Monday, April 11, 2011

l'Arpege, Paris France

The afternoon following the best meal of my life at Pierre Gagnaire’s eponymous restaurant on Le Rue Balzac my sister and I would find ourselves at another 3-starred eponymous (more or less) locale. Sure the small room located on la rue de Varenne has signage designating the space as l’Arpège but everything from the website to the history to the menu says Alain Passard. A former maître rôtisseur later converted to a disciple of “la cuisine légumière” I’d heard Passard’s story years prior and was instantly intrigued; how could you not be by a man who risked an already sterling reputation, restaurant, and career on such a dramatic change? Having myself undergone a significant renaissance in the way I thought about health, food, and dining in 2001 I’d invariably read more about Passard than any other chef over the last number of years and as such there was no doubt the restaurant would find its way into our itinerary.

Beginning with it’s own 100% natural and organic garden some 250 kilometers Southwest of Paris (and subsequently expanding to two additional farms with 14 farmers planting and harvesting through entirely non-mechanical techniques) the restaurant known by some as the most expensive in Paris and by others as “fussy vegetarian food,” for me represents a panacea – the way food should be cultivated, sourced, farmed, and served. With Passard’s dedication to perfection in his produce noted it should be no surprise that the reservation process was similarly perfect – an E-mail nearly three months in advance booked the table for Monday at noon, a call two days prior confirmed it, and our minimal questions were handled by a reservationist identified as Fleur.

Strolling through the heavily patrolled government district and arriving at l’Arpège nearly ten minutes early we were surprisingly the first guests of the afternoon and after a warm welcome we were given our choice of seats. Electing to sit closest to the wall with the famous Lalique glass tiles our chairs were pulled out for us and within moments our captain, a lovely woman with smiling eyes and a memorable laugh, greeted us warmly. Electing still water (the most expensive of the trip at 7,50€ per bottle) we sat and perused the room for a few moments before menus would arrive – blonde woods, hefty reds, white linens, plenty of sunlight, and centerpieces of preserved spring vegetables – natural and understated, as expected.

With the menu explained and the restaurant slowly filling to capacity we debated our choices for a short while before coming to a consensus – in order to optimize the number of dishes sampled one of us would select the lunch tasting and the other the full dinner tasting. Declining wine and confirming our selections to the captain we were complimented on our strategy and after making selections for the main course and a specific request for dessert the journey began. With each menu numbering ten proper courses I will note that due to our method of ordering and the generosity of the kitchen it actually turned out to be twelve proper courses each consisting of fifteen different plates plus amuses, mignardises, and more.

Starting things off our first taste of Passard’s cuisine was a flurry of “les Tartelettes” – two courses totaling twelve small pastry shells containing a mélange of vegetables including yellow beetroot and chopped garlic, red beetroot with chocolate sauce and sesame, and orange beetroot with parsley, radish and turnip. Clearly intended to show off the variety of his garden’s bounty early in the meal I loved the texture of the buttery pastry – a fainting glint on the tongue that gave way to a burst of nature; the first mild but pungent, the second sweet and smoky, and the last earthy and bitter.

After the second round of tarteletts was cleared our next visitor would be a frequent friend of the table – the bread server…or perhaps I should say the man who continuously replenished my delivery mechanism for the best butter on the planet. Beginning first with the bread, a warm house made Pain de Campagne nearly sourdough in flavor with a crunchy crust and soft crumb – it was excellent…at least I’m pretty sure it was. What muddles the picture was the butter – Bordier of course – but this time a whole level above any of the previous (or subsequent) selections and with a description more elaborate than even the Animal Farm butter at The French Laundry. Reportedly made bi-weekly specifically for Passard the butter was the beyond creamy – almost the texture of a soft cheese but infinitely smooth, packed with the finest sea salt in the world, and so fresh that it sweat…it was a butter so good that when the server went to remove our replenished triangle from the table at the end of the meal I instead asked him for more bread because I couldn’t bear to send it back.

Moving on to our first proper course of the menu – for one of us perhaps the most famous dish in Paris fine dining and for the other another take on a similar concept. Beginning first with the former, for my first course I was served the famous l’Arpège egg, more commonly known as “Oeuf à la coque; quatre épices.” Given my fondness for egg dishes and having already experienced David Kinch’s ode to this famous dish at Manresa nearly a year and a half prior I was appropriately excited when the cut egg from the Loire valley arrived and plunging my spoon deep the first bite brought back a flood of memories – the smooth yolk, the aromatic quatre epices, the sour crème fraîche and acidic vinegar mellowed by the maple syrup – it tasted exactly as my mouth remembered, a balance that lands squarely on every part of the tongue and fills the palate.

For Erika’s first course the afternoon would deliver “Oeuf Parfait Fantaisie,” a lovely dish in its own right though clearly not as famous as its counterpart. With a lightly poached egg anchoring the plate the “parfait” aspect of the dish was provided by creamy parmesan foam kissed with black truffles and freeze dried shrimp while fresh cut parsley and celery added a vegetal finish.

For our second course we would both receive a course that was listed only on my sister’s menu – “Musclun de Sylvain au praline de noisette a l’ancienne – mizuna, moutarde metisse, choho, roquette.” Again highlighting the diversity of Passard’s collection this course was described as a raw green salad featuring ingredients picked less than 8 hours prior and amongst the elements included were a rare variant of Sylvain musclun, feathery mizuna, crisp Japanese Choho, arugula, and Mustard Greens topped with lightly sweetened hazelnut vinaigrette, coarse almonds, sliced heirloom beets, and thinly shredded parmesan. Never one to rave a “simple” salad I will simply say this was as good as a salad can be – each ingredient a prime example and in harmony with its counterparts.

Much as I received Erika’s second course complimentary she would receive my third course on the house – in this case one of Passard’s most famous. Titled “Fines Ravioles Printanieres consommé amber – oignon red baron, chou cabus, oseille large de Belleville, ail thermidrome” each member of this quartet of ultra thin dumplings consisted of a different distinct flavor of finely-diced or pureed vegetables in a clean and clear broth kissed with saffron and ginger. With each pocked melting on the tongue the flavors of the afternoon consisted of red baron onion, green cabbage, Belleville red peppers, and roasted garlic with an aged cheese – each entirely distinct, mildly sweet, and the very essence of their respective ingredients.

For course four our paths would once again differ – this time substantially. For my sister, “Sushi printanier ail frais” was a unique dish and certainly not sushi in the traditional sense. While ruby-red and easily mistaken for tuna at a distance, this dish instead featured nicely prepared and slightly sweet white rice draped with a thin slice of beet accompanied with garlic oil, shaved beetroot and grated horseradish. Visually lovely, texturally impressive, and tasty without being overly spicy, but overall the least wowing dish of the afternoon.

As part of the more expensive tasting (actually more pricey than the entire lunch menu if ordered a la carte) my fourth course would be “Homard <> de Chausey au miel du jardin <> transparence de navet globe.” It would also be the best lobster dish I have ever tasted. Reportedly caught the day prior and transferred live to the restaurant prior to being poached in Bordier butter the lobster itself was tender, meaty, and succulent. Having had excellent lobster in the past, what put the tail over the top was the accoutrements – a layered veil of transparent globe turnips and beet root and sugar cane sauce infused with honey and lime. Impressive in both portion and presentation this was a dish where nothing was extraneous – a sum of flavors greater than the whole of its parts. It was incredible.

For the next course we would return to similar dishes once again, this time “Couleur, saveur, parfum et dessin du jardin cueillette ephemere” – roughly translated as Color, flavor, fragrance and designs of the fresh picked garden. A simple dish of orange and green, yet perhaps the dish that captured exactly what l’Arpège was all about in a single plate this pairing of Spinach with Carrot moussline left both of us with out mouths agape. With the spinach steamed and the carrot sieved, both prepared in Bordier and lightly accompanied with olive oil, onion compote, and golden sesame I think Erika summed this up best when she said “This is what happens when you take ideal vegetables and prepare them ideally.” Clearly enjoying this dish a great deal I will note that our server asked if we’d like another serving – an offer we graciously accepted.

Round six would again see our menus diverge though my 6th would end up being Erika’s seventh. Titled Robe des champs <> a l’huile d’argan – radis rudis, carotte ronde hative de Paris, chou rave noriko, pois mange-tout norli I believe the translation of this dish was something along the lines of unpeeled vegetables in Argan oil and thin vegetable sausages, however the plate was much more elaborate than that. Invariably the brightest of the afternoon’s creations this dish presented a cous-cous crafted entirely of finely diced of vegetables cooked with semolina intermingled with lightly cooked fresh vegetables in nutty Argan oil and perhaps most uniquely a small “sausage” made only of red vegetables with spicy Harissa. Almost a breakfast dish in some ways I loved the way this course fit in the progression of the menu for both of us despite the different timing.

Erika’s sixth dish of the afternoon was another item titled more in spirit than by ingredient – this one “Collection legumiere 2011 image du potager ce matin.” Described as the ‘chef’s whim’ course of the night, this plate featured a shallow saucer of bruleed golden onion gratin with Parmesan and Candied lemon. Shattering just like a crème brulee and clearly sweetened the interior of the plate was creamy and smooth – plenty savory but also just a little tart…to be honest, it could have served as a dessert or palate cleanser as much as it did as a savory.

With a small service glitch (a young man in a blue tie inexplicably came and stole our butter and bread plates after the sixth course) remedied by more butter and more bread the meal would progress next to Erika receiving the Robe des Champs while my seventh dish would deliver another special from the dinner menu, the (120€ ALC) Turbot de la pointe de Bretagne au <> pommes de terre <> fumes. A classic presentation poached in buttery smoked wine sauce and accompanied by cabbage, potatoes, and fine herbs the dish was clean, restrained, and pristine.

With the afternoon’s roast being paraded around the dining room in whole form our eighth course would bring a surprise – two distinctly different versions of my sister’s main course selection “Peche cotiere de la pointe de Bretagne grille sur ecailles;” for her “avec vin beurre” and for myself “avec the vert matcha.” Another simple but lovely fish the Sole from the Brittany Shore grilled with the scales alongside green cabbage and smoked potatoes was more meaty and less subtle than the Turbot but a sterling example none the less. With her buttery wine sauce similar to that on the Turbot though more sweet and less dry, the grassy green tea sauce accompanying my version was an inspired choice particularly for how it paired with the cabbage and herbs.

For our final savory I’d been given the choice of lamb or duck – the lamb specific to the dinner menu and the duck also my sister’s alternative option to the Sole on the lunch menu. With duck the obviously answer we were once again surprised when course nine arrived with two portions. Listed on the menu as “Rotisserie <> de Louise Passard grand crus du potager” and dating back to his Grandmother’s influence on his previous life as a maître rôtisseur this service presented a Salt roasted strip of rosy Challans Duck breast, confit of thigh, and a bone-in leg alongside confit carrot and onion, orange mousseline, fresh baby leeks and a finishing hibiscus flower sauce added tableside. Yet another dish with plenty of visual pop the duck itself was supple and fresh with a nice layer of fat while the vegetables were all perfect as expected. Was it as good as Gagnaire’s duck? Not quite, but tasty none the less and the bone-in leg paired with the hibiscus sauce was a fantastic pairing.

With our menu going a couple plates longer than the others we’d already seen what was next – La Carte de Fromage – and an enormous one despite a small well-culled selection at that. Featuring only six cheeses on a large wooden block supported by a silver cart the afternoon would deliver 6 month aged Auvergne, St. Nectaire, and a trio of aged soft Goat Cheeses from West France – plus the star of the show, Comte de Garde Exceptionnelle November 2007 by Bernard Antony. With each selection a standard-bearer for its respective genre there is no doubt the other cheeses stand in the shadow of the golden comte which is shaved lightly and melts slowly on the tongue leaving behind an unmistakable aura quite unlike any cheese I’ve ever experienced. Having tasted this same cheese later during our trip in larger slices I’ll simply say that this is one case where size matters and thinner is better given the heft of the flavor.

Again catching a glimpse of the next course while enjoying the prior dish, the dessert of the day for the lunch menu was Passard’s Millefeuille <> Constructed as a nearly two and a half foot long log and cut to enormous individual portions tableside this lovely pastry was as light as a feather yet intense and decadent at the same time. Composed of at least ten layers of caramelized puffed pastry interspersed with clouds of hazelnut cream and dusted with powdered sugar there was no lack for sweetness in the plate, yet at the same time it never became overwhelming as the pastry itself was slightly bitter and shattered with the lightest pressure to prove an amiable foil to the cream. While not the absolute best Millefeuille of the trip in taste I enjoyed the texture of this one the most by far.

Arriving shortly on the heels of the Millefeuille would be the afternoon’s collection of Mignardises, a pair of plates; one with more tarts and the other with cookies and candies. Declining the offer for coffee after the bites were described our captain asked if there was anything else we’d like and with a simple request she responded “certainly” and disappeared to the kitchen as we explored the options; Red Onion and Parsley Tarts / Rhubarb, Red Pepper, and Asparagus with Parmesan Macarons / Black Pepper Marshmallows, Honey Cranberry Nougats, and Individual Fleur de Roses. With each selection tasty and unique it was actually the Asparagus Macaron and Parsley Tart that impressed most from the plate – each vegetal yet sweetened in a manner to enhance rather than to distract from the natural flavors. Interestingly we’d be brought a second round of Mignardises at the end of our meal – after our request was fulfilled.

To be honest, had I paid closer attention to the mignardise plate (instead of focusing on the Millefeuille at the time) I’d probably not have even made the request I did – you see, I had not realized the Individual Fleur de Roses to be what they were at first. None the less, having read nothing but praise of Passard’s signature “Tarte aux pommes Bouquet de Roses Caramel au lait” I knew it was something I had to taste during my visit and as such when the captain asked if there was anything else we’d like the Tarte was a logical answer and without question or second thought two of them arrived at the table at no additional charge. Similar in taste to the version on the mignardise plate each Tarte featured seven of the crispy golden “Roses” of apple and cinnamon centered in a dense buttery crust. Topped with a dusting of powdered sugar and encircled by a rich and complex salty caramel it was like an apple dumpling all grown up and every bit worth the special request.

Sitting and chatting as the room slowly emptied we were finally brought “one last treat from the kitchen” along with a second collection of mignardises – a bowl of “bread ice cream.” Said to be made with fresh unpasteurized milk from one of Passard’s farms and the same yeast used to make the lovely bread the melting quenelle was sweet yet savory, a bit sour, and creaminess defined.

With the (admittedly substantial) bill requested and paid we sat and picked at the mignardises for a while before I asked for a copy of the menu and was given a fully jacketed version with the statement “it is too bad chef had to leave early this afternoon or he could have signed it.” Unbothered despite the fact that I’d have liked to have met and thanked Monsieur Passard for such an outstanding meal we next gathered our bags, thanked the staff, and made our way back to the sunny streets of Paris where our conversation would invariably center on what we had just experienced – a meal my sister now considers the best of her life and a meal that affirmed exactly what I had expected walking in the door…that Passard’s vision is an admirable one and that his food, though not fussy or overly complicated, is at times as close to perfection as is possible – the inevitable result of flawless ingredients and considerable talent. Sure such an experience comes at a price, but sometimes you really do get what you pay for and for anyone with the financial means who truly cares about what they eat and where it comes from l’Arpège is a must visit.

No comments: