I learned something important the first time I stayed at the Paris Ritz.
The first time?? Okay, there was just that one time. But it taught me everything about the meaning of luxury travel.
That weekend really marked the beginning of our expat adventure. MT had already started his job in southern France while I stayed behind to finish my work, so for my birthday I suggested, ‘Why don’t we meet up in Paris?’
He took the idea and ran with it, and ran really far actually, like a marathon, because the next thing I knew we were booked into the Ritz.
My flight arrived a couple of hours before his, so I was alone in the taxi heading towards Place Vendôme, and frankly, anxious that this was going to be a waste of money, a squandered opportunity, because how could I possibly fit in at the Ritz? How could we get the full Ritz experience when we were clearly not Paris Ritz kind of people? My self-talk as the taxi slid through the streets of la première arrondissement was ‘Be cool, be cool, be chic, be cool, be cool…’ I would not let them see that I didn’t belong.
As soon as the taxi stopped, the car door opened and I was greeted by an immaculate porter, who personally escorted me all the way to the reception desk. I held an air of studied insouciance, just glancing around, like, ‘Here I am again.’ I was sure I was nailing it.
The reception manager watched us approach, then raised one eyebrow and said with a twinkle, ‘First time, madame?’ I was rumbled.
But here’s the thing: from that moment on I only felt like I completely belonged at the Paris Ritz. Believe it or not, in the midst of that opulent luxury, I felt completely at home, because every single person there treated us like we belonged, without us feeling any expectation to be anyone other than ourselves.
After that weekend, I understood that a true luxury experience isn’t defined by what the taps are made of or how nice the spa is. I’ve been to places where the ‘luxury’ label seems to require fitting into a ready-made mould, or where everyone is too chic to smile. No matter how expensive, or visually stunning, you’re not getting true luxury if you don’t feel welcomed, relaxed and at home.
Which brings me to my birthday experience ten years later, at Henne Kirkeby Kro restaurant, just 30 minutes from Esbjerg. This may be a double-Michelin-starred restaurant, but I felt like I was settled in for the evening in a new friend’s very stylish kitchen.
The picturesque thatched-cottage exterior gives way to a modern interior designed with comfort in mind. Rather than one large restaurant, there are a series of dining rooms, adding to a sense of intimacy.
We were early, and thought we’d have a drink at the cosy bar first, but our table was ready, and it was just as well, since there were three-and-half hours of eating and drinking ahead of us. We had to concentrate as we listened to our waiter Jann describe the ten courses we would potentially enjoy (the cheese course is an optional extra) but every single one of them made our eyes light up.
With the central value of ‘tradition over trend’, head chef Paul Cunningham, originally from Essex, focuses on local ingredients, sourced from Henne’s own garden, nearby farms, and even foraged. But there’s plenty of international influence too.
As you would expect, our menu included several offerings from the North Sea, including a melting Dover sole with brown butter, and a tortellino of scallop and black lobster. We loved the very Danish dish of tiny new potatoes, and couldn’t get enough of the bread, named after Han Solo by the chef, and the fresh garden butter, packed with energetic herbs.
But our highlights were the Beurre Français Royale, a combination of foie gras mousse and confit toast that took us right back to our sud-ouest days in Pau, and the Henne garden papadum, which ranks amongst the best Indian food I’ve ever eaten.
Because it was my birthday, and I rarely consider cheese an optional extra, we took a cheese course to share, but it turned out to be bigger than any of the other courses we’d eaten so far. There were intense flavours on the platter and in the chef’s signature cheese toast, but we had to leave room for the two desserts still to come, followed by petit fours.
MT was driving home (part of the Official Birthday Fuss) so I took half glasses of the wine pairing menu, mostly French. (French is good. I understand French wine. You can’t learn French in France without every French teacher doing a wine lesson at some point.) Since I started with a glass of champagne, generously topped up by Jann, my wine-tasting discernment diminished with each course. But I know I declared them all divine at the time!
For those who don’t want to just watch their partner get boozy without them (and don’t have a babysitter to get back to) Henne Kirkeby Kro also has a number of Scandi-chic rooms for overnight guests. As we crunched across the gravel with the late-setting sun back to our car, my glimpse of guests lingering in the bar inside looked very hyggelig indeed.
It’s just possible that I’ve been heard expressing disappointment about our experience of eating out in Denmark. In that respect we feel very far from Copenhagen over here, and with a few exceptions* restaurants here rely on unadventurous choice while being overpriced.
However, for a real treat, Henne Kirkeby Kro provides the luxurious antidote, with food as stylishly presented as those Michelin stars would suggest, but still unpretentious and comforting. Luxury at its welcoming best.
We paid our own way at Henne Kirkeby Kro. All opinions are my own.
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