Wednesday, December 3, 2008

L'Arpege Alain Passard - 2nd visit

Michelin 3-star establishments have always been identical with places serving excellent food and wine accompanied by outstanding hospitality set up in unique and comfortable ambiance. Being an adventurous person who loves surprises, I do not want to return to the same place twice unless that restaurant is, of course, exceptional. By that time I arrived at this place, I have been fortunate enough to eat at more than ten different 3-star restaurants in Europe. After having breathed fresh air along the sides of Hôtel des Invalides, I finally reached a deathly quiet street near Musée Rodin just before the sunset. Where was I? The title above should tell it all … yes, at the end I “betrayed” my own tradition. L’Arpege, the place serving me the meal of my life a year before, is the first and only 3-star temple so far where I’ve visited twice. At first, I prefer to try other places like: Guy Savoy or Le Meurice after receiving several excellent reviews from many foodies whom I respected. However, the cooking of L’Arpege’s chef patron – Alain Passard, a great chef who is almost certain to go down in history as one of the best ever, is very difficult to resist. Throughout the year, I could still “taste” his prawn carpaccio with osetra caviar, slowly cooked monkfish with mustard emulsion or free range chicken with garden vegetables in my dream. With such wonderful memories, I was convinced that I had to return to L’Arpege, especially after having found out from the website that it offers many dishes I’ve never tried before.

Upon entering the restaurant through the heavy door, I was escorted to my table located in the center of the restaurant. For most part, the décor at L’Arpege looked familiar to me – it is (still) relatively small and informal in which brown and earth-colored orange dominate the wall. A candle lit at each table as well as the place’s limited cove light make for an austere ambiance; at the back of the restaurant, one could see the portrait of Alain Passard’s grandmother, from whom the chef drew his inspiration. In addition, a watermelon from the chef’s farm is put at every table this time. Unlike the décor, I hardly recognized any L’Arpege’s staffs except for one – Helene; the lady who fried my all-time favorite dessert – crystallized tomato with 12 flavors. Later I found out from Laurent Lapaire, the restaurant manager that half of the L’Arpege’s front team has changed including the former chef sommelier, Stéphane Thivat who currently managed a wine cellar outside Paris. But we know that Passard’s team members usually leave because of bigger opportunities to improve their career – Pascal Barbot and L’Astrance is probably the most famous example. Not only that, even Passard gave his regular customers’ contact lists to help L’Astrance took off faster. Furthermore, the chef’s former apprentices are spread out all over the places including Singapore and Tokyo.

Anyway, let’s get back to the main theme: my 2nd experience at L’Arpege. As soon as I sat down, I was offered an aperitif - this time I had a glass of Champagne Krug Brut Grande Cuvée - balanced and full of finesse, wonderfully creamy and more importantly has a long, lingering finish. In short - simply stunning! After that, while flipping the menu, I indulge myself in Monsieur Bordier’s irresistible salted butter from Saint-Malo spread over in-house freshly baked bread. Upon reading the menu, I “happily” decide to order the degustation menu (combining the elements of earth and sea) even though it would break my bank account. The only dishes that were not changed compared to what I had before are the house specialties – the famous poached egg (Good news: it’s the restaurant official amuse bouche and you no longer need to order the tasting menu anymore in order to taste this dish) and cheese selection by Bernard Antony. Moreover, this time chef Alain Passard was in the kitchen, so it’s normal to expect that I would have a better overall dining experience compared to the first one.

Menu Pleine Terre, Pleine Mer

L’oeuf à la coque (A warm egg poached in its shell served with sherry vinegar and maple syrup) - If you just take the top without mixing it with the syrup, it’s rather acidic due to the fresh cream - but the mixture of it (bitter and sweet) is fantastic – pristine taste with silky texture. The egg itself is barely warm and runny. A good way to awaken my palate

Parfums (belle saison) crème soufflé au Speck (Veloute of vegetables served with cream of smoked ham) - This "soup" served warm; the saltiness of the ham is reduced with the vegetables - leaving out the possible cloying taste from this dish. Oh … that Krug champagne helps too

(Radisotto) printanier à la moutarde d’Orléans parmigiano reggiano (Spring radishes “Risotto” served with mustard and parmesan cheese) - My anticipation is high, but I just realized that the best ingredients for any "risotto" dish is still rice. The flavors worked just fine, but some mustard and the cheese make it a bit too sour

Jardinière Arlequin à l’huile d’argan (cuisine choisie) à la coriandre (Selection of fresh herbs from the garden – beetroots, couscous, turnips, different kind of carrots - served with Argon oil from Morocco) - Is this supposed to be the star for the night? Well, surprisingly I’m not too impressed. Most of the vegetables are freshly prepared and excellent, especially the carrots - crunchy and sweet - and the Argon oil - light and delectable, but they don’t mixed too well … I prefer to enjoy each vegetable separately as side dishes

Turbot de Bretagne (belle saison) (Slowly cooked Brittany turbot served with butter sauce and fava beans) - I expected much more in L’Arpege than simply some vegetable dishes. Here is the savior: a thin and precisely cut turbot (the whole fish is cooked in low temperature for several hours). The taste is unbelievably delicious, one can taste the tasty meat integrated with the full flavor of the fish’s skin and fat. I could not tell which one is better - this or the monk fish I ate a year before

Aiguillettes de homard des Îles Chausey côtes du Jura (Lobster from the Chausey archipelago braised in the yellow wine foam of the Jura and peppered cabbage leaf) - A perfect dish! The portion is generous; the lobster is ethereal - deliciously sweet and buttery with "tender" structure. In addition, it’s enhanced with the acidic taste from the yellow wine and sorrels. Mamma mia! Another back to back perfect dish - the last time was the monk fish followed by the chicken

Fines ravioles fleuries aux herbes consommé vegetal (Thin vegetables ravioli served in clear soup) - Somehow, it took quite some times for the kitchen to prepare the lamb. That’s why I receive this bonus dish - simple consommé where the vegetables, along with the soup’s salty essence, are right and balanced

T-bone d’agneau de Lozère aux algues et escargots de mer poivre noir Serawak (T-bone of Lozere’s lamb served with sea snails, parsley sauce, potatoes and Sarawak black pepper) - Another perfect dish? Well, almost … the sides part of the lamb’s tender meat served with its crispy skin plus the sinful layer of fat are amazing. The potatoes and parsley sauce are good. The only weakness is that the meat’s part near the T-bone is slightly overcooked hence rather hard; the flavor there was also weakened unfortunately

Fromages de chèvre de Bernard Antony affineur (Goat cheese supplied by Bernard Antony) - I was a bit sad when only goat/sheep cheeses are available for that night (aka no comte at all). However, they actually did not disappoint. I have soft La Gayrie, nearly sweet Chevrotin des Aravis, creamy Laurentine, and buche du Gers

Framboises à l’infusion de l’huile d’olive, le vinaigre et le miel (Raspberries served with olive oil, white vinegar and honey) - I requested this special dessert (the original version is with strawberries, but they’re not in season). The taste is a bit funny since they do not blend together nicely, but one can still enjoy the sweet raspberries

Citronnelle crème brûlée (Rich custard in lemon grass flavor with caramelized sugar on top) - Simple but decadent. The lemon grass custard is smooth, silky and refreshing with clean caramel flavor

Île flottante moka-mélisse caramel lacté (Mocha sorbet floating on a lemon grass sauce and caramel milk) - Another bonus dish from the restaurant - the idea is that the pastry chef try to create harmony between the sweet caramel and blend lemon grass, but the strong mocha sorbet makes the overall flavor slightly too sweet. Refreshing and the portion is big

Dessert de cuisine trios macarons du jardin (Three different vegetable flavors of macaroons) - The tasting menu’s dessert consists of (rhubarb, sorels and veggies mint) macarons; the sweet part comes from chocolate and almond biscuits

Another meal, another feast – that’s how I would describe my 2nd visit at L’Arpege which currently is my favorite restaurant in the world. The cooking of Alain Passard is shockingly simple (home style/peasant technique), but somehow he proficiently is able to transform the simple tastes and textures of the ingredients into memorable dishes. Like many other top notch chefs, Passard always pays the ultimate respect to the finest ingredients; perhaps the ultimate distinct identity of his food is that he sources the vegetables from his own gardens (around Sarthe and Normandy) where he often dirty his own hands just to pick the best available vegetables for the customers. However, I was not really moved by many of the vegetable dishes during this dinner; the only terrific one was the different kinds of carrots (really out of this world). I guess I’m more on the carnivore side. Even though Passard abandoned cooking red meat in 2001, thankfully he still does so sometimes, such as preparing the lamb’s dish for that night. His skill is still fantastic; I think he should not give up cooking red meat. Then, when I brought this issue to Laurent Lapaire, he told me that currently Passard only completely stops cooking beef with the exception of Kobe beef once in a while.

The wine-pairing that I had last year under the guidance of Stéphane Thivat was wonderful, but the cost was too much for me to repeat it again this time. Many people know that the wine’s price mark-up at this restaurant is possibly one of the highest in Paris. Therefore, I did not bother to open the list and settled on a glass white and red wine. The champagne I mentioned before was the best. Other wines I drank were: Domaine Laroche Les Vaillons Premier Cru Chablis 2004; it is fruity and full bodied with mineral structure and very good balance, a lovely choice for the turbot and the lobster. For the lamb, the sommelier suggested: Château la Gordonne Domaine Listel 2002; this still wine is fresh and light; barely sweet which is good since the lamb is palatable. There were 2 sommeliers for the night and they seem to be “equal” in position – neither was the chef sommelier yet; both of them are friendly, have good sense of humor and patiently explain the guests about their recommendations. The service here, as usual, is graceful and rather relaxed with the sole purpose to take care of the guests. Laurent Lapaire, in my humble opinion, is the best among all of the maître d’hôtel I have ever met. He is not only very good in leading his team, but also is superior in directly serving the guests. Speaking superb English and some Japanese, monsieur Lapaire is willing to excitedly go over the dishes in the menu one by one with the customers as well as answer whatever questions one may have. For instance, he took 2 lobsters from the kitchen – one is cooked and another one is still alive – and showed me how the lobster from Îles Chausey was different from the regular blue lobster. This establishment indeed has a wonderful hospitality.

Naturally, some of you may wonder how this experience compared with the first time I visited here. Well, startlingly I would say that the first one was better despite the fact that Alain Passard was not behind the stove (it was an Easter Monday holiday); the sous chef Anthony took care of the kitchen. Food-wise: in my 1st visit, I had many of L’Arpege classic dishes since the restaurant celebrated its 20th anniversary. The main differences were: the appetizers - nothing I had in my 2nd visit that’s as good as Carpaccio de langoustines du Guilvinec, caviar osciètre royal d’Iran or Bavarois d’avocat et caviar osciètre royal d’Iran, huile de pistache. The main courses are about the same level - the first time I adored the monk fish and chicken while this time I loved the turbot and lobster. When it comes to the desserts - Tomato confite farcie aux douze saveurs, sucre à l’orange or Millefeuille pralin simply killed whatever sweets I had this time around. Furthermore, L’Arpege was run out of comte … I could not help but conclude that I was fed slightly better the first time I ate here. Wine-wise: the champagne (1996 Billecart Salmon Cuvee Nicolas Francois is on a par with Champagne Krug Brut Grande Cuvée) and the Chablis are equally good. It’s just that in my first visit, I drank a terrific 1991 Porto Colheita Niepoort and 2002 Mambourg Grand Cru - Marcel Deiss. As mentioned before, there was not much different regarding the décor except I found that the restaurant “forced” to put 2 additional tables in the middle to accommodate more guests that made the small dining room even more crammed. Consequently, it affected the service a little bit as the staffs could not move as smoothly as they’d like to. Probably, because it’s Friday night and very packed – sometimes they were incapable of responding to customers’ request as fast as they want to; nevertheless the staffs still enthusiastically served the guests without any signs of tiredness. Regardless of the “flaw” above, my 2nd dining at L’Arpege still ranked very high (3rd place according to my notes), only below my 1st encounter here and Alain Ducasse Paris, and thus L’Arpege solidify its position as my numero uno dining destination in the world. Please check the link below for the pictures:

Food (and Wine): 98 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 96 pts

Overall: 97.5/100


Anonymous said...

was 03 Dec the actual date of your meal? Or when you wrote it up?

Also, from your Picasa portfolio, I see you have dined at Cote St. Jacques.
I am thinking of a trip there, but wanted to ask your opinion.
Did you make your way there from Paris? If so, was it long/difficult?
And is it worth giving up a day in Paris (and a meal at one of its 3*s) for?

Merci beaucoup,

Bu Pun Su said...

Hi Food Snob,

Thanks for your interest reading my blog. 3 Dec was actually the date I wrote it up; my 2nd visit at L'Arpege actually took place on 8 Jun 07.

Yes, I went to Joigny (reaching there about 11 AM) from Paris. Not much to do there, but I did enjoy the Yonne river. The food is still good despite the fact that Jean-Michel was not around, however I've eaten better somewhere else.

It's worth to give up a day in Paris if only you've been to places like Pierre Gagnaire, L'Ambroisie or L'Arpege ... otherwise I think you would enjoy Parisian 3-star more.

Je vous en prie and hope this helps. By the way, I also enjoy reading your review including the recent ones at Sketch and Ducasse Dorchester. Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

It's my pleasure and thanks for clearing that up.

Maybe, I will spend an extra day in Paris then...I have to see how my 'schedule' shapes up, I think.

Actually, if you don't mind, please send me an email as I would love to ask you some more detailed questions about Paris, if you have the time.

It does indeed help. Thank you for stopping by my site too. I am very pleased you liked it.