When it comes to very grand hotels, there is no more competitive arena than Paris. Eight hotels in the city now carry the French government-sanctioned “palace” status, the better-than-five star classification introduced in 2010 and granted only to hotels that “symbolise excellence and perfection”, to whose ranks the venerable Ritz and Crillon will surely be added once their own extravagant renovations are complete. It’s quite an undertaking, then, for a little-known Swiss brand to enter this market but, on the basis of my weekend spent at La Réserve Paris, I would say Michel Reybier Hospitality is a name to be reckoned with. Located on avenue Gabriel, facing the Grand Palais across the wooded Jardin des Champs-Elysées, the hotel opened at the start of this month and occupies a real palace, built in 1854 by Napoleon III’s half-brother, the Duc de Morny. That said, although the designer Jacques Garcia’s fabulously opulent interiors may look authentically antique, only the carved marble chimney pieces are original. The gilded rococo reliefs, the Versaillais parquet, the Cordovan leather panelling and the 6,000m of silk damask, taffeta and velvet that line the walls, frame the windows and upholster the chairs are all newly installed. That everything looks as though it has been here for ever is a tribute to the skill of 120 craftsmen, some of them from the Louvre, who worked on the project.
So far, so splendid — if not necessarily what one would expect from an entrepreneur that the trashier echelons of the French press used to refer to as l’ancien roi du saucisson — “the old sausage king”. For Michel Reybier is the very private Swiss-domiciled founder of the French conglomerate Groupe Aoste, purveyor of Cochonou processed ham, Justin Bridou mini-salamis and César Moroni chorizo.
There are no flags outside, no imposing porticoed entrance, no lobby busy with liveried flunkies The group was sold to Sara Lee in 1996 and Reybier has since diversified into healthcare, biotech, oil, wine and hotels, opening the first La Réserve in Geneva in 2003 (though it is nowhere near as grand as this one). Another opened near St Tropez in 2009, the year he also became a shareholder in French budget hotel brand Mama Shelter. Last year, he acquired a clutch of distinguished properties in Switzerland, among them the Victoria-Jungfrau in Interlaken, the Palace in Lucerne, the Eden au Lac in Zurich and the Bellevue Palace in Bern. Some of them may be rebranded with the La Réserve imprimatur once they’ve been sufficiently overhauled. For this is a rarefied product aimed at a clientele who don’t blanch at four-figure room rates. “I want us to have the style and life of the Plaza-Athénée and the intimacy of the Bristol,” Raouf Finan, Reybier Hospitality’s chief executive, told me late last year. “I want to attract the suite guests from all the other palace hotels — but especially the Bristol, because it’s very close by.”
In essence, then, Reybier is throwing down the gauntlet to the Oetker Collection, owners of the Bristol and another family-owned hospitality company born of a fortune made in processed food — in this case the German company Dr Oetker, known for its cake mixes and frozen pizzas. It comes as little surprise that La Réserve’s general manager Frédéric Picard has been recruited from Oetker. It was he who, in 2012, opened Palais Namaskar in Marrakech, the hotel that signalled the start of Oetker’s expansion drive, from the four grand hotels it had held for decades to a current tally of nine, with more to come. (The latest is the revamped Lanesborough in London, due to open soon.) It’s tempting, therefore, to look for similarities but, apart from the Mercedes limos to meet guests, La Réserve Paris is very much its own place. Will Picard, I ask, be getting a hotel cat? (The Bristol, eccentrically, has two white Birmans that bring it no end of press coverage.) He pauses then trumps the suggestion: “I was thinking of getting a dog,” he grins. “But no; no animals.” The hotel’s entrance This may be a new rivalry but La Réserve is not about to imitate the Bristol. For a start, it’s a lot smaller, with just 26 suites and 14 rooms — another counter-intuitive decision to have taken at a time when the competition has been expanding and rooms tend to outnumber suites. The Bristol, for instance, recently upped its room inventory by 26 to 188. And last year the Plaza-Athenée added six rooms and eight suites.
But then La Réserve’s size is one of the reasons that it feels as though you’ve been given the run of a very grand private house. As Picard puts it: “People want discretion now; they don’t all want to see and be seen.” To this end, most of the hotel — its glorious library, its basement spa and 16m candlelit swimming pool, its smoking room — is off-limits to non-residents. There are no flags outside, no imposing porticoed entrance, no lobby busy with liveried flunkies and hovering bellhops. The welcome is relaxed and discreet and without stuffiness or hauteur. The personable staff materialise just when you need them, with advice or smart suggestions on exhibitions or out-of-the-way museums.
Not that I wanted to leave the almost absurdly romantic fifth-floor eyrie in which I stayed, an enfilade of knocked-together former maids’ rooms under the mansard, with views stretching to Notre-Dame in one direction and the Eiffel Tower in another. The bedroom was a warm dark space decked in crimson silk, a place so sumptuous and snug that even the bedside mats were padded. In contrast, the sitting room was light-filled, a Parisian salon with a Louis XV chaise-longue, chinoiserie commode and hung with good examples of French postwar abstraction. The hotel was also technologically ahead of anywhere that I’ve stayed. The staff who escort you to your rooms carry devices that scan your passport so that it need never leave your sight. In the room are free-standing glass speakers made by the French brand Waterfall (and retailing at £2,299 a pair) to which you can wirelessly stream music from your phone. Even the kettle has a thermometer, for those of the view that the optimum temperature for brewing the herbal teas provided should be closer to 80C than boiling point. Although, in the pursuit of perfection, I would say that the wine fridge was set too cool for the two vintages (2004 and 2007) of the St-Estèphe second-growth Cos d’Estournel stored within. Priced at €192 and €180 respectively, they, like all the wines in the in-room bar, come from vineyards belonging to Michel Reybier.
There’s a wider wine list in the restaurant, Le Gabriel, where the chef is Jérôme Banctel, a protégé of Alain Senderens and Bernard Pacaud. At first glance his menu looks homely and unfussy: farm egg with truffles, roast chicken with leeks and potatoes. But the execution is altogether fancier than it sounds. The egg, for instance, consists of a confited yolk enclosed in a cloud of whipped egg white, like a savoury soft meringue poached on one side, seared on the other and surrounded by a pool of puréed truffle and truffle shavings. The dish costs €42 but it is heaven. (Nul points, however, for giving menus without prices to women.) Picard insists he hasn’t got Michelin stars in his sights; I wouldn’t bet on it. Like everything about La Réserve, dinner was a delight. If I were the competition, I would be paying close attention.
Address: 42 Avenue Gabriel, 75008 Paris, France