Coquilles Saint-Jacques d’Erquy a l’Unilaterale”
l’Arpege, Paris, France
Unlike its brethren, l’Arpege does not cosset and caress.
Like the food it’s known for, this three-star Michelin restaurant is more hearth and home than retrofitted palace.
It’s surprisingly Spartan, awkwardly configured, and a bit dated. It’s mostly red (carpet; upholstery; and strange, sombrero-like chargers) with honey-colored, wood-paneled walls inset with frosted glass triptychs of the Muses. Squashes, gourds, and various petrified wood pieces decorate the ledges and tables.
Judging by the look and feel, one might never expect that this eclectically suited restaurant would be responsible for changing the lives of many people.
Countless diners have left Alain Passard’s unassuming restaurant in Paris’s 7eme with a different perspective.
Did it change mine?
Yes, it did.
But not suddenly.
It was Christmas Eve. Houston and I had an absolutely frigid journey to the top of the Eiffel Tower that morning (though it was a frightfully stark inaugural journey for Houston, our intended goal was achieved: no queue). By the time I arrived at l’Arpege for lunch, my feet were frozen and my appetite raging.
Settling in, I warmed up surprisingly quickly.
At 135 €, the restaurant’s 8-course lunch “tasting” is quite the fetch. (CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from the set, or click on courses for their individual photos.)
Corolle d’Endive Feuillete
Trilogie au beurre noisette.
Brioche de Legumes
Á la moutarde d’Orleans onctuese, oeuf de caille
Crème soufflé au Speck
Robe de Champs Multicolore “Arlequin”
Carotte jaune du Doubs, rutabaga jaune champion, betterave tonda di chiogga
Coquilles Saint-Jacques d’Erquy a l’Unilaterale
Chou vert et sencha
7th Course (Supplement)
Canard de Challans á l’Hibiscus
Betterave coucher de soleil et marc d’orange
Comté de Garde Exceptionelle September 2004
Tarte aux Pommes “Bouquet de Roses”
It is a closed mind which would bemoan the predominately vegetarian fare here. Though many might categorize it as such, l’Arpege is not a vegetarian restaurant. That is an absurd notion.
Yes, Passard has developed such a special approach to vegetable cookery that, for many, it has become the restaurant’s raison d’etre.
But there are meat and seafood selections á la carte as well, some of which, like his lobster and abalone dishes, are highly praised. We ordered one as a supplement – “Canard de Challans á l’Hibiscus” (94€) – and it turned out to be one of the most memorable dishes I ate on the entire trip, and, indeed, that year.
The burnished, crispy-skinned breast and thigh, already carved from the duck, were presented table-side on a silver platter. Retiring for plating, they reappeared sliced and sauced with a rich hibiscus sauce.
As if the moist and tender duck meat wasn’t reward enough, Passard serves it with two of the bird’s common bedfellows: beet and orange. The “coucher de soleil” beets (truly the color of sunsets) were presented both in quarters and in long, thin strips made to look just like fettucine. Orange took the form of a pulpy marc, which was drunk with liquor. Like duck with beets meets duck á l’orange, it was simple, yet exquisite.
That aside our tasting menu was dominated by vegetables.
Most, if not all of Passard’s produce comes from his organic farm in Fillé sur Sarthe, where he works with the farmers to cultivate various crop.
Rarely does a chef cook vegetables well. Even scarcer is a chef who can cook vegetables well AND do something interesting with them.
Passard does both, and more.
For example, he rendered the bitter core of an endive soft and silky (I imagine pounds of Bordier butter were employed) and baked it in a round of puff pastry whose flaky pockets swelled around the endive to form a blossom (“Corolle d’Endive Feuillete”). It was so light and airy that one could inhale this dish; it almost evaporated in the mouth. But this seemed like a minor victory compared with the miraculous transformation Passard achieved with the endive. It had turned into something completely different; something far superior-tasting than endive.
Is Passard’s food perfect? Based on my meal and reports by a couple of acquaintances who frequent the restaurant, it’s not consistently so.
Scallops (“Coquilles Saint-Jacques d’Erquy a l’Unilaterale”), for example, were overcooked. Grilled and served on their shells, the muscles continued to bake from the residual heat, making them especially tough near the base where they attached. This seemed like a strange oversight for Passard, who has a self-professed obsession for the “art of the fire”; he is fascinated by and particularly attuned to the application of heat to food.
The flavor combination, however, was engaging. A comparison was drawn between the vegetal sweetness in thin strands of green cabbage, strewn about like seaweed; the grassy, herbal aroma in a light green tea sauce; and the briny sweetness in the scallops. They’re surprisingly similar, yet entirely dissimilar in the same bite.
And was my meal at l’Arpege thrilling?
Nothing, save that duck, took my breath away.
So why go all the way to Paris and spend all that money on food that’s not necessarily going to be perfect or thrilling?
Because: Passard’s way of thinking about cooking is unique. This is evident when you eat at l’Arpege.
He is an auteur and pioneer. No other chef is cooking food quite like Passard is. It’s honest. It’s simple. It’s highly emotional. It originates from a romance between the chef and his products. It’s reflective. I revisited the meal, daily, for weeks months.
And you can only experience it at l’Arpege.
The other thing that you’ll not find anywhere else is Hélène Cousins, maître d’hôtel of the restaurant. Many l’Arpege diners (and bloggers) have celebrated her service and charm. I didn’t understand the effusiveness. But now, I (and, I think I can safely speak for her, Houston) join that group – not because she showed us any special favor (it wasn’t noticeable if she did). And not because she kow tows and coos (she definitely didn’t do either, thankfully). But because she was a breath of fresh air. She’s frank and snappy – sassy, even, and full of verve and vigor. Her efficiency was remarkable.
What impressed me the most was her shockingly keen eye. Despite the fluffy mass of evidence I leave on bread plates across the world, she is the first server I’ve had who has ever picked up on (or bothered to do anything about) my love for crusts. When she swung (popped?) around with the bread basket for refills, she rummaged around between the slices and produced two heels for me. When I expressed my surprise and joy, she winked. A kindred spirit, she admitted to also preferring the crusty ends to the middle.
I normally don’t eat much (if any) bread in restaurants. It’s usually plagued by any one or a dozen of a manifold list of diseases. Most are way too soft and thin-crusted. Some, are dry. Others are too dense. Flimsy, stale, bland, undercooked, burnt – yes, I’m picky.
The bread at l’Arpege is extraordinary. Great bread, to me, is a crumber’s worse nightmare. The shell shatters and flakes, leaving a large radius of debris around one’s bread plate (you should have seen the mess I made). The crust is thick and tan – caramelized but not burnt – and crunchy. The interior is soft, but gruff, with pebble-sized pockets and a good bounce.
The bread at l’Arpege displayed all of these fine qualities. It was accompanied by block of very good (Bordier) butter.
Chef Passard disturbs nature as little as possible in his cooking, showcasing its natural flavors.
For example, he’ll gather a field and reassemble it on a plate without much ado. The result is a colorful harlequin patchwork of miniature beets, fennel, rutabagas, and carrots (“Robe de Champs Multicolore ‘Arlequin‘”). Hand-rubbed with butter and gently heated, the vegetables are cooked just enough to soften them without compromising their flavor or color.
Given how simple and good those vegetables were, I’m not sure I fully understood the purpose of the cous cous, which was scattered about the plate. Was it for texture? It really didn’t add much. Was it for flavor? I suppose it did soak up some of the butter and help carry some of the subtle curry flavors wafting about. Was this Passard’s “soil” for his “Arlequin” garden? It seemed kind of superfluous.
Like the “Gnocchis Multicolores” (Isn’t the word gnocchi already in plural form?), Passard’s food tends to be rustic and austere. Four to a serving, each of us got two red beet gnocchi and two cream-colored parsnip gnocchi. Simply dressed with a nutty “triologie de beurre noisette,” the gnocchi were topped with fried sage leaves.
These gnocchi weren’t the most fluffy, or supple ones I’ve ever had, but they tasted intensely of beets and parsnip. They also had a smokiness about them; it tasted as though the root vegetables had been smoked before being turned into dumplings. When asked, Hélène insisted that nothing had been smoked.
There was also a warm butternut squash soup served in a little silver cup. I’m not sure this “Soupe Fumante!” deserved an exclamation point, but it was very good. Simple but soothing, it was topped with a cloud of speck-infused whipped cream.
The Brioche de Legumes seemed like a jestful gauntlet toss at the meat-obsessed. With this wonderful vegetable burger, Passard handily and gracefully demonstrated that vegetarian dishes don’t have to be second-class stand-ins for meat dishes. Flavorful and juicy, the patty was unimpeachable. Dressed with a touch of creamy mustard d’Orleans and topped with a fried quail egg, it was served on a mini sesame-brioche bun and sided by what I think was a ketchup made from beets. I can see how some might think this dish was over-manipulated and precious. I thought it was clever, delicious, and cute.
Houston and I had been the first to arrive for lunch service, but we were followed by a number of parties (mostly Japanese clients) in quick succession. Although the restaurant filled up over our three-hour meal, it was at no point full. Chef Passard appeared towards the end of our lunch to visit with guests and friends in the house.
Perhaps one of the most talked-about item at l’Arpege is the cheese course. It’s not just any cheese. It’s Bernard Antony’s acclaimed Comté de Garde Exceptionelle September 2004. This wheel of cheese was so large that it had to be carried out by two servers. Already halved, the slab was set on a varnished birds’-eye-knotted board with three other Antony cheeses: Pont l’Eveque, Tomme de Tamie, and Chaorce. We got a bit of each.
The Comté had a slightly soft, almost creamy interior full of sweetness and nuttiness. This Comté, though also aged for four years, was much different in texture than the Comté we had at le Cinq a few nights before. Le Cinq’s 4-year aged Comté was a bit harder and studded with bits of crystallized salt. Antony’s cheese tasted younger, yet had more flavor, despite having less crystallization.
Although I’ve heard wonderful tales told of Passards’ millefeuille creations, the tasting menu came with his (peculiarly) copyrighted “Tarte aux Pommes “Bouquet de Roses.’”
I didn’t find anything particularly special about this tart other than its presentation. Thinly sliced and tightly rolled, cylindrical bundles of apples were packed, upright, into a thin tart shell and baked until they had softened. From a bird’s vantage, it looked like a bouquet of small roses.
The tart was dusted with powdered sugar and served with a pool of caramel sauce. The plate was garnished with confetti sugar crystals. With the exception of a healthy dose of lemon juice, the tart tasted like the quintessential apple tart: the one your grandmother made.
And that’s what the food at l’Arpege does: it takes you on a journey back to childhood, when things were mysterious, yet simple. Passard’s food moved me back to a place and time that I had forgotten; a place devoid of pretense, a time when dishes weren’t dotted and dashed in Morse code, and a world where food tasted like it’s supposed to. This is how l’Arpege changed my life.
84 rue de varenne
+33 (0)1 45 51 47 33