Saturday, January 30, 2010

L'Arpege - It Doesn't Get Any Better

84 Rue de Varenne
75007 Paris, France
01 45 51 47 33

I will always be grateful to Alain Passard. Years ago in Paris I asked at a two-star restaurant if I could get the chef to prepare something vegetarian. I was met with disdain. How could I dare to ask such a thing? This was a restaurant gastronomic, not a tofu and sprouts fern bar. And so I found myself later that evening sitting at a fern bar with a plate of pasta and textured vegetable protein, thinking how wrong that picture was. And then came Passard.In 2001, Passard, who five years prior had earned his third Michelin star for L'Arpege, stopped preparing red meat and turned his attention to vegetables. His announcement was met with shock. Some felt he was risking his Michelin stars. But Passard's star shined through it all and today L'Arpege (as well as other of his restaurants) not only turns out wonderful food for vegetarians, but paved the way for other famed chefs to take another look at vegetables, and to accommodate vegetarians. To be clear, Passard does offer pork, fish and plenty of other animal-based dishes for the carnivorous.

A recent nine-course lunch at the quaint and unpretentious restaurant began with a collection of ravioli, each filled with a different vegetable from Passard's five-acre garden outside of Paris.

Then came a most amazing combination of slightly cooked egg yolk, creme fraiche and maple syrup all served inside an egg shell, which was placed in an egg cup. My dining companion couldn't figure out what all my fuss was about about until I explained you had to scoop to the bottom, getting all the ingredients at once, to get the incredible flavor combination. It was a mixture of sweet and slightly bitter that was divine.
That was followed by a very thin layer of onion gratin (above) with black pepper and fresh greens.

After the egg and maple syrup combination, the most surprising dish was the celeriac "risotto" with black truffle (above). It really wasn't risotto at all - there was no arborio in it - but celeriac that had been made into the shape of risotto. Every time I took a bite the creaminess of the sauce fooled my mouth into expecting smooth grains of rice, but instead there was a delightful fresh texture and light crunch. Delightful.

Beets were salt-roasted. The salt allows the beets to slowly cook and develop their flavor while the salt absorbs excess moisture to keep the beets from getting soggy. The beets tasted sweet and were still firm.

Celeriac was again served but this time in the shape of tagliatelle with more slices of fresh black truffle - a benefit of visiting in winter. The "noodles" had just enough crunch to distinguish them from a flour-based pasta.

A wonderful well-aged comte was freshly shaved from a large round that was wheeled throughout the room. The cheese had a melt-in-your-mouth texture like a fresh cheese, yet looked on the plate like a firm, dry cheese.

For dessert, there were sheets of thin chocolate piled up with creme. The dish was very light and flaky, and much too light on the chocolate for me.

To finish off, we received a plate of macaroons in unexpected flavors including beetroot and parsnip.

Passard visited each table during lunch and then came back and chatted some more with me as I was leaving. "My restaurant I made for you," he said when I told him I was a vegetarian. "You come here all the time." I'd go daily if I could, and if I could afford it. Lunch, which is a bargain when compared to dinner, was 130 euros per person. The wine pairings were another 70 euros per person. It is well worth the splurge.