review: the happiest corner on earth…
If good food is to be celebrated, then there is much too little mirth at the high end of gastronomy these days. And, it seems that the more you spend, the more sombre the scene, the more severe the service.
At their best, meals should be fun and delicious, a party for one or for many. Alain Passard understands this. At his restaurant l’Arpege in Paris, there’s a lightheartedness about the dining room that betrays its Michelin stars and its status as one of the best restaurants in the world. It’s unexpectedly breezy, shockingly spartan. Here, the focus is on the quality of the ingredients, which is extremely high, and the cooking, which is daringly simple.
At its best, the food at l’Arpege is unbeatable. And if the company around your table is good, then yours is surely one of the happiest corners on earth.
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I have heard that the quality of a meal at l’Arpege hinges on whether Passard is in the kitchen and how well you know him or his staff. This is worth noting, because quite a few people I know have had mixed experiences there – regulars and tourists alike.
But I can only vouch for my own visits to the restaurant.
The first time I ate at l’Arpege, my friend and I were treated well enough. More significantly, the food was different from anything else I had ever had. Of it, I wrote: “…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 taste. This is how l’Arpege changed my life.”
But, as extraordinary as that meal was, I left convinced that I hadn’t experienced the best of what Passard has to offer.
So, on my recent trip to Europe, l’Arpege topped the list of restaurants I most wanted to revisit in Paris. This time, I returned as a guest of Bruno Verjus, a regular at l’Arpege and a good friend of Passard’s. At Bruno’s table, there was no menu. And afterwards, I saw no bill.
Over the course of five hours, here is what the kitchen sent out to us for lunch:
Raviole au Canard
Betteraves et Carottes au Violettes
Carpaccio des St. Jacques
Endive avec le Coraille de Homard
Truffe noir, soya.
Langue de Veau
Truffe noir, panais.
Puree de celeri-rave, l’ognion.
Canard avec le Caviar
Pommes de terre fume.
Comte de Garde Exceptionelle Millesime 2007
Crème Brûlée de Celeri-Rave
Chantilly au raifort.
Pochee en vin rouge, glace vanille.
Chantilly au raifort.
To see all of the photos from this lunch, CLICK HERE.
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Passard is a minimalist, a luxury he can afford given the incredible ingredients he gets, most of which come from his biodynamic farm near Le Mans. His food is stripped so bare that some accuse him of hardly cooking at all.
He takes vegetables, fish, and meat to varying levels of doneness in order to achieve a desired flavor or texture. Sometimes, this means doing nothing at all. But in everything, he juxtaposes ingredients in the most fantastic and unexpected ways.
At our lunch, he shaved raw watermelon radishes over raw scallops and dusted them with matcha and crumbles of raw cauliflower florets (“Carpaccio des St. Jacques“) – a showcase for shades of natural sweetness: earthy, briney, grassy, and nutty. The blushing, paper-thin coins of radishes and the crumbled cauliflower added a crispy snap as well. This was an incredible composition.
Fleshy, baby spinach leaves he tossed with fresh black truffles, which shared a deeply satisfying earthiness with the soy sauce in the salad’s vinaigrette (“Salade d’Epinard“). This was simple, yet spectacular.
Sometimes, gently heating ingredients just beyond their natural state was Passard’s method of achieving the ideal.
It’s pretty gutsy for a chef to call his food “perfect.” But, there it was – the “perfect egg” – Passard’s opening volley to our lunch (“l’Oeuf Parfait“). Suspended in that magical state between raw and cooked, the wobbly orb arrived an opaque dome of white wrapped around a warm, runny yolk. The egg was set on a light cream sauce heavily flecked with black truffles. Where the mild flavor of the egg ended, the aroma of the truffles began, each respecting the other’s space – together, they were perfect.
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For me, two dishes at our lunch stood above the rest.
A silver bowl of beets and carrots infused with violet might have been our collective favorite (“Betteraves et Carottes au Violettes“). The root vegetables, tender and fleshy, were incredibly sweet with natural sugars and carried the slightest floral finish. They tasted as beautiful as they looked.
The other was a gorgeous strip of duck meat, pink and juicy, lined with caviar (“Canard avec le Caviar“). Passard said that the caviar helped magnify the gaminess of the meat. He was absolutely right. The amazing texture of the duck aside, the flavor was incredible – rich and bold; a departure from the mostly delicate flavors that we experienced otherwise. Served with the duck were smoked canons of waxy potatoes.
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Although Passard is best known for his vegetable cookery, he does amazing things with fish and meat as well. At this lunch, we had a beautifully cooked piece of cod, served with a creamy sauce and a fine puree of beets and celery. There was a quartet of delicate ravioli stuffed with duck meat, and tender pieces of veal tongue served with a diced parsnips. At the end, a candy-sweet, roasted baby onion arrived beside an impossible juicy slice of veal rump that had been lightly smoked. This last dish came with a wonderful puree of celeriac.
We agreed that our least favorite dish was the only one we got off the regular menu. It was a sliced sea scallop, frilled with black truffles to look like a pineapple (“Coquilles St. Jacques a la Cote d’Emeraud a la Truffe Noir“). It was a novel sight, but lacked flavor or character.
Likewise, a barely cooked wedge of endive – still firm and a touch bitter – stuffed with lobster coral was more interesting to look at than it was tasty. It was a bit too austere for me.*
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Hand-shaved ribbons of Bernard Antony’s famous Comté heralded the beginning of the end of our meal. Our plates of cheese were blanketed with freshly shaved black truffles, an extravagant display of favor. This cheese course went wonderfully with a bottle of vin jaune (“Arbois Pupillin, Maison Pierre Overnoy, 1998“)
I, alone, had never had Passard’s famous mille-feuille, and so a slice was set aside for me. It was ultra flaky and delicate, layered with an unusually light pastry cream. This was very good.
Also arriving at our table was a Mont Blanc, which I found terribly gritty and overly sweet. Passard’s interpretation of the Paris-Brest was disappointing as well. What was supposed to be a round of fluffy choux pastry arrived a crispy biscuit, nearly burnt and inedible. The only thing interesting about both of these desserts was a delicious dollop of horseradish creme chantilly that topped each.
A crème brûlée made from celery root was unobjectionable – the custard was fine and smooth, the top crispy and sweet. The flavor of the root vegetable in the custard was unmistakable, an unlikely but convincing companion to the milk chocolate sauce striped across the top.**
But above all, there was a pear, magnificently poached in mildly spiced red wine. Beside it, a velvety turn of vanilla ice cream melted away into a rich sauce. Among all of our desserts, this one alone was the equal of Passard’s finest savory courses. It was simple and comforting, the flavors were pure and honest.
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Food aside, a wonderful cast unexpectedly assembled at l’Arpege that day for lunch.
Joining Bruno and me at our table were Mikael of Gastroville, with whom I had lunch the day before, and a food journalist to whom I shall refer as Red Beard.
Despite having met in London the week before, Food Snob and I failed to figure out in advance that we’d be at l’Arpege on the same day. He and a mutual friend landed at the table next to ours. One table over from them was a trio of French journalists, friends of Bruno’s.
There were exchanges among our tables throughout service, jokes and jabs across the aisle.
As the restaurant emptied and Passard came out to sit and chat with us over trays of petits fours, l’Arpege became our own little party. Joyful and jolly, this is what fine dining should be like more often.
I needn’t tell you that we were hospitably served, treated more like friends than customers. Hélène Cousins – my server from my first visit – remembered me, and made sure that I got all the crusty elbows from her basket of bread.
This meal was, undoubtedly, better than my first. While I’m certain that I’ve gotten glimpses of Passard’s best, I’m still not convinced that I’ve seen l’Arpege at its best. If, as the restaurant’s name suggests, the ideal l’Arpege experience is a broken chord that, when played together, aligns in perfect harmony, then I have yet to have the ideal l’Arpege meal.
But this one was pretty close.****
84 rue de Varenne
+33 (0)1 45 51 47 33
* The endive had been vacuum-sealed with the coral. As the air was sucked out of the bag, the coral was forced into the space between the endive leaves. It was an interesting technique, but I wanted more flavor – perhaps stuffing the endive with chorizo or foie gras might be an experiment worth conducting.
** Confused by the chocolate sauce at first, I was amazed to find that there was an unexpectedly lovely overlap in flavor between the sweetness of the root and the milk chocolate.
*** He later penned a review of his meal from that day in The Sunday Times.
**** Thank you, Bruno, for an incredible experience.