In fact, one of my first culinary memories is of sitting on the floor of my maternal grandmother’s kitchen in Jaipur, India, cross-legged, as she prepares meals for my elder brother and me. This dinner, pressure-cooked yellow daal, with its smoothest texture possible, encapsulates the essence of this moment, the seriousness of the recollection, and the beginning of what would become my fixation with food: there is no other meal quite like it. Garlic chutney cooked from scratch. And, of course, this dinner would be incomplete without the addition of rotis, which are prepared to be served directly from the stove to our plates. It was our desire to follow some kind of diet that led to us first eating roti without ghee, and then we caved under the strain of my grandmother, who insisted that we eat roti with a generous dollop of ghee, as it has always been done.
This is the same kind of consideration and compassion with which Chef Alain Passard treats his customers at the renowned L’Arpège restaurant. There have been countless reviews that have called attention to Arpège’s poor customer service. In 2016, Eater labeled Arpège a “crushing letdown,” citing mostly the deficiencies of the waiters and other kitchen workers as the reason for this. There have been several other people who have expressed the same grievances. My own experience could not have been more unlike from others. I was apprehensive when I was invited to a dinner on New Year’s Eve in 2018. I did not hold French hospitality in the same regard as the rest of the elite culinary world, and I did not want to be disappointed after spending a significant amount of money on one of my final nights in the city. At the time of my visit, the vegetarian tasting menu for supper cost €420 and the land and sea tasting menu cost €470, respectively.
Chef Passard and the rest of the Arpège crew did not disappoint. Immediately upon entering with my dinner partner, we were hailed by Chef Passard himself, who greeted us at the entrance. I assume this was a New Year’s Eve special, despite the fact that he is renowned for being at the restaurant and conversing with diners on a regular basis. Nonetheless, I appreciated his kindness. Our waitress recognized us right immediately and understood our dietary restrictions as well as our beverage choices. Despite his quiet demeanor, he could not have been more attentive without being overwhelming. There were certainly no filthy wine glasses left on the table when we finished our meal. Chef Passard even accompanied me down the stairwell from the dining room to the lavatory, demonstrating his compassion, which stands in stark contrast to the mentality that surrounds famous chefs in this day and age.
Then there’s the cuisine. As an amuse bouche, we were offered soft cooked eggs in their shells, which were presented hot and cold. It is clear that this is a well regarded meal. There’s a good explanation behind this. Every note is a masterpiece. The cream and the eggs are a fantastic complement to one another. Its creative presentation piques your curiosity just enough to get you excited about the food that is about to be served. The course that followed this was one of my favorites. Three distinct root vegetable raviolis, one filled with celery, one with sweet potato, and one with radish, were served in a consommé that I could only presume had been simmering for many hours before being brought to us. Each ravioli was filled with a velvety filling that was a wonderful match for the consommé that was served with it. It elicited the same sensation I get when I think of my grandmother’s daal, and it seemed to have been prepared with the same care. I was impressed. The onion gratin with pea shoots was an aesthetically appealing meal that was also flavorful. For the onions to be so soft and delicious, the staff at Arpège had to exercise the sort of precision that one would expect from a team as talented as theirs. It seemed unnecessary to serve a radish carpaccio with microgreens following an onion gratin, yet it was. Despite the fact that the radish was sharp and acidic, the premise was the same as it was with the onion gratin. My dining buddy was offered a beet tartare that was considerably more delicious than mine, and it was exactly what I would have like to have been served instead. It was delightfully delectable, and the horseradish cream served to keep your taste senses engaged throughout the meal. Each and every tasting menu at Arpège should include this dish.
The vegetable paupiette was a little difficult to understand. As a vegetarian living in Paris, the premise piqued my interest. The flavors in the meal did not come together in the way that I would expect them to in a well-prepared beef paupiette. Instead of melting in your mouth and delightfully crumbling apart, the veggies were just plain mushy and bland. Every mouthful did not have the same tastes as the previous one. On the other hand, the chicken that my dining partner was given earned a lot of positive feedback. That particular chicken dish remained in his memory as the greatest he’d ever tasted, and it continues to be so. After that, there came a celeriac risotto with black truffle, which was delicious. That Chef Passard is able to achieve such a great balance between simplicity and complexity is an example of his strength. The celeriac strips had been left a touch crispy, but they had retained enough sweetness that I wanted to keep coming back for a second taste after that. Our waitress, as well as the rest of the culinary staff, realized that truffle may be overpowering in a dish at times. He shaved just the right amount of black truffle on top of the dish. It brought out the earthy tones in celery root, which are what make it such a wonderful winter root vegetable.
The dessert was the most underwhelming component of the dinner. Chef Passard’s millefeuilles piqued my interest, and the prospect of receiving one was quite appealing. Instead of having a texture that was both crunchy and sweet, it simply had one texture that was somewhere in the center of being crunchy and mushy. The cream filling in between the layers was one-note, enabling just the flavor of sugar to permeate and providing no further complexity. The macaron had the same uninspired feeling as the macaron.
Despite this, the hospitality far beyond expectations. While walking into the dining room, we saw Chef Passard make his rounds and wondered whether he was simply chatting to his friends or if he was going to talk to all of the diners in the room. When I think back on Arpège, my most clear recollection is being in awe of how laser-focused Chef Passard was on each and every single visitor at each and every single table. There was no other emotion there except than the sensation that he was there just to prepare food for you and no one else. In the end, he came by and we had what I would consider a long conversation about how I should end my relationship with my dinner partner since he couldn’t communicate in French. To top it all off, I was completely ignorant that there was a tradition at the restaurant. Each visitor received a lovely Opinel french knife inscribed with the year that was coming to an end as well as the name of the restaurant in a distinct typeface from the rest of the group. I was pleasantly delighted by the results.
My first three-Michelin-star dining experience at Arpège surpassed all of my expectations. It was a really high bar to clear, especially given that it was in Paris. The foods that they got right were magnificent, and there was no space for mistake in their preparation. They were created with such care and attention to detail, but they also captured the passion of cooking as well as what it meant to dine in a group environment. It was determined that the meals that were less effective did so because they included just a single taste that overpowered the remainder of the dish. The meal’s overall quality, on the other hand, cannot be questioned.
Cuisine Type: Creative
Tartare pourpre au couteau acidulé à la moutarde des jardiniers
Corps-à-corps poulet et canard
Tarte aux pommes bouquet de roses et caramel lacté
Address: 84 rue de Varenne, Paris, 75007, France
Phone: +33 1 47 05 09 06
Website: Arpège Official Site
Hours: Closed: Saturday, Sunday
Michelin Stars: 3