Jump to content


Photo

Arpege


  • Please log in to reply
148 replies to this topic

#1 lxt

lxt

    Advanced Member

  • Members
  • PipPipPip
  • 42 posts

Posted 06 July 2004 - 02:13 AM

“Bonjour, I’ll be away in Paris for the next two weeks. Please leave a message …,” I heard the animatedly thrilling voice of my daughter (recording a greeting message on her cell phone) mingled with the noise of the impatient crowd, airport announcements, falling bags and the screeching, mechanical sound of the luggage carts.

An innocent, sweet face with the gentle, seraphic smile of a child was gazing up at us from her passport as the airport clerk firmly moved her finger across the expiration date and almost whispered: “I’m sorry; your daughter’s passport has expired.” There was an exasperated raising of the eyes, and as if emancipated from his courtly discipline, my husband relaxed his controlled face in the beginnings of an anxious half-smile, faintly showing amusement at the preposterous difficulties of the circumstances. Reaching a conversational impasse, we asked the next logical question, whether anything could be done, but the immaculate, impassive clerk pursed her lips and shook her head over the prospects of our situation so that even my husband’s ability to see two sides to any question resulted in nothing but the darkest of pessimism.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

The smell of stale smoke, impregnating some corners of the Charles de Gaulle airport; cheerful Pedro, a taxi driver of Spanish descent with marvelous, dark, wavy hair, rotten teeth and a hefty bare belly peeping out of a tight shirt; the lovely hotel, built around 1817, in the heart of Saint-Germain des Prés on the cozy Rue des Saint-Pères and a charming receptionist – her face permanently illuminated with Buddhistic peace, who seemed to be without a care in the world; the hotel’s delightful Monet-like Jardin with a small pond and four goldfish burping air bubbles that rushed to the water’s surface, and the calming sound of a tiny fountain we could fall asleep listening to from our relatively large room on the first floor, furnished with plain, sober, but good taste.

“There will be no problem…. We can switch your dinner from Tuesday [the day we had to meet our delayed daughter] to Monday,” a polite voice replied on the phone, to our sincere surprise, as we made our original reservation two months in advance. At 8:30 p.m. sharp, we evocated the taxi, with the cab driver leaning forward to catch a glimpse of the restaurant he claimed he never heard of before, and were the first ones to enter a relatively small, deceivingly minimalist room with a young, perky hostess walking briskly while taking us downstairs to the basement level of the restaurant.

If inexplicably affected by a stroke of imagination you ever contemplate on having an haute meal in a confined environment, here is your chance to enjoy a wine-cellar-like, windowless chamber – a modernized, underground dungeon, polished slightly to acquire a more acceptable appeal, with white brick walls and low vault ceiling – that would compete with the Bastille’s dungeons in architecture and décor if not for the lovely wooden Lalique panel at the back of the room, spacious round tables, and the lack of tiny squint holes to allow viewing of the prisoners.

I turned abruptly, so that the courteous distance between the hostess and me was slightly reduced, and politely inquired whether it was possible to be seated upstairs. “Since you made a reservation at the last minute, this is all we can do,” followed the firm response from the slim, fragile-looking young woman who seemed not to be inclined to change her mind. Our insistence that we indeed cared enough to make a reservation two months in advance by both mail and phone and were forced to reschedule due to special circumstances didn’t seem to soften her heart, and we were seated in the dungeon at the farthest table from the entrance with a promise, however, to be moved upstairs in case any of the more privileged diners wouldn’t object to dining downstairs or would finish their dinner early.

After the hostess disappeared and we were left alone for a short while, I was stunned to recognize the smell of mold, of a basement, of an old building flooded for a long time: a smell of rot and age that would undoubtedly interfere with the appreciation of food, since when the nose fails, 80% of the ability to taste is lost. The thought crossed my mind that the disparity in comfort between good tables and bad tables – that is, the difference between the upper and lower rooms – while offset by genuine chords of compassionate sighs from the staff, was so much more extreme than at similar establishments, that perhaps it should place on Arpège the obligation to inform a diner in advance of his seating assignment.

“Do you sense the smell of …” I started saying, lifting my eyes up at my consort to find out whether he detected an unpleasant odor as well, and stopped in the middle of the sentence with a chill running through my body as I saw him turning pale with a dew of cold sweat on his forehead, taking me back to the recent past in a momentary flash and a sudden burst of memory where I was terrified watching a neuro-surgeon, who happened to be on the same plane with us, gently chuckle, mumbling “It’s always big men who faint,” while taking my husband’s blood pressure.

We were very apologetic on our way out. “The last thing we all want is me passing out in your restaurant,” laughingly added my consort halfway out, but… apparently this last argument was quite convincing, and a cozy table in the main room across from the entrance was kindly offered and accepted.

Watching the color returning to my consort’s face, I finally relaxed and took a closer look around. A small, contemporary room, with a relatively low ceiling, requires concomitant simplicity, minimal intervention to produce a desirable visual affect with a grain of sophistication. Any expensive, complicated intrusion, even in small details, results in the impression of unsupportable compressed mass lacking in air. Otherwise interesting hand-crafted Lalique glass art work, depicting encrusted trios of the beautiful, graceful images of dancing women and men were inserted in the wooden paneling that blanketed the wall, opposite the entrance, to within several feet of the ceiling, and cut the corners of each wall with curved shapes, thereby suggesting a conflict between their circulatory logic and the symmetrical layout of the original Classical rectangular structure of the room. This roundness and the decorative adornment on the ceiling, mimicking the curves of the panels, took away precious space, and a gorgeous split violin sculpture by Arman was too large for its location and broke up the central focus, disintegrating concentration on the whole space, replacing it with what looked like a peripheral dispersion of incidentals. The total impression of the décor was that of dismembered fragments, which was quite contrary to chef Passard’s cuisine… but one thing at a time.

Bretons like their butter salty. A generous portion of a tall, trapezoidal mountain of golden-yellow butter from Saint-Malo, epitomizing the essence of the rustic, rural spirit, was placed in front of us along with roughly cut, warm slices of pain au levain as if contradicting every notion of sophistication or elaboration that Passard’s cuisine offers, with its bold, direct statement. The rich butter, intensely saturated with sel de Guérande – that same famous gray sea salt from the Brittany coast, harvested manually from mid-June to mid-September by paludiers – looked almost porous and flaky and was more intensely salted on the edges than inside its gentler belly. The bombarding flavors of buttery salt and yeast almost blinded our taste buds so that if not for the detoxifying amuse, two tiny pâte brisée tartelettes – one filled with undressed baby greens, a thin round of radish and a sprinkle of edible flowers for color, with no particular taste other than the taste of Spring and freshness, and the other filled with soft, downy, and rather light whipped parsley butter, with the accent on the buttery pastry shell which was crumbling, delicate and slightly salty, encompassing the filling nicely – the first course, the signature L’oeuf, poached egg with maple syrup and cherry vinegar, with all its delicacy and subtlety, would’ve been lost.

Posted Image

There was no mound of coarse salt serving as a decorative pedestal allowing the eggshell to show off. There was no “bonnet” made of luxury ingredients topping the egg to visually smooth the edges of the decapitated shell. The small, brown egg (from a little Loire village called Bigottière) was displayed in a purposefully dispassionate, unsentimental way, plainly, in a graceful setting (in a silver eggcup on a small red-rimmed plate placed on top of a matching larger plate), immobile and vulnerable, lacking any external adornment, with minimal intervention to its exterior only to surprise the palate when its lightly warm contents, filling about three quarters of the shell, was finally revealed.

The word “poached” applied only to the yolk, which, separated from the discarded white, was very lightly poached for several minutes, maintaining its liquid, viscous nature only to be bound to the inside of the shell by the “glue” of its slightly firmer rim. The unseasoned yolk, embellished with one tiny ring of chive, was hidden on the bottom of the shell under a fluffy blanket of exceptionally airy and bubbly cream, whipped so lightly that there was just enough firmness for it to support a one-stroke splash of Canadian maple syrup thinned with a drop of cherry vinegar for contrast, subduing the syrup’s sugariness. The sweet notes, which were extremely delicate and added a focus to the natural sweetness of the cream, were completely absorbed by the more powerful, chive-sparked yolk, while diluting the yolk’s intensity, as the contents of the shell finally mingled together, giving the dish a different body and taste. There were no more than three small spoonfuls to what seemed to be a simple dish, but it truly brought one to a moment of almost spiritual reverie in the face of the exceptional balance.

Caviar osciètre royal d’Iran (nouvelle pêche).
When a bowl of white, thick and smooth, creamy and lightly frothed Jerusalem artichoke velouté, whose gentle flow was disturbed only by the dark beads of the scoop of Iranian Royal Caviar in the center, was placed in front of me, before I attempted to unravel the flavors of this pictorial dish and examine the quality of the caviar, a reminiscence of the first time I tried beluga – the world-class 000 malossol caviar (from Astrakhan, aged for two months), with large (about 3 millimeters in diameter) beads, leaving an unforgettable sensation as little black pearls popped lightly when pressed against the roof of my mouth with my tongue, releasing, just like good butter, a soft, rich and exquisitely delicate flavor with a hint of sweetness, a slightly nutty flavor and a clean, smooth finish – brought back a pleasant feeling.

With current problems relating to overfishing in the Caspian Sea and trade restrictions on Russian sturgeon, I hardly expected to see beluga on the menu, though the price of the dish prompted high expectations, but I anticipated finding excellent quality osetra and was surprised and disappointed after examining it.

Iranian caviar has several disadvantages compared to Russian (specifically, along the Volga, “the mother of sturgeon rivers” --Inga Saffron) that may affect the quality and taste, in my opinion: 1) Osetra from the cooler waters of the southwest shores (the coast of Iran in the Caspian Sea) doesn’t develop the complexity of flavors, ranging from fruity to nutty, lingering pleasantly in the mouth, for which it is praised. 2) There is a fine art to producing top-quality caviar that varies from fish to fish, applied depending on whether the eggs are perfectly ripe, immature or too mature, requiring different curing techniques to bring out the best in the roe. These skills were mastered over the centuries in Russia and were passed from generation to generation assuring the high level of integrity of the product, whereas the consumption of both sturgeon and its roe and even touching the fish were not allowed by Islam, since sturgeon doesn’t have scales, so that Iranian participation in the caviar trade has really been only a 20th-century phenomenon.

The dark-gray-to-brown color of the beads on my plate, indicating a stronger flavor (lighter, golden color osetra is more delicate), their medium size, uniformity and shine were very attractive, and I anticipated a little burst as I put several pearls in my mouth only to be disappointed by a sluggish, soggy result lacking the distinctive “pop,” and sadly, a very salty, straightforward flavor, which is an indication of inferior quality.

Lightly salting caviar, as with Russian Malossol, is the desired treatment for the best eggs, allowing no more than 3% salt in relation to the egg weight; lesser grades can have up to 10%. Mixing salt with borax (an old method utilized in Russia to simulate the 16th century approach where caviar was penetrated by borax from the soil, near the Caspian Sea, in which bags with caviar were buried to age), results in caviar with a more rounded, sweeter flavor. There were none of these characteristics in the caviar at Arpège. In fact, it tasted as if it were pasteurized, which sometimes is done after curing and packing to prolong caviar’s shelf life, but which permanently alters the eggs’ delicate protein, resulting in sogginess.

“Passard should change his supplier, but this dish is excellent,” said my consort, referring to the caviar, as he mixed it thoroughly with the velouté, and took a spoonful of the gently warm mixture. Indeed, despite the name of the dish, caviar was not the central element in this composition. The suave, rich velouté (slightly warmer than room temperature) was so intense in its gentle flavor that it was as if the last drop of life had been drawn out of the vegetable, revitalizing the creamy liquid and permeating it with a subtle, softly sweet and precise flavor. As the caviar beads spread out in the liquid and contributed their salty intonations, the sweetness seemed to blend naturally with the salt without being suppressed. It was a nice progression of flavors from slightly sweet to salty-sweet, with a gentle amalgamation of all components giving the dish its very structure, which didn’t shock, just pleased. Though the title, accenting a less-than-perfect component, was misleading, the ultimate result of the whole dish seemed to transcend the ingredients.

Posted Image

Collection legumière (automne-hiver). Betterave rouge au sel gris de Guérande (aceto balsamico tradizionale 25 ans d'âge)
If I were ever to prove that minimalism — the use of simple geometric forms on the plate with simple ingredients, the modular principle, addition rather than composition, the rejection of element-based hierarchies, which negate any character of hand-made dependencies — can deliver, despite its apparent simplicity, complex tastes and flavors, then this signature dish would be the best representation of the style.

Rough skin, carved off the quartered slice of beet, like a surfboard holding the unsteady, burgundy-red pulp positioned on the skin diagonally and appearing at turns realistic and almost abstract with its plump, meaty body showing off its bulging veins, and a thick, rich balsamic vinegar poured at the table, carving a wake in a static composition, were arranged in a precise configuration of bold relief against the shallow background of the plate.

The beet was baked for about an hour(?) at high temperature inside a pyramid of coarse, gray Guérande salt, in a strictly controlled environment, where any unattended detail could’ve spoiled the dish (e.g. excessive heat around the sides of the beet would force it to release juices and absorb more salt than intended). The weather must’ve been cool and favorable to produce this superior quality beet, which was accentuated by the cooking technique, allowing the dark internal flesh to preserve its gentle crunch and bring out the extraordinary sweetness, and the tasty, firm, taut skin, with salty crust, to provide a beautiful contrast.

The 25-year old balsamic vinegar, with its dark-brown color, full of warmth, and a thick consistency, lent a complex aroma of wood and grapes, and the nose was attacked by vanilla and ripe fruit with perfectly proportioned sweet and sour tastes complementing the pulp and offsetting the skin of the beet wonderfully, wrapping the sugary taste of the pulp with fruity sweetness and accentuating the earthiness of the skin.

Passard, who keeps his own two-hectare farm in Sarthe, supplies Arpège with fresh vegetables delivered to Paris by TGV on a daily basis. This simple, unpretentious dish, with direct contrasts, which hardly provokes one’s imagination, left an indelible mark as one of the most unforgettable dishes on our trip, which included meals at Pierre Gaignaire, Lucas Carton, L’Ambroisie, Les Ambassadeurs, L’Astrance, l'Atelier de Joël Robuchon…

Posted Image

Homard des îles Chausey au mile d’acacia (radis noir).
Very thinly cut, large rounds of black radish, resembling membranes, alabaster skins transparent enough to reveal spider-web patterns on their snow-white petals adorned with a thin, black ribbon, covered precious, lavishly pink chunks of lobster sprinkled(?) with rosemary. A lightly viscous emulsion of cherry vinegar mixed with acacia honey, not thick enough to stay on top of the composition “mountain,” ran down the hill, wetting the radish, leaving pale-beige trails and collecting into puddles on the surface of the plate. Two small branches of dill and flakes of black pepper, added at the table at the last moment, completed the composition.

This was yet another signature dish, proclaimed to be “one of the best” by nearly all guides recommending Arpège, and which served as an inspiration for other chefs to launch their own experiments with sweet-and-sour blends.

The gently sweet and extravagant notes penetrated every taste bud bathing each corner of the mouth with exotic and smooth flavor with a flowery perfume traveling all the way up the nose only to strike the back of the throat with a sharp vinegary acidity so abruptly that an extra gasp of air was required to catch one’s breath. The sauce was unbalanced, too stark, drowning the tender, slightly briny and truly excellent lobster meat in its sharpness. The black radish, soggy and very pungent, didn’t seem to help either.

I am familiar with black radish, known mostly in Eastern Europe and utilized extensively in salads, very well. Its flesh is generally crisp and slightly drier than that of other radishes, which could be preferable, if not for the mood-swings in taste this root vegetable exhibits, which can vary from relatively mild and pleasant to very strong, pungent and sharp. One way to tame it is by first salting and rinsing the radish or blanching it; however, either method, if overdone, may result in soggy petals, which is exactly what happened to the specimen I was served. It seemed that the radish was blanched for too long, to alleviate its peppery starkness, and lost its crunchiness, subsiding like a withering flower, chewy and lacking a fresh crunch.

Having taste for pedantry, I wasn’t satisfied with my impressions of this dish, considering its reputation, and launched a search for a possible picture or another more detailed description to compare with the version served on our visit. Luckily, I came across an excellent picture, which may prove the version of the dish I tasted to be if not inferior then at least different.

Posted Image Our version.

Other version.

In this picture, the sauce looks to be thicker, indicating more generous utilization of honey or less vinegar, and the turnip petals, though of a different type, are perky and crisp, keeping the sauce in place on top of the hill, and apparently providing a crunch which should complement the tender lobster meat. I may give this dish another try the next time I’m in Paris.

Coquillage de la cote d’Emeraude (parfum d’epices et d’herbes fines)
One bite of scallop, and I rushed to clear my palate with water from the strong flavor left by the previous dish still lingering in my mouth, subduing the delicacy of the superb scallops and blocking the appreciation of the current dish, as neither the scallops, nor the vegetables accompanying them, with all their brightness of taste, were strong enough to compete with the previous vinegar/honey composition. At this point, we thought a small delight of a palate cleanser would be desirable to ensure natural progression of courses.

Two scallops, on a cloth of slightly wilted cabbage, unattached scallop roe, fried bay leaf, caramelized large, elongated onion with its skin on (Passard doesn’t waste any part of his vegetables), and thick parsley purée were rendered on a plate plainly, without excessive liberties and elaborate chiaroscuro effects, though with a certain theatricality to all elements, which although few in number and visually simple in form, were artfully arranged in an ordered manner celebrating the prosperity of nature and representing a carefully modeled still life that reclaimed energy through their perfect technical rendition and complex relationships of flavors. This dish was simply fantastic!

The middle of May (the time of our dinner) was supposed to be the end of the scallop season in the Emerald Coast in Brittany, but not just yet, as the chilly weather prevented scallops from spawning, when they lose their firmness and other sublime characteristics. Scallops, being a sedentary species, are not able to migrate like other fish to a location favorable for spawning in response to the yearly variation in water conditions. Their only response to cooler temperatures is tuning their reproductive schedule, which can even lead to the failure to spawn in a given season.

Fortunately, we had an opportunity to sample scallops in all their glory: springy but not tough, tender but very dense and meaty with enduring texture so that a slight chewing effort was required, extending the pleasure of lingering sweet juices inside the mouth. The medium-sized scallops had a lemony, brown crust, and their caramelized, slightly nutty-flavored exterior wonderfully enhanced their natural sweetness. The pink roe, condensed and plump, briny with a distinctive taste, was good, and the utilization of it in the dish indicated the freshness of the scallops, since scallop roe is very perishable and is usually discarded. The surprise, however, was still ahead.

Gagnaire teaches you everything about fish and meat without wasting any giblets. Passard shows you everything about every vegetable and herb without dismissing any of them as inedible, opening up a whole new world of tastes and flavors closed to our consciousness by our stubborn preconceptions. This is not mere extravagance to write a contemporary book of innovations or hunt for fame; they are excellent discoveries with sublime execution.

Bay leaf. Who could’ve thought that this herb, used primarily in bouquet garni to give flavor to soups and gravies and always discarded at the end, could taste so good! Crunchy, intensely salty, bursting with strong flavors of mint and piquant bitterness, tickling your mouth with a ripple of herbal mist evoking the spirit of spring, the bay leaf wrapped the scallops with its earthy intensity without disturbing their briny sweetness. Don’t be bashful: crunch on the deep-fried bay leaf to add a bitter spike; splash the unseasoned, but intensely grassy parsley purée on the scallop to offset the bitterness of the leaf; take a bite of the sweet caramelized onion and its crunchy skin (cooked for five hours on top of the stove!); and enjoy the merged flavors of both worlds – earth and sea – coming together in the most unexpected tunes. This dish was inspirational in its mathematical precision where no element was excessive and there was nothing one would contemplate adding.

Posted Image

“You look a little bit like Chef ‘s grandmother,” said Laurent Lapaire, Maître d', looking at me somewhat intently with a faint smile and a twinkle in his eye, while placing Turbot sauvage au naturel (emulsion de savagnin) in front of us. I haven’t noticed the large picture of the chef’s grandmother hanging on the wall to the right upon entering the restaurant, and since the view of the picture was blocked from my sight, my dismay from the thought of being compared to a “grandmother” apparently was expressive enough for M. Lapaire to realize that the intended compliment had not produced the desired effect, and he quickly retired.

“How does his grandmother look?” I asked my consort, somewhat puzzled, (after a short pause after M. Lapaire retreated) hoping that he had a better view of the picture from where he sat. “Darling, I can assure you that every second woman in this room ‘looks like the chef’s grandmother’,” he responded laughing while patting my hand lovingly, with no intent to insult Passard’s grandmother but to console my fears. Meanwhile, still under the influence of the recent incident, I took a piece of turbot in my mouth almost mechanically, only to break away from the world of tangible thoughts into the euphoria of the astounding balance.

The schematic simplicity of the presentation – a fantastic piece of tender turbot with a slightly woody flavor, quickly browned on a hot grill and then cooked slowly on top of the stove for two hours; one long branch of crispy asparagus, sprinkled with fleur de sel; velvety parsnip purée, gently sweet and fluffy, complementing the buttery taste of the fish wonderfully; a pile of tiny fresh chive rings, placed on the side; and a Savagnin emulsion, with the distinct flavor of fumet delicately balanced by the placid acidity of yellow wine and adorned with a thin stroke of asparagus sauce – created such compactness and clarity of taste that its quiet dynamic quality and expressiveness went far beyond the idea of “least is most” and the minimalist vocabulary here became part of a more complex context. There was a certain aesthetic sensitivity, elegance, and natural link between the woody, supple, sinuous flavor of the fish and the bounding sauce – made of vin jaune (yellow wine) from Jura region (the same sauce is served in the signature lobster dish) with a delicate, nutty richness binding all subtle flavors together – that elevated the dish to a work of art. This is the dish that changes one’s idea of perfection and balance, setting an unsurpassed example and lifting the bar of one’s expectations to a new level. This is the dish that is carried through all other experiences and years to be remembered, and this was certainly the dish of our evening.

Posted Image

It was stifling hot and stuffy inside the restaurant, as if the room had absorbed the fumes breathed out by the flickering, long, skinny candles, suffocating the inhabitants of the building. Even an open door didn’t let in the fresh, cool air, but rather let the building belch the oppressive heat out. A woman at the table behind us weakly hailed a waiter and was taken for rehabilitation outside, my consort finally released his neck from the oppressive tie and blew out the candle on our table, and I was just right, ready for the next course.

With a little stretch, Passard’s tasting could be compared to the standard musical sonata form, with its three distinct sections comprised of exposition, with a closing codetta ending in presto and on fortissimo (lobster in a sweet-and-sour sauce), which might be a pleasing contrast to the next moderato section for the ear, but numbs the palate, as it doesn’t seem to be able to recover as quickly as the ear; development, expanding and further exploring the world of herbs, vegetables, and sea; and reprise, in this case Volaille de pâturage poelée au sésame noir et soja (aceto balsamico tradizionale 25 ans d’age) , with almost every vegetable introduced during the meal collected on one plate, though presented in different preparations and arrangements – two delightful, tiny, fried ravioli, treasuring very peppery confit of onion under their crunchy but extremely delicate skins; caramelized round onion, fully dressed in its crunchy skin, reminiscent of the onion in the earlier dish but of a different variety; fried sage, sprinkled with coarse salt, crispy and bitter, echoing the fried bay leaf; a slice of a pseudo-Pissaladiere with no crust, made of turnip and red beet; and a deceivingly beautiful chive flower, fried just long enough to bring out its concentrated flavor, first biting your tongue with garlic sharpness and later with onion/chive bitterness.

However, what would’ve been a logical and expected recapitulation in music didn’t seem to be as pleasing to the palate. The dish lacked a surprise element that could’ve brought new, revitalizing flavors at the end, and even though the vegetables were done superbly, a sense of déjà vu and fatigue from the repetitive theme couldn’t have passed unnoticed. The chicken didn’t help either. Cooked for two and a half hours on top of the stove on a very low heat in almost no liquid, the chicken, though not tough, wasn’t moist and was somewhat flavorless. It was as if the chicken wasn’t cooked enough for the meat to break down after it toughened, which generally happens somewhere in the middle of a slow cooking process, and regain moisture, tenderness and concentrated flavor.

Posted Image

We were then served a plate of cheeses from Bernard Antony: Saint Nectaire fermier ( cow’s milk from Auvergne, appearing first during the reign of Louis XIV, with a very distinctive rotten smell and nutty, spicy taste revealing a slight acidity as it melted in the mouth); Valençay (goat’s milk from the province of Berry, the cheese that was originally shaped like a perfect pyramid and was deformed by the sword of Napoleon, who stopped at Valençay castle after his fiasco in Egypt and became upset seeing a cheese in the shape of the Egyptian pyramids); Brebis Corse (sheep’s milk from Corsica); Brillat-Savarin (cow’s milk triple cream); Persillé de la Tarentaise (goat’s milk from the Tarentaise area of Savoie, with the very acidic tang of a young goat cheese, usually aged one-and-a-half months or less.); and Abondance (cow’s milk hard cheese from Haute Savoie, with a nice, complex flavor and a balance of sweetness and light acidity).

After a pre-dessert refreshment of blood orange soup with floating droplets of argan oil, which scratched the back of the throat with its dry bitterness until mixed thoroughly with the soup, we finally reached the coda of our dinner and a cart, with a pan in which two medium-sized red tomatoes were bathing in bubbling caramel, was rolled to our table.

Posted Image

Perhaps when Passard first introduced this signature dessert, even the concept of using anything other than conventional fruits and limited herbs in desserts was revolutionary. However, as time went by and other chefs stepped over the boundaries of tradition, matching vegetables (beet, red pepper), herbs (paprika) and even bacon with sugar, Passard’s tomato dessert began to appear ordinary, in my opinion. In the version we were served, the tomato flavor seemed to have evaporated from the skinned tomato, after being cooked on the stove for two and a half hours and constantly basted in caramel. It was further subdued by the cloying sweetness of the dry fruit mélange and strong spices (clove, cinnamon, ginger etc.) with which it was stuffed, losing its identity and giving the dessert a Middle Eastern overtone. It seemed that the ripeness and the natural fruitiness of the tomato were not central (indeed, the signature tomato soup with mustard ice-cream was not on the menu, as this was not tomato season), and only its body, with its soft flesh, was used as a container to hold other ingredients. A mint-liquor ice cream slightly offset the cloying sweetness of the dessert, but I am afraid my high expectations were not met.

Around 450 euros was the price per person. I don’t think that such a price is unacceptable since people’s willingness to pay is and should be the only justification of cost in a market-driven society. However, from an objective perspective and in comparison to other similarly rated establishments, the ambience, service and even some ingredients or their rendition at Arpège suffered. Therefore, the question still remains why people are willing to patronize Arpège and pay such high prices. Is it a mere reflection of hype or a combination of overexcitement and energy-of-the-crowd syndrome? Is it that their hopes to achieve high standing among “knowledgeable diners” forces people to sponsor Arpège year after year and therefore continue encouraging Passard to keep prices up, which otherwise would never be acceptable?

When “connoisseurs” admire the “skill” and enjoy the “quality of cuisine,” and the vulgar herd pronounces the food “nice” or “splendid,” but hungry souls leave unfulfilled, the art becomes art for art’s sake. The neglect of inner meanings, the lack of passion and rhythm, this vain squandering of artistic power is called art for art’s sake. The artist seeks material reward for his dexterity, his power of vision and experience, and his purpose becomes the satisfaction of vanity and greed. The question “what?” disappears; only the question “how?” remains. There are chefs who seek only some new technique, and produce, without enthusiasm, with hearts cold and souls asleep, technically proficient dishes with no life.

Yet, Passard’s emotional power overwhelms the “how?” and gives free rein to his finer expression of a clear minimalist form, as if concentrating on the complexity of the inner beautify of one object instead of its relationship with the rest of the world. When his passion is engaged, Passard is a virtuosic performer, and his dishes, taking on greater complexity and exuberance, are simply transcendent -- alive, breathing, and passionate in their austere, but nonetheless elegant, rendition. When he is bored, a dull chicken will creep into the world of balance and fervor. You pay for hours and hours of careful cooking, requiring constant attention to every detail, allowing no mistakes. It is a huge responsibility, and no wonder that not many followed in Passard’s footsteps, as there is nowhere to hide a mediocre performance with such a minimalist art – straightforward, precise, with an extraordinary balance of flavors. The risk is too high and a special touch, patience and passion are required to achieve such mastery. This uniqueness or the lack of competition is what you pay for.

As long as Passard does not rest on his laurels at the expense of excellence and innovation, it may well be, in my opinion, worth paying the price he commands.

#2 Wilfrid1

Wilfrid1

    Advanced Member

  • Members
  • PipPipPip
  • 42,108 posts

Posted 06 July 2004 - 02:59 PM

I appreciate the intricate detail of your report. The restaurant sounds, in many respects, fairly uncomfortable, which is suprising. I agree with you that one can hardly object to a commercial enterprise charging a price which customers are prepared to pay, but at today's exchange rate the cost of the meal is $547 a head. Presumably before wine. I must say, I am indeed surprised that people will pay that price.
Elect-a-lujah

***Every Monday***At the Sign of the Pink Pig.

If the author could go around the place hitting random readers with a rubber hammer, the Pink Pig would still be worth a visit.

#3 Orik

Orik

    Advanced Member

  • Technocrat
  • PipPipPip
  • 22,121 posts

Posted 06 July 2004 - 03:45 PM

As long as Passard does not rest on his laurels at the expense of excellence and innovation, it may well be, in my opinion, worth paying the price he commands.

I thought he's been doing that for a long time now...

I think I wrote this before on eG or OA, but I would only recommend Arpege to people who didn't dine in the older version (less than half price for food and many wines, even before exchange rate adjustments, and significantly better cuisine).
sandwiches that are large and filling and do not contain tuna or prawns

#4 lxt

lxt

    Advanced Member

  • Members
  • PipPipPip
  • 42 posts

Posted 07 July 2004 - 08:43 PM

Wilfrid,

I congratulate you on your forbearance in reading my entire post. :)

“With great power, comes great responsibility” (Spider-Man). The price Passsard charges and the current three-star status of the restaurant permit one to examine scrupulously every aspect of Arpege not just its cuisine. The décor at Arpege is not its strength and the service is adequate but not exceptional; therefore, the question lies in whether Passard’s cuisine with its precision, elaboration, balance and innovation is unique enough to pay the asking price. Passard’s genius is in that most everything he touches sparkles. He takes a common object, a stone which you would pass by without noticing, and turns it into a diamond, opening a whole new world of emotions, tastes, flavors and luxury under its rough skin, unattractive appearance and plain taste. His food touches souls and stimulates the production of such a high level of serotonin that it could be attributed to nothing else but art. This is where personal preference comes into play, and you must decide whether this particular art is to your taste.

The purpose of my post was to dispassionately (as much as I could) and objectively present all pros and cons of dining at Arpege so that no misleading or false expectations would be encountered by anyone who has read my impressions. If someone is seeking grandeur, a place for a special occasion, he should not choose Arpege. If someone is meeting friends for a sociable meal, he should not choose Arpege, as I believe Passard’s cuisine requires full concentration and is much better eaten in a quiet environment. If someone’s perception of luxury lies with Baroque elaborateness and conventional luxury ingredients and meat, he should not choose Arpege. However, aside from my emotional ramblings, I believe it is not only superficial market demand that justifies the price at Arpege; it is Passard’s uniqueness and, as I said previously, “lack of competition” that drives the price up. Show me Passard II at a lower price, and I’ll show you how fickle I can be with my loyalties. Does Passard take advantage of his diners and boost the price unreasonably? I can’t really answer this question, but from the amateur perspective, the amount of time and care invested in food preparation (five hours for caramelizing an onion!)—not to mention quality of the result – could justify the asking price.

By the way, Arpege was not unique among top-level Paris restaurants in its lack of operational air conditioning.

#5 lxt

lxt

    Advanced Member

  • Members
  • PipPipPip
  • 42 posts

Posted 07 July 2004 - 08:44 PM

Orik,

“Better cuisine” and “rest on one’s laurels” bear different meanings. Is your premise that vegetables cannot reach the same level of sophistication as other, i.e. luxury, ingredients, or do you mean that Passard’s cuisine is executed with less precision and technique than in the past? Does your personal preference lean toward meat, which could negatively influence your perception?

I am an omnivore by nature, but I felt in no way deprived by Passard’s choice of ingredients. His beet, for example, is permeated with such a concentrated power of flavors ranging from subtle to bursting that it appeals to the core of ones emotions and intellect, and in my mind is no less lavish than foie gras, caviar or meat. I haven’t had luxury to compare his current execution with the previous, but I detected not boredom but passion; not laziness but enthusiasm in Passard’s cuisine. It may not appeal to everybody, but it certainly enriches one’s flavor vocabulary.

#6 Orik

Orik

    Advanced Member

  • Technocrat
  • PipPipPip
  • 22,121 posts

Posted 08 July 2004 - 02:50 AM

lxt,

I don't have my summary of the last meal at Arpege in front of me, but vegetables vs. meat is not a primary concern. I can only remember having eaten a few meat dishes at the 1990s Arpege (wild hare once, a couple of amazingly good duck preparations and the pigeon, never beef, pork or lamb). Their seared foie gras was not an interesting dish - scallops, lobster and fish, truffles and vegetables were always the stars.

The notes from our last meal there are not in front of me, but let me see if I can recall:

1. Luxury ingredients - the menu still features homard breton and caviar, so there is no real movement away from these ingredients. However, the lobster in yellow wine used to include truffle shavings (otherwise it was identical) and sell for half its current price. Also, there was previously a wonderful truffle and parmesan soup, in our last visit this was replaced with caramelized onion gratin. I'm not going to argue with anyone claiming that an onion can bring him or her the same pleasure as truffles and parmesan - this is a subjective matter, but it surely brings pleasure to the restaurant's accountant, as both dishes sell for about the same price.

2. Quality of ingredients, complexity of preparation - also in our last visit, we ordered a mushroom soup. Sivan tasted it and said "well, this is most certainly a very plain mushroom soup". The following day we saw passard offering the same soup at some sort of a food event, together with the recipe - champignons, stock, cream... Nothing different from how you would have prepared cream of mushroom. 64 Euros, I think (or was it 48? ridiculous, in any event).

3. Wine prices - the restaurant can do as it pleases, but there are some cases where prices in Euro are not much lower than they were in Francs...

4. Boredom - the egg, both lobster preparation, a couple of variations on the caviar theme (sometimes it's with avocado), a very large whole roasted bass, when available, even a slightly modified version of the scallop dish (I think the cabbage was only present in the lobster with yellow wine before) have been on the menu for many years. If you look at the cuisine of the 1990 and the current cuisine, you'll see just how much of the supposed change is purely marketing and cost cutting.

5. Cheese service - used to be exceptional, has become miserable, but this isn't unique to Arpege.

In short, from a relatively casual 3 star, serving innovative cuisine at very low prices (I actually have a check for 2800 FF including 1000 FF for wine), Arpege has become one of the most expensive restaurants in France, yet its cuisine, service and decor did not evolve significantly. Still a destination for someone who hasn't tried Passard's cuisine. Fortunately we were never seated in the basement ;)
sandwiches that are large and filling and do not contain tuna or prawns

#7 lxt

lxt

    Advanced Member

  • Members
  • PipPipPip
  • 42 posts

Posted 11 July 2004 - 05:55 PM

1. Luxury ingredients.
An artist’s intentions have always been central in judging his work, and since there is no evidence of Passard’s real intentions, I’d like to explore every possible side of the question. The exclusion of truffle shavings from the lobster dish may have been an attempt to stress the sweetness of the lobster even at the expense of other more luxurious but stronger tasting, earthy elements like truffles. I have no evidence that this exclusion was done primarily for the purpose of increasing his profit margin. There is also a possibility that the lobster dish was originally underpriced, and if the current price tag is not much different from what other three-star restaurants charge today for a similar dish, the comparison of Arpege now to Arpege yesterday may no longer be justifiable.

In the case of truffle-and-parmesan soup vs. caramelized onion gratin, not only the ingredients constitute the price of the dish. The design of the dish (research and development), cooking time and attention to detail required to deliver the desired effect are a part of the cost as well. In this case, you are essentially comparing 5 hours of cooking time, for instance, to the cost of the raw material, and I have no evidence suggesting that one is more expensive than the other.

2. Quality of ingredients, complexity of preparation.
There is always a chance that some dishes may be weaker than others on the menu at any three-star place. I am not suggesting that the mushroom soup didn’t taste plain in your case; however, I’d be wary of recipes that Passard gives out to the public since it seems that these recipes somewhat differ and are simplified from the real technique he himself utilizes at his restaurant sometimes. For instance, his tomato dessert’s published recipe calls for baking tomatoes for 12 minutes instead of cooking them on the top of the stove for two and a half hours with someone constantly basting them in caramel as he does in his kitchen.

Aside from the mediocre Iranian caviar, which was just right for the dish in which it was used, the quality of other ingredients at our dinner was superb. Can you elaborate on the subject of quality?

3. I can’t comment on wine prices.

4. Boredom.
This is an interesting point. If Passard slowed down with his innovations, could his food be considered of less value, proficiency or interest? Handel always kept on the side of the known musical means of his time, bypassing rigorous contrapuntal techniques used by other, more adventurous musicians. Bach was cooking the same music for years, using well-developed practices invented long before his time. Most of the dishes you recounted have became Passard’s legacy, and the ones I tried were fantastic and are still unique in comparison to what other, similar establishments offer (aside from his tomato dessert, which, in my view, is boring and should be retired). However, other than simply resting on his laurels, there could be another reason Passard is not creating new dishes, that is, public demand: The dishes you mentioned are still very desirable, “fresh,” interesting and innovative, so that Passard is forced to keep them on the menu. Under this scenario, we have to take into consideration that every element of Passard’s dishes requires a tremendous amount of time and skill to be prepared properly; therefore, there is only a certain number of dishes he can include on his menu which prevents him from adding anything new. At some point, this practice may catch up with him, but for now, I think it can be justified, and indeed, every table at Arpege was taken that Monday night.

5. Cheese service.
What are your thoughts on the reasons for the deterioration of the cheese service at Arpege and other places?

#8 Orik

Orik

    Advanced Member

  • Technocrat
  • PipPipPip
  • 22,121 posts

Posted 11 July 2004 - 07:01 PM

In the case of truffle-and-parmesan soup vs. caramelized onion gratin, not only the ingredients constitute the price of the dish. The design of the dish (research and development), cooking time and attention to detail required to deliver the desired effect are a part of the cost as well. In this case, you are essentially comparing 5 hours of cooking time, for instance, to the cost of the raw material, and I have no evidence suggesting that one is more expensive than the other.

I find it impossible to buy into this version of the story. It makes very little sense (none, really) for many reasons, but it is besides the point - subjectively, for me, caramelized onions are not as good as truffles and parmesan. If you choose to convince yourself that the price charged can somehow be related to cost and that Passard himself is standing there, stirring onions for 5 hours just to serve your dish, suit yourself.

As far as the changes to cheese service are concerned - to use your method of analysis - the great artists have probably realized that the tradition of serving cheeses at the end of the meal no longer fits today's cuisine. The only reason they are still serving cheese is that the public expects it, with the expectation of retiring it altogether ;)

Anyway, regardless of the motivation - artistic integrity or business considerations, the results are what they are and my original statement stands - not that I don't recommend Arpege at all, but I don't recommend it to someone who knew it in its previous incarnation and that, subjectively, I find the current cuisine not to be as good.
sandwiches that are large and filling and do not contain tuna or prawns

#9 lxt

lxt

    Advanced Member

  • Members
  • PipPipPip
  • 42 posts

Posted 13 July 2004 - 04:09 AM

Absent hard evidence of the man's rapacity, I'll retain my less-cynical view of Passard... and of artists in general. ;) I can only envy your having tasted Passard's food before his vegetarian epiphany - or perhaps not, if it would have interfered with my appreciating his current work.

In any case, the question for me is whether what Arpege serves, despite the inconveniences of the restaurant itself, is worth what it charges, and the answer is probably yes.

#10 Steven Dilley

Steven Dilley

    Advanced Member

  • Members
  • PipPipPip
  • 3,021 posts

Posted 26 January 2005 - 01:57 PM

Might as well start at the top. Last week SCS and I spent a week in Europe, highlighted by four nights in Paris with a pretty ambitious dining schedule--L'Arpege, L'Ambroisie and Gagnaire on consecutive days. We kicked things off at Arpege Monday night. A night that I've already replayed in my head countless times. And why not--it is the best meal I've ever had. Bar none. Not even close.

I'm not one for hyperbole, but I have a feeling this review is going to come across as extreme. Imagine experiencing multiple 'bests' in a single night. Not likely but that's exactly how it played out.

We were seated on the left side of the main dining room with a great view. Water, wine lists, menus, and a bottle of '97 Billecart Salmon Cuvee Elizabeth Rose soon followed. Amuses included two pastry shells, one with spinach and sesame seeds, another with shredded lettuce atop a biting vinaigrette.

After much deliberation and a suggestion from our waiter, we decided on the following:

Arpege egg

Scallops with black truffles

Sweet and sour lobster

Grilled monkfish

Pigeon with almond and carmelized sugar

Comte, Stilton, Mimolette

Avacado souffle with pistachio

The wine list didn't offer much in the way of deals, and rather than rolling the dice or going with a white and half a red for the pigeon, we opted for a '99 Ramonet Chevalier Montrachet. One of the best white Burgs I've had. I was surprised at how forward it was--the nose just exploded from the glass. Great texture and length and one I'll be on the lookout for.

First up, the Arpege egg. We must have appeared a bit loopy after our first couple bites, as our table was silent except for a few giggles. A thought-provoking combination with great balance. A dish I've always assumed would be too sweet for my palate but that somehow remained in check, laced with various spices and a good glimpse into what was to follow.

Scallops with black truffles and hazelnut oil. Very good, and possibly the best quality scallops I've had. The truffles were good but not as intense as the ones we had at L'Ambroisie the next day. A small quibble. Unfortunately, I found the hazelnut oil overpowering on several bites, which detracted from an otherwise fine dish.

Homard 'Arpege' vinaigrette aigre-douce. Sweet and sour lobster. Best lobster I've ever had, and a dish that set the tone for the remainder of the meal. The texture, chew, and flavor of the lobster itself were off the charts. Where does Passard get them? And the preparation... oh, my. This dish, coupled with the egg starter and pigeon dish was to follow, immediately redefined my understanding of sweet flavors in savory dishes. The incredible, daring balance between sweet and sour and salty was stunning. Quickly blanched turnips added texture. Knockout.

Lotte de Bretagne a la moutarde d'Orleans. Monkfish grilled for 2 1/2 hours with smoked potatoes, wilted cabbage, and mustard sauce. I assumed the lobster would be the highlight of the meal. I was wrong. Best fish dish I've ever had. Unbelievable. The number of superlatives that pour out when I try to describe this dish is silly. So I'll just say that the rich, meaty, dense, juicy, slightly smoky fish was an absolute revelation that paired very well with everything on the plate. I assume this was the inspiration behind Wylie's cod and smoked potatoes?

Dragee de pigeonneau de Saint-Anne d'Auray avec sauce a l'hydromel. Pigeon with almond and carmelized sugar. Another wonderful dish, though not quite up to the level of the preceeding two. What suprised me was the balance. This is not a sweet dish. Perfectly prepared pigeon enhanced by the richness of the carmelized sugar and almonds. At this point in the meal, I was flabbergasted. I had the privilege to dine at Gagnaire and Taillevent a year ago and consider those benchmark meals, but Arpege was turning out to be on a different level.

Bernard Antony's 2000 Comte, Stilton, and Mimolette followed. Best examples of the first two I've had. The Mimolette didn't impress, though.

Avacado souffle with pistachio was a winner, though I was ready for a digestif by then.

Calvados, armagnac, and two classic malts--1978 Port Ellen and a 30 yr old Brora--along with a great Cohiba brought things to a very pleasant finish. The malts, both from mothballed distilleries, were marvelous examples, and both turned out to be available from Maison du Whisky.

Two additional notes. The ingredients were top-notch. By that, I mean that in several cases I'm sure I've never had better. And the service was the best I've experienced. More to my taste than the famed service at Taillevent or anywhere else I've dined. Refined, comfortable, informed. We were the only diners in the restaurant for the final hour, and I felt we would have been welcome to enjoy our cigar and drinks for a couple more.

A meal that redefined three-star dining for me. With company to match. Can't wait to return.
Say what you will about the ten commandments, you must always come back to the pleasant fact that there are only ten of them.

--H.L.Mencken


.............................
Sissies and wastoids

#11 omnivorette

omnivorette

    Advanced Member

  • Members
  • PipPipPip
  • 25,546 posts

Posted 26 January 2005 - 02:03 PM

YAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
"It seems a positively Quixotic quest to defend food from being used as any kind of social signifier, as if it could avoid the fate of each other component of our everyday lives." -Wilfrid

#12 Orik

Orik

    Advanced Member

  • Technocrat
  • PipPipPip
  • 22,121 posts

Posted 26 January 2005 - 02:13 PM

So which is better, Homard Breton or Maine Lobster? :lol:

I'm glad you liked it.
sandwiches that are large and filling and do not contain tuna or prawns

#13 Lippy

Lippy

    Advanced Member

  • Members
  • PipPipPip
  • 10,466 posts

Posted 26 January 2005 - 02:17 PM

If I ever eat in a 3-star restaurant again, I think this is the one I'll go to.

#14 cabrales

cabrales

    Advanced Member

  • Members
  • PipPipPip
  • 3,262 posts

Posted 26 January 2005 - 02:40 PM

Sweet and sour lobster... Homard 'Arpege' vinaigrette aigre-douce. Sweet and sour lobster. Best lobster I've ever had, and a dish that set the tone for the remainder of the meal. The texture, chew, and flavor of the lobster itself were off the charts. Where does Passard get them? And the preparation... oh, my.

You should have sampled the other signature lobster dish -- aiguilettes d'homard au vin jaune. It's simply the best dish in the world; period. :lol:

Most of the Brittany lobster are from Iles de Chaussey (sp), close to Granville in Brittany.

#15 Lippy

Lippy

    Advanced Member

  • Members
  • PipPipPip
  • 10,466 posts

Posted 26 January 2005 - 02:42 PM

Ah, at last we know!