Buzz: Review of Arpège

By Margaret Kemp

VIEW AND CLIENTELE
Through the Lalique embossed windows gleams the golden dome of Les Invalides, where Napoleon is buried. The great and the good fly in from, say, California in the Netjet, eat lunch and dinner at Arpège, spend the night at the Crillon, and then Netjet home, remembering to tell Warren Buffet the food at Arpège is a tad better than he supplies. The clientele is Berluti/Lobb/Hermes/Vuitton/Gucci. The chef, with his stunning smile, is more likely to be sporting Timberlands, when he removes the white chef's sabots. That's because Chef Alain Passard may have come direct from his potager in the Sarthe.

DESIGN AND SERVICE
Minimal. Minimal. Minimal. And small — only room for 50, including the downstairs petit salon in the cellar, usually hired privately. There's a luminous light effect that bounces off the superb aforementioned Lalique windows, echoed on the walls with stunning Lalique panels copied from vintage railroad dining cars. The tables are set with Lalique glass plates, made exclusively for Passard. Starched white table linen, and a simple collection of seasonal twigs, means the arriving dishes take the limelight, rather than some over-priced, over-perfumed, floral fantasy. The retro chairs are revised and corrected by Passard. “I found the original in the country; went to buy some chickens, ended up buying the chair as well,” Passard admits. “We have really made a big effort with the service in the salle,” admits Maitre d'hôtel Laurent Lapaire. “There's a very fine line, we don't want to appear intrusive or uncaring. We realise that our guests are not here to make new friends!” The service is attentive, friendly and, because of the new vegetable concept, very well informed. Lapaire appears frequently with a “work in progress” from the kitchen. It's interesting to see a giant celery rave, packed in sea-salt and seaweed, before and after cooking. You'll get turned on by the obvious enthusiasm of the équipe; it's new to them too. They're learning every day from ze Master.


ROMANCE FACTOR
At these prices he must be in love if he's brought you here. If you're at Table 6, look under the napkin (changed each time you go to the loo), for the little bauble from Boucheron/ Cartier/Van Cleef & A. Arpège is to romance what Goncourt is to literature: prestigious, often criticised, but very necessary, very digestible. No awful lift music, but there could be the notes of a saxophone drifting from the direction of the kitchens – after all. the restaurant is Arpège.

 
SNOOT FACTOR
Arpège is the only Michelin 3-star restaurant on the left bank, not for your casual grazer, as veggie goes posh and expensive. This is a 3-star for the well-informed foodie who doesn't need the grovelling flunky handing him a fluffy towel, eager to wipe his posterior, his shoes, his fevered brow. Nor does he need the family crest on the silver, doesn't need to get tennis elbow heaving the crystal; he's got all that in the comfort of his own château. Discreet, chic, darling. Note the portrait of Louise Passard, Alain's grandmère, just outside the kitchen. Her boy dedicated his canard Louise Passard to the old girl, but now he's gone veggie; all that's left is her image on the wall. “She would not mind one bit, her methods of cooking on top of the stove, over low heat, were considered radical in her day,” insists Passard. “We always had a good laugh together, and that's what it's all about, n'est-ce pas?”

 
WHAT ABOUT THE FOOD?
No need to tell you again the panic Passard caused when he announced his meat-free menu. Now that the organic dust has settled, don't expect an “anyone for lentils” attitude—he's still got his three Michelin stars. He's Champerard's Chef of the Year, and best boy chez Lebey and Pudlo. Still cooking dishes like long roasted hare, because, “I like cooking too much to forget meat and poultry,” he says. The day I was there a friendly hunter brought him the hare, and lucky diners were offered a unique chance to taste Passard's spin on slow roasted lièvre. His “Pleine terre, pleine mer tasting menu showcases all the work, passion, research and dedication Passard has put into his new concept. It could be ten courses, and it will probably differ from the menu text according to whim and market availability. Petite salade du jardin is the freebies starter and the show's a winner from there on in with an avocado bavarvoise of tarama and caviar d'Aquitaine. A broth of verveine flavoured carrots and ginger poured over a tiny pool of intense peanut oil is made with a base of crustaceans. Sweet red onions from Cévennes are oven roasted, sprinkled with parmesan from Italy, pepper from Sarawak and spiked with truffles. Leeks are lightly salted, flavoured with liquorice and barely blanched. Spinach is puréed with carrots and paired with a pepper-spiked mini-puddle of maple syrup. Celeri rave is cooked in a salt crust with seaweed and melts in the mouth. The signature beetroot is cooked and anointed with 50-year old balsamic vinegar. Want meaty mains? So try the pigeon, cooked with honey, olives, baby turnips, lemon, fresh rosemary, and rolled in crushed almond dragées. Or the Cotencin lobster with hazelnut oil and yellow wine. The bread is warm and the 37% salty butter from Brittany melts into it temptingly. “Flour, water and a starter, it's my recipe, c'est un gateaux, n'est-ce pas?” says a delighted Passard.

 
The vegetables come fresh daily, by TGV, plucked from the 2-hectare potager in the Sarthe region. “My aim is to supply Arpège, only with my produce,” he reveals. So now Passard spends his weekends tilling his organic soil instead of parachute jumping! No tractors allowed – just two sturdy Percheron horses, a vintage plough and bags of enthusiasm. Cheeses are perfection, there's a 1998 Comte, and desserts? Ah-ha! Wish upon a 3-star for the Millefeuille Arpège, or try the house classic, Tomate confit aux douze saveurs.

 
WINE LIST
“ Heavy reds don't really go with this menu,” advises Christophe Letienne, one of the four Arpège sommeliers. Letienne and his colleagues work closely with Passard to marry his dishes perfectly; the accent is on the Burgundy region, whose wines go well with vegetables. “We serve about 60% white wines now, particularly those with mineral fruity notes such as Riesling Grand Cru 1999 Kastelberg 'Le Château' from Marc Kreydenweiss, a friend of Monsieur Passard.” Letienne will serve glasses of appropriate wine with each course, the better to discover the often biodynamic vineyards to match the organic food. Or you could go all the way with the Charles Heidseick “Blanc des Millenaires” 1990.

 
THE DAMAGE?
Are you sitting down? Pleine terre, pleine mer 300€ A la Carte starters from 46€. Mains: from 46€: Desserts: from 26€.

 
I'M NOT PAYING THAT
Yohann Marraccini is the latest Passard protégée to open up on his own. His menu at 29€ is highly creative, not an imitation of the Master but the genuine article. Book now, before it becomes an Astrance situation and booking one month ahead is de rigueur. 83 avenue de Ségur, 15th. (Métro: Ségur). T:01 40 65 99 10.

 
SHOULD WE REALLY GO?
Yes, if you care about cuisine and want to watch the evolution of a dedicated chef who wants to “contribute to a deep change in culinary creation.” And look for a selection of Passard's vegetables and culinary-related discoveries at Bon Marché.

Arpège
84 rue de Varenne, 7th
T: 01 45 51 47 33 (Métro: Varenne)
www.alain-passard.com

Copyright © Margaret Kemp

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