Paris July dining report
A report from a recent honeymoon to Paris and the Basque Country. The rest of the French can be found here:
And the eating from the Spanish part of the trip can be found here:
We went here twice, two weeks apart, and were extremely impressed. I'd expected the restaurant to be good but a little overrated. Yet I don't think I can criticise the food at all, and there were a couple of dishes that matched anything else we ate travelling and were just so satisfying. Fish at Spring is prepared in a slightly more inventive manner than meat. The highlights from both dinners were a red mullet dish, the first time a la plancha, stuffed, together with a fish soup; the second time with olives, fried green tomatoes and fresh almonds. We also had an extraordinary miscellany of eggplant/aubergine preparations that exhibited so many flavours (caviar, fried, pickled); and a hake and scored-squid dish with beans and bean puree that hummed.
Sitting upstairs both times, I'm a little surprised at the criticism the room's come in for. Seemed very modern-Parisian and pleasant. Others have said the majority (but certainly not all) of the diners seem to be English-speaking and that's true. I guess it therefore made sense -- although still seemed slightly unnecessary -- that the hostess immediately greeted us and the waiters spoke to us in English even though we are almost bilingual. The service tries maybe slightly too hard but that's no terribly bad thing and it at least lacks snobbery, like the restaurant in general. No complaints about the pricing, which seemed reasonable, although we would have appreciated a cheaper red wine by the glass being available.
Have already written about this and was maybe slightly too harsh. Ultimately everything tasted good. I was enraged by a ghastly, very vocal diner on a neighbouring table, which made me overreact. Within the framework of our holiday, though, it was certainly one of our worst value meals and I don't appreciate the presence of a dog and cat in the kitchen itself.
We ate lunch here twice, also two weeks apart at the beginning and end of the honeymoon, our third and fourth times eating at the restaurant. Both times were fantastic (the second utterly so) and the execution was a noticeable, incredible step higher the second time: for direct comparison, 3 of the dishes were the same but better -- especially the vegetable raviolis which really sung -- and we preferred the different other dishes we received. Particularly a tomato salad and a chicken dish that both spoke to the perfection of ingredients achieving a simple intricacy. The reason for the difference in the lunches? Perhaps the vegetables that came in that day happened to be better. Also the restaurant was a lot less busy and we said it was our honeymoon. Finally, we prefer the waitresses to the waiters at l'Arpege. The waitresses just manage to display the highest professionalism and conviviality we've encountered anywhere of this formality and, funnily enough, during our first lunch we were served almost exclusively by men, and during the second by women. In terms of the whole experience, we love l'Arpège, always admire its aesthetic, and enjoy returning there to sample some old favourites and to discover new things. It's great how they keep tinkering with dishes, like the apple tart which now features fewer but bigger "roses", which have fresh almonds slotted inside when they didn't before -- a definite improvement.
Here's what we ate on the second lunch, which speaks for itself:
potato crisps topped with vegetable garnishes; gazpacho with celery-mustard ice cream; vegetable raviolis with fennel-onion consomee; a thin layer of long-cooked red onion and parmesan, with purslane, thai basil and red currants; tomato salad with parmesan, fennel, thai basil, chives, onion, cabbage and strawberry; lobster with "transparency" of turnip and an agrodolce made with Passard's own honey; egg with spices, cream and maple syrup; warm cucumber and scallions with onion cream; monkfish, peas, smoked potatoes, chives, wine sauce; couscous with root vegetables, and a vegetable-harissa "merguez" sausage; poularde cooked with hay "en papillote", with smoked cabbage mousse and onions slow-roasted in their skins; cheese; tarte aux pommes, in roses, with salted caramel sauce; millefeuille with geranium cream-froth, raspberries and strawberries; petits fours
Finally found Pain de sucre and loved all the breakfasty offerings, in particular the pain au chocolat, so light yet crisp-flaky. Had a dark chocolate eclair at Jacques Genin and was wowed, a new benchmark. Bought snacks at the Patisserie des Rêves for the train much later in the day, so didn't try the Paris Brest that looked so enticing, but the madeleine (crazy amount of vanilla seeds) and chausson aux pommes were irresistible.
Hope you get a red mullet dish thimes! It has an amazing gently funky taste in France, we think. Coincidentally for our trip, I think the ones at Spring came from the Basque coast.
Wanted to add that for all the focus on Passard, l'Arpege runs a very tight ship without him. Or, I guess, he runs a tight ship without himself! For our first lunch of the trip he was eating but not cooking, no tour by him of the dining room. And for our second lunch he definitely wasn't around at all. The food, as I said, tasted even better.
Must say I've had a similar experience at l'Arpège three weeks ago. It was our second time there, first time for lunch. The lunch menu was excellent except a few items I found subpar (tomato salad was one of them... guess it really depends on the day you go). And these were mostly at the beginning of a lunch that went from good to divine.
Passard was only there at the end of the meal, and was clearly not cooking, but chatting with everyone.
Tarte aux pommes was indeed far better. I'd even say it went from "meh" to "excellent", like only second to my stepmother's (or, sometimes, mine, by extension).
It's definitely one of the places that make me nostalgic about Paris (with l'Ami Jean and Génin among others, while Gagnaire who runs one of my favorite restaurants is not), because I feel it could not exist anywhere else... I admit I've never been to Manresa, but I believe that while the philosophy must be somewhat similar, the whole experience is necessarily very different too.
All that drivel to say that, while I believe some of the "horror stories" about l'Arpège, it clearly is on my top list for Paris restaurants.
Agree, the tarte aux pommes was more visual than delicious before. And yes, there's something very nostalgically unique about the total experience at l'Arpège, for lunch, when we feel what you're paying is fairer. Oh, the way they carry around everyone's chicken and millefeuille!
I personally don't think any of the fanciest restaurants we've tried here in New York can match that or I guess their aesthetic just isn't as aligned with what we like. When we went to l'Ambroisie in January that was also wonderful but so expensive that we can't feel as nostalgic about it or go back very soon!
Are you saying Gagnaire isn't nostalgia-inducing?