Monday, October 28, 2019

L'Arpège Alain Passard - 9th visit

Arpège is a restaurant that has a special place in my heart. My first meal took place for dinner on Easter Monday of 2006, the day when most (gastronomy) restaurants in Paris were closed. I was blown away by everything in particular the spectacular food followed by the impeccable hospitality. The restaurant was about 3/4 full. Instantly, it became my favorite restaurant in the world albeit L'Arpege, at that time, was my first experience of having a meal at European 3-star restaurant. Ms. Helene Cousin was still the assistant manager. Later, I learned that my maiden meal and arguably still my most memorable one here was apparently executed 'only' by Anthony Beldroega, chef de cuisine - Alain Passard took a day off. Both Helene and Anthony are still working at L'Arpege until now. Since then, as far as I could remember, I almost dined here every time I was visiting the French capital until 2014. The dinner degustation menu was always fantastic while the carte-blanche lunch provided good value for money as we regularly still receiving 1 fish course and 1 meat course although only in tasting portion. Perhaps following "the law of diminishing returns" and partly also blame me for visiting here often, I felt my meals sometimes became less fantastic but never bad. The reasons were: First, after a while, the dishes became repetitive to the point I already ate about half of the dishes when dining here in more than one occasion; also the use of the same ingredients in 2-3 dishes could be uninspiring. Secondly, the value of money somewhat decreased - the now known as Gardener's lunch became more expensive and it was normal that one would eat only 1 dish with protein or sometimes no fish / meat at all or I heard that the restaurant asked for a supplement. Lastly, as L'Arpege became more and more popular, the restaurant tried to optimize by fitting in as many customers as possible (I could understand that). Consequently, the seating felt cramped, the service was less personalized with little attention, and sometimes the pacing of the meal became rather slow. Looking back, I noticed that I have not returned here for more than 4 years despite the fact that I was in Paris during 2017 and 2018 for a few days visit ... that's my brief history and experience at Alain Passard's one and only restaurant.

After some years of absence, I missed the food at Arpège. I knew what Alain Passard and his team were capable of producing. During my trip to Europe early Jan this year, I decided to return here for lunch. I arrived around 12:30 PM and the restaurant was quite busy; 30 min. later the main dining room was full-house. Given the limited space and in the cold Winter, the stairs of the restaurant were filled with lots of guests' outer coats - an unexpected scene at multi-star institutions. With plenty of experience eating here, I carefully studied the menu. I was familiar with most of the Terre & Mer tasting menu and did not feel like eating vegetable only, hence ordering from the a la carte was the natural choice. As a matter of fact, for the "real" dishes, I only selected from Cuisine de memoire section. L'Arpege changed its bread; the crust was softer now while the butter was probably still the finest one in Paris.After that, a server brought me the tartlets whose mousse were beetroot & thyme, yellow carrot & onion as well as celery & yuzu ... they're bright yet intense, representing the Winter produce. Then, come the amuse-bouche that every guest would get: a hot & cold 'coddled' egg, from Bapaume Island, served with St. Elzear's maple syrup, sour cream and sherry vinegar. To fully enjoy it, one must spoon all the way to the bottom to concurrently enjoy the mixture of warm & runny egg yolk, rather cold whipped cream, and some hints of vinegar & syrup. Hot vs cold; sweet vs salty; in harmony - an excellent way to awaken our palate! My a la carte choices were the items below ... 

Pêche côtière grillée au paprika fume de Candeleda ponzu des hauteurs de Chugoku (Grilled Sole, from the coastal fishing, covered by smoked paprika powder of Candeleda) - It was served with carrot mousseline, potato and brussels sprouts. The Sole was beautifully cut and perfectly cooked, producing firm texture with mild flavor. The paprika powder with a balance of sweet and hot gave additional taste to the fish. The dish was also enhanced with the natural flavor of carrot mousse, sweet potato and a hint of bitterness from the sprouts. It might be a bit dry by the standard of classical French cooking, it's a very good fish dish nevertheless.
Those who prefer a more traditional preparation could always ask the kitchen for the Sole to be served with vin jeune sauce.

Coquilles Saint Jacques de la rade de Brest au Côtes du jura truffe noire Tuber Melanosporum (Scallops, from the Brest bay, served with cabbage and Perigord truffles in yellow wine sauce) - The scallops' quality were stunning, highlighting their natural sweetness. They were gently seared having slightly firm texture. The vin jaune sauce was delicious but lighter this time, in order to show the black truffle's stronger aroma and taste. The vegetables generated some texture, taste and color variations of an otherwise "black & white" dish. The kitchen was more than able to cook top shellfish dishes.
L'Arpege could also prepare the carpaccio of scallops accompanied by black truffles (both elements would be thinly sliced) - one of the restaurant's classic during Winter.

Accompanied by wine: 2014 Domaine de Villaine Rully Les Saints-Jacques (buttery oak, dry & refreshing, lime notes with medium finish - good for fish and shellfish pairing)

Chimère Agneau de Lozere & Pigeonneau d'Ille et Vilaine (The "Chimera" of Lamb rack from Lozere and Pigeon from Vilaine island served with celery mousseline, radish and carrot with minimal sauce derived from their jus) - The lamb was inside and the pigeon was outside; they're well-seasoned and carefully simmered with a few herbs such as sage and thyme. The texture was relatively tender. They were delicious with deep flavors, and slightly 'gamey'. Glad that I ordered an a la carte portion. The vegetables were useful to balance any intense taste of the meat.
The dish was interesting, creative and very pleasant. However, they're not better than when Chef Passard cooked the lamb and the pigeon separately as two different dishes. Alain got the inspiration to create the dish from the art work of Thomas Grunfeld (one of the "Misfits") - the hybrid of pigeon-headed lamb.

Accompanied by wine: 2014 Domaine Comte Abbatucci Valle di Nero (biodynamic, aromatic and 'lively' red wine; should pair well with many range of red / dark meat)

Spaghetti de pommes de terre au Comté Grande garde 2015 truffle Tuber Melanosporum (Potato spaghetti served with sliced of 4-year old Comte cheese and Winter black truffle in wine/cheese sauce) - An inspiring cheese and/or pasta course. The spaghetti was earthy and crunchy (hard yet supple in texture) with mineral accent. It was complemented by slightly sweet & salty Comte as well as aromatic, pungent and strong truffle taste ... exquisite.
Chef Passard has been known to have created other "Italian dishes" based on vegetables from the garden. For instance, celerisotto and celeriac tagliatelle.

Millefeuille croustillant < caprice d'enfant > gourmandise ('Crispy' Hazelnut Millefuille served with caramel sauce and verbena ice cream) - When not sure which dessert to order, L'Arpege's millefuille made with paper thin, flaky and crispy layers was my safe choice. This time, the filling cream was hazelnut - nutty, not overly sweet with a chocolate accent. The unique herb ice cream was refreshing, and it balanced the rather rich Napoleon dessert. As always, very delightful!
I personally prefer when the pastry cream did not have any fruit in it, so Summer season's millefeuille could lack in the sweet taste.  

The meal ended with petit fours and some of the items were mini apple tart, tuile crack, horseradish macaron, caramel & nougat, little chou with cream. I found my lunch wonderful; it reminded me of the Arpège's greatness circa 2010. I was fortunate to pretty much love all the dishes I ordered. The surprising part was probably I picked no dishes in which the Alain Passard's garden vegetables were the main ingredients. Probably, Chef Passard did not know about it otherwise he might be upset, hehe - when he stopped by at my table, I was about to have my main course and he was proud of his latest creation of lamb-pigeon duo. When I observed some other clients (many of them having Gardener's lunch), I was even more convinced that I made the right decision ... many dishes from that menu might not suit my appetite, and moreover I did not see many tables receiving any seafood / meat dishes except some regulars and locals who seemed close and spoke French with the chef-owner. That being said, first timers visiting L'Arpege should still order some superior vegetarian dishes here such as: fines ravioles, any veloute, gratin d'oignons or jardiniere arlequin.

There were more than 30 people (nearly 1/3 of them were foreigners) during my lunch and the key people of Arpège were all available - Alain Passard, Mdm. Cousin and Chef Boldreiga. As far as I was concerned, the service was pretty smooth and not overly formal; staffs were sincere, amiable and easy going except the hostess who was quite intense when several customers arriving at the same time and the phone rang quite often. Chef Passard visiting every table and took time to take pictures with guests or sign a copy of his book; this act certainly helped reduce any tense moments particularly when the restaurant was super busy. Just imagine serving 10+ courses where different tables might not receive the same items and given the limited space and staffs, 1-2 small mistakes were bound to happen. The dining room at L'Arpege was possible the least extravagant one among Parisian 3-star restaurants - somewhat elegant but quite plain. The natural light during lunch was helpful; there were plenty of lights for dinner time. When Michelin claimed they only graded the restaurants for nothing but the food, it could not be more true for the case of L'Arpege. Given my personality and limited French, I did not generally have a good personal relationship with any chefs. While Denis Courtiade could be considered as my "closest" maitre d'hotel, Alain Passard was probably the chef I have become acquainted the most. The food has consistently been fantastic, but the (decent) friendship I have with Chef Passard would be a good excuse to keep coming back to this gastronomic temple in the future. The pictures of my meal could be seen at: L'Arpege Jan '19      

Food (and Wine): 97 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 96 pts

Overall: 96.5/100