The legendary Hôtel L’Imperator opened in 1929 and has hosted everyone from Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner to Ernest Hemingway, who would come to Nîmes for its famous bull-fighting festivals. Now it has just reopened after a spectacular renovation with a new name: the Maison Albar Hotels L’Imperator. Signed by interior designer Marcelo Joulia, the 53 rooms and eight villas that comprise the hotel have a sleek new Art Deco-inspired look that recalls the glory days of the great transatlantic ocean liners, with teal blue, grey and sand colour schemes, porthole mirrors, oak parquet floors and streamlined contemporary furniture. The hotel also has an excellent new Codage spa and indoor and outdoor swimming pools.
What’s already made it a fixture of Nîmois life, though, is L’Impé, its excellent new brasserie, which overlooks the interior courtyard with its fountain and trees. We immediately liked the art-gallery look of this restaurant with its banquette seating, good lighting and framed prints and drawings on a display rail running the length of a terracotta-painted wall.
“Between Provence and the Camargue” – that is, contemporary southern French cooking focusing on local produce – is the order of the day. The menu evolves with the seasons, but the night we were here we started with a sauté of encornets (baby squid) with ribbons of yellow summer squash in a brightly herbal pistou sauce, and a ragout of octopus and aubergines in a richly-flavoured tomato coulis. Both dishes were excellent for being such intelligent reinterpretations of traditional Provençal recipes with a light touch.
Our main courses were similarly satisfying: roasted Roussillon shrimp with a shaved fennel salad, and a clever riff on brandade de morue, Nîmes’s most famous dish. Delicious though it may be, this dish can be rather heavy, but at L’Impé the olive oil-enriched potato purée was light and fluffy and topped with tender pieces of salt cod and a blaze of black garlic purée – an inspired garnish.
The desserts not to miss included a giant calisson, the glazed almond paste and candied fruit sweet from Aix-en-Provence, with melon tartare and a sorbet made with honey from hives located near La Tour Magne – one of Nîmes’s best-known monuments.
The service is charming and the prix-fixe menus deliver good value for money. On my next visit to the Imperator, I’m looking forward to trying Duende, the hotel’s gastronomic restaurant, which is also under the direction of three-star Paris chef Pierre Gagnaire and completes the gastronomic offer at the hotel.
L’Impé, 15 rue Gaston Boissier, 30900 Nîmes. Tel: +33 (0)4 66 21 90 30.
From France Today magazine