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.
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.
Bringing Marx to Paris was a distinctly Mandarin Oriental-style coup
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.
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.
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