Murano Urban Resort of Paris: A Smash Hit in Three Acts
When we last saw the Murano, they were laying the paving stones outside the entrance. It was October 2004; the hotel would not officially open for another month, and such details were still in need of attention. Identical to paving stones fronting every entrance along the Boulevard du Temple in le Marais, they led from the road to a stark white edifice identified only by a modest nameplate. Nevertheless, the buzz was out. Rooms were booked; restaurant reservations needed to be made a week ahead of time; “le bar’ was the place to be seen. The yet-to-open Murano was already the coolest place in Paris.
Now it’s a year later. Our taxi draws up in front of the hotel. A small urban car is parked on the paving stones, and draped across it a long, leggy model in flaming orange assumes various poses as photographers snap away. In the sky-lit lobby down the gleaming white entrance gallery, a second fashion shoot centers on an equally long and leggy model sprawled on the Murano’s famed 18-foot white leather sofa. Behind it, gas logs in the 18-foot rectangular fireplace are aglow. It’s only ten in the morning. For a place that sees action til the “wee small hours,” the day has barely begun.
A year ago, they said the Murano would never make it. Too small, too far away from the eighth arrondissement, too far from the Champs-Élysées. But it’s like the Gershwin song that begins: “They all laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round” and ends: “Hah, Hah, Hah, who’s got the last laugh now?” For the winding streets of the third arrondissement – the tall windows on their centuries-old buildings opening to tiny balconies brimming with red and white geraniums -- may be ancient Paris. But there is no neighborhood in the city more avant-garde. And in the year since the Murano’s premier, it has virtually exploded with high-end fashion and design boutiques, art galleries, and tucked away, intimate restaurants and cafes. At the same time, the excitement generated when the Murano was in “previews” has not abated. Indeed, the early raves seem to have heralded an indefinite run. The Murano is a hit, and judging from the nightly scene at “le bar” and the adjacent restaurant, attendance is SRO.
All the components of a successful production are in place. Behind the scenes is the producer, a discrete businessman, who has entrusted its vision, operation and execution to a talented young director who came up from St. Tropez. Soft spoken, darkly handsome, and with a pleasing modesty that belies his accomplishments, Jérome Foucaud has assembled an ensemble cast of hip, attractive, and colorful personalities to perform in front of dazzling sets of retro-modern furnishings and neo-modern fixtures in the three acts of the Murano experience.
Act One is the bar, a 50-foot cool, dark and narrow space off the lobby where television screens repeat abstract images in psychedelic shades. Here Sandrine Houdré-Grégoire holds center stage. This bar manager with brio -- one of only three female bar managers in Paris – comes from Orleans. Although she has little in common with her illustrious compatriot -- her interests run more along the lines of collecting vodka brands than leading troops into battle – the 29-year old maintains “It’s important never to forget where you come from. Every Sunday I go back to Orleans to visit my mother. She misses me.
“I met Jérome four years ago when I was working at the bar at the Byblos in St. Tropez,” she told us. “Some time later, I had another position in Switzerland. Jérome had moved here by then, and I called him for some professional advice. We talked for a while; he asked me if I had a certain bottle. We were kind of joking around. I wanted to ask him for a job; he wanted to ask me to come and work with him. I was the one who finally broke down: ‘Do you need a bar manager?’ He said, ‘With pleasure, Sandrine.’
The bar manager with brio: Sandrine Houdré-Grégoire
|“My specialty is spirits and champagne,” says the effervescent Sandrine who loves to make drinks but imbibes nothing stronger than an occasional glass of champagne. “We serve foie gras, salmon, club sandwiches; we sell champagne and wine by the glass. But our specialty is spirits. We have the biggest vodka bar in France, 150 different brands from 19 different countries, seven from France alone. Why vodka? Fashion. Ten years ago it was whiskey, then gins, tequilas, margaritas. And now it is the time of different combinations with vodka. Vodka martinis with apple, melon, olive juice.
“We open the bar at 5 o’clock; at 2 in the morning, the doors are closed. But people drift into the lobby, sit by the little tables or on the white couch near the fireplace and stay as long as they like.”
Scenes from “le bar”
|Sitting on the white couch one evening, we sampled some of Sandrine’s vodka concoctions. What looked like a series of test tubes arrayed in lacquered holders was a selection of vodkas combined with different flavors: pimento and ginger in one, cognac, sugar, and lime in another. “The trick is to identify the combination and the mood they create,” said the young man in a snakeskin jacket who brought them over. This was Stephane Jacques Lartigolle, another member of the bar cast (there are five all told) whose job it is “to organize the look of the bar and see to the guests.”
Stephane, who could always become a GQ model should he ever decide to leave the Murano (a decidedly remote possibility), sets a standard for fashion in this high fashion environment with his striking, custom- tailored ensembles which he changes several times during an evening.
“My family moved to St. Tropez when I was 10 years old,’ he told us. “Originally, I thought to be a chef but as I grew up, I found I was spending more and more time in the nightclubs of St. Tropez. So I decided I might as well work in one. That’s where I met Jérome. When he came to the Murano, he called me. We had a few appointments; I gave him some of my suggestions, et voila! As a result of my knowing Jérome in St. Tropez, my life has changed.
“Many of the customers are a regular clientele,” he added as we watched the bar fill up and the crowd spill out into the lobby, some standing, others sitting on 1950’s-style swivel chairs around glass and chrome tables. “They know Sandrine, myself and the rest of our team. There are also hotel guests, dinner guests, but a lot of people come to the Murano just for the bar. It is a destination in and of itself.”
“When people are at the Murano, they forget about what is going on outside. It’s like they’re in a bubble,” said restaurant manager Miloud Azzaoui who now escorted us to a table in the adjacent restaurant. It was about nine o’clock in the evening. The 110-seat dining room which had opened an hour earlier was full, and so it would remain until closing time with the last orders from a second seating going in at midnight. The crowd was varied, multigenerational, and in a range of garb from conservative propre to haut couture, with many of the younger women in the deshabillé (lingerie) look.
Act Two of the Murano experience is in this snow-white vaulted space where beams of colored light swirl about, striking --from time to time -- long cylinders that drop from the ceiling at irregular lengths with hues of fuschia, ice green, or midnight blue. High up on a far wall in a bright red box open to the restaurant and bar, the DJ broadcasts a range of selections that throw back the changing moods of the night. His musical knowledge and CD collection are staggering. Upon meeting us, he offered to play “New York, New York,” but which version he wanted to know: Minnelli’s or Sinatra’s? Not surprisingly, he is an old friend of Jérome’s, going back to the St. Tropez days.
White cylinders hang from the dining room ceiling at irregular lengths
The D.J. looks down on the bar scene
As he guided us through the menu and suggested the perfect red Burgundy, the tall and dark Miloud conveyed something of a matinee idol of the 1940s. He also conveyed an intensity and passion for his work which we remembered from our previous visit. We also recalled how he demurs when complimented, stressing “We are not yet where we want to be.”
Restaurant manager Miloud Azzaoui who conveys
something of a matinee idol from the 1940’s
|He has not far to go. Both in presentation and preparation, the Murano dining experience is sublime with a menu that combines French cuisine with Asian and Italian touches and the focus on fresh quality products that are the mainstay of contemporary dining. We began with raw oysters in the shell each topped with a little sweetbread, resting on a mound of coarse salt, and langoustine carpaccio – the paper-thin slices marinated in olive oil with ginger and garlic. Main courses were pan-seared omble, a delicate river fish that seemed a cross between salmon and trout, served with the Sardinian pasta frégola in a tangy tomato-pesto sauce, and exceedingly tender kobé steak with mashed herbed potatoes served in an oaten crust that looked like a potato shell. The dessert platter of red berries poached in syrup accompanied by ladyfinger-shaped meringues and homemade sorbets seemed too beautiful to eat but, as it turned out, too tempting to resist.
“People spend two hours of their lives; we try to make them happy through the food and atmosphere,” Miloud told us. “We want the restaurant to reflect the Murano spirit. Over the summer, we served gazpacho from a shaker. The waiter would shake it up and pour it into a martini glass. Something different. We can be very professional but also young and lighted hearted.”
Our dinner companion was the young and light hearted assistant manager Lorris Camarzana, the newest (and at 25 years, the youngest) member of the Murano ensemble cast, having joined the troupe some four months earlier. In a tie of shocking chartreuse, with spiky hair, a mischievous grin, and the manner of a sprite, he could be typecast as Ariel in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” an impression reinforced by his repeated descriptions of the Murano as “a place of dreams.”
Lorris, whose mother is Canadian and one half Iroquois Indian, first saw the Murano when it was in “previews.” “I stayed at the bar and enjoyed it so much, I came back again and again. At the time, I had been the assistant manager at a very good Italian restaurant but felt there was nothing more to learn. So sent my CV to Jerome and enclosed a letter written on beautiful stationery where I explained I would not try to work anywhere if I didn’t understand the spirit of the place, but I could see myself in the Murano milieu. Three weeks later, he contacted me. There was nothing available at the moment, but he wanted to meet me. Our meeting lasted 2 ½ hours. Then he said ‘Please contact me in January.’”
It was not until May, however, that Lorris finally made his Murano debut at which time he wrote to all his friends: “Next time you come to the Murano I will be there to welcome you.”
Brigitte Zublin, the Murano’s attractive Swiss-born sales manager and a veteran player in the hotel ensemble cast, was there to welcome us this time around. When we met Brigitte the year before, we learned she had lived in Miami for some years and worked at South Beach properties. Therefore her transition to the Murano high-tech design environment was easy and appealing. “The French are conservative when it comes to style and new concepts, especially in the hotel business,” she now told us. “So we were like pioneers.
“Our number-one clientele is American,” she added. “They like the style of the hotel, the design, the atmosphere. We have a good mix between corporate and leisure, people from French show business -- actors, artists, musicians, people from the world of fashion.” (Although celebrities can count on their privacy being respected, we did learn the chairman of Louis Vuitton was a guest the night before we arrived.)
Members of the Murano ensemble cast (from left):
Stephane Jacques Lartigolle, Lorris Camarzana, and Brigitte Zublin
As one who travels the globe selling the Murano experience, Brigitte is an apt spokesperson for Act Three: the 51 rooms each of which is identified by a name instead of a number. Knowing the routine, we were not shocked this time around when we exited the elevator into a pitch-black corridor save for tiny purple spotlights shining down on each door. Nor did we fumble for a key or entry card as we had already left a copy of our fingerprint with the concierge when we checked in. Now one of us slipped a finger into a little recess, and the door to our duplex suite: the Tiziano, situated between the Sofia and the Stefano, opened.
It was like coming home! Everything was as we remembered it! Twenty-first century décor overlooking 19th century urban Paris, chimneys projecting out of rooftops like rusting top-hats, the lights from the distant Eiffel Tower sweeping the nighttime sky; the canal-like swimming pool-for- two outside the lower level; the slate and chrome high-tech bathrooms; the luxe-white bed and sitting rooms with the campy portrait of Audrey Hepburn over the bed. And the lighting palette: rose, lilac, blue, yellow, green, turquoise allowing you to use your room as a stage where you can experiment with the varied moods of theatrical lighting.
The light of a Parisian morning sun was streaming through the skylight, the pulse of last night’s bar scene replaced by a mood of calm serenity, when we met Jérome for coffee in the lobby. He was – as when last we saw him –in black pants and open collared white shirt. But the glasses that had given him the look of a young Marcello Mastrianni were gone. So were the cigarettes. “I continue to live in the hotel,” he told us, “but I’m much more relaxed.
“Ya, ya, ya, ya. It’s working very, very well,” he added, looking down with a quiet smile. “The restaurant and bar started immediately, and it has not stopped. At night, we have something like 300 people coming in and out. We don’t have to rely on the rooms.”
The Murano had been open for only a few months, Jérome told us, when he received a call from the Plaza Athénée. Would he be agreeable to doing an interview together with their manager for the television show “Des Raçines et des Ailes.” The idea was to compare two different kinds of hotel experiences.
“I didn’t like being cast in the spotlight,” said the laid back g.m. “But I didn’t have time to think about it. I had to do it. We took the television crew all around the hotel. The manager of the Plaza Athénée came along; he was looking for new ideas. Can you imagine?”
Still in white shirt and black pants, but the eyeglasses are gone: Murano general manager: Jérome Foucaud
Although Jérome has yet to see it, five million Frenchmen (and women) watched the broadcast on prime-time television (it has since been repeated many, many times). The following day, 200 people descended on the Murano to see what it was all about.
“Now people from the Plaza Athénée, the Ritz, the Four Seasons, the Bristol -- they are coming here for ideas. They are sending their guests to our restaurant.”
We remarked on the limited information on the hotel’s façade: just the word “Murano,” no stars, not even the word “hotel.” “I don’t care about stars,” Jérome said. “I care about quality and service. I don’t want a Michelin rating for the restaurant. When you have one, you want two. I don’t want ‘hotel’ outside. We don’t advertise. The Murano is confidential, like a secret you tell your friends, a place for those in the know.”
But a well kept secret the Murano is not. Beyond the nightly restaurant and bar crowds and the rooms booked months in advance are the many requests to hold private parties and corporate events at the hotel.
“We can’t do it,” Jérome says. “We are not that kind of place; we don’t have the space. I don’t want to tell our clientele ‘You can’t go to the restaurant because there is a private party.’ And for group events, the organizers want a special price. We are in the top ten of the most expensive hotels in Paris. I have 100 people working here for 51 rooms. I can’t give a special price. So I was turning business away.”
As a result, the Murano’s backstage angel and its prescient director have embarked on a new production: a 41-room hotel with two meeting rooms, a big lounge bar and the first ice bar in France. Slated to open in October 2006, the Kube will continue the trend set by the Murano in its “off-Broadway” locale. Montmartre, home to the Sacré-Coeur and Moulin Rouge has, like le Marais, a Bohemian patina and is an atypical setting for a deluxe high-design hotel. “Like the Murano, from the outside, it will look like nothing special,” says Jérome.
“We expect a similar clientele,” he continues. “The Murano guests will want to go over there and see what it is. And people will want to go there for events. If someone asks to have a party here, we will tell him, ‘No, we can’t do it here. But we have another hotel that will be a better place for you.’”
But for Jérome Foucaud, who, beyond a doubt, has realized his dream of bringing the sunshine of St. Tropez to Paris, the Murano is where his heart will remain.
Murano Urban Resort
13 Boulevard du Temple
75003 Paris, France
Tel. 33 (0) 1 42 71 20 00
Fax 33 (0) 1 42 71 21 01
Photos by Harvey Frommer
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About the Authors: Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.
They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.
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