l'Arpège -- March 2008 report
(pictures can be seen here: http://www.alifewortheating.com/paris...
I had planned this trip for weeks. Months, really. A series of e-mails urging Adam to set up our reservations ensured that we had a great week of eating ahead, if he didn’t kill me first for trying to make the schedule just right. One thing was certain, though — we would not miss l’Arpège for anything. You see, my favorite chef on the planet happens to be a disciple of Alain Passard. And from what I had read about l’Arpège and what I’d eaten at Manresa, the signs were all there: the stunning technical virtuosity without the sacrifice of soul and whimsy, the dedicated garden growing vegetables for the restaurant, even the Arpège egg.
But who has the audacity to just walk in to a place that takes reservations two months ahead? Well, people who can’t wait for their reservations later in the week, I suppose. On the walk to the restaurant, Adam wondered which language he should use to beg ask for a table — French or English. But luckily a female lunch companion far more attractive and charming than either Adam or I could ever hope to be had beat us there. She had apparently worked some magic, and the huge smiles that greeted us as we walked in the door suggested that we might receive a hug or perhaps a complimentary shoe shine in addition to the table for four in the corner.
We had come in at noon, so for a while the only people we shared the dining room with were the lovely maître d’, Hélène Cousin, and a few members of the waitstaff. But a handful of other parties came and went during the course of our long meal, half-filling the small restaurant. We took at look at the 8-course Pleine Terre, Pleine Mer (135€) lunch menu but we were also drawn to every single many a la carte items, so Hélène kindly offered to put together a longer custom tasting menu for us. In the mean time the sommelier suggested a bottle of wine — Domaine Laroche Chablis Premier Cru Les Vaillons Vieilles Vignes 2004 — whose flavor was bright, crystalline, and limpid. Just kidding! That’s just what these guys said about it.
For better mental clarity in making such important choices, we drank some champagne while we decided which a la carte dishes to add on to the tasting menu. Thankfully this took a while, and a parade of canapés began to arrive in the mean time. There were four small tarts featuring winter vegetables in different combinations: beet, radish, turnip, celery root, cauliflower, and carrot. Then came thick slices of fresh bread cut from a huge round loaf — a nice delivery system for the stunning Beurre Bordier. Our five-hour lunch was now officially underway.
I have a hard time imagining an amuse-bouche more compelling than Passard’s signature Oeuf à la coque – quatre épices. It is at once simple and complex; both satisfying and interesting. A coddled egg yolk is served in its shell, topped with crème fraîche, Xérès vinegar, maple syrup, fleur de sel, black pepper, nutmeg, clove and cinnamon. The beauty here is in the balance — between sweetness and acidity, richness and lightness, depth and clarity. My immediate reaction was simply to smile as I thought of the great meal that this one little mouthful foreshadowed.
Next we had a small silver bowl of the Parfum d’hiver — crème soufflée au speck. The “perfume of winter” here was a creamy celery root velouté topped with a dollop of chantilly infused with the flavor of speck, a smoky Italian ham. Rarely does white-on-white look or taste this good. The velouté on its own was smooth and thick, and the ham-infused cream was even more delicious than it sounds. The combination of the two was like a savory version of oeufs à la neige, the classic French dessert consisting of a light meringue floating atop a rich custard. Clearly we were off to a very good start.
Unfortunately, none of us particularly enjoyed the Pomme de terre fumée et chou vert — Côtes du Jura that came next. In fact it was probably the weakest point of the meal. A few wedges of smoked potato were flanked by leaves of green cabbage and topped with thin slivers of black truffle. The potatoes were so lightly smoked that the flavor was difficult to identify in the midst of the buttery, white wine-flavored foam. Worse yet, the potatoes were also a bit undercooked to my taste, providing more resistance to the bite than I would’ve liked. The truffles contributed little more than a contrasting color on the plate, as their aroma was fairly muted. Overall this was just not a dish that came together very well.
Likewise, we weren’t thrilled with the Fines ravioles potagères “belle saison” — consommé végétal. Small packets of diced onion were enrobed in pasta rolled so thin that it resembled wonton wrappers. They floated in a textbook sunchoke consommé — a clear liquid with a dark amber color, tasting purely of the vegetable from which it was made. The onion in the ravioli was still slightly crunchy, which meant that the flavor was a bit more pungent and less sweet than I had expected. There was also a bit of wholegrain mustard in the ravioli filling, which was a welcome addition but not enough to overcome the texture and flavor of the onion, which kind of killed the dish for me.
At the beginning of the meal, the maître d’ mentioned that there were two dishes not on the menu that featured some last-of-the-season black truffles. Maybe we’re indecisive or maybe we’re just gluttons, but we opted for both. The first of the two was the Gratin d’oignons doux à la truffe noire. To call this dish anything less than culinary alchemy would be doing it a huge disservice. Every bite is just so damn delicious that you have to keep reminding yourself — this is a dish primarily composed of onions! Of course the truffles elevated it beautifully, adding an earthy, musky aroma to complement the buttery sweetness of the onion. But once you realize that Passard has taken that luxurious ingredient and made it sing backup to the humble onion in this beautiful song, you know something special is going on in that kitchen.
Still floating among the clouds from the last course, we weren’t to be brought back down to earth anytime soon. Next up was the Palet de céleri-rave à la châtaigne — truffe noire. A half-inch thick disk of celery root was tiled with almost-translucent slices of chestnut and sprinkled with coarse bits of black truffle. I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen chestnuts presented like this, and I really liked how the thin slicing minimized the chalky texture they sometimes have. But the component that made this dish a knockout for me was the ultra-fine crumb layer tasting primarily of nutmeg that was spread across the top of the chestnut slices. This salty-sweet topping complemented the almost vanilla-like natural sweetness of the celery root and and contrasted the earthiness of the truffles. The texture of the celery root was just on the safe side of fork tender without being the slightest bit mushy, so it maintained its character. The aroma of this dish was truly intoxicating, and its overall flavor was no less alluring.
Having made many trips to Manresa over the past couple of years to sample David Kinch’s evocatively titled “Into the vegetable garden…” dish, one thing I was highly anticipating at l’Arpège was the Arlequin potager à l’huile d’argan — radis long noir, carotte purple haze, navet atlantic, salsifis, betterave forono. I heard a few comments around the table to the effect of “Wow, I’ve never had a ____ quite like this.” You could basically pick any vegetable on the plate — radish, carrot, turnip, salsify, beet — and the statement would remain valid. Alice Waters has been quoted as saying that you she could have any kid eating chard in six weeks, but you could give Chef Passard the most stubborn carnivores on the planet and he’d have them doing cartwheels in the dining room just to get another bite of his vegetables. I think the best way I can sum this dish up is to say that everything on the plate here tasted exactly like what it was, and I definitely mean that as a compliment. A bit of couscous added some textural contrast and the argan oil brought its nutty richness. But in the end this plate was just a happy walk through the garden with a chef who knows how to get the very best from it.
Then it was time for the second black truffle dish (yeah, the smoked potatoes and the fantastic celery root dish earlier didn’t count…) — Tagliatelles de céleri à la truffe noire. The celery root was cut into long, noodle-like ribbons, flanked by a buttery celery root foam, and topped with a tableside shaving of Périgord truffles. The texture of the celery root was too crisp to fool us into thinking it was actually tagliatelle, but I appreciated the whimsy of the presentation nonetheless. The flavors here were straightforward and delicious, though I think even one minute more of cooking time would have yielded slightly less al dente, and therefore more enjoyable, results. But honestly the positioning of this course at a point in the meal after both the onion gratin and the celery root/chestnut dish meant that it had some tough acts to follow, so perhaps I’m nitpicking here.
The next course on the printed menu was scallops, but they had informed us earlier that we’d be having abalone instead. Oh darn. Well if you only learn two French words before dining at l’Arpège, let it be these: Ormeau grillèe. I don’t even know how my description can do justice to a dish so simple yet so full of impact for me. In a meal with several very memorable courses, this might have taken the top spot for me. It was just a single fresh grilled abalone, brushed with butter and sprinkled with fleur de sel and lime zest. I took one bite and my immediate reaction was that the grill man in the kitchen ought to be sainted. My second reaction was one of pure satisfaction — I knew that nobody on the planet was eating quite as well as we were at that particular moment. In every bite I could taste the subtle sweetness of the abalone, the fiery char of the grill, the bright citrus top note, and the salt that elevated each of these flavors. I don’t know what else to say. I feel like the only thing for me to do right now is to stop writing and just think about this dish for a minute… Whew, okay. Moving on.
One item that never seems to leave the menu here is the Aiguillettes de Homard de Chausey — savagnin, so we definitely had to have it. Savagnin is a grape variety grown mainly in the Jura region of France, just east of Burgundy. It’s used to make vin jaune, the French “yellow wine” which makes up the tantalizing sauce that accompanied the lobster here. Now I’m not enough of a believer in the superiority of anyone’s tastes, much less my own, to call anything “cooked to perfection.” But I will admit that it sure was fun being tempted to do that for this course. Two gorgeous whole lobsters were presented tableside before being split lengthwise and plated. All the work of separating meat from shell was done for us, so we had easy access to the insanely tender, buttery and sweet flesh. I’m rarely patient enough to save the best for last, so I went right for the coral on the first bite. That wonderfully creamy mouthful made me so I happy I could’ve kissed someone, so I can only pat myself on the back for having had the foresight not to sit next to Adam on this particular occasion. Subsequent bites were no less delicious, and I should also give an honorable mention to the delicious mound of spinach, the lone vegetable on the plate save for a few paper-thin slices of asparagus. I think this dish was among the absolute favorites of the day for all of us.
A waiter then wheeled a small cart toward the table and made a dramatic announcement: “We are the only restaurant in the world that gets this cheese.” Now we’d had great dishes one right after the other for the past few hours, so I’m pretty sure we would’ve trusted anything that came through the kitchen door. And maybe his statement wasn’t completely correct — I’d tasted this very cheese at Manresa just a few weeks before this. But damn if this little preamble to our cheese course didn’t have us excited for a little Fromage de Bernard Antony — affineur. The cheese the waiter spoke of was just some plain old Comté. From 2003. From probably the most well-regarded affineur in France and therefore on the planet. We could get fancy and call Bernard Antony a cheese optimization specialist, but I prefer to think of him as The Cheese Whisperer. His business is taking cheeses and basically turning them into edible gold. His extremely aromatic Comté that we enjoyed at l’Arpège had a very crystalline texture and an assertively nutty flavor that lingered on the tongue without any foreseeable end. The flavor was so concentrated that the aftertaste even felt a bit astringent on the tongue. We also sampled a second cheese whose name I can’t remember, and the wheel it came from was about the size of a small car tire. This one had a slightly softer texture and a more buttery flavor. The four of us were split on which cheese we preferred (my choice was the car tire), but this course’s simple presentation without any unnecessary accompaniments was very enjoyable for all of us.
There were four desserts on the menu, and four of us. Quite a convenient position to be in, but two desserts in particular were just begging to be ordered. The first was the Praliné de pistache à l’ancienne au chocolat noir — soufflé. The menu description suggested a beautiful thing: the powder made from grinding up caramelized sugar-coated pistachios had been incorporated into a soufflé. How could that possibly be bad? The soufflés were whisked so quickly from the oven to our table that they still stood tall and proud in the ramekins upon arrival. Dark chocolate ganache was then drizzled into a hole made in the center. The smell was fantastic, and so was the flavor. It tasted of pure pistachio, but got extra depth and richness from the dark chocolate so the combination had just the right bitter-sweet balance.
Lest we go hungry while waiting for the other dessert, they brought one the Sucrerie — 3 macarons du jardin. The waiter challenged us to guess the flavors of the three macarons, but I ate way through the other goodies beforehand. There were licorice-flavored palmiers, almond shortbread, ganache-filled dark chocolate, and crunchy salted caramel meringue layered with chocolate puff pastry. Among the four of us, we were able to solve the macaron mystery — the three flavors were Jerusalem artichoke, carrot, and beet. Maybe they weren’t the very best macarons in Paris, but all were very flavorful and just slightly sweet.
Our other dessert was the Tarte aux pommes Bouquet de Roses© — création Hiver 2008. If I’ve ever seen a more beautiful apple tart, I certainly don’t remember it. This was really gorgeous. Thin slices of apples had been formed into small roses and placed like a bouquet in the buttery pastry crust. The texture of the cooked fruit was neither too soft and mushy nor too crisp and mealy. Instead it offered just the right resistance to the fork. The tart crust was flaky-tender and the fruit was juicy and sweet. Every bite with the accompanying caramel sauce was insanely delicious, so a little more caramel sauce or perhaps even a little vanilla ice cream could have put this dessert over the top. Nevertheless it was a delicious way to say goodbye.
I really liked how this last “bouquet” ended the meal in the same place that we had spent the majority of it exploring — the garden. The love and care that are put into selecting of the very best ingredients at l’Arpège is deliciously obvious. When the first bite of any of Passard’s beautiful vegetables hits your tongue, you might even wonder if his kitchen garden is in some sunny corner of Eden (the website claims it’s actually located near Le Mans. I’ll believe it when I see it.) The gracefully orchestrated progression of flavors that we tasted that afternoon delivered exactly what the menu title promised at the outset — “full earth, full sea”. The absence of any meat was an insignificant afterthought. But frankly it still would have been a completely reasonable reaction to cry tears of joy when any of the non-vegetable courses appeared, because they were as impeccably prepared as everything else, and perhaps even more so.
Even at the top level, it’s rare to find a place that so effortlessly combines truly great cooking technique with truly great ingredients, but that’s exactly what you get at l’Arpège. I also want to emphasize what a nice difference the staff made in our experience. The service was courteous, welcoming and refreshingly enthusiastic. They appeared and disappeared at all the right times. And they really made us feel like the guests of honor at very happy banquet for that whole afternoon. Sure we had spent a few euros to enjoy that feeling. But I defy you to taste that onion gratin, that lobster, or that abalone and tell me that that one delicious mouthful is not the only thing in the world that matters at that particular moment.