Sunday, February 22, 2015

L'Arpège Alain Passard - 7th & 8th visit

Alain Passard, an enthusiastic and charismatic chef, became the main talking point in the gastronomy industry when in early 2001 revealed his intention to "give up" cooking (red) meat and focused much more on preparing dishes using vegetables. L'Arpège popularity jumped to the roof while many people, including his regulars, had mixed feelings whether they would be willing to patronize a 3-star Michelin restaurant which would serve plenty of beets, tomatoes and carrots instead of caviar and foie gras. However, Passard was not the kind of chef who made meaningless statement. He successfully created many incredible new dishes using out-of-this-world quality vegetables delivered daily by high-speed train from his 3 biodynamic/organic gardens (Fillé-sur-Sarthe near Le Mans, Bois Girault near Buis-sur-Damville and the Manche). In the process, he actually won the heart of many old and new guests as well as changed the course of fine dining world by influencing & inspiring lots of chefs to respect & pay more attention towards (seasonal) vegetables and the natural environment around them. The rest was history now. After having done this for more than a decade, this famous and gifted Chef was still at the top of his game. In spite of his stature, Alain Passard loved to be at the kitchen and cooked for his guests as often as he could. My wife and I were fortunate to savor numerous remarkable dishes at L'Arpège with Passard around in both occasions. The Chef told me that the following week, he had to fly out to (Park Hyatt) Shanghai to attend the Masters of Food & Wine 2014 Passion Week event.

I love this restaurant so much that during my recent Europe foodie trip I decided to have 2 meals here. Prior to this visit, my meal at L'Arpège took place in the last month of 2010. In between, I had a couple of chances to enjoy Alain Passard's cooking when he became a guest chef at separate events in Bangkok and Singapore. But nothing beats the experience to eat at Passard's "home", tucked away in a narrow street not to far from the Invalides and the Rodin Museum. It's still the only Michelin 3-star restaurant on the left bank. I really felt comfortable at this place and have had fabulous meals since 2006. The dining room was elegant, unpretentious and understated. It was simply adorned with wood paneling along the walls with some Lalique glass inside. The dining tables, placed quite close to one another, were decorated with chestnuts during our dinner. The simple decor was good in a way that diners could really focus on the food, made of impeccable produce and put together with perfect technical skill by Chef Passard's brigades. For the 1st meal, both of us had dégustation dîner whereas for lunch, we opted for menu carte blanche. Given the restaurant's focus on seasonality, it was often unavoidable to have the same or similar dishes when one has two meals in less than a week apart. Any dish(es) below written without any additional info meant it was served at both of our meals. Before the famous egg arrived, the kitchen gave us Puff pastry, served warm, with red/purple cabbage inside (flaky, fragrant and buttery) and the usual Tartelettes of Autumn vegetables (crisp and delicate tarts). 

Terre & Mer en Novembre menu (Tasting menu from the Earth and the Sea)

Chaud froid d'oeuf au sirop d'érable 4 épices et vinaigre de Xérès (The 'hot & cold' egg served with spices, maple syrup and sherry vinegar) - Arguably the most well-known egg dish in the world. A top quality egg was used for the warm egg yolk with layers of light cooling cream on top to produce a well-balanced dish. In such a small shell, you can savor distinctly the syrup sweetness, sharp vinegar, as well as the 'spicy' and richness of the spices (nutmeg, cloves, ginger & white pepper)

Sushi légumier au parfum de feuilles de figuier betterave de pleine terre (Beetroot sushi flavored with fig leaves, soy sauce, and radish) - The rice was moist and well-seasoned to support the combination of beetroot and radish. This fresh and clean item was easy to eat; I wish the rice portion were smaller. My wife loved this tasty sushi very much

Coquilles Saint Jacques d'Erquy aux pétales de radis géranium & curry de Madras (Raw scallop from Erquy served with thinly sliced red radish, geranium oil and Madras curry powder) - Stunning scallop with inherently sweet flavor was in contrast to the aromatic & slightly bitter oil. The radish added a little zing to the dish while the curry powder put subtle spicy taste. Excellent and complex yet in harmony - dinner only

Crisp & dry waffle covered with tasty Scottish smoked salmon and the mousse of salty smoked ham - good. It could be better if the waffle had been warmer and softer; lunch only

Fines ravioles potagères automnales consomme ambre à l'héliantis (Assortment of Autumn vegetable raviolis inside clear soup) - The 'dumplings', having silky & pleasant texture, were well made with impressive quality of vegetables. We had a mixture of celery, turnip, beetroot, parsnip etc. The flavors of the raviolis and clear soup (served hot) were profound and pure. A timeless dish at L'Arpege and always available in every season

Gratin d'oignon sturon au parmigiano reggiano mesclun de Sylvain (A mixture of multi-shaded golden onion gratin with parmesan cheese) - A simple and humble ingredients generated incredible and top notch flavor. The (caramelized) onion's natural & mild sweetness was enhanced by some sorrel's acidity and the cheese's nutty & versatile flavor. Ask for it if the kitchen did not provide any when you dine here

Bouquet de homard de Chausey acidulé au miel de notre rucher transparence de navet globe (Lobster from Chausey island in 'bouquet' shaped served with its eggs, tangy honey and transparent turnips) - The dressing (a mixture of sherry vinegar, honey, lime and nut oil) was simply perfect; the pretty clear turnip was earthy and crunchy. This was the opposite of the tender and delicious lobster. Light, fresh and easy to savor; it seems like a course for the Summer season - dinner only 

'Minestrone' mixing fresh seasonal vegetables (radish, turnip, potato and celery) and small dices of bacon - Refreshing and pleasant especially the different textures & flavors of the garden vegetables; lunch only

Celerisotto crémeux à la truffe blanche d'Alba ail nouveau (Creamy celerisotto served with Alba truffle and garlic) - Fresh and crunchy risotto based on diced celery combined with aromatic butter, mascarpone/parmesan cheese and pungent white truffle. It might not be better than regular risotto, but very well done especially the celery texture and the foamy sauce were satisfying - dinner only

Risotto served with radish, white truffle and vegetable broth - It was creamy and a bit sweet; the aromatic truffle went well with both the nicely cooked Arborio rice and the broth. It was a clean and light dish - suitable for lunch; there was not any strong flavor of parmesan cheese this time; lunch only

Pêche côtière du Golfe du Morbihan au chanterelles du domaine de Lisle-en-Barrois (Turbot from the Coastal fishing of Morbihan gulf served with girolle wild mushroom) - Turbot, grilled on the bone, was rather silky and not too firm yet still tasty. The fragrant skin was a bit bitter; the yellow wine sauce was, as always, refined. It was also enhanced by the earthy mushroom and fresh Fall vegetables. A really good fish dish, but not the best one I've ever had at this restaurant - dinner only   

White & pristine Codfish was quite soft but rather bland. It was helped by the delicious & creamy wine sauce. The chanterelle mushrooms were fleshy and moist while the leek was delicate. It was a good dish, but not extraordinary - lunch only

Velouté de potiron aux noix de La Guerche-de-Bretagne crème soufflée au speck de la Forêt-Noire (Pumpkin "thick" soup served with nuts, smoked ham chantily from Black forest) - Initially, I had this during Passard's visit as guest chef in Bangkok and Singapore. Little did I know that the one served at his restaurant was so much better. The pumpkin veloute was simply smooth, rich but light/not intense. The salty speck-infused cream nicely balanced the pumpkin's sweetness. A clever variation producing decadent dish; simple but memorable

Jardinière Arlequin & merguez végétale à l'harissa crosne, radis noir, betterave de pleine terre (Colorful vegetable variations from the garden such as radish, artichoke, beet, leek, onion etc. served with small spicy 'sausage' + couscous + argan oil) - Impressive selection of high quality and tasty vegetables. A signature dish of the house. Regardless of the season, this pretty and refreshing stuffs on the plate always delivered. Having eaten several times, I could not deny that the wow factor has slowly declined but still I did not want to take this awesome dish for granted

Partridge (with its jus) served with walnut, chestnut, leeks and several herbs - Among wild game animals, partridge can be considered having subtle gamey taste and aroma. The meat was fragrant (thanks to the spices variation), tender with grassy notes but a bit dry for my preference. The onion & chestnut provided good combination and contrast to the tasty bird. Overall, it has a nice complexity; simply savor every element slowly along with the mildly-flavored meat. My first wild game dish at L'Arpege and it did not disappoint; dinner only

Moelleux du Revard affine pommes de terre fumées (Good cheese from the foot of Mont Revard with smoked potato) - The well-made piece of cow cheese; it was soft and creamy with rather strong taste. In addition, I also asked for slices of 4-year old Comte made especially for Chef Passard and it was superb as expected

Millefeuille chocolat crème glacée à l’anis étoile (All chocolate millefeuille served with star anise ice cream) - The chocolate was strong, dark and slightly bitter; it was excellent and pure in taste with flaky & light layers. The exotic star anise (not shown) ice cream gave a nice and light sweetness to this intense dessert. A good dessert during cold weather even  though I slightly prefer the thicker version with rich creme chantilly - dinner only

Île flottante moka-mélisse cardamome verte ('Floating island' with mocha, salted caramel and cardamom) - A tremendous improvement from the last time I ate this. It was not really sweet surprisingly; a harmony of strong coffee flavor, lemongrass' smell & taste as well as caramel's sweet & salty flavor. I enjoyed it and the portion was right - dinner only

Paris-Brest au pralin de noix de La Guerche-de-Bretagne caramel au beurre sale de Saint-Malo (Choux pastry filled with praline butter cream from Saint Malo, walnut and salted caramel) - Small but powerful. Both of us enjoyed Passard's interpretation of French classic dessert. The cream's sweetness was contrasted by the salty caramel and nutty & crunchy walnut. It was flavorful without feeling heavy - dinner only  

Apple crumble pie served with star anise ice cream and salted caramel sauce - It was cooked until brown/golden; the taste was buttery and sweet with a nice hint of apple's acidity. The caramel sauce & the ice cream were "right" - sweet but not too rich. A decent dessert; I've never had it before - lunch only

Petit pot de crème au foin de nos prairies caramel lacté (Small creme brulee with hay 'meadow' and 'milk' caramel) - A light small dessert to accompany the petit fours. The hay cream had a lovely smell and light taste; easy to enjoy especially at the end of the meal; dinner only

Sucreries macaron, nougat, bouquet de roses, pop-corn (Mignardises) - Solid sweets towards the end: good quality hazelnut nougat and chocolate, light macaron and chou pastry. I think I always finished L'Arpege's petit fours without much difficulties  

Some notes on the wines: During the dinner, my spouse had a glass of Rose champagne while I drank a half bottle of 2010 Louis Jadot Corton-Charlemagne Louis Jadot: an elegant white wine with a very good balance and complexity. It's drinkable, however it could be better in a couple of years. Nevertheless, I liked it a lot - possible the best white I had during this trip. For the dessert, I followed the sommeliere's suggestion to zip a glass of 2012 Maury Vendange Domaine Pouderoux: generous and intense flavors of black berry and cherry; an excellent pairing with our chocolate 'Napoleon'. For the lunch, I had 2 glasses of whites. Firstly, a Riesling from Alsace - 2011 Domaine l'Agape Gewurztraminer (aromatic & easy to drink); secondly, a Chardonnay from South Burgundy - 2012 Pouilly-Fuisse (fruity & balanced). The wine list at L'Arpège was mainly of French origin; it's quite extensive and the restaurant also opened plenty of bottles for those who want to drink by the glass. The mark-up was rather reasonable considering it's a Michelin 3-star establishment.

The food, particularly from our 1st dinner meal, was magnificent. Alain Passard was still at the top of his game; he has high quality produce exclusively for his restaurant, flawless technique and execution, as well as artistic and unique style that has inspired many (young) chefs. It's been a while that I did not have a full tasting menu at L'Arpège (the last one was probably in 2008) and they're simply sublime from start to finish - the whole degustation menu experience was even greater than the sum of its parts. Many dishes might be minimalistic but they were dynamic, clean and some even had intense flavors yet very natural. Not many chef truly mastered the style or had the ability to lift up humble/ordinary produce and turn it into an extraordinary dish; Chef Passard seemed to do it with ease. Not everything was perfect though. I had to admit that there was a slight drop in our 2nd meal during lunch. Perhaps, partly because sometimes I was more impressed with Passard's seafood and poultry as they did not show up very often these days unless you're ordering these items from the a-la carte. Another reason was half of the dishes we ate was repeats from our dinner a few days earlier even though I had requested to have different dishes.

The service was attentive, friendly and relaxed. The restaurants were always full house; in fact I could testify that I've never been here when it's not packed, including the downstairs. Four years was a long period in the restaurant industry. I was not too familiar with all the staffs anymore except one gentleman and Ms. Fleur, the hostess. Nadia Socheleau, one of the finest maîtresse d'hôtel to ever run L'Arpège FOH, has (sadly) left the house and Hélène Cousin, the restaurant director, only worked during lunch now. The main star of the restaurant's hospitality happened to be Alain Passard himself now. He warmly greeted every table at the beginning. For dinner, Chef Passard would also serve one dish himself to every table - for our case, he brought in our Partridge course; Passard even did not hesitate to clear dishes on the way back to the kitchen. Overall, the staffs were still doing great but it's just that I had experienced better hospitality at this place. From '06 to '10, I've never been to L'Arpège in which 2 of these fine people (Nadia, Helene and Laurent Lapaire, still my favorite manager here) were not around in the dining room. There was a small mistake during our lunch. I asked the sommelier if there would be a meat course for us at lunch and he said yes; it would be a squab, so I requested a glass of red. Not sure how, it suddenly changed several minutes later and there was no meat thus I politely declined the wine. The kitchen could generously serve us more other dishes liked in the past, but I already promised my wife this lunch should last at most 3 hours as she wanted to enjoy Paris, La Ville Lumière. I was a bit surprised that the service during lunch was more intense and busier than during our dinner; some staffs (even the same people who did well during dinner) looked quite stressed. I also noticed that Ms. Hélène was a bit 'tired' and pale; probably her twin boys had taken much of her energy.

Despite a few set backs, I was very happy to return here to have memorable dinner (again) at my favorite eating place in which the talented Chef-Owner Alain Passard was still in the kitchen. L'Arpège was certainly a fantastic restaurant and it has proven to have served delicious foods consistently throughout the years. At its best, the meal here was unbeatable. Among elite restaurants in the world, I have never visited a single place as often as I patronize this establishment in spite of the fact that I live in Asia. And this fact shall remain, at least in the next few years. For the dishes' pictures, you're welcome to click the following link: L'Arpege in Nov '14
Food (and Wine): 97 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 96 pts

Overall: 97/100