At Arpège, centuries of tradition meets its maker. Alain Passard practised cuisine classique at the highest levels for 25 years. But it was the decision in 2001 – following years of ennui in cooking what is arguably now considered boilerplate French – to go completely meat-free that cemented his name in the annals of culinary history. Cue furore, press, and an entire episode of Chef’s Table securing him firmly in the minds of eager gastronomes with a list of check boxes awaiting their inevitable ticks.
Date Last Visited: 27/Mar/2018
Address: 84 Rue de Varenne, 75007 Paris, France
Highlight Dishes: vegetable ravioli, jerusalem artichoke veloute, leeks in parmesan broth, beetroot burger, jerusalem artichoke napoleon
Price Guide (approx): 320 EUR vegetarian tasting menu (~$513 at time of writing), price I paid plus drinks: $624 AUD
Passard runs one of the few – if not only – restaurants in Paris where the entirety of its vegetable offering is self-managed. His purview extends to three farms in the Sarthe, Eure & Manche départements of France producing the needful, each with their own particular terroir – root vegetables, brassicas and herbs respectively. Passard champions locavorism in French cooking in the way that Rene Redzepi does to Nordic cuisine.
Despite being in his 60s, Passard is a chef who still works at Arpège almost every single day. Not only that, he somehow finds the time to tend to his farms on the weekends; one might even find him conducting A/B testing on soil types – if you’re going to replace a cote de beouf with beetroot, it had better be the best damn beetroot in the world.
There is no restaurant empire. There is no cookbook series. There is no television show. There is only one ticket to try Passard’s cooking, at Arpège. That ticket will cost you 320 Euros for the vegetarian tasting menu (Arpège has since reintroduced meat in small amounts, available in a 390 Euro tasting menu or a la carte). Never has a vegetarian-only menu asked for so much money – the overly expensive restaurant meme comes to mind.
I mean sure, it’s supposedly a world-class chef manning the pass, using what is effectively bespoke produce that comes in fresh on a daily basis. Even Passard is never sure what to expect of the day – and so it is no hyperbole to say that no two vegetable dishes will ever be prepared the exact same way. Notwithstanding all the narrative (which can admittedly be difficult to ignore), there’s only one way to find out if two hours of rabbiting on leaves & stems will be worth a week’s rent.
On my visit, the prosaically titled printemps des jardines ‘Spring garden’ menu was in effect, underpinned by enough beetroot, leeks and Jerusalem artichokes to turn your face red and fart till you’re dead. Do not come during Springtime if these vegetables are not to your fancy.
Amuses of savoury tartlets immediately dialed the flavour to 11 – rich, creamy Jerusalem artichoke (here we go), zesty & sweet beetroot & parsnip (yep), and nosey-sweet shallot (told ya). For all the ways you could start a vegetarian meal, it was a good move not to do so with salad.
A ‘sushi’ of beetroot, fig leaf, dressed with black olive and lemon was a showcase of palate-cleansing zest paired with earthy savouriness…as well as the disappointing pulpiness of overcooked rice. A proper shari this wasn’t, albeit partially-redeemed by its ability to fully take on the flavours of black olive. If anything, it was truly tasty.
Fortunately, the pleasures of a good egg doesn’t violate the rules, with a classic oeufs à la coque steeped in sherry vinegar, maple syrup and garnished with chives introducing a richness that’s as balanced as it was welcomed in the absence of meat. What wasn’t nearly as good was the bread course that came just before: a single choice of ‘house sourdough’ – with its staleness, toughness and lack of warmth – tasting like it had just come from the supermarket…and left out a week to boot.
While I can never excuse bad bread at a French restaurant, a teensy pot of multi-coloured vegetable ravioli – carrots & squash, beetroot, and leek, broccoli & horseradish – did get close in making up for it. One of Arpège’s venerated dishes, it lived up to the hype, with intense verdant flavours coming through each bite-sized piece. Personal favourite? Leek and horseradish: yeah, I’m Asian; news at 11. The broth – made from verbena coriander & consomme of Jerusalem artichokes – was a bit of a salty number, but criminal to leave un-drunk. Get slurping.
Arpège may not have started the meal with salad, but it could never have eschewed it: I received an assemblage of hazelnut praline, mesclun-based foliage that was drizzled with sweet vinegar and brightened with broad strokes of horseradish & white asparagus. It tasted as good as salad can be – that is, good, but I’m not going to be sending letters home. My recollection of the dish was more on the nutty praline and the sugary vinegar than the vegetables themselves – ostensibly an obscure set of greenery demonstrating Passards so-called connection with nature, but which in practice was rather monotonous.
Maybe I just don’t like salads. Heh.
On the flip side, a Jerusalem artichoke veloute with perhaps the blandest presentation and yet, when the first sip hit my lips, it was as if I had just discovered religion. With a healthy dollop of horseradish cream, this should make a convert out of anyone, though I’ll choose to conveniently forget the amount of butter & cream used in its preparation. Some of the best things in life can be taken at face value 😉
My meal at Arpège has so far been what one would casually describe as ‘pretty good’. I’ve been happy to attribute any stumbling points that a tougher critic wouldn’t forgive, as a product of the limitations inherent in a vegetables-only menu. What is less excusable was the near repetition of two dishes that could almost be confused for identical twins: leeks, Parmesan, onions, and creamy mornay sauce. They were basically the same thing, issued two apart, with only a spinach & orange carrot number that was admittedly delightful, insofar as we’re talking about spinach here.
Okay, that was unfair – the dishes are different. The first one was more leeky, more sweet; the second one centre-staging its parmesan foam. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the kitchen’s creativity was running low at this point.
And as if to prove my point, beetroot makes its way back onto the plate. But to then immediately disprove it, it was rendered in the best way possible: as an open burger with quail egg, horseradish and cheese. It’s not trying to be something its not – a meat substitute. It’s simply a damn good plate of food that happens to be ‘inspired’ by a burger. Well, also that cheese and brioche adds +5 to tastiness to pretty much anything.
A final French classic turned meat-free capped off the savouries, a vegetarian cous cous that was at a somewhat ‘waiter, salt & pepper please!’-level of blandness was thankfully brightened up with a beetroot sausage spiked with harissa. At this point, I wouldn’t have mind if Passard just served a hot dog with a bigger version of it.
I have no qualms with paying stupid sums of money for a dining experience, but in return I expect something that is fundamentally unreproducable, a series of culinary memories that dares to be creative enough to force their way into the crowded maze of my mind, imprinting itself in such a way that I could never forget. Passard accomplishes this in the narrative sense – the story, the mission, the gall to defy centuries of ossified French cooking tradition.
But, in what gets served to diners, I can’t help but wonder if I paid too much. I don’t even cook, yet very few of the savoury courses induced a sense of ‘well shit, I definitely can’t make that’. When your preparation is effectively just blanching, pureeing or adding easy wins such as cheese and brioche, the ‘X-factor’ becomes a little lost in the mesclun forest. One can argue that produce quality is worth a euro or two, but I’ll be the first to admit my palate isn’t going to care as much as my wallet.
It is ironic then that the two dishes to literally evoke a ‘wow’ from this diner would be the Jerusalem artichoke Napoleon and apple tart. The former, a marvel of paper thin, crispy and frangible pastry and a perfect Jerusalem artichoke pastry cream, the latter worthy of being an exhibit at the nearby Musée d’Orsay. These are dishes within the realm of culinary sorcery: these, I can be led to believe required sublime skill to craft. So Passard and his crew at Arpège can do exceptional things, but perhaps even a decade of cooking mostly vegetables has taken its toll. A new challenge, then?
In the end, when artificial limitation is the dish du jour, it was bound to be a bit of a roller coaster, and not all of it fun. But here’s the thing: Arpège is still worth visiting.
Classical French cooking has never excited me in the way it does others. Where I now see innovation is indeed in restriction. The Japanese, after all, are masters of this – nobody who’s seen the light ever questioned why people pay $400 for raw fish on rice. To charge a similar fortune for a menu that only features leaves and roots (plus a healthy dose of cheese & butter) was a ballsy move – yet Passard has never lost a Michelin Star. In this new world of destination gastronomy, the pursuit of the exclusive, and in some ways chef worship, a restaurant like Arpège can still exist, and arguably justified at that.
Despite my criticisms, I enjoyed my meal at Arpège. It was memorable, and it was delicious for the most part. Passard dares to do something different, and doesn’t suck in doing so.
One day, I might even return.
This post is based on an independently-paid visit to Arpège
- One of the few 3* French restaurants that dares to think different
- A meal that can be repetitive at times
- An inexcusably bad bread course
- For a 3* restaurant, Arpège’s interior is looking very dated
Would I return: in a different season, perhaps
F7 | S4 | A1.5
- Rated 3.5 stars
- Very Good
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