Ordinarily it would be easy to feel a bit sorry for vegetarians when they are eating in the world’s top restaurants as often they are fed a toned down and muted menu, often missing out on some of the restaurant’s best dishes, but in L'Arpege you wouldn't be missing out on anything. L'Arpege isn't a vegetarian restaurant, meat and fish may be served on a course or two, but vegetables are most often the star of the show.
The idea that vegetables are just there to accompany a protein is a bit outdated and over recent years more chefs are realising that no ingredient is more important than another, regardless of its cost or its rarity. The taste is all that matters and all that should matter. Who is to say that a piece of beef is more important than a carrot, that some john dory should take certain stage over an artichoke? The diversity in the vegetable world is far greater than the meat world, the possibility of new combinations, new flavours, and new dishes is near infinite without touching a piece of meat or fish. Eating in L'Arpege it is easy to see that chef Alain Passard is passionate and excited about the potential of the vegetable world.
It is very rare, it has maybe only happened to us a few times, that you realise you are eating the food of a one-off chef, a chef who is unique and who’s talent and approach cannot be copied, but this is exactly what we felt about Alain Passard when eating in L'Arpege. Passard is still fully involved in the creative process, he is just as passionate and excited as ever, this much is obvious, not just from the way he talks to his guests during the service, but from the array dishes he is sending out. He has a palate which could be rivalled by very few, delivering powerful yet delicate tastes in the one dish.
A gazpacho enhanced with a floral mustard ice cream raised the curtain on a meal that would both excite and delight us. A beautiful, deceptively simple serving of tomato carpaccio with germanium continued this floral theme. Germanium and tomato combined again with brilliant effect on another dish, this time with a ravioli of courgette and aubergine, which gave an earthiness to complete this stunning serving. A rich and creamy celeriac risotto with ceps came in the middle of the meal as to mark the end of the fragrant summer and the onset of the vegetal and earthy autumn. This continued with a moreish serving of mushroom, leeks and dill.
Pomme purée and olive was one of the more interesting and clever dishes on the meal. The tarteness of the olive marrying surprisingly well with the richness of the purée. Perhaps the best dish, it would be hard to pick just one, was a rich and addictive egg with hazelnut and red cabbage. A dish of ratatouille was the only slight let down on the meal; the charred smokiness on the aubergine was not enough to elevate it to more than just a good ratatouille. Desserts were also fantastic, in particular a rhubarb mille feuille; the sharpness of the rhubarb, which seemed like it was just slightly stewed was excellent with the sweet and delicate pastry.
Throughout the meal there was nothing that was over or under seasoned and the balance on each dish was extraordinary, there are few other meals that come to mind with this level of balance and it was clear that Passard is a man that understands flavours like few others.
There is still a youthful excitement about Passard that permeates throughout his restaurant. No two tables seem to get the same dishes, even when on the same menu, instead it seemed to us that the kitchen seemed to be reacting to each dinner’s enthusiasm and appetite. There is a brilliant spontaneity that is very rare in a restaurant of this class. We had no idea what was coming next on our lunch menu, but we got the impression that the kitchen and waiting staff were not sure either.
The service was friendly, with the right level of formality. €140 for a lunch menu that will contain around 10 courses, but that varies by day and by table, seemed like a bargain, especially for a restaurant of this calibre in Paris.
L'Arpege is a unique restaurant, run by the equally unique chef and highly recommended.
See L'Arpege on World Restaurant Ratings