Dining at a Michelin-three-starred restaurant in Paris is something I’ve admittedly not checked off my bucket list. I mean, one-star and two-star places, yes. But never before have I experienced a meal at a Michelin-three-star establishment in Paris. So it was with much excitement and some trepidation that I stepped into Chef Alain Passard’s L’Arpège in the 7th arrondissement one cold January day.
Despite the blustery weather outside, the warm service at once starts comforting the patron. “Welcome to L’Arpège, may I take your coat?” “Right this way to your table. Would Madame care for a footstool to place her bag?” Yes, all niceties one would expect at almost any civilized eatery, but somehow at L’Arpège, the refinement and sincerity which exude from the front-of-the-house really shine through from the very first moment.
And then I spotted Chef Alain in the dining room before the meal, going table to table, talking with customers, cheerfully greeting regulars and newcomers alike. I slowly realized that L’Arpège was not some Olympian temple of haute gastronomy, reluctantly opening its doors to mere mortals like myself. Rather, it was more akin to visiting a friend’s home. Chef Alain shortly made his way to our table, and upon hearing we were visiting from Los Angeles, jovially said, “I hear we have the better January weather here in Paris, non? Give Chef Wolfgang my regards. Let me cook for you today.” With that, he disappeared into his kitchen. We were absolutely enchanted, and the napkin hadn’t even yet been unfolded.
The menu at Arpège reflects heavily on Chef Alain Passard’s reverence for vegetables. Trained in the classic kitchens of French gastronomy, Chef Alain stunned the food world years ago by announcing he would shift a huge portion of his focus towards the fine execution of vegetables. For the restaurant alone, he maintains over 15-acres of farmland, spread out over three different sites, each with different exacting conditions - All this, in dedication to supplying the very best produce from French soil for his customers.
Having traveled halfway around the planet to taste Chef Passard’s passion for cooking, and especially his vegetables, how could we NOT try the “L'Hiver des Jardins" ("Winter Garden”) tasting menu?
Amuse-bouche #1: Les Tartelettes - Mousseline de pommes de terre, mousseline de citrouille, et mousseline de betterave… Potato, pumpkin and beet mousse give us a delicious introduction to the eye-opening taste potential of vegetable prepared at the heights of freshness, while maintaining the classic French tradition.
Amuse-bouche #2: Pâte d’Oignon… Wonderful puff pastry, with almost a curry-like “hit” of onion. Superb.
Pain et beurre: House-baked country loaf, served with “beurre de baratte” (the famed butter from Jean-Yves Bordier of St. Malo in Brittany). The bread was great, but the butter it came with was exquisite. Generously prepared with the hand-harvested sea salt “sel de Guérande”, known as one of finest salts in the world, “beurre de baratte” is the best butter I’ve ever had. Period.
Wine service: The sommelier was very affable, and the wine list was huge. We simply asked the somm for a nice glass to accompany our meal, and he obliged.
Vin: Domaine Les Maisons Rouges (Biodynamic), Jasnières Sur le Nez 2008 (excuse the crappy photo)… Made with purely Chenin blanc grapes, this Coteaux du Loir white wine was mild with our earlier dishes, and yet matched well with the stronger flavors of the later courses as well - An excellent choice by our sommelier!
Velouté fumant au foin de nos prairies, collection de courges… A delightful winter squash soup, served with a unique smoky cream.
Fines ravioles potagères multicolores, consommé ambré… More wonton than ravioli, the delicate skin of these dumplings held extremely explosive essences (like that alliteration?) of beet, turnip, and cabbage within, all held together by an alluring vegetal broth - Truly a “Whoa” moment…
Oeuf à la coque; quatre épices… This dish is a signature Alain Passard creation. A humble egg from the Loire village of Bigottière is carefully drained of its eggwhite, with the yolk cooked gently in a water bath in its shell. Later, it is sprinkled with chives, quatre épices. Finally, crème fraîche with aged Jerez vinegar, a touch of Canadian maple syrup and fleur de sel are added. The result is a familiar eggy-creaminess with an aura of the enigmatically exotic, but then all of a sudden it whisks you away for an undeniable hint of a sweet finish - Supremely masterful.
Trilogie de carottes au miel, jaune du Doubs, touchon, blanche Satin… Three types of carrots, with each breed meticulously harvested from Chef Alain’s farm, served with lavender honey (interestingly, also from Chef Alain’s own apiary on his farm). It is interesting that each carrot does indeed display its own character in this dish - Quite eye-opening, actually...
Tagliatelle de céleri rave aux châtaignes, emulsion lactée… Looks like pasta, right? Wrong! These are strips of uniformly-cut celery (cut with military precision, I might add), with roasted chestnut, and a milk-based butter sauce, topped by scallions - Visually appealing, and tasty to boot. (And yes, it was ‘al dente’.)
Gratin d'oignon Sturon au parmesan, noisettes de Pougues-les-Eaux… Sturon onions, parmesan, topped with bits of hazelnuts from Nièvre region in Central France - Delicious and hearty.
Nigiri sushi betterave, balsamique… A stunningly great bite; the white beetroot and balsamic “soy” was a winner. The rice was as good as any I’ve had in Japan.
Topinambour fuseau confit à l'échalote, beurre de laurier… Jerusalem artichoke confit, with shallot, bay leaf and pepper butter - Wow!
Chou gaufré de Milan farci à l'ail, chicorée pain de sucre… Savoy cabbage, stuffed with sugared chicory root, in a garlic froth - Excellent!
Another view of the inside of the stuffed Savoy cabbage…
Tartare pourpre végétal au raifort, crème acidulée… Again our friend the beetroot makes an appearance. The horseradish sour cream “egg” on top gave this dish a meaty feel. The whole effect resembled an homage to ancient Buddhist temple cuisine, where the monks emulate meat dishes without actually using any.
Jardinière Arlequin & merguez végétale, semoule à l'huile d'argan… The bulb of the harlequin flower is edible. Here, Chef Alain has made a tribute to Africa, with the South African bulb accompanying the Moroccan merguez “sausage”, served with semolina (the basis for couscous), and drizzled with argan oil. Brilliant (and really tasty)!
Pain burger brioché au sesame fantaisie… C’mon Chef Alain, just because we’re American?! Beet “burger”, with potato chips and mussels - A cute dish, but the least impressive of the meal. The brioche bun was quite good, though.
Unlike many other restaurants, L'Arpège presents its mignardises at the beginning of the dessert portion of the meal…
Sorbet kiwi… Just because it’s in season. Pure, simple, and delectable.
Endive feuilletée aux pommes jubilé, berlingots… Using a sautéed endive as an anchor, this unorthodox dessert works surprisingly well. The apples are perfectly prepared, and sliced to just the proper thickness for best bite.
Soufflé aux fèves de cacao amer… A perfect chocolate soufflé, as one would expect from a Michelin-three-star!
Crème glacée Irish Coffee… Just a delightful, slightly boozy finish to the meal…
… and a SECOND set of mignardises was boxed up for us to take home (by the way, those macarons were incredible)!
This omnivore was very satisfied from our vegetarian menu. True to our usual M.O., we spent well over three hours at the restaurant. A humble man, Chef Alain helped out his staff by bussing tables himself as the last of his diners sauntered out into the Parisian streets towards the end of service. We were amongst the last to leave. By that time, he was eating his own meal at a nearby table, but still got up to ask how we enjoyed his food, and took photos with us.
Merci beaucoup, Chef Alain! What a memorable meal!
84 Rue de Varenne
75007 Paris, France
+33 1 47 05 09 06