Alain Passard is one of the iconic chefs of France, and has held three Michelin stars since 1996. In his earlier career he became a two Michelin star chef at the tender age of 26 at Casino d’Enghien, in 1986 purchasing an existing restaurant (l’Archetstrate) from celebrated chef Alain Senderens, and renaming it Arpege, after the perfume from Lanvin. Passard caused a major stir in culinary circles in 2001 when he announced he was going to concentrate on vegetarian dishes, and although there are now meat dishes on the menu, vegetables are still the star. Passard gets his vegetables from his own dedicated farms and gardens in the northwest of France, shipped daily by train to the restaurant: they are of superb quality.
Arpege has an unprepossessing exterior, tucked away in a street near the Museum of the Army in the 7th arrondisement of Paris. The dining room is simply decorated, with relatively small tables placed quite close together. The room is carpeted with some wood panelling along the walls. The only real luxury in the décor is the set of Lalique glass insets in the wood panels. The full-blown tasting menu with truffles, which is what we went for, was €360 (£300) per person on my most recent visit, but there was a cheaper lunch tasting menu available at €130. From the à la carte menu, starters ranged in price from €58 - €96, main courses were €80 - €182, and desserts were priced at €34 to €40. Water was €7.50 a bottle.
The wine list stretched over 33 pages, and was all French other than a single page of wines from elsewhere in the world, plus a few German wines. Mark-ups were not as high as in many top Paris restaurants, though they varied considerably through the list. Growers were top-drawer, although the dessert wine list was surprisingly limited, with a rather small choice by the bottle and just a single wine by the half bottle (and that one being Yquem). Examples from the list included Chard Florine J F Ganevat Blanc 2008 at €65 for a wine that retails at around €16, the lovely Carl Schubert Maximin Grunhaus Abtsberg Riesling Spatlese 2008 at a hefty €120 for a wine that you can find for €20 in a shop, whilst Pontet Canet 2004 was €210 for a wine that will set you back around €88 in the high street. At the prestige end of the list, Vega Sicilia Unico 1994 was €690 for a wine you can find for €314, and Chateau Latour 1982 was €5,300 compared to a retail price of about €1,922. We drank Trimbach Cuvee Frederich Emile 2005 at €100 for a wine that you can find in a shop for €36.
A set of little tartelettes appeared as we looked at the menu. A tartelette of Parmesan and celeriac featured superbly delicate pastry and celeriac with terrific flavour, as had tartlets of black radish. However even better were the tartlets of beetroot and parsnip puree, smoking of the beetroot in the process giving a fabulous flavour to the puree. This was an impressive start to the meal, immediately showcasing vegetables (20/20). Bread was excellent, made with natural yeast and served with butter from St Malo (19/20 bread).
A long-term signature dish at Arpege has been the “hot cold” egg. An egg shell is the presentation vehicle for warm egg yolk with sherry vinegar and maple syrup, spices and a little salt, covered with a layer of cold cream. The key to the success of this dish is the quality of the eggs used and the perfect balance of the vinegar with the sweetness of the syrup, together with the blend of hot and cold temperature elements. A deceptively simple dish, and yet a lovely start to the meal (20/20).
Next was a carpaccio of scallops with black truffles, pretty presented as alternating discs, garnished with rocket leaves and drizzled with olive oil. The scallops were of dazzling quality, their superb sweet flavour pairing well with the earthiness of the truffles (20/20). The best dish of the meal now arrived. Ravioli of vegetables rested in a consommé of Jerusalem artichoke and celery. Such a simple description does not do justice to the stunning purity of flavour that came through in the consommé. The ravioli was of flawless texture, the mixed vegetable filling of the pasta again showing off a quality of vegetables that is hard to imagine if you are used to the calibre of vegetables that we see in the UK in Michelin-starred restaurants. This was a deeply impressive dish, something whose memory will live me for a long time (20/20).
It was hard to follow a dish like that. Next was a Parmesan gratin of onions with black truffle, another famous dish here, and another whose raw description does not do it justice. The Cevennes onions used here are the finest of all onions, having a mild, sweet flavour, here caramelised to further enhance their natural sweetness, the flavour combining beautifully with the Parmesan and top quality black truffles: terrific.
Next was zander with lime oil and green tea, with an orange and carrot mousseline. The fish was perfectly cooked (it had actually been cooked in a salted crust), the acidity of the orange an interesting balance to the slight sweetness of the carrot (19/20). This was followed by a “vegetable couscous”. Yellow beetroots, red beetroots and radishes were given an extra textural element of semolina flavoured with nutty argan oil. Amongst this was a particularly impressive vegetarian sausage, the filling of red vegetables and spices creating an effect reminiscent of the taste of a meat sausage, yet entirely vegetarian (except for the sausage skin itself). This dish was again all about the sheer quality of the vegetables, the beetroot in particular having remarkable flavour (20/20).
The next dish was lobster from Chausey (islands off the coast of Normandy), which was presented at the table prior to the meat being extracted from the shell and served. The lobster was cooked in vin jaune made with a Jura wine and flavoured with truffle, served with smoked potato. As one might expect by now, the cooking of the lobster was flawless, the meat tender and having lovely flavour, the smoked potato and truffle flavours balancing the shellfish well (between 19/20 and 20/20).
My final savoury course was quail simply roasted with black cardamoms, served with a little of the cooking juices and confit garlic and onions. Again it is hard to do justice to just how good this dish was, the quail having fabulous flavour and being cooked to perfection. I am particularly fond of quail and have eaten it in top restaurants many times over the years, but I have never eaten a better quail than this (20/20).
Cheese is supplied by Bernard Antony of Alsace, and it was interesting see that Arpege does not serve a full cheese board, but selected just a couple in perfect condition, Moelleux du Revard and Gruyere in this case, served with more smoked potato. The main dessert was a magnificent chocolate millefeuille with exceedingly delicate pastry, a lovely and rich yet delicate dessert (20/20). This was followed by a superb little apple tart with almonds with a caramel sauce, another dish that could not be faulted. Even the mignardise kept up the standard, with a miniature version of the apple tart, the best nougat I have tasted, ethereally light macaroons, a financier with sage, and both white and dark chocolates.
What is impressive to me is the simplicity of the cooking at Arpege. Many dishes have just two or three elements, but employing impeccable ingredients and put together with flawless technical skill. There is nowhere to hide with such cooking, but time after time in this meal I was struck by the remarkably purity of flavour of the dishes; here cooking is stripped back to its essentials. Of course there is always a reckoning for such indulgence. The bill came to €479 (£400) per person including drinks, which is clearly a great deal of money for a meal. But what a meal.
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