‘I found inspiration during long walks and running along it. But I’m not a nostalgic man. I don’t belong to any place or any terroir. It’s not a problem for me to pack and move whenever the opportunity comes along, whenever it’s possible.’
For Thierry Marx – soldier, martial artist, marathon man, aesthete, chef – everything seems possible. Paris may not be the end of the road, but it’s certainly the most significant stop along the way so far.