Day 2 in Paris began with a shared croque monsieur and a small bag of chocolate chip chouquettes from a traditional pâtisserie (Aux Péchés Normands), two blocks from our hotel. The rather substantial breakfast was probably unwise, considering we were due for lunch at noon, but I just couldn’t resist the shelves overflowing with pastries. After a leisurely stroll around the lovely design concept store merci, we made our way across the Seine to the institution that is Alain Passard’s L’Arpège.
The restaurant was originally owned by the chef’s mentor Alain Senderens (when it was known as L’Archestrate), until Passard bought it over in 1986, renaming it in the process. Like L’Astrance, it gained a Michelin star in its first year, and over the course of a decade slowly worked up to 3 stars, which it has maintained since. If you’ve heard anything at all about the restaurant, it would be that it is renowned for the celebration of vegetables – a result of an epiphony Passard had a number of years ago. Produce literally travels daily straight from the garden to the plate, and even the table decorations reflect the vegetable-centric (but not entirely vegetarian) menu – porcelain pumpkins, dried gourds, and fresh whole cabbages proudly brought on silver platters at the start of service.
There was a dated feel to the staid interior, and the wood paneling and chrome-legged burgundy leather chairs seemed like they were from another era (circa 1980). We did a quick scan of the menu and decided to splurge on the full ‘Cuisine Choisie’ menu. There were no official wine pairings, and as I was still under the weather, the sommelier selected appropriate wines by the glass for B, replenishing with a new wine as and when.
The amuse bouche of tiny wafer-thin potato tartlets piped with carrot mousseline and a sprinkling of minced vegetables, like all subsequent courses, were presented without flourish on white burgundy-edged plates. Our appreciation of the textural combinations (crackling tart, soft mousse and crunchy raw veg) must have been apparent as the waitress swiftly brought over more, with a knowing smile.
First from the menu dégustation was a Four-Spiced Egg en Cocotte, adorned with pretty purple blooms (wild chive flowers). Smooth whites and silky yolks enhanced by a balance of sweet (maple syrup), sour (Jerez vinegar) and savoury warmth (nutmeg, ginger, black and grey pepper).
I could not help but gasp as the next dish was set before me – a silver bowlful of pretty ravioli bobbing in an acacia flower-strewn amber broth, the vibrant hues of the assorted vegetable stuffing on display through the translucent skins.
The Ravioli of Garden Vegetables in an Asparagus and Langoustine Consommé was by far the most memorable dish that day – each mystery parcel offered an exquisite burst of flavour – carrot, cabbage, watercress… each was a surprise. The consommé was deep but pure in taste and the ravioli pastry was similar to that of a chinese dumpling – very neutral, as to not obscure the delicate filling.
A ‘sweet and sour’ Lobster followed. The shellfish itself (hidden from view by radish slices) was sweet and meaty, but unfortunately was completely overwhelmed by the dressing of honey and Jerez vinegar. Had it been merely drizzled, rather than drenched with vinaigrette, and had there been a few more leaves on the plate, it would have been a much better ensemble.
We were then presented with a interesting heap of what appeared to be mash. It was in fact a White Carrot Hummus with Basil Purée – it was a pleasing combination of mellow root vegetable, fragrant basil and nutty sesame, with an intense shot of umami from the grated parmesan and trickle of shoyu in the basil oil. Nice enough, but texturally it was a little one-note.
My face fell when the waitress set the plate of Spring Onions and Rhubarb in front of me. While I don’t mind a scattering of scallions in a hot noodle soup, I don’t like its pungent flavours enough to eat them whole. Shame on me, as it was actually quite lovely – gently cooked to remove the harshness, leaving tender sweet vegetables. I could have done without the stewed fruit though, as the vinegar mingled in with the vegetable reduction was enough acid to perk up the dish.
We’ve both lost our enjoyment of foie gras in recent years, so weren’t that excited by the Roasted Foie Gras with Candied Rhubarb. It struck me as odd how some of Passard’s creations were so complex and refined (like the ravioli), while others were really quite simplistic.
The dining room, which had been empty when we arrived, was now in full swing, and with so many tables to serve, the wait for our mains was considerable. It was a relief when our fish course finally emerged as I was beginning to get agitated, not in the least bit helped by my abstinence from alcohol. The matcha-dusted Grilled Monkfish served with a drizzle of shoyu was kind of, dare I say it, boring. The small pile of spinach on the side however was absolutely delicious.
For our meat courses we chose differently (to allow us a taste of both); B opted for the lamb, and I, the sweetbreads. We believe the lamb to actually be hogget, and found the meat too strong and robust to be served so simply, with the Oyster Emulsion, tasty as it was, only helping to accentuate the full flavours. My sweetbreads however, were perfectly executed, with a golden, slightly crusty exterior and soft creamy centre. Again, the accompanying vegetables on both plates, although simply-prepared, were delightful.
After our plates were cleared Alain Passard stepped through the swinging kitchen doors and hopped from table to table, embracing and kissing his regulars ardently, as if they were long lost friends. He stopped to chat with us too, tapping us on the shoulder and jovially asking where we were from (“Ah, Londres!”), whether we cooked at home (he shot us a look of approval when we said yes), and what our favourite cuisines were (his was Morrocan). He ended the conversation with a twinkle in his eye and a triumphant “You have desserts next!”, kissing his fingers expressively to punctuate.
We understood his excitement when our first dessert arrived – their famous Apple Tart. Delectable flaky puff pasty tarts topped with skillfully-crafted apple rosettes and a swirl of rich buttery caramel sauce. If I could only eat one dessert for the rest of my life – this would suffice nicely.
At this point I was really quite full, but when the cheese board was ceremoniously rolled over I still managed a few slivers. I can’t remember exactly what I chose, but I do remember them being good.
Luckily the second (and last) dessert was easier on my stomach – a light and refreshing Hibiscus Soup with freshly-hulled Strawberries.
Our lunch ended with the obligatory petits four – confit carrot, mini apple tarts and a selection of macarons. The carrot and “small garden” (basil) macarons were really quite special, and even better when washed down with a pot of Thyme, Lemongrass and Sage infusion.
There were a couple of truly exceptional offerings, and on the whole the cooking was very well-executed. The service, while not to the standard experienced at L’Astrance, was professional and more than competent. However, even recounting it now I still recall the disappointment I felt upon leaving. I had anticipated so much more given its reputation and although I applaud the artistry Passard employs in showcasing his vegetables, there weren’t enough glimmers of brilliance to truly impress us on this visit. At €300 a head, I think it’s reasonable to expect to be dazzled.
84 Rue de Varenne
75007 Paris, France
t: +33 (0)1 45 51 47 33