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