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French opulence splashes out in Xintiandi

KNOWN as one of France's most famous nightspots, Hotel Costes is frequented by sports stars and celebrities of the film and fashion worlds. For the first time ever the brand is opening a branch outside France. Aubrey Buckingham goes tasting.

The Hotel Costes is bringing its special brand of French opulence to Xintiandi establishing its first branch outside its native country. Pavilion Costes takes the massive space vacated by the nightclub Star East and transforms it into a four-story, 1,800-square-meter lounge cum restaurant for the city's fashionistas to see and be seen in.

Running the venue is husband and wife team Harold and Laurence Levillair, known here for bringing the Paul bakery brand to China, opening nine stores in 20 months. The couple is dedicated to introducing French savoir faire to the hip and famous here, and the Costes brand is an ideal spearhead for their attack. Known as one of France's most famous nightspots, Hotel Costes is frequented by sports stars and celebrities of the film and fashion worlds, and the Levillairs are looking to transport that magic to these shores.

"The concept is light food for beautiful people," says Harold Levillair, who arrived on these shores five years ago. "There will always be something exciting to see when people are here."

The Frenchman is also referring of course to the stunning Jacque Garcia interior design at Pavilion. Central to the theme is a 17-meter pagoda, inspired by a French missionary's visit to the Far East in the 17th Century, erected in the garden of Hotel Costes in Paris and replicated here. Diners and lounge lizards can sit around the pagoda, and Levillair promises the distinctive creation will feature acrobats and dancers in the coming months.

The venue is split up into color-coded zones (after the rooms in the original property) and is rife with Oriental motifs. A vast sum was spent on decorating, and many materials had to be imported when no suitable equivalent was found locally.

The third floor lounge itself is a sexy space of laidback sofas and a 270-degree hi-definition projection screen, ideal for product launches or corporate events. The dark, moody space is just the ticket for those who want to slink away in the night and catch up on intimate moments. Levillair expects guests to be drinking mostly champagne, as is the case in the incumbent Bund 18 bars. The club has also secured exclusive rights to serve Louis Roederer Cristal in magnums, as it does in France.

The drink list also features the standard cocktails that adorn the Paris list. Despite repeated requests, however, Pavilion was unwilling to supply any prices for drinks or food.

Hotel Costes is also renowned for its lounge compilation CDs, mixed by house DJ Stephane Pompougnac. The 40-year-old Parisian is no stranger to these shores, having spun at bund landmark Bar Rouge on occasions, while the Hotel Costes CDs are readily available at most local DVD shops. The opening of Costes, however, means that Pompougnac will be restricted to playing at the Xintiandi venue.

The DJ has had a long association with Hotel Costes, first working there as a waiter in his youth. With his music career blossoming, he was invited by co-owner Jean-Louis Costes to work for him in 1997, and in 1999, released his first CD for the brand.

Fans of his music will also be able to purchase a set of the genuine CDs from Pavilion.

As far as the food is concerned, Pavilion opts for the less is more approach. The fare is not overwrought but instead features high-quality, imported ingredients that speak for themselves.

Chef Thierry Nardy has been a long time devotee of Costes and has been sent to Shanghai to ensure Pavilion is able to deliver the same lofty standards the brand is known for in Europe. Cool and collected, the chef, who also worked for Alain Ducasse in the 1980s, holds a simmering intensity a few levels beneath the surface as he comes to terms with the local supply conditions.

"We want to be honest regarding our customers," said the 46-year-old Levillair. "There are others who put a lot of sauces together to mask the quality of the food. At Costes we don't mask the flavor but we use a light secret sauce and the best quality meat or seafood so the customers will know it is good."

The restaurant relies on a lot of imported produce - strawberries and fish from Japan, meat from Australia - and the prices reflect that. Most mains start at about 200 yuan (US$30) and go up from there.

The plates, however, are ideal for sharing; this is not your typical stuffy fine-dining restaurant. The scallops, for example, are large and gently seared, while the beef filet in tiger sauce (a spicy, tangy Oriental concoction) has been a firm favorite in Paris for years and is faithfully replicated here.

With expertise from Paul, pastry at Pavilion is also given lavish attention, perfect for a breezy afternoon on the veranda.

In this economic climate it will be interesting to see how local fashionistas respond to Costes. For all its popularity, Bar Rouge is not beloved by all people, and it will be a tough sell getting that specific set to migrate from the Bund to the less picturesque Xintiandi. The Costes brand is also not a huge drawcard for non-Europeans, and the idea of another "French place" has already been met with skepticism from some English media.


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