The Adria brothers of elBulli and Rene Redzepi of noma have been the most visibly influential individual chefs of the past twenty years, while Japanese cuisine has undoubtedly been the single most influential cuisine of that time period. However, no discussion of culinary influencers during that period is complete without an inclusion of Allan Passard and his restaurant L’Arpege. There is probably one underlying connection between all of the above influencers – the importance of quality product whether the product be a luxury item or a humble one. Passard certainly uses both and uses them in ways to highlight and extract the very best of what his products contain and represent. This past February my son, Lawrence, and I had the pleasure to finally dine at Passard’s iconic Paris three Michelin starred restaurant.
Chefs become known for their creativity based on essentially three things: technique, style and product. The best chefs utilize all three to the utmost, but perhaps in varying degrees of importance or visibility. The Adrias had access to and utilized great product at elBulli, but they were most well known for their techniques and their style. Redzepi utilizes cutting edge technique at noma, but his restaurant is perhaps better known for style and product. The technique used in Pasard’s kitchen is impeccable and the style presented on our plates was unique and beautiful but, like the Japanese, where Passard’s influence appears to have shone most brightly is with his devotion to accentuating the inner and outer beauty of his stellar ingredients, particularly, but not limited to vegetables. A little over ten years ago, Passard made news by eschewing cooking and serving meat at his restaurant in favor of concentrating on the art of cooking vegetables. Since then, Passard has continued his love affair with vegetables, but has also resumed serving meats. It is precisely his ability with and focus on those vegetables that has made him such an influential chef. Ten years ago, such a focus was highly unusual. Today, to a great degree due to his influence, it is not so unusual.
My son and I discovered that Passard’s dishes, though not elaborate in presentation, were hardly simple. Each dish focused on bringing out the most of the specific ingredients on the plate either by highlighting the flavors and textures of a few specific products or by integrating them into a novel whole. Passard’s is a style that many have adopted, but few have mastered. He is one of the masters.
Our reservation for lunch was on the early side and followed a visit to the nearby Musée d’Orsay, home of arguably the greatest collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art in the world. It turned out to be a perfect segue based on the impressions L’Arpege left on us. We entered a room that was still mostly empty. Bathed in warm tones of gold, white, silver and cafe au lait, the dining room was elegant and a bit understated. It was accented with hand made Lalique panels suggesting a devotion to Bacchus that would soon be evident on our table.
We were given a table by a window, the light from which was muted by the gray day outside. It was a lovely spot from which to survey the restaurant and gradually watch it fill.
Each table has a centerpiece of gorgeous, pristine vegetables, thereby clearly stating what the focus of the meal was to be. Our table was garnished with radishes. These radishes were beautiful, but not in a polished, plastic way. Small blemishes of minor imperfection only served to accentuate the passion with which they had been grown and brought to this specific table.
Shortly after we were seated, we were offered a glass of Louis Roederer 2007 Brut Rosé Champagne. It was a very civilized way to help us relax as we dried off from our post-museum trek.
Our first tastes of food at L’Arpege were three small vegetable tartelettes each. One was celery and parmesan, the next carrot and the third beet root and honey. These were exquisite little bites with crisp crusts and pure expressions of the vegetables.
I often opt for pairings when I have tasting menus, but here I chose to go with a bottle of Nicolas Joly, Clos de la Bergerie 2007 from the Savennieres in the Anjou region of the Loire. Joly is one of my favorite producers. His biodynamic methods are legendary and often result in individualistic wines of great minerality and character. This Chenin Blanc was not an exception to that and it proved to be an outstanding pairing for the greater part of the meal, which was somewhat surprising given the wine’s high alcohol content, a whopping 15%. Yet, the wine was so well balanced and complex, the alcohol didn’t even register.
Butter is an ingredient often taken for granted in restaurants, but the butter at L’Arpege is legendary and a symbol of Passard’s commitment to quality ingredients. It comes from the house of Jean-Yves Bordier in St. Malo in Brittany and lives up to its reputation. This butter is no mere accessory.
Great butter deserves great bread. Not surprisingly, the bread at L’Arpege fit the bill. Nice and crusty, but not burnt, it had a soft, fluffy crumb and plenty of flavor. It was a combination that gave pleasure worthy of a three Michelin starred restaurant.
The first true course was a fondant egg prepared with a lobster coral emulsion and garlic. Passard, though perhaps most influential in today’s high end kitchens for his way with vegetables, may very well be most well known for his egg dishes, especially the famous L’Arpege Egg served in the shell. We were not served a version of that particular dish, but instead received this egg dish in this place of honor. The yolk was a brilliant orange and added depth, creaminess and luster to this extremely elegant and delicious preparation.
I don’t often see a salad served during a tasting menu, but we had one served as our second course. Almond praline with “red-meat” radish, mixed greens and Parmesan cheese abetted a light sesame and ginger vinaigrette boldly defied that convention and held its own, demonstrating that even simple and rustic preparations of stellar ingredients deserve a place in fine dining. Passard grows most of the restaurant’s vegetables at farms he owns and transports the product daily to the restaurant.¹
Being winter, there was an emphasis placed on root vegetables. Multicolored beet was sliced thin and draped over sushi rice along with horseradish and fig leaf oil to create a vegetable sushi that looked like a classic Japanese fish preparation. It wasn’t fish, but it was indeed “sushi” and extraordinary. The dish was subtle, but fantastic with flavors and textures that my son described as something that he “could eat all day – for breakfast, lunch and dinner.” I couldn’t argue with his assessment. This was pure deliciousness.
At a Michelin three star restaurant one expects perfection and one usually gets it. This ws no exception to those expectations. This was the consummate consommé. Clear as glass and with flavor deep as the ocean, it was revelatory. The pasta of the ravioli was sheer and delicate without any hint of mistreatment. The textures were beautifully rendered ideals, but they did not shout with extreme contrasts. There was variety subtly handled. The meatless though not vegan start to this meal made me a believer in Passard’s vegetable fanaticism.
Though billed as “hot” the oyster was barely warmed through. It was a pristine specimen with accompaniments that highlighted and complemented its natural brine. Once again, Passard’s team demonstrated blissful subtlety in their approach and technique.
L’Arpege was not above serving a dish rustic both in appearance and origin. This cold torte with a side salad, further delved back into a meaty world that started with the prior oyster and did so with outstanding skill and grace. It may have been a relatively rustic dish, but was no less pleasurable for it. It’s very rusticity along with its delicious flavors and satisfying textures elicited a sense of sitting by a fire at an elegant country retreat. This was haute rustique, equally at home in a Parisian three star or a country estate. A preparation as wonderful as this made us wonder how we in America ever drifted away from regularly eating offal.
This was a luxury dish that played on visual and textural contrasts. The dressing was light and allowed the main ingredients to shine, providing subtle accents. Black pepper was the main highlight. I detected hints of electric/metallic spice that one would find with Szechuan peppercorns, but if that was indeed in here, there was only just enough to provide a haunting presence, a slight hint of something exotic.
When this was set at our places, our server said, “That is very nice. I love this preparation.” My son and I laughed as we thought about the wonderful preparations that had preceded it. We quickly discovered that she was not exaggerating. It was indeed a wonderful preparation, even amongst the august company of what had come before it. This was absolutely decadent and a pure expression of food. The finish of the smoked ham chantilly packaged the sweetness, took it to the post office and sent it first class, instant delivery to our taste buds.
This dish brought us back to vegetarian bliss with more black truffles and fine celeriac “noodles.” The truffles dominated the flavor of the dish, which was quite nice, but I actually hoped that we wouldn’t start having the truffles in every dish. While I do enjoy melanospora and was happy to have them in a few dishes, their flavor tends to dominate and I wanted to experience the underlying cuisine more than I wanted the one note symphony of the truffles. If I could be a frequent visitor to L’Arpege, an occasional all truffle menu would indeed be a treat, but given the difficulty of getting there on anything more than a sporadic basis, it was important to me to experience the breadth of Passard’s particular genius.
My concerns regarding the truffles were unfounded. We got to enjoy them to an appropriate degree and got to experience the fabulous realm of Arpege cooking in a myriad of ways. The vegetable Merguez was sheer genius. This North African inspired dish was as beautiful as it was delicious. This was yet another spectacular dish that didn’t punch anyone in the face. Each little bite had its own ebb and flow of flavor and texture.
The over-riding flavor of the dish was cream. It was a wonderfully rich dish conjuring memories of classic French cooking, but with a modern approach. It was a luxury dish, but not a favorite for either of us, despite the finesse of the preparation. We may have preferred the dish had it been served earlier in the meal given its relative heft.
Passard’s kitchen returned to the light and delicious with this unique to my experience all vegetable pot-au-feu. It would seem that all vegetable pot-au-feu would be an oxymoron as pot-au-feu is traditionally French beef stew. There may not have been any beef, but the dish was “beefy”, rich and spectacularly delicious with a wide variety of textures including some vegetables that had a “fatty” feel to them similar to marrow. This was extremely impressive.
My wonder and admiration for the cuisine of Alain Passard continued to grow throughout the meal. This deceptively simple beet had been cooked in a salt crust and paired with an appropriately red wine sauce deftly flavored “with spices.” Passard’s team (he was away in Hong Kong at the time) did a wonderful job capturing all that is wonderful about beets and letting the main ingredient shine, but the magic of the dish was in the sauce that aided that very ingredient to shine so much and abetted it with terrific flavors of its own. Somewhat more bitter than I might have expected for a wine sauce, it carried spice notes that reminded me of northern Africa and brought the entire dish together in harmony.
Curiously, we were served a repeat dish – the salad from their gardens. We were told it was served to refresh our palates. They certainly kept us guessing.
While the flavoring of this dish was quite nice – the finger lime pulp aded a perfect citrus element – this was one of the only dishes that had technical imperfections. It was a touch overcooked and relatively dry. As such, it wasn’t up to the rest of the dishes that we had been served, but it was by most standards still quite good.
This was the most unusual serving of lobster that I have ever experienced. It was cut lengthwise as a sliver from the head to the tip of the tail – a quarter lobster as it were. Unorthodox perhaps, but it was a perfect portion given the meal that we had had and its place in the progression. The lobster itself was as flavorful as lobster gets and the texture perfect. The wine sauce and the truffles served to underscore the delicacy and sweet tones of the crustacean. The truffles in particular were divine with the sauce. The kitchen had returned to its full glory.
Our final savory course was a study in chicken. Cooked en cocotte and served with its own liver, heart, crosnes, jerusalem artichoke, salsify, potato and thyme gnocchi and celery, this was a spectacularly simple denouement to a stupendous savory slate of dishes. It is no wonder that Passard has the reputation he does, both with vegetables and with flesh. His product is second to none and his and his team’s ability to bring out the best is stunning. Ironically, this was the very first time we had been served chicken during our two week European culinary adventure.
When the mignardises came to our table strait away from the savory courses, I was initially a bit disappointed. I am used to finishing a meal with mignardises and it struck me that we had missed dessert. Now, I was no longer particularly hungry, but I did want to experience as much of L’Arpege as I could. Fortunately, Passard’s famous reworking of an apple pie, his little apple tart “roses” was amongst the mignardises along with two types of macarons (beet with fig and carrot with orange), two types of nougats (fig with hazelnut and smoked hazelnut) and two different bon bons (sage with white chocolate and rosemary with dark chocolate). As we were savoring what I imagined were our final treats of this amazing lunch, our official desserts were brought to the table.
A thousand layers is the translation of mille fieulle and this took that almost literally. Light, flaky and packed with wonderful dark chocolate flavor this was a tour de force of French patisserie. Our lone formal dessert, this provided incredible quality in lieu of quantity, a choice I would take every time. In retrospect, I appreciated the marvelous mignardises more at the beginning of the dessert segment than I typically do at the end, when it just comes off as excessive. The combination was perfect providing enough of a well balanced sweet kick without sending us over the edge into the abyss. At the end of the meal, as is tradition at L’Arpege we were each presented with our lovely L’Arpege knives as a generous remembrance of the meal.
Our lunch at L’Arpege was simply spectacular. Clearly, technical prowess was of extreme importance in the preparation and presentation of the meal, but not as an end in itself. The utmost skill was necessary to allow these remarkably wonderful ingredients to shine at their brightest.² The little nuances that were present to enhance the subtleties of Passard’s product were enough to elevate the meal from something that would have been simply remarkable to a meal that was absolutely sublime. Along with an elegant, but unpretentious room and stellar service befitting one of the very best restaurants on the globe, the entire meal was unforgettable. We had enjoyed a number of truly outstanding meals on this trip, but here we had indeed saved the best for last.
¹ For an excellent, thorough discussion of Passard’s farms as well as other details of his career and the restaurant, see this classic blog post from Food Snob.
² Additional insights into Passard, his restaurant and his food can be gleamed from a newly published graphic illustrated book on that subject entitled In the Kitchen with Alain Passard: Inside the World (and Mind) of a Master Chef by Cristophe Blain.