L'Arpege, Paris, France — We'd
been spending weeks in Europe - mostly in London, and some time in
Israel. Lauren and Alex
came to visit us. There was no way we could call the trip complete until
we ate at least a couple of meals in Paris. The
Eurostar train the goes
under the English channel between London and Paris is to convenient for
anyone to make any excuses about not dropping in for a visit. I've been
to Paris before, but it was many years ago when my obsession with food
was not quite as developed. So, we hopped on the train early one morning
and headed for Paris. First stop,
Passard is one of the most celebrated chefs in the world. He has been
awarded three stars by the Michelin Red Guide. And one day a few years
aside, the word strikes fear in the hearts of people who love food
everywhere. In a world of steamed vegetables why would anyone eschew
some of the most wonderful and delicious ingredients available? I won't
go into a lengthy discussion on the relative merits of vegetarianism
here. If you want a great discourse, go get
He writes at length about his own experiences as a recovering
vegetarian, Passard's fantastic cooking, and some of the realities
behind vegetarian claims and reasoning. Steingarten (as usual) sums up
the crux of Arpège perfectly (pardon my paraphrase): most chefs cook
vegetables because they have to. Passard cooks them because he loves
them. Wow. So simple. Imagine that. I wonder how many chefs love
I once asked a chef I know if he'd ever considered applying his
considerable talent to a different palate. He makes exquisite food where
the center of gravity of his dishes is from Northern Italy. Why not make
a meal of Indian or Thai food? I couldn't even imagine what incredible things he
might produce with the varied ingredients. He squashed my fantasy quickly when he said: "I don't
understand those ingredients. I like them. I enjoy eating them. But I
don't understand them deeply, and they don't speak to me. I couldn't
cook with them." Vegetables have spoken to Alain Passard. And I'm glad
We knew this going in, but the waistaff didn't know we had done our
homework. I have to say it was adorable when our waiter started off our
dialog by telling us that his "chef had fallen in love with vegetables".
We were obviously not local. I wonder if he has to warn the locals as
well that the menu has an unusual number of vegetable items.
First things first. Passard hasn't really gone
100% vegetarian. The menu is devoid of red meat though chicken and
seafood are quite present. That said, vegetables are very prominent
inluding the "Collection Légumière" - a ten course vegetable
tasting menu. Fish and fowl have taken on a lesser role on the menu.
Almost reminiscent of the role usually played by... vegetables. Lauren
was understandably excited. One of the best chefs on the planet is
purported to have a fabulous vegetarian dining experience.
If we were there to put ourselves in the
capable hands of the chef, we intended to do just that. When the waiter
handed us menus we told him that whatever the chef wanted to cook was
what we would eat. He should send out the best meal he could and we
would gladly eat it all. As usual our one restriction was Lauren's
rampant vegetarianism, but beyond that, bring it on. As we tried to
explain this to him, in order to confirm our request he kept saying
"white card", "white card". What the hell is a white card? To her
credit, Lauren realized, he was confirming that we were giving the chef
"carte blanche". A white card. White card it is.
It was at this point we spotted the
Levain sitting at a serving station in the dining room. It soon
found it's way to our table along with a huge mound of very salty but
butter. The butter is from St. Mazo. I should mention that Lauren
loves this bread even more than she loves Chez Panisse upstairs bread.
(Apparently this is high praise. As I haven't had the upstairs bread I
couldn't yet say.)
First up was a
with Maple Syrup and Sherry Vinegar. This first dish made it clear
that there would be no screwing around in this meal. Nothing wasted.
Nothing cliched. Everything special. This dish was a super unique
baseline for our palates. The sweet flavor served as an unexpected
foundation that got us excited for what was coming next. It was
interesting and quite delicious. Just when we thought we had understood
what was going on with the bread, Debbie got her second serving of bread
and this time it was toasted. Toasted! What the hell was going on here?
What kind of audaciousness was this? It was at this moment that I fell
in love with Pain au Levain (this moment being the moment I stole some
of Debbie's toast and smothered it in the salty butter). I also was so
excited by the simple creativity of giving us fresh toast almost
randomly. The bread kept rotating. I had to appreciate the diversity
even though I wished every time that more toast would show up on my
plate. The toast beguiled me. Why did I have to go to Paris to get
wonderful toast with my dinner? More restaurants should try this
Now let's get serious.
Gazpacho with Mustard Ice Cream. Weird? No. Eyebrow raising? Yes.
But think about it. Tomato Gazpacho with Creme Fraiche would be lovely.
How about if that Creme Fraiche were flavored with mustard? That would
make sense. Now freeze it. That's what we got. If we'd gotten this dish
at the French Laundry or Trio it probably would have been called Ketchup
and Mustard. That said, the name doesn't matter when you have two
flavors fused together so beautifully that you don't know where one
starts and the other begins. The acidity of each were a big part of the
Next up was
Consommé with Dumplings. I have decided that "melts in your mouth"
is an overused term. There is only one dish I've ever tasted that be
described using that phrase. This was it. You couldn't sink your teeth
into the dumplings because by the time your mouth closed, the little
raviolis had already melted on first contact with your tongue. The
dumplings were fleeting. The consommé was incredibly special with varied
flavors including carrot, cumin, and garlic. The dish also included
super concentrated aspects of tomato and date. This dish was inspired.
After eating it, a deep calm came over me. All I could say was "very
nice". That huge understatement was not meant as small praise, but came
from a place of incredible satisfaction where those were the only two
words I could muster. Because the dish in fact was truly (please read
the following words individually and remind yourself what they mean)
Martini glasses then arrived filled with
Jelly with Sweet Onions. The beet flavors were super focused, and
the onions were so crunchy. The contrast was sheer goodness. Lauren got
Cream Soup with Sweet Onions. Its yellow/green color belied the
hardcore tomato flavor within. Just when you thought pleasure couldn't
be simpler that beets and onions along came a simple plate of
Potatoes with Horseradish Mousse. How excited can you get about a
potato? How excited can you get when it's the most perfectly cooked
potato you've ever eaten.
At this point I suddenly remembered that I had
still not yet eaten fish, fowl, or meat of any kind. And the odd thing
was that I hadn't noticed. The dishes were so interesting, so exciting
that it just didn't matter. That said, lobster did arrive next. And
strangely enough though it was quite nice, it didn't attain the heights
of the previous dishes. It was a
Sour preparation of Lobster Wrapped in Turnip "Petals". Apparently
it's a signature dish of Passard's. I didn't fall in love as the lobster
was a little hidden by the sauce. Lauren however ended up with
Orange Gratin with Reggiano. Each ingredient came through strongly
and the entire dish was excellent.
Grilled for 2.5 hours with an Artisinal Style Sauce arrived next.
I'll admit that I'm not sure what that exactly means, but the fish was
beautifully flavored and textured. Still though not as memorable as the
earlier vegetable dishes. The veggie dish was
with Carrot Mousse, Sesame Sauce, and Candied Orange Rind. The
spinach was perfectly prepared. Don't underestimate how hard it is to do
that with this fragile green.
A silver dish arrived next to our table on a
serving table. On it was a
gray salt. Apparently a beetroot had been cooking inside the pyramid
for 2 hours.
carved tableside, much like you might see a steak carved tableside.
And then it was
simply with, oh, 25 year old balsamic vinegar. A generous amount to
Lauren's obsessive balsamic vinegar love affair could not make her
finish all the vinegar they gave her. The beet was simply fantastic.
For the rest of us a dish of
chicken arrived. It
beautiful. Unfortunately it didn't taste the same. It was a bit dry.
The vegetables that accompanied were either uninteresting or repeats
from before. How funny is it that with her more constrained menu,
Lauren's vegetarian fare outshone the few dishes we had with meat and
fish. I suppose Passard may not love chicken as much as vegetables. That
said, it by no means took away from the experience. It just made me
appreciate the first several dishes that much more. And things were far
Dessert rolled in with style and creativity.
cheese plate. Excellent. Then
Tomatoes stuffed with Fruits and
12 Secret Flavors and Mint Ice Cream
tableside. (We think it was mint. It could have been vanilla that
was made minty in our mouths by the contrast with the 12 secret
flavors.) Tomatoes for dessert? Tomatoes? Dessert? What the hell? One word - "stunning". The spices in
the fruit - yes, on this evening the tomato was a fruit not just
according to the letter of the law but according to the spirit as well - were absolutely vivid. I also have to admit that I loved that
the flavors were "secret". I don't think it was a KFC style marketing
ploy as much as it was simply very difficult to decipher the ingredients
from tasting given how complex the flavor was the was woven throughout
the dish. And while I'm not a mint/sweet fan, the Mint Ice Cream was
Just when we thought we had seen it all, along
enormous Millefeuille. A millefeuille is a several thin layers of puff
pastry with cream (or other fillings) in between each layer. It's
typically a dessert. This thing was huge. We saw it sitting on a plate in
a serving area and assumed it was enough for every patron there for lunch
with some left over. In fact it was to be divided between the four of us.
And when it showed up on our plates we dutifully ate it. Lucky thing. It
was flakey and yummy with hazelnut flavored cream. The top layer had a
wonderful glaze of burnt sugar. This is what it means to "go the extra
At one point late in our meal, something
special happened. The kitchen was winding down as most of the diners had
made it through the bulk of their lunch. Alain Passard - who had been
toiling away in the kitchen making our food, not off doing his show for
the food network (he doesn't have one), not traveling to Las Vegas
visiting one of the 13 other branches of L'Arpege (there aren't any),
and not working on the latest of his cookbooks (there aren't any) - came
out of the kitchen for a brief respite. And the assembled diners broke
into spontaneous applause.
face conveyed appreciation, humility, and a sense of humor. He sat
down, and enjoyed a bite to eat and a glass of wine.
This was simply one of the best meals any of
us had ever had. And it was simple. It was surprisingly and
significantly vegetarian. Passard loves the ingredients and he knows
them well. Lunch felt like an adventure. One without pretense. That
said, there is one thing I should mention. This lunch was the
single most expensive meal I've ever eaten. It was also probably one of
the most memorable. Most people can't afford to have the meal we ate.
That said, there were much less expensive fixed menu or even a la carte
options that would be accessible to most people. Even if all you can do
is go and order one dish, do it. Arpege and Passard are special, and
something that everyone should experience at least once.