When traveling, as at home, Jackie and I usually don't ask for much at breakfast time: we don't need scrambled eggs with smoked salmon or home-toasted muesli. What we need is a terrific croissant with excellent jam or a Danish pastry of some kind. And decent coffee, whether it be espresso-based or drip/filter/French press. If it is served in a nice, quiet dining space with efficient service, so much the better.
Sometimes, a good hotel (whether or not you're lodging there) touches all the right buttons. And sometimes, as we found on a March trip to Paris, a department store is just the ticket.
We stayed at the Pavillon des Lettres, which opened in late 2010. What a charming little hotel! At first blush, the concept sounds a trifle forced: 26 rooms (26 letters of the alphabet - get it?), each named after an author (Andersen, Baudelaire ... Zola) and each containing a quotation from the author's work as part of the décor. But it's lovely, understated and kind of fun: subtly printed fabric on the wall behind our bed displayed a quotation from Diderot's Les Bijoux Indiscrets, and there was a paperback copy of the book in case we wanted to read more (we didn't).
Our medium-sized room was sunny, quiet, comfortable and well designed in relaxing gray and taupe tones; the bath tub was deep and conducive to long soaks (this is not true of all the rooms, some of which, in the true Parisian tradition of "hôtels de charme," are quite small).
The staff was terrific and the location ideal: on a street corner a block off the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, a stone's throw (an inapt image, perhaps) from the French presidential palace and close to the useful Line 1 on the Métro. The hotel has no restaurant (but does offer 24-hour room service at reasonable prices), and the long, narrow breakfast room doubles as a peaceful bar-lounge later in the day.
During our stay, the pastries and breads were as fresh as if they'd been made on site and of a quality high even for Paris: buttery, crisp-shelled croissants stood out. The jams are a cut above the expected: they come from the fine producer Alain Milliat. The flavors are true, fresh and delicate; we particularly liked the sweet orange and the fig.
An even newer hotel, at which (because of its prices) we definitely did not stay, is just down the road, not far from the Place Vendôme: the Mandarin Oriental Paris, which opened last summer. The restaurants (and all food and beverage services) are under the direction of the excellent, inventive chef Thierry Marx; a few years ago we had a meal full of surprises at his former restaurant outside Bordeaux. This piqued our interest and we made a reservation for breakfast. This is served in the less formal restaurant, Camélia, and in many ways is not strikingly unusual: good baked products, including an amazingly flavorful apple-citrus turnover; very good jams (though not as distinctive as the ones at Pavillon des Lettres; we'd rather expected something homemade with Mr. Marx in charge); some interesting cooked dishes including dim sum and a "revisited" pastrami sandwich (starting With wagyu beef cooked for 60 hours at low temperature); meats and cheeses for those with hearty appetites. In that area, Mr. Marx's Southwest French background is seen in the presence of dry cured ham from noir de Bigorre hogs, a specialty of the region and one of the world's great hams.
The big surprise here is the décor. Luxury hotels of this category (rooms start at €765, off-season) tend to be either palatial in an ostentatiously grand way or ultra-sleek, minimal, unexceptionable. The Mandarin Oriental is over the top in what I found to be an amusing and often beautiful way. In Camélia, you are surrounded by huge petals; in the bar, the walls are dotted with crystals that recall raindrops; the main restaurant, Sur Mesure, is white, with hangings of folded or draped fabric. The atmosphere is enveloping. We asked to see a couple of rooms, too, and these combined all the comforts you expect at the price with unobtrusive but still interesting furnishings and decoration.
Just before we left on our travels, I'd read that Moscow's Café Pushkin, which we loved on a trip to Russia last year, had opened a small Paris branch, in the Printemps department store. The tiny space -- it is mostly for takeout but has a bar with maybe eight rather uncomfortable stools -- is crammed with Imperial Russian-type decoration, which is to say Napoleonic once removed. It was beautifully executed, and we admired -- and liked -- it.
Not really knowing what they would be selling, our plan had been to have our usual breakfast of croissants, brioches and jam, but there was an unexpectedly large range of Russian pastries, sweet and savory alike, so we had pirozhki, little hand-pies with various savory fillings (there was also one sweet pirozhok, the singular form of the word). We had cabbage (made with sauerkraut), mushroom (made with dried mushrooms) and beef. They were almost as good as we remembered from our visit to Moscow and certainly compared favorably with home-made: tender brioche-like wrappings around perfectly seasoned fillings. For dessert -- if you can talk about dessert at 10 a.m. -- we shared a vatrushka: a curd-cheese (tvorog) tart lightly scented with lemon and retaining the mild sourness of the cheese.
We also bought some more pirozhki to eat on our train ride to London later that day -- they are an ideal traveling snack, and they enhanced our journey under the Channel no end.
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Pavillon des Lettres. 12 rue des Saussaies, 75008; +33 (0) 1 49 24 26 26; depending on the time of year, double rooms start at €255, about $335.
Mandarin Oriental Paris. 251 rue Saint-Honoré, 75001; +33 (0) 1 70 98 78 88; Set breakfast options start at about $55 (normal for fancy hotels in Paris), but coffee and a couple of croissants or other pastries are surprisingly affordable at under $20. Rooms start at €765 (about $1,000), off-season.
Café Pouchkine. Printemps department store, ground floor; 64 Blvd. Haussmann, 75009; +33 (0) 1 42 82 43 31; open during store hours, beginning at 9:30 a.m., Monday to Saturday. Pirozhki are about $4 each; our vatrushka cost $3.50.