When I decided to make Paris one of the final stops on my six month worldwide odyssey, I checked to see whether I might be lucky enough to find availability at Alain Passard’s Arpège. I was delighted to secure a table on Friday night.
While the upstairs dining space is famed for its wood and Lalique interior, I was seated downstairs along with the other English-speaking diners in a nice enough but rather nondescript cellar.
Thankfully, service was absolutely flawless beyond this curious start with real warmth from the front of house team. They were clearly very pleased to be working there. When chef Passard came to say hello to everyone towards the end of service, it was clear that his infectious verve and enthusiasm was transmitted to have staff and in turn to the diners.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We must pause for a short interlude about pricing. Arpège is above everything a temple to classic French fine dining and pilgrimage does not come cheap. The individual dishes on the a la carte list are so vigorously priced as to make the tasting menus offered look like the value choice. At €350 for the Vegetable Menu or €420 for the Land and Sea Menu, value isn’t really the first thing that springs to mind, though. The canny will book for lunch which is a mere €145 for their Gardener’s Lunch Menu.
Whatever you opt for – and I suspect whatever your budget – this is a special occasion restaurant towards the ‘once in a lifetime’ end of the market. This puts high pressure on not only the restaurant team but the diners as well to enjoy themselves as much as possible at ‘the best meal they will ever eat’.
What often sets Arpège apart is Passard’s commitment to vegetables – almost all grown in his famous Normandie garden – being the focus of attention. For a time the restaurant was entirely vegetarian but some poultry and fish have returned in recent years. Throughout these various changes, 3 Michelin stars have been maintained since 1996.
I opted for the vegetable tasting menu as seemed appropriate. The procession of dishes began with little crisp tartlettes of beetroot, fennel, and carrot which were delightful bites to go with my inevitable glass of bubbles.
We then had excellent sourdough bread which was regularly replenished and high quality butter.
The amuse bouche was the most famous dish of the house, the hot and cold egg, an exquisite blend of whipped egg white with soft boiled yolk flavoured with herbs and finished with touch of maple syrup. It was a thing of beauty.
The first course proper was a white radish carpaccio, topped with winter radish shards and a bay leaf oil. It was simply presented but exceptional on the palate.
Winter veg was again to the fore with three different raviolo parcels in a golden vegetable broth. This was elegant, earthy and over all too quickly.
A gratin of onions was an absolutely stellar next course. As with much of the meal, it really wasn’t much to look at but the flavours were fantastic.
We then had a simple dish of chestnut cream topped with a beurre noisette sauce. It was hard to argue with its total magnificence.
Next was a stuffed cabbage parcel topped with black truffle. My waiter had by this point stopped asking whether I was enjoying dishes as the licked clean plates told their own story.
We then had a slice of beautifully layered stuffed pastry with a Kalamata olive foam. It was a dish to savour.
A soup course followed with a bright squash soup topped with an incredible sage cream.
Comfortably the most eye-catching dish of the evening was a vegetable riff on steak tartare complete with fake egg topping. It was beautiful and delicious.
And the hits just kept on coming with a superb harlequin of colours from the garden topped with a vegetable Merguez sausage and argan oil.
The final savoury course was another house classic, the celerisotto with aged comté and black truffle shaved on top at the table.
With the waistband starting to groan, a platter of dessert bites was quite the sweet greeting. With tuilles and nougat and apple rosettes and chocolate whatnots, this was a riot of sweet snacks.
The first full dessert was a little whipped mountain of confit sweet chestnut and caramel.
A chocolate and hazelnut macaron brought things to a richly sweet end. It had been quite the meal.
Although they didn’t offer a wine pairing as such, my accomplished sommelier kept me right on good matching glasses from their by-the-glass list. The calvados matching the later desserts and the apple juice from their garden were particular highlights.
Assessing Arpège is a slight challenge because as a pure selection of dishes it was without question entirely deserving of the hype, the adulation, the praise and (just about) the pricetag. However, presentation was sometimes a little samey, rather unfussy and often muted which I found slightly surprising, but subtle elegance often eludes me. And the basement setting meant that it wasn’t near to the overall experience of Attica, Boragó, Amaru or Enrico Bartolini, amongst others. But it was a truly great meal and one I’m honoured to have eaten. Chef Passard is an amazing character whose dedication to the elevation of vegetation makes him one of the most important chefs currently working.
Blythe scores Arpège
5/5 for food
4/5 for presentation
5/5 for service
4/5 for setting
giving an overall 18/20
I ate: vegetable tasting menu
I drank: bubbles, wines by the glass, sparkly water, espresso
I wore: action footwear
Total bill: €575