Last night I was a very lucky girl. It was my birthday and The Frenchman invited me to L’Arpège for a cozy, romantic, three Michelin star, eight-course light dinner. “Light!?!” you may say mockingly, but yes, light. Amazingly light and incredibly delicious, because the chef at L’Arpège, Alain Passard, is a man who loves to have his way with vegetables, and, I dare say, he does it like no other.
To say that Chef Passard demands only the best is an understatement. For years he was known as the only chef in town still cooking his own breads. I learned last night that he has had to stop for a bit but hopes to be up and baking again soon. His vegetable gardens are another labor of love. This man grows his own, going so far as to insist the soil be tilled manually for the richest flavors possible.
We were in the downstairs dining room with a vaulted brick ceiling and a welcoming calm that was strikingly intimate for a palace of haute cuisine. We were greeted by a friendly, relaxed staff who treated us to a series of amuse-bouches (tongue teasers): a variety of delicate salads on dainty, edible chips meant to be popped into the mouth and savored as guests peruse the menu. There is an 11-course tasting menu available, but I didn’t think I had the appetite. Our waitress suggested we split our dishes and share, offering to do the plating in the kitchen. It was a marvelous idea.
As a special gift from the chef, we were offered his famous soft-boiled egg with spices and sherry vinegar. I’m not a fan of runny eggs, but this course was divine. The yolk was coddled until creamy, and the hint of vinegar enhanced the richness of it all. This was followed by vegetable ravioli in the finest, most elegant consommé I’ve ever tasted. And each ravioli (there were eight) was a different blend of vegetables with a perfectly harmonious herb accent. Our second starter was an heirloom root vegetable plate that was drizzled with argan oil and as pleasing to the eyes as the palate.
At some point a large turbot fish was brought to the table for our approval. It had been lightly grilled, so it filled the dining room with an appetizing fragrance instead of a fish smell and it looked outstanding, despite my amateur eye. It was even better when it eventually found its way to my plate with a delicate matcha tea jus. The culinary highlight of the evening was the lobster cooked in subtle, bacony tasting Jura wine sauce with smoked potatoes. It melted in my mouth. The Frenchman knows his wines and chose a Corton Charlemagne chardonnay that was fantastic throughout the meal but married particularly well with this final dish. I can taste it on my palate even now.
With the dessert menu we were served a plate of house-made chocolates, macarons and candies, all with a vegetable theme. The parsnip macaron especially was remarkable, but in the end I prefer my vegetables savory. Which led us to choose a chocolate baba au bourbon with a horseradish-spiked chestnut cream, followed by the most heavenly honey (from Passard’s own hives) soufflé. The perfectly sweet note to end a perfectly sweet evening.