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December

21

2003
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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, Arpège.

Alain 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 ago he went vegetarian. Lauren 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 Jeffrey Steingarten's books. 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 their ingredients.

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 of it.

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 Pain au 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 excellent 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 Poached Egg 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 once-in-awhile.

Now let's get serious. Tomato 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 fusion.

Next up was Carrot 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) very nice.

Martini glasses then arrived filled with Beetroot Jelly with Sweet Onions. The beet flavors were super focused, and the onions were so crunchy. The contrast was sheer goodness. Lauren got a Tomato 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 Smoked 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 Sweet and 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 Tomato and Orange Gratin with Reggiano. Each ingredient came through strongly and the entire dish was excellent.

Monkfish 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 Spinach 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 pyramid of gray salt. Apparently a beetroot had been cooking inside the pyramid for 2 hours. It was carved tableside, much like you might see a steak carved tableside. And then it was served simply with, oh, 25 year old balsamic vinegar. A generous amount to boot. Even 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 farm fresh chicken arrived. It looked 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 from over.

26-passard2.jpgDessert rolled in with style and creativity. First a cheese plate. Excellent. Then Tomatoes stuffed with Fruits and 12 Secret Flavors and Mint Ice Cream finished 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 gorgeously creamy.

Just when we thought we had seen it all, along came an 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 mile".

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. Passard's 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.

 
     
     
     
     
     

 

 

 

 

 

   

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  Garlic has long been credited with providing and prolonging physical strength and was fed to Egyptian slaves building the giant pyramids. Throughout the centuries, its medicinal claims have included cures for toothaches, consumption, open wounds and evil demons. A member of the lily family, garlic is a cousin to leeks, chives, onions and shallots. The edible bulb or "head" grows beneath the ground. This bulb is made up of sections called cloves, each encased in its own parchmentlike membrane. Today's major garlic suppliers include the United States (mainly California, Texas and Louisiana), France, Spain, Italy and Mexico. There are three major types of garlic available in the United States: the white-skinned, strongly flavored American garlic; the Mexican and Italian garlic, both of which have mauve-colored skins and a somewhat milder flavor; and the Paul Bunyanesque, white-skinned elephant garlic (which is not a true garlic, but a relative of the leek), the most mildly flavored of the three. Depending on the variety, cloves of American, Mexican and Italian garlic can range from 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches in length. Elephant garlic (grown mainly in California) has bulbs the size of a small grapefruit, with huge cloves averaging 1 ounce each. It can be purchased through mail order and in some gourmet markets. Green garlic, available occasionally in specialty produce markets, is young garlic before it begins to form cloves. It resembles a baby leek, with a long green top and white bulb, sometimes tinged with pink. The flavor of a baby plant is much softer than that of mature garlic. Fresh garlic is available year-round. Purchase firm, plump bulbs with dry skins. Avoid heads with soft or shriveled cloves, and those stored in the refrigerated section of the produce department. Store fresh garlic in an open container (away from other foods) in a cool, dark place. Properly stored, unbroken bulbs can be kept up to 8 weeks, though they will begin to dry out toward the end of that time. Once broken from the bulb, individual cloves will keep from 3 to 10 days. Garlic is usually peeled before use in recipes. Among the exceptions are roasted garlic bulbs and the famous dish, "chicken with 40 cloves of garlic," in which unpeeled garlic cloves are baked with chicken in a broth until they become sweet and butter-soft. Crushing, chopping, pressing or pureeing garlic releases more of its essential oils and provides a sharper, more assertive flavor than slicing or leaving it whole. Garlic is readily available in forms other than fresh. Dehydrated garlic flakes (sometimes referred to as instant garlic) are slices or bits of garlic that must be reconstituted before using (unless added to a liquid-based dish, such as soup or stew). When dehydrated garlic flakes are ground, the result is garlic powder. Garlic salt is garlic powder blended with salt and a moisture-absorbing agent. Garlic extract and garlic juice are derived from pressed garlic cloves. Though all of these products are convenient, they're a poor flavor substitute for the less expensive, readily available and easy-to-store fresh garlic. One unfortunate side effect of garlic is that, because its essential oils permeate the lung tissue, it remains with the body long after it's been consumed, affecting breath and even skin odor. Chewing chlorophyll tablets or fresh parsley is helpful but, unfortunately, modern-day science has yet to find the perfect antidote for residual garlic odor.  

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