3 Michelin stars, 19th best restaurant in the world (2011)
When I first brought up the idea of having a meal at L’Arpege to my sister, she quipped, “Whats so special about the place?”
My reply, “The chef, Alain Passard, cooks and dedicates the menu around vegetables” was met with a look that comprised of both disgust and confusion, she had assumed I was joking, but clearly I wasn’t. My justification that L’Arpege should be on my shortlist of restaurants to visit in Paris was based on the fact that any restaurant that has a menu constructed around the use of vegetables, by choice of Passard himself, and still maintains 3 Michelin stars, must be doing something right. To say that he doesn’t serve meat isn’t completely true, there are dishes with game, poultry, and seafood on the menu, but red meat seems to be completely eradicated.
The choice turned out to be a wise one, our copious consumption of meat in the Czech republic, Hungary, Austria and Germany was on the borderline of being gratuitous, at the end of every heavy meal, I looked forward to the fact that our first meal in France would be at L’Arpege.
We arrived in Paris at approximately 10am, with a reservation for lunch at 1230pm. Our driver gave us a quick tour of the sights in the area before dropping us off at the corner of a quiet street.
Tartlets from the garden: Turnip mousseline, carrot w oranges, beetroot
Perhaps a very accurate indicator of the direction Arpege takes with it’s food, very raw, earthy ingredients, simply but perfectly cooked to bring out their natural flavour. The turnip was a little bitter overall in taste, but when eaten in succession with the beetroot(intensely sweet without the overpowering earthiness that beet seems to have) and the carrot w oranges(sweet but you were able to discern between the citrusy sweetness and the more earthy sweetness of the carrots), it seemed to balance itself out. Okay
Bread was had a nice stretchy texture to it, very moist and had a nice sour tang to it. Im not particularly crazy about bread/butter courses, but this butter was amazing, it was soft, with a very intense but pleasant creamy/milky taste to it, with a smoothness that I’ve never quite experienced before. Very good
“Soft boiled Egg”
I requested for the ‘famous L’Arpege egg dish’ the moment I noticed that I couldn’t seem to find the dish on the menu, the maitre’d immediately nodded with a smile and told me that it would not be a problem, like she had some sort of telepathic understanding for my need to make sure that we were going to have this. Sat at the bottom of the shell is an egg yolk(No white), very lightly poached till it has the consistency of the yolk in a soft boiled egg, then topped with chives, clove, nutmeg, white pepper, and ginger, then covered with some creme fraiche with aged Jerez Vinegar, maple syrup, and sea salt.
Flavour wise, it was one of the most complex dishes I have ever eaten, the creme fraiche had a lightness that carried the taste of the spices beautifully, the yolk was the foundation of the whole dish and added a creamyness and richness to the dish. The maple syrup seemed to cut through this richness very quickly and brought some balance to the nutty and smokyness from the nutmeg and clove. Towards the end of the dish when everything had amalgamated together into a cream, you could still taste the distinct components of the dish. The flavours seemed to work well separately, and then as you continued eating, it evolved, and even then, the flavours still worked well together. Very Good
Carpaccio of scallops, radishes, and horseradish
Scallops were in season when we were in France, and you could really taste how fresh these were. The sweetest scallops I’ve had; so sweet they would’ve been good on their own. Not wanting to alter the natural taste of the scallops, or introduce too much to the dish, the dressing was simply olive oil and lemon juice, with radishes added a textural crunch, but sliced thinly enough so that it never intruded on the scallops. The horseradish gave the dish a nice peppery, spicy zing, but was grated fine enough that it never lingered for long. Green tea powder added a hint of bitterness to tone down the sweetness of the scallops, and gave the dish a slight umami boost. Very good
Onion confit, gratinated with Parmesan cheese, with candied lemon and a salad
This dish blew me away, it looks simple but tasted devastatingly good. The onion was sweet to the point of being indescribable,and had the taste of all the complex flavours brought about by the Maillard reaction, but the strange thing about the dish is that there was very little browning and no caramelization on the onions at all, it just carried those flavours, there was also no smokyness from onions at all, I can only assume that the onions were cooked on a very very low temperature for a long time. The candied lemon seemed to hide itself in the confit and would hit you when you least expected it, giving you a nice citrus burst, but it was candied at a very close sweetness level to the onions so it amalgamated itself perfectly into the onions, and didn’t intrude on the dish with any sudden jolt of sugar. The Parmesan was sparsely grated, which was good because any more would have taken away from the sweetness of the onion, it also gave the overall dish a luxurious, rich, silky mouthfeel. It got very heavy from the intense sweetness towards the end, and the refreshing and well dressed salad cut the sweetness of the onions expertly. Superb
Red pepper veloute finished with an iberico foam
You could taste quite a lot of cream in the veloute but it never tasted heavy. The natural taste of the sweet grilled peppers complemented the intense, ham, smoky flavor of the foam amazingly. The foam was also served cold so it was the first thing that hit the roof of your mouth, then the foam collapsed and ‘melted’ into the warm veloute, but you could distinguish between the two different flavors, possibly because the taste of the iberico was bounded by fat(whipped cream?), which has slow flavour release properties, either way, the pairing was a good one. Good
Poached egg served with emulsification of parmesan and salsifis
Im gonna admit that this was the most perfectly cooked poached egg I have ever eaten, despite all the hoo-ha about sous vide eggs, I personally believe that SV poached eggs yield the perfect yolk, but not the perfect white(I like my whites more set). I know it probably had a lot to do with the quality of the egg, since many bakers swear by the superior quality of French eggs, but damn, the texture of this was surreal. The egg whites were firm enough to hold it’s shape, but when pierced, immediately showed how soft it was when the walls of it collapsed to leak out a perfect, creamy yolk. The parmesan foam was delightful and surprisingly intense, the lightness of the foam really emphasized the delicacy of the egg, but the root vegetable (salsifis) had a very pungent earthy, woody smell that threw everything off balance for me. Most at the table didn’t finish the roots that were on their plate. Okay
Vegetables from the garden, served with semolina, sausage made with vegetable
This looked almost like a garden on a plate, and in essence, thats what it was. A variety of vegetables, as fresh as produce gets, all very deftly cooked, either lightly blanched or grilled to maintain most of its bite, so as to showcase the quality of their natural flavours. It sounds cliche, but you could really taste the freshness and earthiness of the dish, the semolina had a similar consistency to ‘al dente cous cous'(is the such a thing? If not, dibs on the term), and gave the dish a nice slightly ‘chewy’ textural contrast when eaten with the vegetables. The faux sausage tasted quite surreal, it had all the flavors of a choritzo, but the consistency of stewed root vegetables. Good
Cod served with green tea, celeriac puree, sorrel(added later)
Remember I talked about a really nicely cooked piece of fish in my Steirereck post? Well this is it. The most perfectly cooked piece of fish I have ever eaten, hands down. I’m not sure if you can see this from the close up photo, but the meat of the fish was opalescent, almost translucent, flaking apart with just the slightest nudge with the back of your spoon. The fish was very nicely seasoned and the green tea added a nice meaty, rich mouthfeel, but did not overpower with bitterness. The sweetness of the celeriac puree toned down the overall saltyness of the fish, a classic combination of flavors, but it works. The onion was caramelized expertly, probably very quickly deep fried, but wasn’t burnt despite some very thin exposed layers of the onion. The sorrel tried to balance the overall dish with some sharp acidity, but i felt it was a little too acidic for my liking. Very good
Next, the maitre d brought out a cheese course, and we opted to have a sampling of everything they had. I eat and appreciate cheese quite a bit, but I am by no means an expert, my sister knows her cheeses far more than I do. Most of the cheeses were nice, one of them was absolutely shite(my sister described it as ‘this is what horse piss would taste like if I drank horse piss’), I agree with her, not that I know what horse piss tastes like. And the end of all the cheeses(we were told to eat it in a specific order) was a 2-year old aged gruyere. I have to say from the bottom of my heart that tasting this was like a revelation, it was incredibly complex, sweet, nutty, salty, slightly bitter, a little acidic on the tongue, all these flavors came in waves and when all of it was melted in your mouth, every flavor came together to form the most intense and amazing taste, then it was quickly gone and you just kept wanting more. Yes, a lot of ‘this was the best ___ I ever ate’ in this meal, but this really was the best cheese I’ve ever tasted. The maitre d seemed to agree because she happily told us that it was her favorite as well
Apple tart with caramel sauce
The tart was as delicious as it was a thing of beauty. My sister just informed me that this tart is one of Passards signature dishes as I’m typing this(I’m not the pastry guru in the family), but even I could take appreciation to the amount of detail they put into it, rolling puff pastry to resemble a rose, with a single cashew nut at the center of each rose. The pastry was supremely crisp and separated into its ‘individual buds’ with ease. The caramel sauce lent moisture to the pastry without being too sweet, so you could taste the freshness of the apple. Very good
At this point we were rushed out of the restaurant by our tour guide/driver because we were already late for our tour at the Eiffel tower, a beautiful tray of petit fours consisting of a tomato macaron, quince macaron, dark chocolate bonbon with lavender, white chocolate bonbon with thyme, a nougat, were all quickly gobbled up by me. By gobbled, I really mean gobbled, it wasn’t surprising to see disapproving looks from surrounding Frenchmen in suits, but sorry guys, when you gotta bounce, you just gotta bounce. I enjoyed the nougat and the macarons best, but it would’ve been nice so savor the desserts properly.
This was one of the best 3 star meals Ive had, the food is not overworked and there is an underlying philosophy behind the food cooked at L’Arpege. Letting the natural, raw flavours of the ingredients shine is a mantra that has been repeated over and over by many chefs, but at a 3 Michelin level, chefs constantly feel the need to raise the game, to elevate the ingredients to their maximum potential, and this can easily mean overworking a dish; L’Arpege does not fall into this trap
The food is pretty as it is delicious, intensely flavoured while maintaining a lightness about it, there is a lot of balance in each dish that most diners will find easy to appreciate, whether or not you choose to scrutinize each dish. Service is top notch and all servers, even the ones who weren’t fluent in English, were more than happy to answer our questions and requests(The driver had asked them to push out our last 2 courses quickly and they were happy to oblige). The Maitre’d walks around the restaurant, ensuring that any needs are swiftly attended to, all this being done with no air of pompousness about the place. There are many 3 star restaurants in Paris that I’m sure are worth visiting, and I haven’t visited them all, but I will definitely be revisiting L’Arpege the next time I’m in Paris again.