L'Arpège et des Légumes
Until today I had never met Alain Passard, but I already knew I liked him. Anyone who can completely change course mid-career, go against the grain (or meat, in this case) of public opinion, and become even more successful, is someone I immediately have respect for. We stood out in front of L'Arpege this morning, waiting for the clock to strike noon for our midday reservation to begin, and caught the incredibly friendly chef on his way in the front door. He was all smiles, and nothing but laughs. Seeing that this was our first ever three star Michelin experience, it was a welcome sight. I always imagine restaurants of such stature to be institutions of straight-faced seriousness, but Passard's easy-going persona didn't give off that vibe. If you don't know who Alain Passard is, he's the world-renowned chef who in 1996 received the highest Michelin rating for his Paris-based restaurant L'Arpege (which it has maintained ever since). It's for that reason that people from all over the globe travel to the 7th arrondissement in search of the culinary world's most prestigious of experiences, being one of nine three star restaurants in the city. What attracted me to Passard, however, were not les etoiles, but rather the fact that in 2001 he completely flipped the script, dropped the meat, and made his own hand-grown vegetables the house's new main attraction. Can you believe it? A Michelin three-star French menu that isn't based on duck, duck liver, and duck fat? The best part of the story is that—despite the rearrangement—L'Arpege still maintained its top-flight status with Michelin, proving to every fois gras-obsessed Francophile out there that you can still make haute French cuisine without the viande. I wanted to know exactly what that experience entailed, so I booked a table weeks in advance of our arrival. My wife and I would dine like royalty for at least once in our lives.
Everything I've ever been told in my life about the Parisian cultural experience (from people who claim to know French culture, nonetheless) has been unbelievably inaccurate—from the explanation of the food, to the behavior of the citizens. This is my third time to Paris in just this calendar year and I've never once been treated rudely or with attitude, nor has anyone yet dictated to me a list of culinary rules for eating and drinking. The highly-intense formality with which French cuisine is treated at home always seems imposed by those who understand it the least, so it would only make sense that every single fear and prejudice about the Michelin three-star experience I walked into L'Arpege clutching were instantly eradicated. There was no staunch pretension upon our arrival, or attempt at pedantry considering we were foreigners. We were greeted with smiles, rosé Champagne, and nothing but perfect English. You could speak French to the wait staff if you wanted to, but they were going to answer back in English regardless. Of the fifteen or so tables that were sat along with us, at least ten of them were full of American tourists, so if you've ever felt intimidated by the high-end Parisian restaurant experience you need to come here first. There's not even the slightest bit of snobbery going on inside L'Arpege and most of the people dining with you are also out-of-towners. From the moment you walk up the stairs you're treated to nothing but the most hospitable of hospitality.
The other concern that Michelin newbies like myself might have going into such a monumental meal is the price. With a prix-fixe menu for two, along with an aperitif and bottle of wine (or more) you could easily get into the high three figures at just about any high-end spot like L'Arpege. I won't lie and tell you it's cheap, but I will say this: you get every bit of your money's worth, even with the extensive and outstandingly-curated wine list. Edmond Vatan Sancerre for under a hundred bucks?! I about did a double take. I've only ever even seen a bottle of Edmond Vatan Sancerre once at K&L and that was in 2008. These bottles can sell for $100 on the American auction market if you're even lucky enough to find one, so I didn't waste any time dropping the hammer at L'Arpege. Once the wine was on the table I felt a sturdy hand clamp down on my shoulder and watched as the bottle was suddenly whisked away over my head. It was Alain Passard and he was fawning over the Vatan Sancerre. "I love sauvignon blanc," he said to me. "I think this is the best one in the world." I told him how excited I was to actually try it, and he joked that he might drink all of it right then and there before I was able. I can't say enough about the people skills at L'Arpege. At what other restaurant does the celebrity chef himself come out and personally greet each table, acting like every customer is an old friend? Nothing and nobody at L'Arpege is even close to pretentious. The entire place is the polar opposite of pretense.
There are several menu choices for lunch, as well as a la carte selections, but we went for the "surprise me" option. We put our faith in the chef and his daily inspiration. I'm not going to bore you with a play-by-play of Passard's vegetarian mystery menu, but I will say that for a flat fee we were treated to endless plates of delicious, creative, imaginative, and mind-blowing cuisine; some of which made me want to weep. It may seem hard to believe that one could fill up on things like roasted beet sushi or a single bite-sized eggplant pastry, but I can honestly say that there was a point at the end of the epic three-hour meal when I didn't think I could eat anymore. Speaking of that eggplant pastry, those two bites of perfectly-puffed dough with the most savory, earthy, potent punch of eggplant were maybe the best moments of my entire year.
The only dish that may have topped the eggplant was the silver bowl of root vegetable ravioli, served in a light broth made with lemongrass and various other herbs, smelling exactly like green tea. The savory and aromatic liquid married with the texture of the dough and the light crunch of the vegetables inside was simply divine—like it honestly must have been made by the holiest of hands. Each dumpling was so rich with flavor; each bite an explosion of epicurean elation. I've never tasted anything as well-assembled as this dish. And the hits kept on coming. As we finished one plate, a new one would appear just a few minutes late with yet another evocative creation upon it. The servers were quick and courteous with their explanations, happy to answer questions if we had any, but careful to not intrude into the middle of our conversation. They were all true professionals.
As someone who works in a fancy booze shop and sells very expensive bottles on a daily basis, I appreciate and applaud what Alain Passard is doing at L'Arpege. It's textbook demystification. He's taking what for some can be an intimidating, esoteric, and somewhat angst-ridden leap into high-end cuisine and turning it into an open, friendly, explanatory exploration of food that is one of the more welcoming dining experiences I've ever had. Much like buying an expensive bottle of wine, there's often a consumer fear with dining at an establishment like L'Arpege that the prohibitive cost may not be worth the price of admission, or that it may not live up to expectations. I spend most of my days trying to ease that very fear in my customers with whatever comfort my personal advice can offer because ultimately, no matter how much they're spending, what people want is the promise of a positive experience. They want to feel ecstatic about their incredible purchase, not intimidated or browbeaten. Not only is the food at L'Arpege delicious, inspiring, and easy-to-like, it also never feels ostentatious or like it has something to prove. Our meal completely surpassed all of my expectations and, most importantly, it felt like a special occasion.
Alain Passard makes everyone who dines at L'Arpege feel special. That's perhaps his greatest talent.