I ended up having dinner at Arpege through a circuitous route. My original plans were to dine at the restaurant in the Hotel Meurice. But the response to my email said that the restaurant was going to be closed on the date I was interested in. Since this was going to be my first night in Paris, and I wanted to have a meal that set the proper tone for what was going to be a rather long trip that was focused on dining, what was I to do instead? In my mind I rifled through the other Parisian three stars restaurants to see if I could come uo with an adequate replacement. I quickly dismissed what I will describe as the lower three-star restaurants such as Guy Savoy or Le Grand Vefour. You could eat well at those restaurants, but I was looking for a chef had the potential to serve us an ethereal meal. That really means just three restaurants when it comes to Paris dining: Pierre Gagnaire, L'Ambroisie and Arpege.
The problem was that I had eaten at all three of those restaurants within the last year, and each had its issues. Though Bernard Pacaud is a top-notch chef, his cuisine at L'Ambroisie is stuck in a time warp and we left feeling bored with our meal. But ultimately it didn't matter because we were talking about a Monday evening and I realized L'Ambroisie is closed on Mondays. Then I thought of Gagnaire. My last meal there hit some tremendous heights, but it also had some ridiculously low lows for a restaurant of its stature. And the last meal that Mrs. P and I had at Arpege was downright mediocre, without a single exceptional dish being served in the entire meal. I racked my brain to think of a replacement. I haven't been to Eric Frechon at Le Bristol or Les Ambassadeurs at Le Crillon, but they both seemed like they were going to be too classic to wow us. This was now verging on a crisis.
I consulted with my travelling companion to see if he had any preferences. "I'm not going back to Gagnaire," he said. "Our last meal at the restaurant was too uneven. Let's go to Arpege." I proceeded to tell him that my last visit to Arpege was a bust, and a rather expensive bust at that. But my advice fell on deaf ears. His last meal at the restaurant, about three years ago (which I was fortunate enough to attend) was fantastic. Since I had planned the itinerary for our entire trip, including where we were going to eat, I was happy to cede this decision to him. Arpege it was.
I can't say that I didn't have some trepidation about going there. I had been to the restaurant on five different occasions since Alain Passard decided to focus on a cuisine dominated by vegetables, which he raises himself on his farm in the Loire Valley. Three of those meals were fabulous and two of them ordinary. And the word on the street since my last meal was that Passard had lost interest in cooking and the restaurant wasn't performing well. Combined with the outrageous prices for the food where a roasted beet that serves two people can cost 80 euros, there wasn't a lot of room for error. Either you hit the restaurant on a night where the ingredients were perfect and the kitchen was on, or you felt like you'd spent 400 euros a person on a pile of ordinary vegetables.
If the hobby of dining relies on the vagaries of the larder and the consistency of the chef's hand, life itself can add a special dimension to the dining experience as well. It turned out that while I arrived safely in Paris on my Delta flight from JFK, my luggage somehow did not. Fortunately, I carried a garment bag that had my sport coats and slacks on the plane with me (a lesson for all to take note of), so I didn't have to go to dinner in jeans. Then to add insult to injury, when I arrived at my hotel, I discovered I had lost one of my credit cards. So rather than spending the afternoon sleeping off my jet lag, I spent two hours on the phone with airlines and credit card companies, and then the rest of the afternoon running around Paris buying things like shirts and socks, a phone charger and various electrical converters for my computer, and going to the American Hospital in Neuilly to get a prescription replaced. I didn't get back to my hotel until 7:00 p.m., and had gone without lunch, save for a caramel macaron from Maison du Chocolate. Then while I was trying to take an hour's nap before dinner, Mrs. P called from New York to tell me that my mom had fallen and broken her hip.
You can imagine my mood when I got in the taxi for the short ride to Arpege. When I arrived, my travelling companion was already there, but the restaurant was half-empty. The whole thing looked and felt like a disaster. Scanning the menu, my mood didn't improve any when I noticed that the tasting menu they were offering to celebrate the restaurant's 20th Anniversary was priced at 420 euros. Given the exchange rate and given that the price didn't include wine, dinner could easily cost 600 euros a person (nearly $800). Ouch, ouch again, and double ouch!
I went to work trying to craft a tasting menu together from the a la carte choices. I consulted with Laurent who runs the front of the house, and he said the kitchen would be happy to split each of the courses for us. This turned out to be a good solution because I had managed to cut the price of the tasting menu in half. To cut a very long story short (actually I told the whole story and we are up to talking about the food), our meal was fabulous. It was one of those nights where the ingredients were about as perfect as they get, and the execution in the kitchen was nearly flawless. It's the miracle of good cooking. Alain Passard had managed to salvage a horrible day.
I hadn't ordered it, but the kitchen sent out their signature Arpege egg as an amuse. It's a slowly boiled egg mixed with cream, sherry vinegar, and maple syrup. I've had it on each of my visits to the restaurant but this version seemed different. Rather than just vinegar, the egg seemed to be spiced with somthing that tasted like a homemade Worcestershire sauce. Very delicious, it's a classic and it does a great job of setting the tone for Passard's cuisine. Then, a beet baked in a salt crust and served with 12-year-old balsamic vinegar. We are talking a majestic beet here. Easily the best example I've ever had in my life. It's hard to imagine that a simple quartered beet can hold its own as a course, but I assure you that this beet was meaty and savory enough to reach those heights.
White onion gratin with Parmagiano Reggiano and shaved black truffles was very good. Not quite at the level of the beet, but a top-notch vegetable dish. Oozing with butter, the dish features the natural sweetness of the onions drawn out by Monsieur Bordier's salty butter. It makes a good transition to the next dish, which also features parmesan cheese--risotto with Parmagiano served with winter vegetables. It's unfair to call this a risotto dish. The risotto is merely a delivery system for a glorious bunch of vegetables. Besides an amazing round of carrot, the dish featured radish, beet, cabbage, turnip, and celeriac. It is hard to make predictions about these things but, I would wager that I will never see a grouping of vegetables that reach this level of quality again. And to top things off, there was enough of M. Bordier's butter on the dish to grease the wheels of a Citroen. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, but this picture is worth ten thousand bites.
Slow-grilled monkfish with leek, parsnip, and celeriac puree and homemade mustard made from grains that come from nearby Moulins was next. Unfortunately, the monkfish was a hair overcooked. They slow-grill it for 2-1/2 hours, and I guess that can make the cooking times a bit imprecise. But the accoutrements were fabulous. The homemade mustard was more like a sauce than a condiment, and when I dabbed a forkful of fish in a combination of the mustard and the parsnip and celeriac puree, it offered a rewarding culinary experience. And the leek. It had the flavor of ten leeks put together, and I can't say enough about it. I am going to nominate it for the leek Hall of Fame. It was so good that, like the beet, it could have been a course by itself, served simply with some salty butter. Grilled langoustines with crispy cabbage and Thai curry was probably the least impressive dish of the night, and still it delivered a level of cuisine that was commensurate with a high two-star restaurant. Similar to other curry dishes that I've had at Arpege, the curry flavor starts out very light and it intensifies as you eat it. The truth is, I am probably selling this dish a bit short because it didn't rise to the level of the other dishes at the meal.
We concluded with a slow-poached Breton lobster with sauce Vin Jaune, smoked potatoes and shaved black truffles. I've had the various elements of this dish in other guises at Arpege, but I never had them composed this way. Well, the combination was glorious. The lobster was top quality, and the version of Passard's signature sauce Vin Jaune was exceptional. The smoked potatoes were like eating cake, and the truffles that topped the dish lent an earthiness and nutty flavor that complemented the other ingredients. Let me tell you, it was the luck of the draw. You can go to Arpege on many nights and the elements of this dish won't be as perfect as they were on this night. But we hit the culinary jackpot. The lobster lotto. A powerball winner. A lobster dish that scored 100 points on a scale of 100.
Too stuffed for the usually delicious 4-year-old Comte that that they wheeled to our table, we let ourselves be talked into dessert even though we were on the verge of exploding. I had the house version of Ile Flotante, which is a scoop of caramel ice cream in a lemongrass cream. It's quite light and the ice cream is made the same way they make their fabulous mustard ice cream that they serve in tomato season with gaspacho. My dining companion had a small wedge from the two mille-feuilles they were serving, one chocolate and one vanilla. I cheated and took a small bite of the flaky pastry which was oozing with butter. We drank mildly well. Wine prices at Arpege are off of the charts. Without doing the actual math, it looked like the markups are in the 400-500% range. But since I had ordered a menu without the usual fowl dish that ends most of Passard's meals, I was able to stick to white wine which made it less expensive. We enjoyed a 1/2 bottle of 2001 Vincent Dauvissat Chablis La Forest, a bit closed but still offered some pleasure, and a bottle of 2001 Doctor Loosen Riesling Bernkasteller Auslese which was wonderful.
So some bad days have happy endings. My terrific meal at Arpege turned out to be the start of things looking up. When I woke up the next morning, I found a note from my concierge that Delta had located my bag and would be delivering it to my hotel later that morning. And later in the day Mrs. P called to tell me that my mom didn't need hip replacement surgery and could make do with a pin inserted instead. If I believed in superstition, I would have come away from my meal at Arpege saying that Alain Passard changed the direction of my fortunes. But pragmatist that I am, I'm happy to conclude that he simply changed my mood. Oh and how he changed it. I went on to spend 2-1/2 weeks doing virtually non-stop eating, but no other meal even came close to being as good as what I was served at Arpege on that sorry day in the middle of January. As I said at the start of this review, I was looking for an ethereal meal that only a top three-star chef can serve and that is exactly what I got. A