Hôtel Costes

What would you do to score a coveted table? Call a restaurant one month ahead of time to the day at exactly 10am, speed dialing incessantly - nay, moronically - until you get through? Arrive at 6 o'clock and stand at the bar in four-inch heels for a couple hours if you want to eat by 8? Get there at 5:05pm on the Fourth of July if you plan on eating at all? But of course.

Restaurants are becoming more like nightclubs every year, and if you don't play by their rules, you ain't getting nowhere. The rules can be nonsensical: I remember a particular nightclub warning potential clubgoers that they didn't want to see any kind of gold jewelry. ????? Yet if the right person rocked gold jewelry just so, he or she would likely get in. It's nightclub physics: for every ridiculous stricture there is an equally ridiculous but opposite exception.

So when the reservationist at sceney Hôtel Costes in Paris told me that I'd have to call back on a Monday at 9:30am for a reservation at 8:30pm the following Thursday, I said great and hung up. Then I realized: 9:30am their time that Monday would be 3:30am New York time.

This is where most people might throw in the embroidered hotel towel. Looking for a loophole, I found none. There was no one I knew well enough in Paris - heck, anywhere - to ask to speed dial on my behalf. I'd already been warned by frequenters of Paris fashion week that it is not the sort of place where one just shows up expecting to get in.

Why? Because there are several layers of door people checking and rechecking your credentials before they lead you through the labyrinthine, deep red interior of the Hôtel Costes lobby restaurant. Don't even ask to eat in the beautiful open air atrium in the middle of the action. Those seats are for hotel guests.

At least the place has the credentials for cool. The restaurant at Hôtel Costes is a nightclub. In 2000 they launched the career of DJ Stéphane Pompougnac, whose remixed French tunes you've likely heard at every upscale boutique/party in the last few years.

The elaborate interior design recalls 19th century Napoleon III France - or the Bowery. Potted palms, fluted columns, gilded mirrors, dark wood furniture, and red velvet drapes between the myriad rooms create a hide-and-seek effect that lets you spy on or hide from the fashionable diners, who are just as likely to fixate on your handbag as they are on you.

Like the crowd, the menu is eclectic and international, and these dishes, not the traditional French ones, are the best. My insanely stylish friend, Miss Thing, ordered the caprese salad then the Peking duck. Only the French could make a caprese salad so decadent. The young, slightly tart mozzarella was nearly melting back to milk on the plate, and the tomatoes were dressed with a touch of syrupy aged balsamic and fragrant basil.

Juicy slices Peking duck had the authentic taste of tea smoke and Sichuan pepper, and the accompanying hoisin sauce was spot-on. This was the best of the entrees, and a lot easier to eat at Costes' small, low tables than the traditional type of Peking duck with pancakes.

The escargots were real - and by that I mean they were actually attached to their shells, not taken out of a can and stuffed in there, American-style. Doused in a rich butter sauce of garlic and parsley, they were wonderfully fresh and good.

We had a 2004 M. Chapoutier "La Bernardine" Chateauneuf du Pape with the meal. I will always be biased in favor of this French varietal because of a Belgian waitress who used to work with me at La Jumelle in Soho. Whenever anyone ordered a Chateauneuf du Pape, she was extremely satisfied and counted them as true francophiles. Ever since then I've been drawn the earthy flavor of a good Chateauneuf du Pape, and this one was excellent.

My friend Burning Woman doesn't eat meat, which can be a problem in France, especially if you're also avoiding fat. Just forget about any kind of dieting here, because the light but flavorful California-style cuisine we've come to expect in the U.S. hasn't really caught on. Whoever's in the Costes kitchen seems to be pooh-poohing the non-buttery fish dishes and not expending as much effort on them. Ergo, salmon and green beans at Hôtel Costes were pretty much just salmon and green beans - nothing spectacular.

Steak tartare was also disappointing because of its simplicity. Sure, it's supposed to be just ground meat and toast, but one hopes for all the mix-ins and special sauces that that you'd find at the excellent tartare at Employees Only here. That trumps the bland tartare at Hôtel Costes.

Make sure you use the loo here, because doing so will take you on a journey through the labyrinth. Just don't stop and take a photograph of this gorgeous private dining room, or a French woman may shriek at you: There are no photographs at Hôtel Costes! (Though they're not too shy to have their own lifestyle magazine: see below.)

The fact that this review exists is a testament to insomnia. Finally, waking up at three in the morning as usual, there was something constructive and necessary for me to do: call Hotel Costes. One call was all it took to get three people on the books at prime time, 8:30 on a Thursday. All I had to do was speak French while closing my eyes, hopping up and down on one foot, and throwing away all my gold jewelry.

See? Easy.

The restaurant at Hôtel Costes
239, rue Saint-Honoré
Paris, France