84 Rue de Varenne,
Phone: +33 1 47 05 09 06
When I think of French food, I think of creamy sauces, rich reductions, and decadent meats. Vegetarian fare? Now, that’s not something I’d ever associate with France.
But I recently had over twenty, mind-blowing courses at L’Arpege and most of them were vegetarian, and every one was divine. You see, the chef, Alain Passard, is like the vegetable whisperer, teasing maximum flavor our of nature’s produce, plucked from Passard’s own garden and farm. He earned three Michelin stars at L’Arpege and he deserves every one of them. (In fact, he earned two stars elsewhere at the tender age of 26.) His Onion & Parmesan Gratin with Black Truffles is perfectly caramelized; sweet and savory Cevennes Onions and just plain unforgettable. So is the Vegetable Consommé with Four Ravioli, each tucked with a different vegetable from Passard’s garden; a delicate puree of Beets in one, Asparagus, Lima Beans & Tomato in another. And in lieu of Beef Tartare, there’s a Beet Tartare, topped with a quail egg and roasted potato.
Other than the black truffles in the Gratin and Lobster, the ingredients are surprisingly humble. You won’t find spoonfuls of caviar or Foie Gras on your plate. Seemingly ordinary ingredients are transformed into delicacies. Take the Turnip Sushi, for example, with warm, sticky rice as good as any I’ve had in a stellar sushi joint, or delicate, intensely flavorful Tartelettes of Smoked Beetroot and Parsnip Puree as well as Celeriac and Parmesan.
Hot & Cold Egg
If you’re worried, you’ll miss the succulence of meat, don’t be. There’s a Vegetable Sausage as curiously meaty and satisfying as the real thing. One dish that etched itself in my memory forever is the Oeuf à la Coque, a gorgeous egg shell filled with a hot/cold egg, flavored with maple syrup, vinegar and spices — a dreamy combination of flavors that I liken to ying yang. While there may not be meat, there’s plenty of fish on the menu, including a Baked and Salted Turbot, served whole, a creamy Fish Bisque with an unexpected topping of diced, Rhubarb, Radishes and Beets, and a Chausey Lobster braised in Jura Wine with smoked potato.
The dining room itself is just as simple as the ingredients, which I suppose is all the better to focus on the vibrant food. When I asked our server how many courses there would be, he shrugged, saying in a thick, French accent, “You never know. Really. Sometimes, it’s fifteen, sometimes twenty, could be more.”
Sounds a bit intimidating, no? You’ll want to settle in for the evening and prepare to stuff yourself silly. While twenty plus course is undeniably decadent, it doesn’t feel gluttonous because the ingredients are so pure and the combinations so sharp. L’Arpege also boasts an outstanding wine list (and long, 33 pages to be exact!) with tons of fantastic French options to pair up with the dizzying slurry of dishes that come your way.
I have to admit that dessert is not nearly as exciting as the savory. There’s a Rhubarb Millefeuille, a blizzard of Petits Fours (macarons, nougat, and chocolate truffles), and sky high “Apple Pie Bouquet of Roses,” made with pastry dough molded into roses, all incredibly bound by apple juice. But the most interesting of all (though I had my doubts) was a Slow-Roasted Tomato with Twelve Spices that did indeed double as dessert.
You’ve never quite tasted a vegetable until you’ve had one kissed by Passard’s gifted hand.