Restaurant review: Arpege
I wrote this story in around 1987 or 1988. Alain Passard’s restaurant called the Arpege was then a one-star establishment – or about to earn its first star – and it ended up having three stars, the top rating. In 2001, Passard decided to take a huge risk and he became the only three star restaurant in Paris – or perhaps anywhere – to focus entirely on vegetables, and drop the meat. He did not lose the stars, so creative is he as a chef. My restaurant review of the Arpege was, of course, rejected, no doubt for the same reasons as the Robuchon story would be a few years later, as I was not an expert and had no food writing gig.PARIS Alain Passard is following in the footsteps of his old teacher in more ways than one. The thirty-year-old chef has just bought the restaurant where Alain Senderens reigned for fourteen years before last year buying out his old haunt, the famous Lucas-Carton of the Place de la Madeleine.
Food lovers who are feeling the pinch of the descending dollar will be pleased by the return of Passard who after starting with Senderens about ten years ago moved on to the Duc d’Enghein and the Brussels Carlton to further perfect his art.
The restaurant between the prime minister’s office and Napoleon’s tomb has been named Arpege, enabling Passard to keep the same dishes and engraved silverware that bear the “A” of Senderens’s Archestrate. The plush decor with the rose-tinted glass on the ceilings and walls has also remained the same. In short, since it opened last October, those who missed out on a meal here when it was run by the king of the nouvelle cuisine, have been discovering that it is still more or less possible – and at a price that is still reasonable, if not down right low for a restaurant of this quality.
But this Breton chef – whose formal training does not go beyond correspondence courses taken when he started out in the business at fifteen–might object to a continued comparison with Senderens. According to him, he learned it all from his grandmother. And his duck has been called the finest in the world. And his chocolate millefeuille is imitated by many, and paid hommage to by the brothers Troisgros in a recent book.
While it is difficult to imagine anyone else making a chocolate pastry as light as Passard’s, his creation of the frozen Irish Coffee is a delight that will undoubtedly be much imitated by amateur and professional alike.
Passard does not stinge on his helpings. A lobster entree is copiously served with lobster while its garnish of turnip is sliced thinner than paper and laid over top.
One sign of a great chef is when simple traditional dishes can be made to take on a greater significance than usual. Passard’s filet of sole in a butter sauce with parsley and lemon juice is a case in point.
While the venison was extraordinarily tender and tasty, the accompanying chanterelle mushrooms were less than exciting. But that might be due to the approach of the end of the season. Go for the duck in blood and butter. The accompanying cake of potatoes stuffed with giblets is an original.
The wine list is still somewhat limited and unspectacular. But the half bottle of Pouilly Fume at 55 francs is worth it; and the 1982 Chambolle-Musigny is a fine accompaniment to the duck.
The service was for the most part excellent, with the composition of each dish being described as it arrived. The mostly young staff gave the impression of being part of a small happy family.
Now is the time to visit the restaurant that was formerly home to a king of nouvelle cuisine, and which is now home to what may turn out to be another of the kings of French cuisine.
Arpege: 84 rue de Varenne, 75007 Paris; tel. 126.96.36.199; lunchtime menu at 130 francs, dinner menu at 265 francs. Closed Saturday lunchtime and all day Sunday. Open till 22h 45.