Is it me, or is it you?
It’s a question I’ve been struggling with for a little while now.
I’m fortunate enough that I get to eat at some of the finest restaurants in the world, quite regularly.
Lately, I’ve been contemplating just what it means to chase down meals at the world’s top restaurants; those 3 Michelin Starred places and those restaurants that have been able to get themselves recognised well enough to hit the #Worlds50Best list.
In equal measure, I’ve been surprised and delighted (The Clove Club & Lyles) as much as disappointed and perplexed (Dinner by Heston) and Arpège.
When I discovered I would be spending a few days in Paris, the very first restaurant that sprang to mind as a must visit was Arpège. I mean, like many people, I’d been wowed by the Chef’s Table Netflix episode that focussed on legendary chef Alain Passard’s journey. The risk he took to drop meat from his menu and focus only on vegetables? Inspirational and opened up the world to many chefs to follow.
When my reservation confirmation came through, it was the first time that I thought that the girl was genuinely unhappy that she would not be accompanying me on my travels. In fact, I suspect she was secretly hoping that I wouldn’t be able to secure a spot 🙂
Excitement pulsed through my veins on the day of my Arpège visit; I left early for the restaurant to make sure I would be able to find that famous facade. I quickly found 84 Rue de Varenne; I’m not sure why I was surprised, but it looked just like it did on the Netflix special. Being so early, I was forced to wander the streets for some time; surprised by how close I was to the Grande Roue de Paris and the beginning of The Avenue des Champs-Élysées.
Eventually 7pm ticked over and I made my way into the restaurant, unsurprisingly I was the first to arrive and was seated in the surprisingly small and quaint dining room. My initial thoughts being that it looked a little dated. Maybe a little harsh, perhaps the wood lined walls and hotel conference-style chairs were more quirky than dated? At least the white linen tablecloths provided an element of refined fine dining.
I’d been deeply contemplating my meal at Arpège for some time; knowing that when the menu was presented I’d have three options; the vegetarian tasting menu that Alain Passard had become so famous for, the more traditional tasting menu that blended both vegetarian and carnivore style, or the a la carte menu that held many of the Arpège classics from over the years.
It wasn’t until the menu was finally presented to me in Paris that I made the agonising decision to run with the full tasting menu; it included both meat and vegetarian dishes and was by far the most expensive at €390 (about $3200 HKD). It was quite expensive for a single tasting menu, but given the restaurant’s status as the 19th (at the time) best restaurant in the world, I figured it was a bargain.
Being the first in the restaurant (by some margin), I noticed that the service was a little lackadaisical initially; there were only a couple of staff on initially and I didn’t feel any urgency. However, there was still very good attention to detail; I was dining solo and as a consequence was offered a book to read while dining (interestingly, it was an Alain Passard cook book).
I’d asked to keep a copy of the menu while I dined, and although it was completely in French, I was able to keep a track of my meal as it progressed (albeit using Google Translate to help) 🙂
Usually when I dine at any restaurant, I stick to water to accompany my meal; however I was convinced to try the house made apple juice from apples secured in Passard’s famous garden. It was so good, that I kept the glasses coming throughout my entire meal and hardly drank any of my fancy bottled water.
Before the tasting menu commenced, I was presented with a trio of tartlets; beetroot, carrot and parsnip and while the presentation was very basic (just dumped on a large plate), the incredibly thin and crispy pastry was quite amazing. The crisp casings were sweet and crunchy, perfectly suited for holding the vegetable puree that made up the fillings. I particularly loved the earthiness of the beetroot tartlet.
A further pre-tasting-menu treat was presented also; highlighting the chef’s penchant for vegetables, the white parsnip velouté with hay smoked cream was delightful. The very earthy soup had a sweet flavour that was enhanced by the smoked cream; it was fresh and warming on a cold Parisian night and really set my tastebuds alight for the meal ahead.
It was time for the first course of Chaud-froid d’oeuf acidule aux 4 epices sirop d’erable; which roughly translated to hot and cold egg with four spices and maple syrup. With instructions to dig deep to get all of the flavours in one bite, there was creaminess from the yolk and an astringent acidic flavour from the foam sitting on the surface. I found the mix of spices to be interesting, but slightly to acidic for my liking.
Next was the Fines ravioles potogeres multicolores consomme hivernal; three delicate vegetable ravioli in a light sweet consommé, the pastry almost translucent and the colour of the vegetables used almost popping through the barely-there skin. The broth itself was beautifully clarified but quite dark in colour, it was actually less powerful than it looked, the flavours quite subtle and much less intense that I’d have liked; it was hard to pick out any distinct flavours as a consequence.
I thought the use of celery root as a replacement for the Celerisotto cremeux au caviar kristal ail frais thermidore was an interesting take on a risotto. Adding a parsley emulsion gave a splash of colour and the use of the very luxurious Kristal caviar provided a salty hit to help balance the dish. Interestingly, the savoury celery root provided more texture that you’d find in a rice risotto, but perhaps a little less flavour.
It seems as if I’m unable to avoid the Asian influence in cuisine nowadays, even in the bastion of French cuisine, Arpége! Oursin de galice au berre noisette sabayon was Galacian sea urchin imbued in a hazelnut sabayon. This was a dish that I simply loved; typically, I’m a huge fan of creamy sabayon and the inclusion of the fresh salty uni was a genius move. Not only did the dish look fierce and interesting, it was incredibly well balanced, the sweet and salty combo sat wonderfully on my palate and I was able to sit and savour the flavours until my next course came along.
There was an incredible glossy finish to the cabbage dome that constituted the Petite farci des jardiniers parmigaino reggiano. The dish came with a warning that it was very hot, which of course I completely ignored, burning my tongue with my first bite! Under that glossy cabbage dome was a beetroot and onion filling that was fairly benign in flavour; the sweet onion dominating. That was until I included some of the parmesan emulsion, which overtook as dominant flavour; not wholly unpleasant but I felt as if balance was not achieved with the strong cheese flavour.
At the very start of my meal, like every good restaurant, I was asked if I had any food allergies or dislikes; my typical response relates to not liking olives (green in particular) and hating tapenade. So, there was a bit of early discussion about the next dish, which included a black olive emulsion.
I took the punt and decided that I’d try the Lasagne legumiere doree au four aolive noire de kalamata; a legume lasagne surrounded by a ‘moat’ of black olive emulsion. I have to say, after trying a bit of the emulsion on its own, I thought I was in some serious trouble with the dish (could I send a whole dish back to the kitchen?). But I persevered, and was really glad I did! The sweetness of the lasagne was crying out for a salty hit, which was ably provided by the emulsion. The balance was sublime and by the time I’d finished the dish, my palate had adjusted to the strong olive hit and it ended up being one of my favourite dishes.
Much of the meal to date had been dominated by Passard’s famous vegetarian take on food, but we started to get into proteins with the Pêche côtière du golfe du Morbihan sélection Vincet Roué. The Brittany scallops were a bit of a mixed bag for me, the scallops themselves had a light caramelisation, but felt more stewed than sautéed and were a bit spongey. There was also a potato ‘scallop’ sitting under the emulsion on the plate, which completely threw me; It looked like a scallop! There was a light bite to the sauce/emulsion on the plate which was the star of the dish; a light and buttery puree sat under the scallops which was also tasty. However, as nice as the accompaniments were, the scallops themselves were a bit of a let down.
The very classical Arpége dish of Tartare pourpre végétal aux pétales de topinambour betterave de pleine terre was next; and it looked beautiful. The beetroot tartare is one of the very well known dishes at the famous French restaurant, and it was clear why. The beetroot tartare was sweet and savoury at the same time, the dollop of creme fraiche on top with a thin slice of carrot gave off the appearance of an egg. However, I was only one mouthful into the dish when I realised that the black emulsion on the dish was in fact a tapenade; which immediately blew out my palate 😦 …… A few minutes into the the course, my waitress came racing over; having remembered my only food dislike… Tapenade.
To be honest, this is a big error from a Three Michelin Starred restaurant and one that is entrenched in the top 50 restaurants in the world. If it had been an actual allergy instead of a (very strong) dislike, I could have been up for a hospital trip!
While Alain Passard and Arpége are best known for their take on vegetarian dishes; Passard had previously been known and recognised as a meat guy. So I was really looking forward to the main course of Grande rotisserie d’herritage Louis Passard eleveurs de nos regions! But, it turned out to be the biggest disappointment of the night. Instead of a dish like the incredibly well known chicken-duck (a dish that helped make Passard a household name), I had the sweetbreads. Now, I will admit that language at times was a problem when explaining the dishes; but my take on the translation was that it was sweetbread (but I’m not entirely sure where from!). I’m actually a fan of sweetbreads, but I found the dish to be well cooked, but completely lacking in flavour; it was just bland!
For sure, it was a complete let down.
I’d been watching the restaurant fill up over the course of my meal; but it was only at this point that I realised how cramped the restaurant was. Not from the diners themselves, but from the twelve wait staff that I counted standing in the relatively close quarters of the restaurant. It was a bit claustrophobic to be honest; and it also gave me an idea about why the meal was so expensive; you have to pay for all those waiters!
I was once again taken aback by the simple and sometimes boring plating and presentation of the meal; there were no intricate and beautiful dishes at Apérge on my visit. No worse example than the gros macaron fondant au topinambour fuseau chocolat noir araguani, which was a large chocolate covered macaron sitting boringly on a plate on its own! The Jerusalem artichoke filled macaron was not terrible, the dark chocolate coating was warm and gooey, which was nice. It just didn’t rock my world.
A dessert that I should have loved was the Millefeuille croustillant caprice d’enfant gourmandise; it certainly looked the goods when it was presented; oh, it was definitely well put together, crumbly where it should have been, light as anything I’ve had before, but there was one cardinal sin (for me) with the dish. It was really, really dry! I found that beautiful and butter pastry to become cloying and hard to swallow due to the lack of sauce (or cream); and the drizzle of honey on the plate didn’t help at all. In fact, I found the dessert hard to finish and ended up leaving a pile of crumbly pastry on the plate!
The whole meal was finished with a Kiwi fruit sorbet and a whole plate of petite four. I loved the interesting sweet tart taste of the sorbet, but was perplexed as to why I’d finish with a palate cleanser and not have it between the end of the savoury part of the meal and the desserts?
Look, I’m going to admit that throughout the meal, I’d become more and more despondent; sure it had started well enough, but as the meal progressed, I couldn’t help think that I hadn’t really had any food that was mind blowing or completely unique.
Now, that’s not a problem usually; I mean, not every restaurant or course in a meal can be totally awesome; but when you’re in a Three Michelin Starred restaurant that is highly ranked in the top 50; not to mention stupidly expensive; then you should be expecting ‘fireworks’ and that very unique ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ meal.
But that’s not what I got, I had a fine meal, which even had some highlights; but it was so far removed from my expectations that I couldn’t help but be bitterly disappointed.
It doesn’t matter that the service was hit and miss; I could have put up with that if I’d had an amazing meal. But missing the tapenade was a bad fail, and it ruined one of the courses for me.
But, it does beg the question though; can you have too much of a good thing? Have my recent travels and visits to many of the world’s top restaurants ruined my expectations of a good / great meal?
I’ll continue to ponder that. but one thing is for sure, I wouldn’t go back to Arpége for a meal – there are too many other amazing restaurants in Paris for me to even contemplate such a thing.