Almost a year ago I had my first taste of 3-star Michelin restaurant at Alain Ducasse New York (ADNY) and it was excellent. However, I’m still curious what it would be like to dine at the one in Europe especially in France – the home of the Michelin guide book I suppose. More than 4 months ago, on Easter Monday in 2006 I, all by myself, had a dinner at the French 3* restaurant called L’Arpège, the home of one of the world’s best and most talented chefs – Alain Passard. Honestly, L’Arpège was not my first choice in the beginning simply because I’m quite scared with its prices. I tried to book either Pierre Gagnaire or Le Grand Véfour, but alas both were closed that day since it was still an Easter holiday in Paris. Then L’Arpège came next on my list and it’s available. I guess I was quite lucky as well to secure one place right there as the restaurant is small and full on the day I ate there. This year Easter Monday was actually very special for me. It could be said that day I had my best meals in my life. Earlier, I had a 3-hour lunch at Le Bristol and it was awesome as well. Hence, there was only 3 hour break in between my lunch and dinner. Personally, I was quite full and wondering if I would fully enjoy the meal at L’Arpège. How was it actually? Well, I was blown away. It’s the best dining I’ve ever had in my life, not only the meals but also the experience.
L’Arpège, located in the corner of Rue de Bourgogne and Rue de Varenne at 7th Arrondissement near the Rodin Museum, is set in a modern, contemporary setting in which the large gilt frame could be the only touch of classicism. The size is relatively small (I believe the place could at most allow 40 people to dine at the same time), yet the guests will not feel cramped inside. The decoration is sparse, perhaps only an old violin and a black-and-white portrait of a lady (the grand mother of the chef – Louise Passard) are the only distinguished furniture here, yet impressive. In addition, it is nice, clean and comfortable. About 7:35 pm I got off at the Varenne metro station. It was not too difficult to find the restaurant since I’ve been to Rodin Museum before. If one is not carefully observe the place, he could easily miss this wonderful place to eat. From the outside it looks very simple, nothing special about the entrance-door or the wall outside. It was a quiet evening but the sun was not yet set. I was a bit doubtful to enter the place, maybe it’s not opened yet so I was just walking around. 20 minutes later, I decided to open the door and a lady quickly greeted me and checked if my name was there. After that, Helène (one of the leading waitresses) accompanied me to my table. There had been 10 people seating inside when I took my seat.
The fun began with the (chef) sommelier, Stéphane Thivat, came and offered me a glass of champagne to start my unforgettable journey of eating that night. I accepted the offer and let him choose whatever best for that night and considering the one which would match well with the restaurant’s amuse-bouche and/or appetizers. The dishes inside L’Arpège’s menu are not that many – only 11 appetizers and main courses combined plus 5 desserts; whereas only one choice available for the dégustation menu. This year L’Arpège celebrated its 20th anniversary, so in the savoring menu we could see the dish’s name plus the year it was invented there. At first, I was tempted to let the chef to give me a surprise and cook me whatever he wanted according to the best ingredients offered. Then, Helène told me that Alain Passard was actually not present that day, because of this I decided to play safe and choose the tasting menu. Another reason is that it’s the first time I dine here so it should be best to be conservative. Here it goes; I ordered the grand classic menu as well as wine-tasting to come along with the food. The bread, butter and pre-appetizer here are good, in particular the vegetables. It should come to no surprise because the master of the stove here is the world’s top for vegetable-oriented Haute Cuisine. However, when the real dishes arrived, and then I just realized why and how the food here is considered by many food critics to be extremely exceptional.
Menu Grands Classiques
L’oeuf, fermier de la Bigottière (Poached egg served with maple syrup and sherry vinegar) - This is very impressive, the best egg dish I’ve ever had - easily top the egg from JG’s NY and even Calandre’s. It’s rich yet smooth; I could taste the balance flavor of sweetness, acidity and a little salt. As I “fish” further, I found the depth and precision of this coddled egg yolk
Carpaccio de langoustines du Guilvinec, caviar osciètre royal d’Iran (Prawn carpaccio served with osetra caviar) - An excellent and classic dish from L’Arpege. The pristine caviar, with cream of light emulsion, is served generously. They matched well with the fresh langoustine. It is about as good as the famous langoustine caviar with bouillon served at Alain Ducasse Paris
Bavarois d’avocat et caviar osciètre royal d’Iran, huile de pistache (Avocado mousse served with osetra caviar, oils of pistachio, tarama, and prawns and osetra) - This dish is not in the degustation menu’s list, but they kindly gave me as a surprised one. How’s it? This is one of the best dishes for the night, and truly the best caviar dish ever for me. The mixtures of the mousse (soft with high quality of an avocado) and caviar are excellent!
The first 3 dishes were accompanied by wine: 1996 Billecart Salmon - Cuvee Nicolas Francois, Brut Champagne
Fines ravioles fleuries aux herbes, consommé vegetal (Thin raviolis served with vegetable soup) - A simple dish with strong Asian influence, but as usual - it’s good where the fresh vegetables are wrapped in thin pasta. The slightly dark yet clear consommé is simply the purest essence of the vegetable
Gratin d’oignon doux au citron, parmigiano reggiano (Sweet & soft onion gratin served with parmigiano reggiano cheese) - It’s actually possible to create tasty food in haute cuisine without using too expensive ingredients. The onion is truly fragrance and sweetly appetizing, it’s prepared to my likeness – a bit crispy
These 2 appetizers were accompanied by wine: 2002 Verre de Chablis - Rene et Vincent Dauvissat
Homard des Îles Chausey en aigre-doux, miel d’acacia (Blue lobster served with acacia honey and turnip petals) - One of Chef Passard’s signature dishes. It combines the sweet and sour taste of the turnips and honey sauce. The lobster itself has a nice texture. The only bad thing I would say the size is too small … really
Lotte de Bretagne à la moutarde d’Orlèans, huile de noisette (Monkfish served with mustard emulsion and oils hazelnut) - Honestly, this is the first time I eat monkfish and it’s really delicious. The sides, such as the slowly-cooked at low temperature spinach and roasted beets with aged balsamic vinegar, truly enhanced the dense and meaty fish, grilled gradually for more than 2 hours. Wow … even better than the lobster!
Antique poulet du Haut-Maine au foin, jardinière (Free range of antique chicken served with garden vegetables) - I thought I could not eat a better poultry than Esnault’s white truffle blue foot chicken (ADNY), well L’Arpege proved me wrong. This is indeed the best one and also the highlight of the night along with avocado caviar and the tomato dessert. The skin is crispy, the meat is juicy and succulent (even the breast meat) combined with wonderful raw and cooked vegetables - here it goes a 20/20 dish
The 3 main courses were accompanied by wine: 2000 Saumur Blanc - Chateau Yvonne
Fromages de Bernard Antony, affineur (Assorted cheeses of Bernard Antony) – What more could you expect rather than an amazing cheese selection when a master like Bernard Antony prepare them for you? The captain kindly gave me 6 different kinds of cheeses. Mixtures of cow, goat and the age varied from 3-month to 4-year old. Since I’m not a cheese expert, I do not really know their names exactly. Only remember one, comte … They are all good, in particular when combining with Passard’s fresh tomatoes (my new friend asked for the tomato and it actually matched well with the cheese - a pleasant surprised!)
Accompanied by wine: 1991 Porto Colheita Niepoort
Tomato confite farcie aux douze saveurs, sucre à l’orange (Crystallized tomato stuffed with 12 secret flavors, sweetens with orange and vanilla ice cream) - I thought all desserts are the same, something sweet could not go further than chocolates, fruits or cakes. However, this one is very unique and special. The combination of 12 stuffs in the caramelized tomato was awesome – perfect with the soft and not so sweet vanilla ice cream; the presentation is pretty good as well
Accompanied by wine: 2002 Mambourg Grand Cru - Marcel Deiss
Unlike many other 3* restaurants, L’Arpège does not serve any chocolates or candies following the desserts. Fortunately, this time I got a chance to taste another of L’Arpège’s desserts: Avocat soufflé à la pistache (Avacado soufflé with pistachio) and Millefeuille pralin (a kind of Napoleon with cream and sugar). How could it possible? For the avocado soufflé, my new friend let me try hers. First of all, there were 2 American ladies (it turned out they’re from Philadelphia) dined there on my left side. Probably, they were bored and heard me keep talking English with the waiter, Monsieur Jean-Christophe and Helène, and then through Jean they invited me to seat at their table. Since I was all alone, thus I accepted their kind invitations. Wasn’t it nice to make new friends while dining alone? The older lady is one of the restaurant’s regular customers. She’s very familiar with the food even when they’re nowhere seen in the menu. Furthermore, she has many experiences with gastronomy food, to name a few she has been to many exclusive restaurants such as: Le Louis XV, ADPA, Guy Savoy Paris, and almost all of the New York’s top dining places etc. In the end she offered me to taste her dessert (soufflé – came close to the one I had at Le Bristol for lunch). For the Napoleon pralin (thin and airy), on the other hand, the restaurant prepared a large portion of it to the Japanese guests, but there were some left over usually served to other guests ordering the same dessert. Apparently, nobody asked for it, so I boldly asked if it’s fine for me to taste the Napoleon pralin and they’re happily gave the rest to me. It was big and I could not finish it.
The wine lists at L’Arpège may be a bit inferior compared to its competitors. However, Stéphane Thivat really made the different. Not only is he an expert in picking wines in a relatively young age, but he’s also a very friendly person to talk with. He rarely told me directly what wine I was having; instead he quizzed me to find out the year and the vintage of the wine. As I’m still a beginner, I often failed to guess it correctly. Nevertheless he gave 5 glasses of excellent wines, particularly the champagne and the port – the best I’ve ever had. Clearly, the qualities count more here than the quantities. My advice is that when you come here, let the sommelier picked the wines for you and you will not regret. I was just relaxed and truly enjoy excellent food and wine here. Only wine-pairing in ADNY could top my experience here. The atmosphere is calm and comfy. The day I ate there, more than half of the guests were foreigners – some came from Japan and USA, only few French people as far as I was concerned. There were a few families (even with the small kids – what lucky ones to be able to eat here in such young ages) as well, and it’s fully booked by the way. The service in L’Arpège is extraordinary and the staffs are superb. There are not many waiters/waitresses here (only about 10 people including the ones bring the dishes from the kitchen), nonetheless they’re never shorthanded. I could not recall the time when I had to wait when I need something. They sincerely explained whatever questions I had and the ways we’re discussing or talking something, it’s as though we already knew each other for quite a long time. Last but not least, I must give two high-way thumbs up to the chef-de-cuisine, Anthony for his ability to execute Passard’s cooking tastes close to perfection. I could cry joyfully for eating such outstanding dishes here. I would be more than happy to come back here and hopefully next time Alain Passard would be around in the kitchen (I possibly would give a perfect score then).
When I finished the last sip of my sparkling water, my watch already showed 30 minutes past midnight. I was the 2nd from the last guests to leave the restaurant. It would be nice to end it with a cup of hot tea, but I realized that it’s already very late. The staffs still nicely allow me to stay for the tea; they earnestly would wait for me and I really appreciated that. However, I had to pick up my parents at the Roissy airport in the morning and at the same I was quite drunk honestly after drinking 8 glasses of wines (3 from Bristol and 5 from here) in less than 12 hours period. Therefore, I decided to go back to my hotel with the taxi. All in all, dinner at L’Arpège in fact exceeded all my expectations. The food, wine, service, and experience are all first-class. I’ve never had a better dining experience anywhere else (only Alain Ducasse Paris would come very close) as of now. If any of you would like to see pictures of what I ate, please click the following link http://picasaweb.google.com/Andi.Chahyadi.Hermawan/LArpegeParisFrance1stVisit#
Food (and Wine): 99 pts
Service (and Ambiance): 97 pts