l’Arpège – Alain Passard’s Perfect Pitch

84, rue de Varenne
75007 Paris
Reservations: +33 (0)1 47 05 09 06

Dinner tasting menu at €360/person; à la carte dishes quite randomly priced, but all fairly expensive

We had a tremendous meal at Alain Passard’s l’Arpège. There were a number of pleasant surprises and a few truly exceptional dishes which will live on in my memory for years to come. His food is simply but beautifully presented, and there is a clever, playful and unique streak running through all of the dishes. Aside the tiniest of niggles, the food was excellent throughout. Service was warm, professional and efficient through four-fifths of the meal, but unfortunately ground to a halt towards the end as the restaurant filled to capacity, something they did try to rectify near the conclusion of the meal. It was the most expensive meal I’ve paid for on a per-person basis, but after careful consideration, I have come to the conclusion that it was worth it to have experienced Chef Passard’s creations, if only once.

When in Paris, consult a snob

When my wife and I decided to spend three days in Paris before heading up to Normandy to spend the winter holiday period with her family, I quickly began ravenously drooling at the prospect of hitting-up some of Paris’s top restaurants. But I knew I would have to reign myself in given that Mrs. LF was pregnant and was having very serious aversions to most ‘heavy’ foods (the truth is she basically fancied bread and butter and not much else at this stage in her pregnancy). However, she did concede the point that we had to book meals ‘somewhere’ for the three dinners we would be having, so I proposed a compromise of eating at one really nice restaurant for dinner (but one which had ‘light cooking’); one nice (but not overly pricey) restaurant, also with ‘light cooking’; and going to Le 404 for some couscous one night (we have heard rave reviews from friends, and for those who are not aware, Le 404 is owned by the same guy behind Momo and sketch in London).

So, as neither my wife nor I have much actual knowledge of Parisian restaurants – although I do have a ton of theoretical knowledge, as I try to keep abreast of what’s happening in the top restaurants and general trends in French cooking – I knew I would need help if I wanted to ensure that the few meals we did have would be memorable ones. And who else was I to turn to but the master of finer fare, Food Snob himself? After a rather lengthy and exceedingly helpful email correspondence, he helped me whittle down the choices and we booked one dinner at l’Arpège (which is, from what I can tell, his current favorite restaurant in Paris if not the entire world) and one dinner at Le Chateaubriand, plus the couscous evening we already had planned. We had a few places in mind for ‘serious’ but not-too-expensive lunches with ‘light cooking’ if we so fancied, also courtesy of Food Snob (they were Frenchie and Yam’Tcha).

In the end, due to the Eurostar debacle, we were lucky to have just one-and-a-half days in Paris, and had to cancel Le Chateaubriand and Le 404. But as you already know, we did make it to Chez Passard (aka l’Arpège), and also had a pleasant lunch at Chez Janou on the outskirts of Le Marais on the other day (see my mini-review here in a French food porn photo post).

If you want more background information on Chef Alain Passard, whose only restaurant is l’Arpège, I suggest you consult Food Snob’s excellent and detailed review. There is also a very nice review from Ulterior Epicure, and both have beautiful photography to drool over. But, as far as I was concerned at this stage, there were three main points of interest:

  1. According to Food Snob, Passard was a master of meat (‘maître rôtisseur’), having spent 30 years establishing himself at his craft. Then, in January 2001, he declared to the world that he would focus his cooking efforts on vegetables, which created a shockwave throughout the French food community.
  2. As Food snob explains, “In 2002, he bought the Château du Gros Chesnay, in Fillé-sur-Sarthe, about two-hundred kilometres from Paris, near Le Mans, sharing the property with the previous owner, Madame Baccarach, who minds the house whilst the chef visits the two hectare garden each weekend, employing three gardeners to tend to it fulltime. Using only natural fertilisers, non-mechanical tools (like horse-drawn ploughs), a rotating small-plot system and pesticides made exclusively of vegetable extracts, this organic potager is a ‘showpiece of permaculture’; there is even a purpose-built lake on the grounds and four bee-hives to help maintain a balanced ecosystem (and provide l’Arpège with its very own honey)…The garden contains one-hundred-and-fifty different breeds of plant and supplies eight to ten tons of produce per year – nearly all that the restaurant requires. The crops can be picked at seven in the morning, in time for the ten o’clock TGV to Paris; no refrigeration is necessary and transport times are short – therefore the légumes lose very little of their freshness and flavour – and thus, that morning’s bounty is able to become that afternoon’s lunch. What l’Arpège does not consume is sold on a small counter at la Grande Épicerie du Bon Marché and any kitchen waste is returned to the garden for use as compost.
  3. As far as I am aware, l’Arpège is Chef Passard’s only restaurant and he is therefore normally there in the kitchen and dining room overseeing things.

The master at work in his jardin

So the real question was, would l’Arpège and Chef Passard live up to the very high expectations I had built up in my head?

Bent on finding out, on a rainy evening in late December, we ventured from the comfort of our hotel near Opéra to the metro in search of the 7th, which is apparently not a very typical arrondissement for seeking out the gastronomic pleasures that Paris has to offer. We found the restaurant just fine, as it is less than a five-minute walk from the nearest metro station (Varenne).

Portland, Oregon or Paris, France?

The experience leading up to the meal had been a good one. We had been able to book without a problem, and they even had the consideration to call us on the day to ensure that we were still coming as they saw that we had a +44 (the UK) country code in our phone number and they had heard about the problems with Eurostar. The positive service continued as we entered the restaurant. Our table had been booked at the extremely early time of 7.30pm (if you’re going by Parisian standards) and, as such, we were the first to arrive at the restaurant that evening. We were seated at a very nice table in the corner directly opposite the entryway, which afforded us a nice view of the entire upstairs (which is the main) dining room. I noticed later, during a visit to the bathrooms, that there was further seating downstairs in a cosy little rectangular room. The maîtresse d’hôte, whom I will assume was Hélène Cousin based on Food Snob’s and others’ descriptions of her, gave us a warm and inviting reception, and engaged in a very pleasant conversation with us as we sat down at our table and got acquainted with her and the restaurant.

The view from our pleasant corner

As I had seen from others’ reviews, the décor was indeed fairly spartan, with rich yellow-orange wood panelling throughout that really reminded me of how lots of restaurants are (or were) decorated in my native Pacific Northwest in the US – lots of warm wood panelling. Even the little spherical glass artwork that faced us (see picture above) reminded me of art from Portland, Oregon or Seattle, Washington. It was a very calming dining space if a tad dull, and the only real theme running throughout it was the overt use of wood and a specific shade of red, which was employed in the chairs’ upholstery, featured as the main color in the decorate plates when we arrived, and lined the edges of many of the serving plates during the meal. I found it to be simple, modern, concise, consistent and effective.

The simple & individual decorative plates, made of resin

As we were perusing the menu, some white radishes from Chef Passard’s garden were brought out for us to munch on. They were very nice with the accompanying gray salt and served their intended purpose of getting our mouths salivating.

Fresh radishes courtesy of Chef Passard’s très, très ‘bio’ garden

I was also salivating at the offer of a glass of champagne. The restaurant’s ‘champagne of the day’ (why doesn’t every restaurant have this concept?!) was Laurent-Perrier’s top cuvée, which is called Grand Siècle. Given my rather newfound love of champagne I was eager to see what this famous name had to offer.

My exceedingly lovely glass of Laurent-Perrier’s Grand Siècle champagne, their top cuvée

When the champagne did arrive, it was presented in its very own glass (with the brand and cuvée clearly labelled), and it didn’t disappoint. It had lovely, tiny soft bubbles which served to create a luscious mousse. The champagne was citrusy without being overly harsh and had a lot of length. It was an excellent liquid beginning to the meal.

The magically appearing vegetable tartelettes

After a lengthy and informative consultation about the menu, we had finally decided on our dishes. We opted not to go for the tasting menu, as (a) I don’t think my wife would have been up for it given her aforementioned disposition and (b) my menu, the one which had the prices on it (how gentlemanly), had the digits three, six and zero all in a row, preceded by the Euro sign in the upper-right corner of the tasting menu page. After asking whether this was the price for one or two people (I did, seriously), and being told that it was the price for one person, I thought we might do better going à la carte. But price aside, I thought I would actually prefer picking two specific dishes from what was certainly an intriguing little menu. My only real concern was whether we would still get the fabled Passard egg. I reticently asked if we would, and was assured that “Yes, of course! Everybody who dines at l’Aprege gets Alain’s egg!” So, with a tiny bit of egg already on my face, I was now satisfied and ready for the games to commence.

The vegetable tartelettes began magically appearing...

And commence they did. Just after placing our orders, Chef Passard’s vegetable tartelettes began magically appearing in pairs, in a steady yet slightly random fashion. First off, a plate of 2 pairs, then another plate of 2 pairs, then a single tart for each of us. They were all made with vegetables from the aforementioned garden, and nearly all of them dazzled. The first plate contained one with red cabbage purée and one with a mélange of diced-up vegetables, both of which were excellent.

...one after another, in a leisurely succession, the tartelette onslaught continued

A second wave or tartelettes featured one with an avocado mousse, and another with a fine jelly cube nestled atop another vegetable mousse. They were all delectable and very more-ish.

Then, the moment of the fabled egg arrived

The procession of tartelettes was temporarily interrupted by the egg that I had been asking about. I have to say that I adored the simple splendour of the presentation. There was a succession of two red-rimmed white plates, on top of which rested a silver cup that coddled the plain brown shell of a soft-boiled egg which had been severed about three-quarters of the way up.

So what did it taste like? Well, unlike others, I didn’t find it a complete revelation, but I did think it was excellent, and also liked it within the context of the pacing of the meal thus far, which had been subtly growing like a wave still deep at sea making its way slowly but steadily to the shore.

There were four main components to the dish: the brilliantly yellow yolk, which remained unbroken until prodded by my spoon; some sherry vinegar; a touch of cream; and some real Canadian maple syrup. When the yolk of the egg was broken and all of the components oozed together in concert, it create a very pleasurable flavor sensation, with the slight astringency of the vinegar being balanced by the creaminess of the yolk and the cream itself, and the sweetness of the maple syrup taking pole position as the strongest taste in the mouth. I have a sweet tooth and like eggs, so it was right up my alley. 8/10.

French country bread & St Malo buerre de baratte (butter)

The bread and butter had also arrived by this point, and the crusty, chewy French country loaf was really excellent. The butter, a beurre de baratte (baratte simply means ‘churned’, and in this method the milk is usually soured with bacterial starter cultures) which hailed from St Malo in Brittany, was very good, although not as nice as the butter we had at The Fat Duck. 9/10.

Ah yes, more tarts, some more unusual & ambitious than others

Before the main courses arrived, another little flurry of tarts was presented to us, and they were actually just placed on the side of our silver egg cups (see above). This particular one didn’t work as well to either of our palates. It was made up of carrots, red cabbage and cocoa and I didn’t really like combination of flavors. But as Meatloaf might say, ‘two [portions of tarts] out of three ain’t bad’. 9/10 for the tartelettes overall based on their ingenuity, honesty, creativity, freshness, surprising nature (in terms of quantity), and one mark off from being perfect due to the not too pleasant carrot/cabbage/cocoa combination.

Clever constructions, plural portions

I wasn’t quite sure what my starter was going to look or taste like, given the somewhat mysterious description of the dish, plus the fact that my French ain’t that great. All I knew was that celeriac was going to feature quite heavily. What arrived was certainly interesting on many levels.

Starter 1a: Ronde de céleri rave 'Monarch' à la truffe noire, carpaccio (tagliatelles)

As far as I was aware, this single plate of what looked like a traditional pasta tagliatelle with some generous shavings of black truffles, was to be my starter. It smelled amazing, but I was slightly disappointed at first, as it appeared quite simple and was a fairly meagre looking portion. However, the clever surprise was that the pasta was not pasta at all; it was made out of the celeriac! It had been carved to look exactly like pasta, and the texture was also remarkably pasta-like, although obviously crisper and less soft than actual pasta. The flavors all fused together effortlessly. The little cream sauce had a remarkable depth of flavor, and paired with the lovely aroma and subtle taste of the black truffle and the crunch of the celeriac, it was a very enjoyable starter. It also put a smile on my face as I liked the playfulness of the faux pasta.

Starter 1b: Ronde de céleri rave 'Moncarch' à la truffe noire, carpaccio (celerisotto)

After I had finished, our waiter came back and asked if I had liked it, to which I replied with a firm ‘oui’. She then asked if I was ready for the second part of my starter, to which I enthusiastically provided her with another ‘oui! Indeed, the fact that there actually two parts to my first course had somehow gotten lost in translation (I am sure it was my fault). The second portion of the course was another case of visual trickery. It appeared to be a risotto of sorts, but instead of the ‘rice’ actually being rice, it was again celeriac – this time chopped up into tiny little cubes. It was soaking in a strikingly bright green sauce, and was again topped with shavings of black truffle. It was equally as good as the first half of the starter; it was subtle, creamy and truffle-y, with a good fresh bite being provided from the still rather crisp celeriac cubes. I was now satisfied with my starter and was eager to see what Chef Passard had up his sleeve for the next course. I score this dish a 9/10 based on the flawless execution and clever playfulness – the taste was nearly perfect, but didn’t quite reach perfection for me in the sense that I think I will remember the play on pasta more than the actual flavors in the dish.

Starter 2: Fines ravioles potagères, oignon sturon et poireau de Carentan (1st & 2nd portions)

Mrs. LF had the following to say of her starter: “At first, just like my husband, I didn’t realise that I would be getting a second portion, so I initially thought that the portion size was a bit mean too, considering I knew I would have to share it with my ever-greedy husband! The ravioles were floating in a clean vegetable consommé which had a distinct but subtle celery flavour. The pasta itself was very thin and transparent, which allowed the colour of the vegetables inside to pierce through, and I felt it added a purity and demure quality to the dish. I recall liking all of the ravioles except for the red-colored one, which had a strong flavour and the bitter taste of horseradish. The yellow one was my favorite, with its soft onion flavour. 8/10.”

The wholesome(ness) of the parts

Following our fresh and lovely starters, we were afforded a small and welcome break in the proceedings. After a while, a waiter emerged from the kitchen clutching a large silver tray with two smaller sliver dishes placed on top. One contained my main course of duck and the other contained Mrs. LF’s main course of sole. Both the animal and the fish were presented whole in a bit of culinary theater (which reminded me of our experience at French chef Pierre Gagnaire’s sketch Lecture Room & Library back in London), before they were taken back to the kitchen to be prepared and plated up for us to eat.

Main Course 1: Canard de Challans a l’Hibiscus (1st portion)

I was very excited about my duck course, which was not on the menu and had been explained to me by our waiter. What emerged on my plate was yet another simply presented but exquisitely beautiful arrangement of food. The duck, which had been cooked in hibiscus, was presented on top of a deep reddish-orange sauce, and was surrounded by dark purple cabbage, bright orange carrots and a narrow quenelle of a bright yellow mash of some sort. The bold colors contrasted nicely with the shiny white of the large and round serving plate. It smelled out of this world, and with the aroma wafting about I quickly tried to take some pictures to capture the moment before devouring this petit canard.

Well, I can say without exception that this was the best duck dish I remember eating. Everything about it just worked perfectly. The skin of the breast was crispy, and beneath the skin the meat itself was soft, succulent and cooked between pink and red, just to my liking. But that sauce…oh my god…that sauce…it was the most sophisticated sweet and sour concoction I have ever tasted, with the undertone of hibiscus ever-present yet not overpowering. It was as if it was created solely to be the perfect coating for dead ducks when they go to heaven (i.e. my stomach). The yellow mash was another revelation, as it tasted distinctly of orange peel and possibly a touch of lemon, and was absolutely delicious when eaten together with a bit of duck and the sauce. The accompanying vegetables were also divine. The carrot, glazed in the sauce, and the purple cabbage, were equally as good on their own as they were when I cut small bits of them to eat together with the duck. I cannot emphasize how good this dish was, and it was probably the single most memorable dish of 2009 for me – and that’s saying something given the calibre of dining we partook in during the year. But wait, that’s not all…

Main Course 1: Canard de Challans a l’Hibiscus (2nd portion)

After finishing what I presumed to be my entire main course, the waiter asked me if I was ready for my second helping of the main course. In addition to grinning widely, I think I may have given out a small yet audible laugh, such was my delight. I was beginning to think the only word I needed in l’Arpège was ‘oui’. The second portion arrived similarly presented, though on a smaller plate, which this time carried the trademark red rim and also dipped slightly in the middle. This time, there was a leg and a thigh, which meant that the skin was even a tad crisper (a bonus) but it was a little more work extracting the meat from the bones than in the previous iteration. That said, the flavors were exactly the same, and I can confidently say I would have happily eaten a third portion had it been offered. I have no hesitation in giving this wonderful dish a full 10/10.

Main Course 2: Pêche côtière grilée sur écailles, pointe de Bretagne (1st & 2nd portions)

Of her main course, Mrs. LF commented: “As I wanted something simple, I opted for the sole. The fish was cooked to perfection, and had been kept delicate and as soft as down, as it should be. The sauce was light and ever so slightly creamy but not heavy, as it had been tempered with vegetable stock. It also had a hint of white wine in it, and was a beautiful and subtle sauce to accompany the fish. But what really stood out for me was the small potatoes, which had a nutty, smoky flavour. I could not get over it, and once again was reluctant to concede a taste of it to the constantly hovering Mr. LF. 9/10.”

After the main courses had been cleared, service, which to this point had been friendly, professional and highly efficient, began to slow down considerably. In fact, we felt slightly abandoned as we waited to see the dessert menu and/or hear about the cheeses on offer. Eventually, we caught a waiter’s attention – something the customer should never have to do in a 3 Michelin star establishment, in my view – and the dessert menus were then promptly presented and explained to us. Mrs. LF noted that “…this was because the waitress who was in charge of our table at the beginning of the meal was switched to a different station after a while, and that the new waiter who was assigned to us for some reason didn’t take any notice of our table although he was interacting non-stop with one of his tables of four and his one table of one. Since the earlier waitress had moved stations, I couldn’t understand why he didn’t take over our table as we were clearly in his section.” As you can see, Mrs. LF doesn’t miss a trick :).

When we finally did get the waiter’s attention, we were asked if we would like a cheese course before dessert. I was intrigued to hear more about the cheese because there was a huge block of what looked like Comte in the middle of the dining room, and I wondered if this was the only cheese on offer. Indeed, it was, and I was informed that it could be served with shaved black truffles on top, which would accentuate the whole experience. So, without thinking, I said the only French word which I seemed capable of uttering that evening: ‘oui’! Immediately after the waiter had left our table, Mrs. LF shot me a crazy-eyed glance, and asked me what the hell had I just done – wasn’t I aware of how much those truffles might cost?! I had clearly gotten caught up in the excitement and hadn’t given it a second thought.

Comte and black truffles – what can be bad about that?!

The cheese arrived and was once again beautifully presented, and boy was there a lot of it! At first, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to stomach all this cheese, but luckily the Comte was excellent and I had no problem polishing it all off in the end. The Comte was very salty and sharp and the extremely thinly sliced truffles therefore helped a lot to balance out the flavors. It was a wonderful cheese course and I scoffed it all down in record time considering the richness and decadence of the whole thing. They also came to apologize for bringing us the cheese course so late, which was a well-received gesture. 10/10.

Desserts to die for

Next up were desserts, and I certainly had found room for them upon reading their descriptions on the menu. After having seen tantalizing photos from Food Snob on twitter of Passard’s apple tart, one of us just had to order it, so I gave the honor to Mrs. LF as she is keen on “…good, properly made French apple tarts.” I opted for another rather traditional French dessert of millefeuille.

Unfortunately, our original sommelier seemed to have suffered a similar fate to that of our first waitress (having also been reassigned to the other side of the dining room mid-service), and they seemed to forget about our wine needs in the shuffle. Hence, there was no offer of a dessert wine, and we couldn’t get the new sommelier’s attention in time before the desserts arrived. And as readers of this blog will know, I do like my sweet wines. Boo-hoo :(.

Dessert 1: Tart aux pommes Boquet de Roses©, creation Hiver 2008

Mrs. LF didn’t have too much to say about her dessert, but I think this because she may have been at a loss for words (for once): “Amazing, the best apple tart I ever had. The apples, which I presume were French Boscop apples, were pealed and had been crafted into a beautiful bouquet of rose buds. These rested on a perfect pâte brisée, which is the name of the French pastry used for their tart. And that’s it! No fuss, a perfect pâte brisée with perfect apple flavor, nothing else. No compote, no custard, and no other silly or unnecessary add-ons: a tarte aux pommes in its simplest and best form. Well, actually, come to think of it, they did sprinkle the tart with a tiny bit of salty caramel sauce, which to my mind wasn’t necessary, although it did taste very good. 10/10.”

Dessert 2: Millefeuille 'caprice d'enfant' goûter croustillant

My dessert was also heavenly. The nearly weightless thin and crisp layers of pastry were injected with a fine cream of vanilla which had the faintest hint of whisky. I can count the number of truly excellent millefeuille I’ve had in my life on one hand – they are so often made with too heavy a hand, especially by pastry chefs in the UK – and this one was probably the best one I’ve had. It was crisp, crumbly and balanced perfectly with the luscious yet still light cream that seemed to be randomly placed throughout the brittle layers. No question that this was a perfect example of its kind. 10/10.

Petit fours, including some unusually flavored macarons

The only downside to the desserts was that we weren’t offered second portions of them! That said, we were offered petit fours as a consolation.

They were presented on a sliver tray, and consisted of two individual roses from the apple tart (which were again excellent), a wonderful nougat with beetroot (the combination surprisingly worked really well), some moist carrot cake which didn’t leave me that inspired, and three types of macarons. The macarons all revolved around vegetable or herb flavors – as far as I recall, one contained aromatic herbs, one was basil-based, and one was of red cabbage – and I didn’t particularly love any of them. 6/10, but only because of the nougat and the apple tart roses.

End of the line, folks

After the petit fours, le bill was artfully presented on a silver tray, folded halfway to conceal what was to be the only painful part of the meal (with the possible exception of a few of the macarons). To be honest, at the time I wasn’t actually that bothered to pay it as it had been a very relaxed, entertaining and enjoyable meal.

On the way out, my wife literally bumped into Chef Passard as we were waiting for our coats to be fetched. He had been making appearances in the dining room throughout the evening, and seemed like the consummate host. He seemed to do a floating dance through the slightly awkwardly laid-out dining room, donning a constant and pleasant smile. A few times, he looked over at our table from across the room and visibly winked at us, presumably because we were smiling and/or laughing, and the gesture seemed to indicate that he was happy we were enjoying ourselves.

In any case, Mrs. LF struck up a conversation with him in French and told him that we had essentially travelled from London to eat at his restaurant, to which he responded by saying, “That is the ultimate compliment that a chef can receive.” After a very pleasant discussion (I didn’t understand much, but Mrs. LF said he was very humble and nice), he asked us if we had our car waiting outside. Mrs. LF informed him that, in fact, we were travelling via metro, which he thought was a good idea. So a practical chap as well :).

The price of perfection

As should be obvious by this point, we had a thoroughly enjoyable evening at l’Arpège and, aside from a few very minor wobbles, the food was exceedingly excellent throughout. Some courses were truly inventive and good-humoured (to wit, my starter of celeriac mock pastas), others were more traditional (Mrs. LF’s main course of sole), and some were just outright beautiful (the duck and the apple tart composed of individual ‘roses’)…and all were all delicious. As I stated before, the duck cooked in hibiscus was without a doubt one of the most memorable dishes I’ve eaten in my adult life.

Service had been excellent up until the point of cheese and desserts, when we did feel quite abandoned. They did apologize for this however and attempted to rectify the mistake toward the very end of the meal. I was also pleasantly surprised to notice that we were not charged for the cheese course in the end, which was good news as I had sort of been dreading how much this might cost given the copious sprinkling of truffles on top of the Comte. I took this as a kind a gesture from the front-of-house team, and not as a mistake, and if this was the case, I think it was the correct and polite thing to do.

But I guess the heart of the matter with l’Arpège, and restaurants of the same ilk, is the total cost of the meal. Our bill ended up being 520 Euros, and that was with only one glass of champagne and two glasses of wine (as Mrs. LF was not drinking), and was sans the cheese course, whatever that may have cost. So, was the meal worth that much money?

If you take it at face value by adding up the cost of the ingredients, the operating costs of the restaurant (staff, rent, etc.), plus take into consideration a rational profit margin, I am not sure what the answer would actually be, but would posit that it would be a ‘no’. This may be mitigated by the fact that their vegetables apparently travel from Chef Passsard’s garden via TGV each day to reach the Paris-based restaurant, and the fact that there were a few luxurious ingredients in our meal (namely a healthy dose of black truffles and a whole high-quality duck and sole). That said, a lot of the ingredients were vegetables and couldn’t have cost all that much, even including the TGV season ticket.

The other obvious way to approach the matter is to compare l’Arpège to the cost of other 3-star restaurants in Paris, but given the fact that I have not been to any of those recently, I simply have no clue how the prices compare (please do let me know if you can put this in context for me). It was quite shocking to see starters at over 70 Euros and mains over 100 Euros, but maybe this is the case at other temples of Parisian gastronomy (?).

The most obvious recent and relevant comparison I can find within my own dining experience is The Fat Duck, simply because it is another Michelin 3-star restaurant and was the runner-up for my most expensive meal of 2009 on a per-person basis. Our Fat Duck lunch was £415 and included a full wine pairing for me (again, Mrs. LF was not drinking), a bottle of water and ludicrously expensive teas. L’Arpège ended up being £477, so even more expensive, especially considering we went à la carte (remember the tasting menu was 360 Euros/person), whereas at the Fat Duck there are 13-15 courses depending on how you slice it, and we only had three glasses of wine at l’Arpège.

In terms of the overall dining experience, The Fat Duck wins hands-down due to the pure theatrics and unwavering perfection and inventiveness that ran through both the conception and execution of the dishes. By contrast, l’Arpège is more of a traditional restaurant, although the meal was also replete with pleasant surprises (regenerating vegetable tartetlettes, faux pasta, the mysterious egg, double portions of most dishes, etc.). I guess at this level of cooking, you are paying for the unique personality of the chef behind the restaurant and it is all very expensive when considering 3-starred restaurants. I really appreciated the fact that Chef Passard was there on-hand during our meal (and from what I understand he is there nearly every day), which is certainly not the case with Heston at The Fat Duck or with so many other multiple-starred celebrity chefs, i.e. Pierre Gagnaire, Alain Ducasse, Gordon Ramsay, Joël Robuchon, etc. So, in a way, I guess that our bill was just what it costs to get the authentic Passard experience and, on this occasion, I was glad to have had it. The meal has certainly lived on in my memory and I expect it to keep doing so for some time to come. In this sense, I guess you could say that I thought it was worth it.

About halfway through our meal, a group of four French investment bankers took the table just next to us. They briskly informed the waiter that they were short on time and would like to eat quickly; could the chef prepare an express menu of sorts for them? They talked business the entire time and seemed to give less than a second thought to the food that was being served to them. I thought this clearly illustrated the depressing fact that always stares me (and most other diners) in the face: it is so often the case that the truly rich, or those with enormous expense accounts, get to eat in the most amazing restaurants and barely seem to appreciate the rare commodities that they ingest as a distraction to their conversation, whereas those who truly appreciate good food are so often not able to even enter the doors of such restaurants due to the cost-prohibitive nature of the meal. I am lucky enough to be able to afford to splurge on expensive restaurants once a month (during a good period), but it does slightly turn my stomach that so much of this amazing food literally goes to waste in the mouths and stomachs of people who care more about the fact that they can dine at these restaurants (indeed, it seems to be the ultimate boast for them) than what they are actually eating. This is not to say that there aren’t investment bankers/loaded people who do truly appreciate good food, but in my experience, they are in the minority.

In a word, was l’Arpège worth it? Yes. It was a unique dining experience in which I felt very privileged to have partaken. But, just like other restaurants of a similar calibre, I would only go back once in a great, great while, both because that’s all I can really afford and also because I think they might begin losing their unique pleasure if they were experienced too often.

Hats off to Chef Passard, it was a meal to remember.

P.S. – in case you don’t get the title, l’Arpège is French for the Italian musical term arpeggio, which is a broken chord where the notes are played or sung in sequence, one after the other, rather than ringing out simultaneously. Hence the musical play on words.


Ambience: 8/10

Service: 7/10 (only due to the severe lapse in attention toward the end of the meal)

Food: 9/10

Wine: I had two glasses of wine, but in atypical fashion have completely forgot what they were (that’s probably not a good thing). I only looked at the wines by the glass and half-bottle sections as my companion was not drinking, and they were both perfectly fine and (as you’d expect) heavily French focused. The mark-ups were not horrible compared to other 3-star restaurants and there was a good variety of solid producers to chose from.

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at l’Arpège only once (sadly), and it was for dinner.*

18 thoughts on “l’Arpège – Alain Passard’s Perfect Pitch

  1. Wow, I have to put some time aside to read this in full, but I wholeheartedly lend my support to the whole “champagne of the day” concept. Looks like a sensational meal. And those millefeuille! You’ll also love Le Chateaubriand, next time you make it to Paris.

    • Many thanks for your comment. Yeah, sorry about the length of the review :), but it’s just the way it turned out as I was writing it – I think it merits the detail as it was a very special meal. I can’t wait to get a few more days in Paris to try Le Chateaubriand and others! I feel like a foodie virgin in that city, which is sad but also nice in a way as everything is a new & exciting experience.

      Best regards,


  2. The mousseline served with the duck is marc d’orange.
    For the thighs you ought to have used your hands…

    In winter only the Comte and Salers are offered, but during the rest of the year, there are half-a-dozen softer cheeses (cow and goat) too. It’s without doubt my favourite cheeseboard anywhere.

    As for prices…hors boissons…
    l’Astrance is E300 full menu
    Pierre Gagnaire: E270 tasting (100-150/40 alc)
    l’Ambroisie: http://twitpic.com/15enil
    Plaza Athénée: E360 tasting (85-175/32 alc)

    • Hi Food Snob,

      Thanks for your comment (and for all the recommendations/help).

      Pardon my ignorance, but I don’t know what ‘marc d’orange’ is, but it sure tasted bloody good! I actually did use my hands toward the end with the thigh!

      Thanks for the info on pricing in other top Parisian restaurants…I guess it is not completely off the radar after all, which is quite scary to be honest. Those restaurants are extremely expensive, but hey, se la vie.

      Looking forward to your next review…

      Best regards,


  3. One of the few long reviews I took my time reading and looking at the pictures properly. Looks like an absolutely fantastic meal. The portions look extremely generous as well since they come in pairs.

    • Hi there, thanks for taking the time and hope you found it to be worthwhile. Yes, it was a fabulous meal, and the dual portions were a pleasant surprise indeed! Would recommend it if you are looking for a fine dining experience in Paris.

      Best regards,


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    • Hi,

      Glad you enjoyed the review. Definitely worth a visit if your bank balance is in good shape and you’re in Paris 😉

      Yumm indeed!

      Best regards,


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  7. I´ve been in L’Arpège last week and the menu was almost the same.For me the meal was very nice and well done.But I have something to say; first – bad luck.There was a couple with two kids in my side, was terrible, the small kid vomiting in the table!They made a lot o noise, and the staff try to make like anything was happening.The sommelier just forgot me, I had to fill my glass many times.The toillet had ” xixi” in the floor.The desert was just ok.I had been in others michelan 3 stars , and when every aspect is analised, L’Arpège is at least one star.

    • Oh no, that sucks! Sorry it wasn’t an amazing experience, but sounds like the food at least was pretty good. As I think I pointed out in the review, I thought it was pretty expensive overall, but apparently it is roughly in line with other top 3* Parisian restaurants. Worth trying once I guess, no?

      Best regards,


  8. It’s being a while I haven’t attended a dinner at L’Arpège. Time has blurred my memory. I need to go back. From the bit that I remember, the work of the ingredients was outstanding and I used to dine at a lot of the top France’s table back then.

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