France- L'Arpège- ✪✪✪

Alain Passard became the vegetarian-menu hero of the high culinary world when, in 2001, he renounced all forms of meat in his restaurant and committed to vegetable-based cuisine sourced from his farms in Western France (he has since partially relented, allowing fish and even veal to rejoin the team). It's a similar commitment that the recently-rebooted Alain Ducasse Au Plaza Athénée across town is going for: a focus on grains, fruits, and vegetables instead of animals as a means of rediscovering the true origins of flavor.

I enjoyed my meal, meeting the chef, and exploring this new plant-driven cuisine, but have to say that I don't think the culinary world will turn whole-hog, so to speak, to vegetable-based menus. It's not about performance—some of these dishes were totally incredible—but more about expectations. Food dorks like me will be impressed by what kinds of flavors and textures Passard evokes with such simple ingredients, but those looking for an over-the-top meal at a fancy restaurant to celebrate a big occasion are going to be disappointed. Paying sky-high prices for a plate of celery root will feel unfair to some, and while I was impressed with the avant garde techniques found here, I walked out dreaming about a steak, and was definitely still hungry.

 L'Arpège Exterior

L'Arpège Exterior

L'Arpege (2 of 38).jpg
 Alain Passard at left. Not my first choice for a portrait stance, but hey

Alain Passard at left. Not my first choice for a portrait stance, but hey

84 Rue de Varenne is an unassuming address, situated not too far from the administrative offices of the Sorbonne, Invalides park, and the many staid government buildings in the 7th Arrondissement. Unlike other 3-star restaurants that assume you've booked months in advance, L'Arpège humbly displays their menu in jewelry-box lighting for window shoppers to inspect. A lovely, self-deprecating touch.

Alain Passard is the focus of a 45-minute episode of Netflix's Chef's Table, where he waxes long about his desire to turn away from the traditional shellfish-whitefish-beef-cheese-dessert setup of the classic French restaurant in favor of displaying France's true terroir in the form of vegetables. Just like in the documentary, he is friendly, affable, and eager to greet his guests in person. About halfway through the meal he traipsed through our dining room in what were clearly his work whites; this dude didn't just show up for a handshake, he's working, and I appreciate that.

Passard won two Michelin stars at 26 at his first professional stint (a Parisian restaurant called Le Duc d’Enghien), and went pro by opening L'Arpège on his own in 1986. It took him only ten years to take his upstart restaurant all the way to its three stars in 1996, and he has held them since.

PARIS, FRANCE

SERVICE: 7.5/10

FOOD: 7.5/10

PRICE PAID: $540PP (INCL. WATER, TAX, AND WINE CORKAGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 5.0/10

FINAL RATING: 7.0/10

 L'Arpège Dining Room

L'Arpège Dining Room

As soon as we arrive, we are immediately whisked downstairs into the gorgeous white-stone cellar, which has that classic hand-hewn look of centuries-old caves throughout France. The lighting scheme is brilliant; a floor full of white LEDs point straight upward, giving a dramatic (if bright) appearance; a member of the staff observed as much and turned them down to half-strength midway through the meal.

A few small thoughts on ambiance—the cellar seating is dramatically illuminated and beautiful, but I wouldn't recommend the space for everyone. A large overhead air vent makes almost every word in the prep room (but, luckily, not the kitchen) audible anytime the room got quiet. And, luckily, when the table for ten that we were packed next to arrived, it never got that quiet again. For a place with 40-50 covers a night, it seemed dense and noisy.

 L'Arpège Place Setting

L'Arpège Place Setting

 "Leave us your info so we can keep you up-to-date on news at the restaurant, as well as on the sale of vegetables direct from our farms in L'Eure and Sarthe! We can even deliver it to your house."

"Leave us your info so we can keep you up-to-date on news at the restaurant, as well as on the sale of vegetables direct from our farms in L'Eure and Sarthe! We can even deliver it to your house."

As we sit, an interesting offer that reflects the vegetable-driven spirit of the restaurant. The offer is for, basically, a CSA offering us a subscription to the fruit and vegetable supply that the restaurant themselves uses. Odd, if only because this is the first time i've seen a true advertisement casually waiting for me in a three-star. I handed it to the first server who came by. 

We are given the restaurant's menu, which offers options that are priced moderately by Paris standards but on the high-end compared to the global three-star list. As of my visit, they had:

  • An à la carte with appetizers for between €76-95, entrées for €115-165, and desserts for €46-50. So you're at around €275 per person.
  • "Winter in Our Gardens" (L'Hiver des Jardins) menu for €320, which seemed like their more traditional menu.
  • "Earth & Sea" (Terre & Mer) menu for €390, which featured a bit more seafood and an extra course vegetables; I went with this one.
 First Bites: Smoked Beetroot + Celery + Squash Chips, 8/10

First Bites: Smoked Beetroot + Celery + Squash Chips, 8/10

Next, a series of small bites all served on crunchy handmade potato chips. Going from left to right:

  • The red one: densely whipped smoked beetroot with bay leaf, with an extremely thick texture closer to a mayonnaise. 
  • The cream-colored one: celery, with a taste almost like couscous, and the plainest of the lot.
  • The yellow one: squash; richer, and with strong curry flavors. Actually, it just tastes like a dollop of curry paste. 7/10 overall.
 Bread, 7/10

Bread, 7/10

 Salted Butter, 7/10

Salted Butter, 7/10

Some bread, moist but thinly cut and falling apart, arrived next with some salted butter in a big farmhouse chunk. Both are rich and satisfying but unremarkable. 7/10. 

 More First Bites (?)

More First Bites (?)

Next, we are brought... Another plate of the six small chips with beetroot, celery, and squash. They were just as good the second time around, but I must say I've never received an accidental repeat dish at a three-star before. A minor but welcome error, because they are delicious. Still, extremely odd to encounter a miscommunication like that.

 First Bites: Parsnip Velouté, 9/10

First Bites: Parsnip Velouté, 9/10

Next, a smoked parsnip velouté with hay cream. The generous scoop of hay cream is cold but the soup is warm; the temperature differential is modest, making me suspect that this sat on the pass for about a minute longer than intended. Big pumpkin pie flavors and spices. Lots of nutmeg that compliments the parsnip and hay flavors perfectly and doesn't so much dominate as take leadership of the dish. The whole thing winds up feeling like a chilled chai soup. 9/10. I dig the beautiful silver dish.

 Course 1: Hot-Cold Egg, 7/10

Course 1: Hot-Cold Egg, 7/10

And now onto the menu courses; first, a "Hot-Cold" egg with sherry vinegar and maple syrup that the menu describes as "acidulous," or somewhat acid and harsh in flavor. An odd but correct descriptor; the syrup is quite acidic and the vinegar is quite harsh, but the genius of this dish is in the egg. Rich, bright yellow yolks are runny and stand up the the vinegar and syrup perfectly. Once again there is a temperature differential at play between the egg and the broth, and I am somewhat reminded of the hot potato-cold potato course at Alinea. The top is carefully and precisely sawed off, but it's kind of a mess to eat, especially when you get to the yolk. 7/10.

 Course 2: Ceviche + Vegetables + Cilantro, 8/10

Course 2: Ceviche + Vegetables + Cilantro, 8/10

Next, a ceviche of Coquille de St. Jacques with vegetables and cilantro. Rather fascinatingly, though the waiter translates the Coquille de St. Jacques as just "scallops," they're actually a relatively large bivalve found all over coastal France but most desirably from the bay at Granville, which is where these happen to come from. The name originates from the legend that Saint James intervened to save a drowning French knight, who emerged from the water covered in  shells.

In this case Passard's vegetable-driven strategy makes a ton of sense. The fresh, lightly steamed vegetables pull out fascinating flavors from the seafood; flavors like a crisp ocean breeze; sea-salt, seaweed, and saline freshness. The dish is a tiny touch overly salty, but only just a hair. 8/10. 

 Course 3: Tagliatelle of Celery, 7/10

Course 3: Tagliatelle of Celery, 7/10

Next, what would appear to be a relatively plain plate of tagliatelle with a clear broth is actually made of celeriac (celery root). This particular celery is a version called "Rave Monarch," valued for its sweetness. The surrounding broth and sauce is made with Parmesan cheese and shallot, and the whole thing is served shockingly hot. The texture mimics pasta, and the celery flavors are pretty subtle so overall it comes close. It's a bit plain, but then I suppose so is pasta... 7/10. 

As with several dishes to come, I felt like the restaurant's big idea was to jam vegetable substitutes into relatively standard fine dining dishes. All fair, fine, and noble. Not to be an asshole, but how interesting is a plain pasta dish made of something besides pasta? 

 Course 4: Ravioli + Clear Broth + Geranium, 8/10

Course 4: Ravioli + Clear Broth + Geranium, 8/10

Next, a colorful, pretty dish of raviolis in clear broth with essence of geranium. One tastes almost like beef, and one like sausage. The clear broth is rich, umami, and delightful. 8/10.

 Course 5: Sturon Onion + Black Truffle, 6/10

Course 5: Sturon Onion + Black Truffle, 6/10

Next, a dish of grated Sturon onions (strongly flavored, and once again from a varietal valued as a winter vegetable) grated with Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and a relatively light layer of black truffle shavings. Disappointingly, the black truffles are dry and hence aren't as flavorful as one might wish. The onion layer is also is thin, with the benefit that the strong onion flavors inherent to the Sturon variety doesn't overwhelm the dish. Simple, straightforward; a comfort-food French winter dish. 6/10.

 Course 6: Poireau St. Victor + Marennes-Oleron Oysters

Course 6: Poireau St. Victor + Marennes-Oleron Oysters

Another mid-menu dish, another combination of classic French winter vegetables and seafood. In this case, what appear to be sliced leeks are actually a purple-leafed root plant called Poireau St. Victor. The flavor is similar to leeks or onions, and they're lightly cooked and hence have a celery-like crunch to them. The broth is an oyster emulsion along with oysters within from the famous Marennes-Oleron cultivation region (a gorgeous part of Southwestern France that is responsible for almost half of France's annual oyster production). The broth is fresh, rich, and velvety, and is the star of this dish. 8/10. Once again Passard proudly showcases the best product available in his country.

 Preview: Turbot Course

Preview: Turbot Course

As is traditional when the restaurant feels they have a particularly excellent specimen of seafood to share with their guests, the service trots out the coffee table-sized turbot they have gamely named "Jean." 

 Course 7: Beet Carpaccio, 9/10

Course 7: Beet Carpaccio, 9/10

This course took the "veggies imitating animal proteins" theme to its most memorable and tastiest point of the meal.

A carpaccio of beetroot appeared next, explicitly mimicking beef carpaccio in color, texture, and perhaps even taste (see the little "egg" on top?) The flavors are definitely beet, but feel charmingly similar to beef. The horseradish adds some kick, and the artichoke chips lend crunchy texture contrast against soft beet. Slices of Parmesan make yet another appearance. 9/10.

 Course 8: Turbot, 8/10

Course 8: Turbot, 8/10

A perfect-looking slice of turbot from the gorgeous Bay of Morbihan with bay leaf, kale, and broccoli leaf. The fish is light and flaky, and is fresh but expresses what feel like hot dog flavors. It's also a rather enormous portion for a three-star restaurant. 8/10.

 Course 9: Veal, 8/10 

Course 9: Veal, 8/10 

Alain Passard is originally from Brittany, and was initiated into the art of fine cooking by his grandmother, Louise Passard. He names this veal dish in her honor ("Grand rotisserie d'heritage Louise Passard") and it is presented with a great deal of coordinate service fanfare. Veal with vegetables, along with a zesty and citrusy lemon glaze. Lots of diverse, fresh veggie flavors. 8/10.

 Course 10A: Pre-Desserts, 2/10

Course 10A: Pre-Desserts, 2/10

Desserts were, unfortunately, a real weak spot at L'Arpège. First, a big plate of sugary, brittle pre-desserts. There were some tea-flavored waffles, half-assed cream pastries, and some other hard and crunchy baked offerings. As you can see, they looked like burned garbage, and tasted that way too. 2/10. 

 Course 10B: Macaron + Jerusalem Artichoke, 4/10

Course 10B: Macaron + Jerusalem Artichoke, 4/10

Next, a dessert that answered the question no one was asking: how would a hockey puck-sized macaron made of vanilla and Jerusalem artichoke taste? The generous answer is: "odd," and the less charitable answer is: "bitter, and poor." The artichoke clashes angrily with the sweetness of the vanilla, and the saving grace is that it in appearance it looks like a comically oversized Boston Creme donut. 4/10. 

 Course 11: Millefeuille, 8/10

Course 11: Millefeuille, 8/10

A classic crowd-pleaser goes considerably better than the previous two dessert attempts, and mostly because it sticks to the classic French comfort food playbook. A millefeuille with caramel that compresses easily like a sponge, and focuses on the simple sweetness of the caramel and creme de Vanille, which play together nicely. 8/10. 

 Course 12: Kiwi Sorbet, 8/10

Course 12: Kiwi Sorbet, 8/10

Lastly, a simple scoop of kiwi sorbet with chunks of actual kiwi fruit. One again, some success in simplicity. 8/10.