84, Rue de Varenne
+ 33 (0)1 47 05 09 06
3 Michelin stars since 1996
OAD Best European Restaurants No. 1
World’s 50 Best Restaurants No 12
1st Visit: Lunch Friday 26th May 2017
(19 / 20) At Arpège, via its stark simplicity, you are confronted with the blunt reality of how bizarre fine dining can otherwise be: The intricate preparation of the obscure element, the innovative pairing of uncommon ingredients, the disregard of real flavours in favour of the fetishisation of fiddling. But here in Paris, where great food was born, Alain Passard is delivering on a different kind of bargain. His commodity is the feeling of a cherished family memory, of warmth, of giving, and of abundance. L’Arpège is the dining expression of Proust’s Madeleine moment. But it is also the manifestation of a memory that most of us never even had to start with – that of the taste of real food, cooked perfectly. It is the truest, most sincere demonstration of love in any food that I’ve come across at a fine dining restaurant.
(Click on the score to see the rating system and why I bother writing these reviews!)
€€€€€ 12 courses €390 / A la carte around €300
L’Arpège. The journey to the restaurant that it has been a dream of mine to visit for the best part of a decade began well enough. We calmly made the train, coffee in hand, and with plenty of time to spare settled into what would be our seats for the next 3 hours. Taking the train to Paris is such a civilised way to get there; No queues, barely any security, and you are delivered straight into the heart of the city, not 40 km away as when flying. As per usual however things did not remain so pristine for long – the train got held up in Brussels with an ‘operational error’ (I note Donald Trump had just arrived in town), and then remained still on the tracks just inside the French border for well over an hour. My well-made plans for arrival featuring a serene procession to the hotel for a pre-lunch-change-and-freshen-up quickly dissipated, and, when having finally arrived we were also made to queue for 20 mins for a taxi I was half expecting we wouldn’t make it to the best restaurant in Europe at all.
‘There’s no actual dress code at Arpège right?’… ‘Right, but we still need to dress up. This is Paris after all.’
In the end we opted for timeliness over presentability and took a cab straight there. And sure enough, 20 mins later there was a moment of sheer farce when the Maitre D’ peered out of the window to see us standing there, stressed and dishevelled at the door, complete with two suitcases and a sweaty 5-year-old. The look on his face was priceless. Nethertheless, without even a word of fuss, and in no more than 10 seconds, we were removed of our baggage and warmly whisked in to sit at our table, which stood happily just where I had asked – by the window. We were perfectly on time.
Arpège itself should need very little introduction: A three Michelin star behemoth of the European dining scene, it has appeared high on pretty much every overview of global restaurant greatness produced in the last decade, and only last week was awarded the Opinionated About Dining top spot for European restaurants. It is also a restaurant which had its own beautiful origin myth even before David Gelb’s Chef’s Table series had helped invent one for pretty much every other top-notch dining establishment on the planet.
That story has been also already told a million times, so suffice it to say that in 2001 Alain Passard, already a 3 Michelin star chef for five years, was brave enough to suddenly and entirely stop cooking meat. And this in an age and in a town where such a conceit for such a restaurant was regarded as nothing short of simple insanity. He kept his stars and in the process became a global superstar, a godfather-come-oracle figure of the farm to table ‘concept’, and a much idolised and exalted cook.
Now, I use that word ‘cook’ carefully here because as you’ll see when we get to the dishes his cuisine has somewhat gone full circle, through the chef phase and back to something far more simple, more true and … more that of a cook. And cooking is something that still happens; He also is one of the few great proprietors who still presides over his own kitchen (almost) daily. Day in day out, he sees what bounty the Fille sur Sarthe gardens have produced and he and the crew just cooks.
This is a cuisine that is nothing less than a demonstration of pure love… the act of giving food as an act of love.
But of course to refer to what happens here as just cooking is to rather miss the point. Not only is it brutally seasonal, it’s a cuisine that respects its ingredients almost like no other. This is where the radish is held high above any piece of meat, and where each plate of vegetables screams of care and attention. However, this is not care in the sense of the standard over-engineered fiddly tweezer plating that so permeates modern Michelin (I love that also by the way). No, this feels more like the care and attention you would give to a small child. Here nothing is forced or molecular. The ingredients are nurtured, helped gently to the plate when they are perfectly ready to bloom, ready to come into their own, ready to shine. This is a cuisine that is nothing less than a manifestation of pure love. And perhaps this is what resonates so deeply in diners, and what often leaves people so emotional when they describe the experience of eating here. It’s that same feeling understood by every person who cooks for their family, or who has been cooked for by a loved one; The act of giving food as an act of love.
And by god do they make sure you’re well-loved. As you probably appreciate by now mine has been a life blessed with a lot of eating, but I’ve rarely been so blissfully stuffed as at L’Arpège. Having been welcomed into the tiny but bright dining room, the excellent hostess advised that the full tasting menu may be a little too long an affair to put Sophia through, but that there were other options… We were proposed instead a kind of multi-course menu made up of ‘small portions’ from the classics of a la carte. One of the dishes, the famous turbot, must have incorporated 400g of fillet, the next comprised an entire lobster. Both dishes were simply perfectly cooked – every element a true expression of its itself, each one loud but together at once in harmony. The turbot was by far the best I had ever eaten both in flavour and texture, the sorrel sauce giving just a hint of acid to counterbalance the sweet fish and delicate earthiness of the smoked potato. When the bill came I saw they had indeed charged a half portion of each gigantic dish. Here the godfather plays force-feeding grandmother; You will not leave this restaurant feeling hungry, of that I can assure you.
Nadya had been presented with two enormous plates of vegetables from the gardens which received enthusiastic praise. The first mesclun salad was fresh and vibrant with a sweet-sour dressing of hazelnut, followed by the best that the season could offer in terms of vegetables paired with a light couscous. Unlike myself who was raised in the big smoke on supermarket food of disparate and often unknown origin, Nadya grew up in the countryside; She knows what real vegetables taste like straight out of the ground and something certainly resonated with her here in that respect.
Sophia, who had been enthusiastically plowing through bread and butter supplied by the wonderfully friendly dining staff had sadly fared a little less well with her multi-coloured ravioi, which was probably just slightly left-field for her palate at this age. They really tried to engage with her, asking her if she was enjoying herself, pulling faces, acting like normal people do with young children – making her feel at ease. Rather than trying to give her something else she wouldn’t eat, she was very sensibly immediately asked if she wanted something for desert. A rhubarb and strawberry sorbet came out… she pulled a face. Strawberries in hibiscus was tried next… Mum and Pappa ate most of that. In the end she settled on a small but fabulously formed rhubarb and strawberry mille feuille. The pastry was perfection – rough and dark to the first look, but absurdly delicate and light to eat. Forget being able to taste the butter in the pastry, here you could taste the grass the cow was eating. And unlike the usual presentation of this dish, there was no creme patissiere; Such was the juicyness of fruit, it simply was not needed
At this point we should acknowledge the elephant in the room – price. Now, eating at any 3 star, especially in Paris, will cost a very large sum. That is simply the reality of the situation which diners with any sense should understand up-front before embarking on any such trip. And of course with very large bills comes equally inflated expectations, and, as we all know in life, expectations are fragile and dangerous things. If you were to ask a sample of casual diners what a meal would need to deliver to justify €400/USD 450 per person, you might get a range of responses, many of which would likely have nothing to do with the food itself; It should certainly be a memorable experience, you would want to be made to feel special, there should be friendly, sensitive and probably doting service. I doubt many who have eaten there would say anything else about Arpege – It has all these qualities in spades. But about the food I’m not so sure. Such is the dominance within modern fine dining of the dual strains of a) Spanish molecular gastronomy, and b) the tweezer-plating of rare and exciting ingredients, that to be presented with a perfectly cooked piece of the perfect specimen of the king of fish, sauced delicately and garnished with simply prepared seasonal vegetables might well be scoffed at. ‘Where is all the technique’ I can hear them cry, ‘and where is the smear of this and smudge of that? Where’s the calamansi shiso jelly? I see not one single red sorrel leaf or spider web tuille on the entire plate!’
Now of course there are other reasons apart from incredibly expensive/pretentious ingredients that top-end food can cost a pretty penny. There are usually a relatively tiny number of paying customers versus the number of staff required to put in the massive number of man hours needed for incredibly complex preparations. But again I doubt any of that explains the jaw-dropping cost of eating at Arpège. After all, the food is by design mostly from their own gardens and prepared simply. So, why €115 for a plate of assorted vegetables and couscous? Well of course one reason is just that there is a market for it. The restaurant is desperately famous, people queue up to swoon over Monsieur Passard, and thus, as per any sensible business, it charges what people are willing to pay. I’d wager it would still be full if tomorrow it raised the prices another 20%. For me, the pertinent question is not really why it’s so expensive, but rather is it worth it?, and to answer that question is a little more complex; It depends fundamentally on what you value.
By now we were already so satisfied (read: impossibly stuffed) with the ‘pre-deserts’ that I thought the meal had finished and asked for the bill. ‘But you haven’t had dessert yet’ replied the waiter, with one eyebrow firmly lifted and with a slight hint of a cheeky smile beginning to appear. By the time we had demolished another full-size mille feuille of succulent rhubarb and strawberry and the absolute perfection of a hay-infused choux creme, I could barely breathe. Death by a deliriously happy suffocation of food.
At Arpège, via its stark simplicity, as a diner you are confronted with the blunt reality of how bizarre fine dining can otherwise be. The intricate preparation of the obscure element, the innovative pairing of uncommon ingredients, the purposeful shunning of simplicity, the disregard of real flavours in favour of the fetishisation of manipulation. In the Chef’s table episode of another great chef with an almost better origin myth (he lost through cancer then regained his sense of taste), Grant Achatz explains why he feels the need to make a strawberry look like a tomato and vice versa,
‘We have to right?… If we don’t do that you’ll be like “why am I paying 500 bucks?'”Am I right?’.
But here in Paris, across the other side of the world and where great food was born, Alain Passard is delivering on a different kind of bargain. His product is one of the feeling of being loved, of a cherished family memory, of warmth, of giving and of abundance. L’Arpège is the dining expression of Proust’s Madeleine. But it is also a manifestation of a memory that most of us never even had to start with – that of the taste of real food, cooked perfectly. It is the truest, most sincere expression of love in any food that I’ve come across at a fine dining restaurant.
When it comes down to it, is love more or less valuable than technique? That up to you to decide. I for one will cherish every future visit, of which I hope there will be many.