Unique 3 Michelin starred (mostly) vegetarian restaurant in Paris by Alain Passard
Arpege is a celebrated restaurant in France from Alain Passard who has maintained 3 Michelin stars here since 2007. The extra in this equation is that the menu mainly comprises of vegetables from Passard’s farms and personal garden which are brought from out of Paris to the restaurant every day. In summary, this lunch menu at €175 (which turned out to be decidedly more than advertised) was, I would say, the finest example of what you can do with pescatarian food on the earth. That said it was not my absolute top 3 star experience, but I do not believe there is a finer establishment on the planet for mainly vegetarian food. If there is, please let me know! I would also say it is not the cuddliest of experiences if you do not speak French and therefore is also as Parisian as you can get in this rather cramped restaurant.
First things first, I would not expect a very glitzy interior whenever you come here. At time of writing in 2019, I’m struggling to think of a 3 Michelin starred restaurant that has looked so squashed and antiquated (slightly rickety chairs, hardly any space to move to the lower level and to the lavatories). That said, it is also to be commended on the price of the set lunch menu offered at €175, with further options of different tasting menus of €360 and €440 if you so wished.
A quick word on the form of the restaurant: after being seated I was handed the menus all in French and after asking if there were any copies in English, the answer was a pretty curt “Non, monsieur” at which point the waiter walked away. So it makes no apology for you not being able to speak French which is surprising being the globally known restaurant that it is, drawing in persons of many nationalities throughout the year. To be frank, I just find this a little obstinate and unaccommodating for diners as it simply means you need to download a scanning software app on your phone to translate the text on the page which in my case took another 15 minutes to try and do.
The meal started with canapés of beetroot, green celery and zucchini, carrots and finally sweet pepper. All of these set a very good tone for the meal being carefully prepared and with an enjoyably thin, fried potato crisp. Hot and cold egg is a Passard signature dish. Essentially it is a warmed yolk (160 degrees Fahrenheit for 3-4 minutes) with cold whipped cream, seasoned with fleur de sel (fine crystallised salt from Brittany) and quatre épices (ginger, white pepper, nutmeg and cloves) sweetened with sherry vinegar and maple syrup. There is no doubt that this is utterly stunning as a bite and no wonder it has been on the menu for so long and long may it continue! I will try making this and is the sort of thing that you would want to produce and demolish on a conveyer belt.
White Celery & mustard ice cream cucumber came with a tomato carpaccio, the former being absolutely ice-cold, with strong celery and gorgeously sweet tomatoes. This was a refreshing vegetable essence and if you have this, please beware not to eat too quickly as you are guaranteed to have an ice cream headache – I suspect it was made with liquid nitrogen as it was exceedingly cold and smooth, but I could not establish whether this was the case. Either way, this was a beautifully simple and powerful dish, worthy of 3 stars alone.
Tomatoes and melon radish with elder onions, fresh herb oil of celery, chive, lemongrass and mozzarella reportedly came from a place that was inconceivable to understand but apparently 100m from Naples. The onions and oil gave the boost the other blander items needed and was a pleasant meeting of salt and sweet, but was essentially vegetables and fruit in their raw state with a pleasant dressing. An ok dish in its own right.
Next came a trio of ravioli in an utterly clarified tomato and lemon verbena consommé which was wonderful. Delicate pasta held celery in one, carrots in another and beetroot in the final raviolo and this was purity of food. Vegetable sushi of beetroot slice with rice and tamponade drizzle came next and was nicely done and then a risotto of radish, purple mustard and shard of chestnut and a form of Brie were a lovely play of sweet and earthiness.
Then came an absolute howitzer of a dish. Like the ice cream and gazpacho, this was just two elements done to perfection. Velvet pepper and an accompanying sabayon was utter seduction on a plate. So warm and comforting at the same time; so simple and the airy sabayon was a perfect match for the subtle pepper sauce. Next up was a caramel of tomato jus, leak pear and chestnut which was frankly ok in comparison.
Smoked potato spaghetti, tomato foam, hen of woods mushrooms was another instant 3 star dish. Such soft handling of mushroom and gentle spice at the base was great. Another very delicate dish with beautiful texture and potato. Next came a beetroot tartare, carrot mousse, spinach, red onion, apple which was a knock out acidity offset by the reduction that added a bitter quality and all calmed down by cream of the carrot mousse. Very clever.
Lobster from Brittany was perfectly cooked with a marriage of black olive foam sauce; so gentle and well done. It struck me as pretty generous for including a whole lobster on the lowest grade tasting menu, but then again I couldn’t really translate it well, so I wouldn’t know.
The meal finished with an array of sweets. Unusually the petit four came first (as some French restaurants do) with truffles and wonderful brandy snaps, followed by an apple and caramel pastry dessert which was just gorgeous and then another bombshell of a pear and walnut pastry dish. Whoever was on pastry duty that afternoon deserves a medal as it was at the height of wafer-thin crunch and perfect texture inside that you could wish.
Strangely, the only thing that let this experience down a tad was the rather erratic service and unusual format. Service-wise pauses in between dishes ranged from waits of 10-15 minutes to 3-4 minutes in some cases in no particular order (usually there is a larger break between savoury and sweet but this did not seem to be the formula here). I think I saw one table asking for the lavatory and being waved by a waiter who did not stop to even point properly and that combined with the unusual greeting of almost being viewed as a problem customer for not being able to speak French basically made the hospitality stern and unwelcoming at times. It warmed up slightly through service, but I don’t think any medals for hospitality are due here anytime soon. As with all my reviews, this does not affect the food grade, but it does affect how much I actually want to return.
That said, in terms of price, this was a blessing compared to most Parisian 3 star restaurants where the average price will set you back at least €300-400 per person and far more in the evening on average. In terms of the food, this was an absolute masterclass of vegetarian and pescatarian dishes and if you are of either of these persuasions, my recommendations are: 1) get learning French and 2) get yourself here to try at least once in your life.
Food Grade: 93%
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