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L'Arpège

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84, rue de Varenne75007 Paris
France
T+33 147050906

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Name: Alain Passard
Date of birth: 04-08-1956

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Lexpress.fr 2011-11-10
Alain Passard, dieu vivant de la cuisine?

Alain Passard, dieu vivant de la cuisine?

Alain Passard, dieu vivant de la cuisine?

Au premier plan de g. à dr., Bertrand Grébaut (Septime), Jacques Decoret (Maison Decoret), Sven Chartier (Saturne), Pascal Barbot (L'Astrance), Alain Passard (L'Arpège), Baptiste Fournier (La Tour), Mauro Colagreco (Le Mirazur), David Toutain (L'Agapé Substance). Au second plan de g. à dr., Cyril Lignac (Le Quinzième), Antoine Heerah (Le Chamarré Montmartre), Claude Bosi (L'Hibiscus).

F.Stucin/Myop pour L'Express Styles- Production: Mina Soundiram et François-Régis Gaudry

Son restaurant, l'Arpège, a enfanté une nouvelle génération de toques brillantes et sa vision gastronomique essaime dans les cuisines de France et de Navarre. Enquête sur une icône au rayonnement planétaire. 

David Toutain n'oubliera pas de sitôt cette journée printanière de l'année 2002. Il vient de finir son service au piano de l'Arpège, rue de Varenne, à Paris, où il est chef de partie poissons. Alain Passard le convoque dans son bureau: "Tu sais que je cherche un second en cuisine. Pourquoi tu n'es pas venu me voir?" "Je ne m'imagine pas encore à un tel poste", répond l'intéressé. "Moi, je t'imagine bien. Réfléchis..." C'est tout réfléchi: moins de six mois après avoir été embauché comme commis, David Toutain devient, à l'âge de 21 ans, second de cuisine.  

Dans les annales des restaurants trois étoiles Michelin, on n'avait jamais croisé profil si jeune à ce niveau de responsabilités. "Si j'avais été dans la brigade d'un palace, j'aurais patiemment monté tous les échelons: commis, premier commis, demi-chef de partie, chef de partie, premier chef de partie... Alain Passard, il t'offre ta chance très vite s'il décèle en toi une "intelligence", comme il dit..."  

Aujourd'hui, David Toutain enflamme la Rive gauche aux fourneaux d'Agapé Substance, la nouvelle table qu'il a ouverte à Paris, avec Laurent Lapaire, ancien maître d'hôtel de... l'Arpège. Une table sous influence Passard. Une de plus. C'est même à se demander si, depuis quelques saisons, les bistrots parisiens ne sont pas maraboutés par le chef de la rue de Varenne. Saturne, Jour de fête, Chatomat, Racines 2 et Septime: cinq adresses qui "buzzent" fort depuis moins d'un an.  

Ailleurs, on forme des foudres de guerre. A l'Arpège, on façonne des chefs sensibles. (Bertrand Grébaut) 

Et cinq jeunes toques converties à la religion de la cuisine épurée, naturelle, végétale, bien loin des canailleries néoclassiques de la bistronomie à la sauce Camdeborde qui ont envahi les zincs dans les années 1990 et 2000. Désormais, on vibre pour un céleri-rave cuit en croûte de sel à l'émulsion de parmesan, des asperges vertes voilées de lard de Colonnata ou une palette de légumes tiédis à l'huile d'olive. Autant d'inspirations légumières cueillies dans le jardin du maître. 

"La force du style Passard, c'est d'être à la fois inclassable, indémodable, aussi à l'aise dans un trois-étoiles à prix élevés que dans un bistrot moderne plus démocratique", explique Bertrand Grébaut, chef, à Paris, de Septime, marqué au fer rouge par ses années rue de Varenne, qu'il raconte comme "une période dure et intense, où j'ai capté en un an ce que j'aurais appris en trois fois plus de temps dans un autre grand restaurant. Ailleurs, on forme des foudres de guerre. A l'Arpège, on façonne des chefs sensibles." 

Mais quel est donc le secret de cette invraisemblable fabrique de talents? A l'Astrance, à Paris, Pascal Barbot, cinq ans d'Arpège et trois étoiles au Michelin, détient une partie de la réponse : "On ne ressort pas de ce restaurant avec un carnet de recettes mais avec un état d'esprit, une élégance du geste, une recherche de perfection dans les cuissons, les découpes et les assaisonnements, qu'on n'apprend nulle part ailleurs, et surtout pas en école hôtelière."  

Le reste de l'explication tient dans la méthode Passard.  

1) Etre omniprésent. Contrairement à de nombreux confrères triplement étoilés qui jonglent avec plusieurs adresses, Alain Passard est le chef d'un seul restaurant, ou plutôt d'une "maison de cuisine", comme il l'appelle. Il sait donc tout ce qu'il s'y passe, observe beaucoup, détecte vite ces fameuses "intelligences".  

2) Pratiquer une autorité paternaliste. Nul hasard si les membres de la brigade le surnomment entre eux "Papa". Un "papa" tendre, complice, parfois même blagueur, qui ne hausse jamais le ton. "C'est un personnage incroyable, avec beaucoup de charisme. Dès qu'il entre en cuisine, il magnétise ses équipes avec des remarques et des expressions lyriques qui n'appartiennent qu'à lui", raconte le dessinateur Christophe Blain, qui a longuement fréquenté l'Arpège pour les besoins de sa bande dessinée En cuisine avec Alain Passard (déjà un best-seller, vendu à 35.000 exemplaires).  

 

Il y épingle avec une drôlerie bienveillante les tics de langage du chef: "Gomme ton geste!", "Travaille tes équilibres!" "Va sur tes formes, faut que ce soit beau !" Autant de formules qu'on s'échange comme des private jokes entre commis quand le chef a le dos tourné. "Ce sont comme des cris de ralliement pour vous motiver pendant le coup de feu. Ils sont très imaginatifs, mais suffisamment précis pour vous obliger à respecter le légume, de ses fanes jusqu'à ses racines, à découper un poulet ou un homard différemment, à sonder une cuisson à la beauté de la fumée... Bref, à voir la cuisine autrement", témoigne Anthony Beldroega, second de Passard depuis huit ans (un record!)  

3) Mettre la pression. Un traitement de faveur qu'il réserve aux meilleurs. De Mauro Colagreco, au Mirazur, à Menton, à Jacques Decoret, à Vichy, de Claude Bosi, le Frenchy adulé de l'Hibiscus, à Londres, à la créatrice culinaire Fumiko Kono, à Tokyo, tous les anciens sont unanimes : quand il a repéré un potentiel en vous, il va aller le chercher par tous les moyens possibles, même les pires. Il y a les remarques couperets : "Monsieur, tu régresses!" "Monsieur", "Madame", c'est ainsi qu'il interpelle en cuisine, quand il ne fait pas exprès de se tromper de prénom, façon de manifester son indifférence. Il y a aussi les humiliations en public, qui durent parfois pendant plusieurs jours, voire plusieurs semaines. Quel ancien n'a pas un jour entendu, à ses dépens : "Regardez comme il agresse sa volaille! Il n'a rien compris!" Il y a enfin l'épreuve du dîner test. Régulièrement, sans prévenir, Alain Passard se met à table vers 23h30, après le service, et demande à ses gars de rallumer les feux pour lui servir toute la carte. Officiellement, c'est une façon pour le chef de se mettre à la place du client. Mais en coulisses, personne n'est dupe sur sa volonté de pousser ses équipes dans leurs retranchements. "C'est un chef obsédé par sa propre excellence et il attend la même chose de ses élèves, confie Christophe Blain. Ça fait partie de la légende Passard." 

On ne ressort pas de ce restaurant avec un carnet de recettes mais avec une élégance du geste. (Pascal Barbot) 

La légende Passard. Construite depuis un quart de siècle à deux pas des Invalides. Les médias se sont d'abord extasiés sur le chef rôtisseur, initié aux belles volailles par sa grand-mère Louise. Puis sur le pourfendeur de la viande rouge, à travers ce qu'il appelle "sa rupture avec le tissu animal", en 2001. Sur le virtuose du légume, qui flambe, fume, braise, grille, émince, taille à la mandoline les carottes, radis et tomates cultivés en biodynamie dans ses trois potagers de la Sarthe, de l'Eure et au pied du Mont-Saint-Michel. Sur le créateur de plats passés à la postérité, comme le chaud-froid d'oeuf au sirop d'érable, les aiguillettes de homard au vin jaune ou le saint-pierre aux feuilles de laurier. Sur le dandy séducteur, silhouette filiforme et yeux bleus irradiants, chemise sur mesure, Berluti aux pieds et tablier immaculé. Sur le musicien qui suit son cours quotidien de saxophone avec son ami le jazzman Lionel Belmondo. Sur l'artiste, enfin, dont les collages sont exposés au musée Nissim de Camondo, à Paris. Bref, un gourou, une icône moderne, dont l'influence et le charisme essaiment jusqu'à l'étranger. 

7 mars 2011: Alain Passard reçoit, à Stockholm, le Global Gastronomy Award, prix prestigieux décerné par le White Guide, la bible scandinave des restaurants. Ironie du sort: dans les années 2000, au plus fort de la cuisine moléculaire lancée par le chef catalan Ferran Adria, le créateur parisien était souvent perçu comme un doux rêveur amoureux de ses betteraves, qui faisait sa popote sans aucun matériel sophistiqué. Aujourd'hui, à l'heure où les gourmets réclament un retour à des saveurs moins technologiques, plus authentiques, il est considéré comme une toque visionnaire et écolo par les meilleurs cuisiniers de la planète.  

"Sa contribution à la gastronomie contemporaine est décisive, explique Lars Peder Hedberg, éditeur du White Guide. Sa démarche sur le légume, son attachement à la terre, ses potagers certifiés bio bien avant l'heure ont poussé de nombreux jeunes cuisiniers dans le monde à magnifier la nature dans l'assiette." Ainsi, Bjorn Frantzen, chef, à Stockholm, du restaurant le plus coté de Suède, et Magnus Nilsson, star montante à Järpen, au nord du pays, ont fait leurs gammes à l'Arpège et revendiquent une filiation directe avec le chef français. Daniel Humm, le nouveau chef à trois étoiles de l'Eleven Madison Park, à New York, le tient pour "la référence sur le végétal" et David Kinch, l'une des toques les plus en vue de la région de San Francisco, avoue avoir installé son potager près de son restaurant à la suite d'une "rencontre passionnante" avec lui. Preuve de la stature internationale de Passard: les dizaines de CV qu'il reçoit chaque semaine. "Il y a quelques années, les candidatures étaient surtout françaises et japonaises. Elles nous arrivent aujourd'hui de Corée, d'Amérique du Sud, de Scandinavie, des Etats-Unis..." s'étonne Karima Dubois, l'une des assistantes du chef. Dans le monde entier, travailler à l'Arpège est devenu un label de qualité. 

"Papa" donne beaucoup, demande tout autant, mais n'a pourtant pas la réputation d'être fidèle à ses fils spirituels. Il n'a jamais mis les pieds dans les restaurants de ses ex-disciples, même chez Pascal Barbot, le plus jeune triple-étoilé de France. En juin 2008, il oublie même de répondre à une invitation pour un dîner organisé en son honneur par une brochette de Passard Boys au restaurant mentonnais le Mirazur. Réaction d'Alain Passard: "J'ai suffisamment souffert quand je recevais à dîner M. Senderens [l'un de ses maîtres d'apprentissage] pour ne pas infliger ça à mes anciens élèves. Je me suis fixé pour règle de n'aller dîner chez aucun d'entre eux. C'est une façon de ne pas les juger et de ne pas entraver leur créativité." Le premier des dix commandements affichés près des fourneaux de l'Arpège n'est-il pas "Tu cuisineras l'esprit libre"? 

La famille de l'Arpège 

Le premier de la classe 

Pascal Barbot, l'Astrance, 4, rue Beethoven, Paris (XVIe), 01-40-50-84-40. Les cook-starsCyril Lignac, le Quinzième, 14, rue Cauchy, Paris (XVe), 01-45-54-43-43. Le boulanger Gontran Cherrier, 22, rue Caulaincourt, Paris (XVIIIe), 01-46-06-82-66. La créatrice Fumiko Kono, Tokyo (La Cuisine de Fumiko, Albin Michel). 

La première génération 

Antoine Heerah, le Chamarré Montmartre, 52, rue Lamarck, Paris (XVIIIe) 01-42-55-05-42. Mauro Colagreco, le Mirazur, 30, avenue Aristide-Briand, Menton (Alpes-Maritimes), 04-92-41-86-86. Jacques Decoret, 15, rue du Parc, Vichy (Allier), 04-70-97-65-06. Baptiste Fournier, la Tour, 31 Nouvelle Place, Sancerre (Cher), 02-48-54-11-18. Flora Mikula, ouverture en 2012 d'un hôtel-restaurant boulevard Richard-Lenoir, Paris (XIe). 

Les petits nouveaux 

Sven Chartier, Saturne, 17, rue Notre-Dame-des Victoires, Paris (IIe), 01-42-60-31-90. Bertrand Grébaut, Septime, 80, rue de Charonne, Paris (XIe), 01-43-67-38-29. David Toutain, L'Agapé Substance, 66, rue Mazarine, Paris (VIe), 01-43-29-33-83. Alice Di Cagno, Chatomat, 6, rue Victor-Letalle, Paris (XXe), 01-47-97-25-77 Nicolas Gauduin, Racines 2, 39, rue de l'Arbre-Sec, Paris (Ier), 01-42-60-77-34. 

Les toques étrangères 

Claude Bosi, l'Hibiscus, à Londres (Angleterre). Gunther Hubrechsen, Gunther's, à Singapour. Björn Frantzen, Frantzen/Lindeberg, à Stockholm (Suède). Magnus Nilsson, Fäviken Magasinet, à Järpen (Suède).

- Lexpress.fr 2011-11-10

Foodsnobblog.wordpress.com
l‘Arpège, Paris

l‘Arpège, Paris

l'Arpège

I heard a vicious rumour. At dinner recently, an American couple seated at an adjacent table, having engaged a friend and me in conversation, revealed that they used to eat at l’Arpège, but that was before the chef became a vegetarian.

It was a shocking comment. We were aghast.

In hindsight, however, such statements should not have surprised us; Alain Passard and l’Arpège are two of the least widely known and most misunderstood names in Paris. Furthermore, when either’s mention does elicit a glimmer of recognition it is either for the fact that l’Arpège is the city’s (and so a contender for the world’s) most expensive restaurant or verily for Passard’s vegetarianism. Both of which are incorrect.

It is important to address and redress the most misleading and most influential of these two assertions in more detail – the second. Passard is definitely not a vegetarian and, ironically enough, does not even like the term; he feels that the ‘real malady and unhappiness of vegetables has always been the vegetarian restaurant’. Instead, the chef is a patron and, indeed, prophet of la cuisine légumière.

In January 2001, Alain Passard made the headlines, having declared that ‘my menu will be entirely and exclusively dedicated to vegetables’. His decision was motivated mainly by personal choice, but in part by health concerns too (mad cow disease had reached France the previous year). The chef, having spent thirty years establishing himself as a maître rôtisseur, admitted that he ‘didn’t take any pleasure any more in eating meat’ and that ‘blood and animal flesh’ had stopped being a source of inspiration. The situation became so serious that Passard spent an entire year away from his kitchen, only setting foot in the restaurant to eat. ‘I no longer wanted to be in a daily relationship with the corpse of an animal. I had a moment when I took a roast out into the dining room and the reality struck me that every day I was struggling to have a creative relationship with a corpse, a dead animal. And I could feel inside me the weight and the sadness of the cuisine animale.’

Vegetables were his salvation. He needed new motivation and found it by replacing the raw materials with which he moiled, ‘like an artist who works in watercolours and turns his hand to oils or a sculptor in wood who changes to bronze’. The colours, flavours and perfumes of greens, herbs and flowers appealed to and stimulated him; more to the point, they changed his life. ‘All the terrible nervousness and bad temper that are so much part of the burden of being a chef were gone with the old cooking. I entered into a new relation to my art, but also to my life. And the lightness of what I was doing began to enter my body and my entire existence and it entered into the existence of the kitchen. It was like a light that I saw and a door that I walked through’.

Passard recognised this new vegetable-focused cooking as his ‘renaissance as a chef’ and, to return the favour, he wanted to dedicate himself and his skills to their elevation. However, his consequent, aforesaid abandonment of red meat and its replacement with green veg, was met with scepticism and cynicism: ‘you are offending your colleagues who are still cooking meat’, claimed a caller during a radio interview; ‘is this not an act of blatant opportunism at a time when French farmers and butchers are suffering?’, demanded reporters; contemporaries feared for him; Paul Bocuse professed he was uncertain how Passard would fare, but conceded that ‘perhaps he [could] succeed – that boy certainly has a lot of talent’. Michelin suggested that it was a courageous strategy while he himself realised, ‘I am putting all the cards on the table. Putting myself and my entire career in question. My three stars, the public, my clients’.

Not one for half-measures or hollow gestures, having staked his livelihood on légumes, he dedicated his leisure to them too. 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). In his pursuit of grand cru greens, Passard is in constant contact with horticulturists, farmers and gardeners whilst also reviving heirloom varieties of various vegetables (including thirteen sorts of asparagus). 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. The project’s success has led to the addition of two new farms at Buis sur Darnville and at Baie du Mont-Saint-Michel; the chef can now call on a team of twelve farmers to cultivate a sum of six hectares. His mission, he says, is to encourage people ‘to talk about the carrot the way a sommelier talks about Chardonnay’.

As alluded to earlier, Passard’s repute was primarily built upon a talent for roasting meat and poultry. This he learnt from Louise Passard, his grandmother and also his teacher. It was through her that he developed not only an understanding of how to cook – and form a relationship with the flame – but also how to host and prepare a meal: ‘they’re all her recipes. She gave me everything, taught me what to look for when I made my first purchases, taught me the right cooking times and temperatures.’ Around the hearth, they spoke of the fire and its ability to sculpt the product; the importance of watching and listening to it; and the sensitivity of a cook.

His parents, a musician and dressmaker, lived in La Guerche, Brittany, and their neighbour, the village’s pastry chef, was Passard’s second inspiration. At the tender age of ten, he began to train with him, discovering the ‘rhythm and activity of the laboratory and the evocative qualities of aromas’. At fourteen, he became an apprentice cook at Hotel du Lion d’Or, Liffré under Breton star, Michel Kéréver, learning la cuisine classique and the appreciation of good products. Four years later, he moved to la Chaumière, Reims to work with Gaston Boyer, furthering his classical education whilst studying the art of seasoning and cooking. In 1977, he joined Alain Senderens’ l’Archestrate and enjoyed the most instrumental period of his career. Under Senderens, ‘a perfectionist in constant search of originality’, he discovered his creativity and the power of imagination; it was a ‘baptism of fire’ cooking in a small kitchen, but with a tight team and exceptional atmosphere. Here, he expanded his repertoire of and improved his touch with spices (and possibly picked up his cigar habit too). After three years, he took the reins at le Duc d’Enghien in the northern Parisian suburb of Enghien-les-Bains. Within two years, he had earned two Michelin stars and, not yet twenty-six, became the youngest chef to have ever achieved such a feat. It was during the four years spent at this restaurant that he conceived some of his classics including carpaccio de langoustines and le chaud-froid d’œuf à la ciboulette (the possible precursor to the infamous l’Arpège egg). The next two years saw the chef at le Carlton, Brussels, were he was once more awarded a first and second star successively in that short time. It was not until October 1986, however, that Passard was able to proclaim, ‘je suis chez moi’. Senderens had moved to Lucas Carton and Passard had moved into his mentor’s old home, l’Archestrate. By March of 1998, history repeated itself, a second time, and the newly-named l’Arpège had been visited twice by Michelin within two years; although the chef had to wait eight more, until 1996, to finally win his elusive third star.

For the last twenty years, Passard has devoted his time and efforts to l’Arpège and its success, limiting himself to just a select number of outside business interests that include co-producing moutarde d’Orléans with Jean-François Martin, collaborating with Chrisofle on a line of vegetable-orientated crockery, selling the restaurant’s bread recipe to bakers and writing, with Antoon Krings, a children’s cookbook, « Les Recettes des Drôles de Petites Bêtes ». He also participated in Japan’s Iron Chef competition between 1997 and 1999, where he won considerable acclaim.

Alain Passard’s unique combination of controversy and accomplishment even prompted French business school, INSEAD, to conduct a case study with him as its subject. ‘[He] is a fascinating example of someone who has succeeded by being both highly creative and very efficient in management terms. Much of what [he] has done breaks the rules,’ revealed one professor. The analysis showed that although small in size, located in the ‘culinary desert’ of the 7e, refusing to offer valet parking, eschewing celebrity status and playing down branding, he has not only disproved detractors that expected him to lose his third star, but prospered, created his own supply chain and set himself up as a paradigm for peers.

The l’Arpège appellation immediately lets slip plenty about Passard. The chef chose it above all as a tribute to his musician father (arpège being French for arpeggio), but whilst also bearing in mind that selecting a name beginning with A would cunningly allow him to keep the former resident’s monogrammed crockery.

l'Arpège - la Salle l'Arpège - la Table

The restaurant itself resides near the prime minister’s offices and government ministries, on a quiet street, opposite the Musée Rodin. Without, it is non-descript and unadorned save some flowery script that spells out l’Arpège, but within, the dining room is warm and comfortable. Rich browns and earthy oranges dominate; pear wood panels line the interior; and a dog-eared, burgundy carpet covers the floor. Music is Passard’s second love and the melodious insinuation suggested in the restaurant’s title is maintained by the motif inside: handmade Lalique pâtes de verre, inspired by the carriages of the Orient Express and inset along the far wall, depict Pan playing the flute whilst frolicking with two naked nymphs (images mimicked on menu covers); an abstract split cello sculpture by Arman sits in one corner; a coarsely-carved wooden guitar grows out the serving station; and, upon Bernard Pictet windows, etched waves ripple. This undulating design is also incorporated into Jean-Christophe Plantrou’s peau de poirier panelling and Massacar ebony furniture pieces. Rich, red leather upholstered chrome seats and chariots as well as the various bucolic bibelots such as large desiccated gourds or little twig bundles that rest upon tables, play on art déco principles. The only presence on the room’s walls is the nineteen-thirties/forties portrait of Louise Passard, which watches over the ‘chef’s chair’. White linen tabletops are dressed with bright red cover plates, Bernaudaud crockery, Christofle cutlery and customised glassware inscribed ‘Fabrique pour Alain Passard’.

l'Arpège - ALC l'Arpège - Menu 'Arpège de truffe' l'Arpège - Menu 'l'Hiver des jardins'

This was my third visit to the restaurant and, as I had not ordered from, let alone held, the l’Arpège menu on the previous two, I decided not to break what was fast becoming a rewarding habit. My second time here had only been two weeks ago, when Aaron, his brother and I had enjoyed an excellent meal (highlights included damier de radis pastèque et coquilles Saint-Jacques d’Erquy; huile de noisette and couteau avec poireau, échalote et ail), so Hélène Cousin, maîtresse d’hôtel, was already aware of my preferences and offered that the chef arrange something. For the record, none of the dishes from the previous occasion, besides the signature egg and one other, were repeated.

l'Arpège - Amuse Bouche 1- les Tartelettes: Mousseline de betterave et vinaigre balsamique; et mousseline de poire avec carotte jaune et praliné de noisette 2

Amuse Bouche 1: les Tartelettes – Mousseline de betterave et vinaigre balsamique; et mousseline de poire avec carotte jaune et praliné de noisette. To tease the taste buds, a quartet of tartlets in two varieties arrived. Two pastry cup couples, symmetrically similar but constructed with contrasting components, carried the classic pairing of beetroot and balsamic vinegar and the less common one of pear, carrot and hazelnut. The former, formed with a mound of beet mousseline mounted by a smaller disc of albina vereduna (white beetroot) topped with a drop of balsamic, was sugary and earthy with a touch of sharpness. The latter, with pear mousse, yellow carrot chip and hazelnut nugget, was sweet, herby and nutty.

l'Arpège - le Pain et Beurre

Le Pain et Beurre: Pain de campagne; le Beurre Bordier. Excellent, thick slices of slightly warm, slightly sour, homemade country bread, with an open crumb, had rustic crunch, soft, fluffy centre and nice seasoning. As toothsome as this was though, the beurre de baratte – from Jean-Yves Bordier of St. Malo – was simply terrific, actually it is the best butter I have ever had. Sculpted into a semi-circle and standing on one side (Bordier has a customised shape for each restaurant he supplies), it was creamy, spreadable and saturated with sel de Guérande, the hand-harvested sea salt considered the finest in the world. This butter is addictive.

l'Arpège - Amuse Bouche 2: Oeuf à la coque; quatre épices l'Arpège - Amuse Bouche 2: Oeuf à la coque; quatre épices 2

Amuse Bouche 2: Oeuf à la coque; quatre épices. An egg from the ferme de Bigottière in the eponymous little village of the Loire, diligently decapitated and its white drained off to leave only the unbroken yolk within its shell, was simmered in a water bath until just before the yellow could set; it was then sprinkled with chives and quatre épices prior to the addition of a little crème fraîche with aged Jerez vinegar, smidgen of Canadian maple syrup and fleur de sel to finish. There was a deft drama here; the first, ginger, shallow spoonful was sour and pungent owing to the fresh cream and spices, but once one had summed up the courage to plunge down into the egg fully, bursting the yellow and allowing it to blend with and bind all the elements altogether, the taste was transformed. The warm, runny yolk itself was intense, but balanced by the whipped cream, light and barely bitter, with aid of the sherry vinegar’s acidity, whilst together, the two soothed the syrup’s deep, smoky sweetness as the four spices – clove, nutmeg, white pepper and ginger – added aroma and exaggerated the flavours already there with their own sharp, bittersweet woodiness.

This signature, humbly presented in an elegant, but basic, silver egg-holder sat upon two plain, porcelain plates, a smaller superimposed upon a larger and each unadorned except for a thin, red rim, is an archetypal amuse: it has harmonious yet exciting savour; simplicity and complexity; contrasts and variation in texture and taste; the demonstration of technique, humour and creativity; an arresting dynamism; as well as of course quality ingredients. More to the point, it awoke and provoked the palate.

l'Arpège - Bouquet de turbot de Bretagne au miel du jardin « récolte été 2008 »; vinaigre de Xérès l'Arpège - Bouquet de turbot de Bretagne au miel du jardin « récolte été 2008 »; vinaigre de Xérès 2

Entrée 1: Bouquet de turbot de Bretagne au miel du jardin « récolte été 2008 »; vinaigre de Xérès. Bréton turbot, grilled then cooled and swimming in a sticky sauce of honey infused with peanut oil and lime, had been blanketed with four wafer-thin, cross-sections of black radish, then freshly peppered at the table with more of the sauce making a bucolic boundary around the bouquet. The initial taste of the honey, harvested the previous summer in Passard’s own organic garden, was delicious – strong, sweet, zingy, tart and nearly nutty, this was a heady and complex combination. The firm slices of radish, still crisp, offered a hint of heat and textural distinction. Moist yet firm turbot had great flavour, its delicate marine sweetness complimented and countered simultaneously by the aigre-doux sauce, whose nicely viscous nature meant it coated each meaty morsel pleasingly. Pepper provided another individual accent.

l'Arpège - Parmentier des légumes du jardinier

Entrée 2: Parmentier des légumes du jardinier. Presented in matching manner to the Arpège egg – starkly but assuredly in an alabaster ramekin atop two concentric plates – a potted pie came with an enticingly crumbly, rusty gamboge crust of semolina and crushed black pepper. The cuillère, penetrating its cover, uncovered a thick, pale gold vegetable purée composed of parsnip, beetroot and radish; further excavation exposed a narrower, darker foundation of confit chestnut and oignon doux de cévennes. Airy, light and earthy-sweet, the upper layer was like whipped cream. Beneath this, the melted down chestnut and sweet cévennes onions, were much sweeter and had a stringy yet more unctuous consistency. This was clearly a witty makeover of traditional hachis parmentier or shepherd’s pie – basically, mashed potato over minced meat and onions – but missing the meat.

l'Arpège - Gnocchis multicolores; quaternaire au beurre noisette l'Arpège - Gnocchis multicolores; quaternaire au beurre noisette 2

Entrée 3: Gnocchis multicolores; quaternaire au beurre noisette. A quaternary of colourful, chubby gnocchi of beetroot, smoked parsnip and parsnip pair, were presented resting in Bordier beurre noisette and garnished with Parmigiano-Reggiano and sage. A lovely, herby odour emanated from the dish. The beetroot pasta was like a thick pâté of well-balanced sugary-earthiness. The parsnip trio was lighter and grainer, each dissolving on the tongue. The smoked example was just that while the plain parsnip twosome had delicate vegetal-sugariness. The butter sauce was obviously delicious; parmesan had a touch of sharpness and depth; and musky sage, a faint spiciness.

l'Arpège - Huître poché; truffe noire de Périgord et cerfeuil l'Arpège - Huître poché; truffe noire de Périgord et cerfeuil - ouvert

Entrée 4: Cerfeuil à l’huître de l’archipel de Chausey; truffe noire de Périgord. A single shelled oyster Marenne d’Oléron, in almost alternating shades of grey and copper, came casually bound with bow-tied string and sitting on a dune of coarse sel de Guérande. Visual senses surfeit, the loop was loosened and lid lifted to disclose an oyster that had been shucked, replaced and then poached in olive oil, before being dressed with a slice of black truffle and sprigs of lacy chervil. A fresh whiff of the sea immediately impressed. The sizeable and succulent shellfish’s savour was sweet and salty with clean, short linger; it also had a faint nutty note that was in quiet concord with the fainter truffle whilst the chervil added herby freshness.

l'Arpège - Sushi légumiers à la moutarde d’Orléans oncteuse; turbot de Bretagne et d’écrevisses l'Arpège - Sushi légumiers à la moutarde d’Orléans oncteuse; turbot de Bretagne et d’écrevisses 2

Entrée 5: Sushi légumiers à la moutarde d’Orléans oncteuse; turbot de Bretagne et d’écrevisses. Resting amidst marjoram leaves, its long stems and dainty drizzles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, two rice-paper-wrapped packages of cauliflower, black radish and regular radish julienne, seasoned with a midge of Orléans mustard, were crowned with turbot and crayfish respectively. Each bundle boasted crunchy, peppery, earthy vegetables gently spiced. Both specimens had distinct, fine flavour; the mustard coming through especially with the turbot piece. Vinegar livened up the plate with its sugary acidity as did the marjoram’s subtle citrus. The savours were pure and delicious, light and refreshing.

l'Arpège - Fines ravioles potagères; consommé végétal

Entrée 6: Fines ravioles potagères; consommé végétal. Next it was a quintet of ravioles, each with a wrinkled skin wrapping various finely-diced vegetable fillings, floating in a translucent, saffron-shaded consommé of celery root. The soup within which these wonton-like parcels were submerged was refreshing, precise and pure. Ravioles, common to the Drôme and Isère, were created when Italian loggers from Piémont, adapting their traditional meat-filled ravioli to their new, more limited means, crafted smaller pastas from turnip sheets that they stuffed with vegetables or fresh cheese. Now customarily eaten at Easter, when meat is forbidden, Passard applies an Eastern twist to the dish, serving them in a clear vegetal broth. All had thin, almost see-through casings that melted in the mouth. The rendering of black radish with horseradish had mustardy, sweet heat; chestnut, crumby, sweet earthiness; the celery was light and crunchy; endive, perky; and cabbage, crisp and mild. 

l'Arpège - Tagliatelles de céleri-rave et risotto à la truffe noire; herbes fines

Entrée 7: Tagliatelles de céleri-rave et risotto à la truffe noire; herbes fines. Filigree-like, thick threads of counterfeit tagliatelle, actually composed of celeriac, were surrounded by a shallow emulsion of moutarde d’Orléans and stippled with parmesan and fines herbes. For the first time today, I was served something I had already tried the previous week, so I decided to tease Hélène about it, pointing out to her this was a repeated dish and, not only that, but before it had come with black truffle. She took it in good humour, but returned moments later. Not empty handed. A bowl of parmesan risotto replete with truffle was set besides my plate of pretend pasta.

l'Arpège - Tagliatelles de céleri-rave à la truffe noire; herbes fines l'Arpège - Tagliatelles de céleri-rave à la truffe noire; herbes fines 2

Al dente root ribbons yielded subtly to bite, but still had satisfying crunch; their gentle nuttiness hit a note with the strong parmesan. The Orléans mustard sauce was frothy yet forthright with agreeable spiciness. This condiment is manufactured from a medieval recipe, which Passard and Jean-François Martin, an Orléans vinegar-maker, have saved from disappearance. It consists of mustard seed, sel de Guérande, Martin-Pouret vinegar, honey and Chadonnay and is made by traditional, machine-less methods.

l'Arpège - Risotto à la truffe noire; herbes fines

The risotto was reminiscent of savoury rice pudding; it was extremely creamy with a very slight sweetness. The truffle, with its full fungal fragrance and effect, was in harmony with the rich hazelnut and olive oil dressing whilst the ivory Arborio grains melted away immediately upon ingestion.

l'Arpège - Betterave en croûte de sel gris de Guérande; vinaigre balsamique

Entrée 8: Betterave en croûte de sel gris de Guérande; vinaigre balsamique. From a whole golden beetroot – albina vereduna – that had been baked in a crust of sel de Guérande, broken out then carved, a solitary quarter was dished upon a dribble of twelve-year old balsamic vinegar. This was so simple and superbly subtle yet so confident and utterly emphatic. The supple centre of the succulent, sweet beet had been coarsely, though consummately, cut from its saltier, earthier skin, within which it was now cradled. The conflicting intrinsic character of the ingredient itself, the silky lustre of its soft flesh in stark comparison to its rough, harsh rind, was masterfully manipulated. Such internecine distinction was sharpened and cultivated with the addition of the acidic, fruity sweet, aged vinegar that loitered on the tongue.

l'Arpège - Côte de porc en croûte de sel gris de Guérande

I cursed my luck in between this course and the next as the day’s ‘special’ was wheeled out and showed off to the crowded room. There was seated, on a shiny silver chariot and atop a considerable silver serving platter, côte de porc in sea salt crust with its coral-like crackling glistening. An entire rack of pork, none of which I could have….

Shortly after the pig’s pageant, Passard sneaked out the kitchen. Dressed in customary colourful neckerchief and denim jeans under his chef’s whites, he greeted his guests.

l'Arpège - Brioche de légumes à la moutarde d’Orléans onctueuse; ouef de caille

Entrée 9: Brioche de légumes à la moutarde d’Orléans onctueuse; ouef de caille. Toasted, buttered brioche bearing a plump, terra cotta coloured patty of chopped legumes – beetroot, radish and turnip – was topped with parmesan and finished with fried quail egg; alongside lay a careful squirt of beetroot mousse. The warmth of the vegetables had begun melting the cheese whilst the egg, as if its yolk were pricked on purpose just before presentation, started to dribble over this cheeky, bogus burger to which the beet purée played the ketchup. The melange of veg had a pasty, thick texture and peppery, savoury relish. The unctuous, toothsome quail egg, creamier than that of hen, was cut through by the light but tartly-sweet beetroot.

l'Arpège - Coquilles Saint-Jacques d’Erquy à l’unilatérale; chou et thé vert « Ashikubo Sencha »

Plat Principal: Coquilles Saint-Jacques d’Erquy à l’unilatérale; chou et thé vert « Ashikubo Sencha ». Prepared à la plancha, a pair of scallops from Brittany, still attached to their shells, were interlaid with draping leaves of cabbage, steeped in Ashikubo Sencha, and thin cross-sections of shinrimei; the chou’s matcha sauce was also mizzled over the shellfish. This was a feast for the eyes and I allowed mine to enjoy it: shellfish and cabbage in matching shades of creamy white, and radishes, with starburst magenta middles and dark emerald edges, all smeared with a gentle green that collected in pastel puddles around each Saint-Jacques, in the shallow impression of their particular shuck, which themselves, both alabaster at large, were adumbrated mahogany before burnt umber towards their tips. Erquy scallops, arguably the finest France has to offer, were fat and well-flavoured, but I admit I would have preferred them a touch less done, although they were evenly cooked and still dissembled willingly in the mouth. Excellent cabbage that had bite to it was coated in thick tea that nicely and fully infused the leaves; the attractive radish, an heirloom variety of daikon, was mildly sweet with a pinch of pepperiness. The sauce of premium sencha, dried in the traditional way with wood fire, was complex and interesting. It was distinct and definite, but muted with a very mellow, woody astringency, faint vegetal-grassiness and subtle bittersweetness. Its consistency – fluid yet with a dense, almost starchy aftertaste – also intrigued.

l'Arpège - le Fromage l'Arpège - Le Fromage - Comté de Garde Exceptionnelle september 2004; Bernard Antony

Le Fromage: Comté de Garde Exceptionnelle september 2004; Bernard Antony. Alsatian maître affineur, Bernard Anthony’s famous four-year old comté, freshly shaved from the huge muele that is wheeled about the room on its own petrified wood tray and chariot, was a must. This is, in my opinion, the world’s greatest cheese. Anthony, first discovered by Alain Ducasse, started aging cheeses in 1982, after meeting Paris’ most eminent affineur of the day, Pierre Androuët who encouraged him to set up his own cave in Vieux-Ferrette. Today he has four and simply refuses to purvey his wares to anyone but the best; this comté is his masterpiece. Intensely yellow, aromatic wafers come riddled with crystals that effervesce with concentrated cheese essence. Creamy yet dry, they evaporate on the tongue, exploding with strong flavour that lingers long on the palate. I have never found anything quite like it. Delicious.

l'Arpège - Millefeuille « caprice d’enfant » l'Arpège - Millefeuille « caprice d’enfant » 2

Dessert 1: Millefeuille « caprice d’enfant ». A capricious construct, composed of thick, thin, then thick again, rusty tiers of pâte feuilletée caramélisée, each punctuated by bold, brimming billows of crème pâtissière noisette, came crowned with a final few sheets of pastry powdered with icing sugar. Served without any accompaniment, naked in the centre of an empty plate, this dessert exuded confidence; impressing with both its munificent measure and its complete physical dominance of the dish. Incredibly crispy, light and flaky, each bite broke the pastry into a thousand tasty fragments. The subtle, creamy mousse, like praline chantilly, was rich without being heavy. Each mouthful of millefeuille overwhelmed with a wealth of textures and sweet, nutty savours.

At this point, Hélène wandered over once more, ‘so, how is it going? Have you enjoyed your meal?’ Stretched out and slouching in my chair, my Cheshire cat grin was sufficient affirmation for her. ‘If there is any room,’ she began, but I had already sat up and started nodding, ‘mais bien sûr!’ ‘In that case, I think there is something in the kitchen…’ She was out of sight for but briefly, before returning with the following.

l'Arpège - Île flottante moka-mélisse; caramel au lait l'Arpège - Île flottante moka-mélisse; caramel au lait 2

Dessert 2: Île flottante moka-mélisse; caramel au lait. A stout yet shapely couple of coffee sorbet quenelles, buoyant on bright yellow lemon balm crème anglaise, were laced with lashings of caramel syrup. The sorbet, which were substituted for customary meringue in this île flottante, had the most interesting texture; ice cold, astonishingly airy, ready to dissolve in the warmth of the mouth and with an almost fizzy vibrancy. The roasted smokiness of the coffee was distinct, but the strength, well-judged; lemon balm custard bath had an exotic sweet spiciness that teased the palate; whilst the caramel au lait had a light, honeyed richness.

l'Arpège - Petit Fours et Café

Petit Fours: Sucerie; 3 macarons du jardin. Presented upon a small linen-layered sterling tray, petit fours comprised palmiers à la badiane, nougats aux betteraves, petite tartes aux pommes and macarons of beetroot, coffee-parsnip and apple. Heart-shaped, baked puff pastry were crunchy, grainy and tasted of dark, sugary liquorice. Surprisingly nice beet nougat had very strong, even earthy, nuttiness. The assortment of macarons were good; apple had big, saccharine acidity; beetroot was clear, complex and full-flavoured; and coffee-parsnip had vegetal sweetness and mild, maybe too much so, mocha essence.

l'Arpège - l'Addition

In my experience, which has been solely under Hélène Cousin’s stewardship, the service here has always been superb. As maîtresse d’hôtel, she is charming and welcoming, engaging and obliging. In addition, it is evident that she is an effective and efficient task-master, running a proficient, professional and tight team that seem always on the move, but always there when needed. Nadia, her able lieutenant, is persistently more helpful and knowledgable than expected whilst showing a touching recollection for one’s likes/dislikes. Friendly, well-informed and genuinely considerate, Sylvestre and Dav, who also looked after me, were also excellent. It might be argued that the fact that the front-of-house is directed by a feminine hand means that there is a grace and consideration to service that escapes some more macho establishments. Another attribute of l’Arpège’s staff that I find especially endearing is their generosity; the diner’s pleasure is of paramount concern with meals more often that not customised to suit palate and pocket. One can also sense a mutual pride amongst them for their chef’s creations, patent by the wish that the guest shares this fondness and embodied by efforts to that end.

Today’s meal was creative, satisfying and delicious. Each course pleased and teased, from the customary tarts, egg and brilliant bread and butter through to desserts. Bouquet de turbot tantalised the taste buds; the parmentier was as indulgent a vegetable dish as I could imagine; whilst the gnocchi were very good. The poached oyster and the sushi were a sight to behold and received with tremendous excitement, but the fact that the coquilles Saint-Jacques were cooked a little more than I prefer is the only detail that prevents me declaring this experience as technically faultless. l’Arpège’s comté is quite simply the greatest cheese I have ever had while the millefeuille was a very tasty treat and very messy fun to eat.

I must confess Passard’s cooking leaves an immensely moving impression on me; I struggle to name another chef – except possibly Bernaud Pacaud, albeit in an utterly different, almost opposite manner – whose food I find even as emotive as his. It is, as it is with all things sentimental, difficult to qualify and even more to articulate how or why. But I will naively try.

The food appeals to all and every sense.

First, there is the visual and at l’Arpège there is a raw aesthetic I have never seen matched. The chef’s artistic esprit is expressed acutely through impeccable elements, minimalist in number maybe, but full in colour and vitality. Passard believe in the single perfect gesture and this faith has great effect. Presented upon red-rimmed, bright white plates, golden yellows, pastel greens, vivid oranges and rich burgundies dot, splash or pepper a blank canvas, always leaving exposed some immaculate ivory, with which, the contents’ chromatic contrast creates a stark and bold reaction. There is almost an austerity and gravitas in this distinction and juxtaposition between dish and food – white against colour, empty against filled, crockery against contents – that has the potential to shock as much as it does intrigue and excite the diner and their fantasy.

There have been several moments when I have been left at a loss for words by the very serving and sight of a course. From my first meal, it was the epinards palco fanés au beurre noisette; carotte à l’orange. To some this dish of just a few strands of spinach, quenelle of carrot mousseline and smidge of lemon confit would have been enough to warrant complaint and criticism for its superficial simplicity, but it arrested my attention from first bite to last and left me speechless, or at least refusing to speak. Today, it was the huître poché; truffe noire de Périgord et cerfeuil, followed in swift succession by the sushi légumiers à la moutarde d’Orléans oncteuse. Both were unpredicted – never having received nor even seen or read of oysters in any form and anything so essentially exotic being served here before – and both were stunning. The former, a single unadulterated shell, stringed together, sitting on a small stack of sea salt in imitation of its native ecology, almost brutally beautiful in its pure and primitive, streaked shades of white, grey, blue and brown; whilst the latter, like a plate of little creatures, alive and crawling through sylvan-esque leaves, stirred me with avidity and interest.

Secondly, it is one’s imagination and intellect that are satiated. This aim is achieved with the use of humour, boldness, wit, suspense and surprise. To start with the last of these tools first, on a fundamental level and a personal one, remembering that I have always favoured letting the house serve me what it wishes, my overall enjoyment has been heightened by not knowing what dish or in fact how many dishes will come.

Then there is Passard’s panache and flair, his creative and culinary genius to contend with. This is most keenly felt via his valuable vegetables. The meat main course as the culinary climax to a meal is a custom few chefs refuse to follow. Here, however, regular viande rouge is not an option, but though this may be the case, no red meat is no loss and its presence is never missed. Instead, the chef capitalises on diners’ acculturation to or expectations of a meaty acme with the at times subtle, sometimes startling, but always effective substitution of vegetables for flesh. Examples of this abound from today alone. The brioche de légumes was its most blatant display, but there was the parmentier as well, which although traditionally made with beef, was improved here with mixed roots. Consider the infamous betterave en croûte too; arriving buried and baked within a firm saline skin, like a rack of lamb has for centuries been, as the salty crust is broken open, a single, basic beet manifests itself in mild mockery of its muscly predecessor. Then, as the meal nears its end, a sharp Laguiole– the generic haute gastronomic gesture that the meat is coming – is set down, but instead, the diner’s brainwashing becomes the butt of toothsome tomfoolery and the finest cheese or a surprisingly classic dessert appears. The fun does not stop there. Merely eliminating meat from the menu or showing flesh to be frivolous is not sufficient; Passard seeks to prove that vegetables can be great and, to do this, he strives to show that they can also be enough. Thus, after remaking such meaty recipes, he turns to carbohydrates, revealing rice and pasta as passé: celeriac is cut into thick strands of tagliatelle; risottos are replicated with grains of graven radish; and potato (technically still a starch, but in the ground at least) is reproduced as thin, loose strings of spaghetti.

Thirdly – and bear in mind, one has not even had a taste yet – it is one’s sense of smell that is seduced. With produce of such superior standard and piping hot plates, served by serveurs/serveuses holding napkins to protect their hands – in a manner that invokes the home – the aroma of each course is clear, distinct and mouth-watering. The heat encourages these natural, warming odours whilst the frequent feature of flowers, herbs and spices simply strengthen the effect.

Fourthly and finally, one samples the savours. Fashioned from the freshest and finest gifts that the season offers, flavours are clean, precise and honest, but above all, appetising. Passard is a master of texture and contrast, championing and challenging his ingredients each to accomplish what some chefs might select several to do. Where others require four, five or more different products to vary taste, consistency or add a dynamic aspect, Passard needs just a single or maybe couple of components. Alliums, for example, he uses expertly, exploiting their intrinsic layers to change each mouthful, renewing the eater’s curiosity with each new bite. He serves the first asparagus of the season with citronelle, taking advantage of the inherent sweet and bitter variance within the very vegetable, magnifying both sides of the flavour spectrum with the complimentary and conflicting tastes of caramelised garlic and lemongrass, thus amplifying what nature already provides and making a plate laden with only a couple of spears of asparagus worthy of a three-star dining room.

Additional favoured arms in the l’Arpège arsenal include vin jaune, oak-smoking, moutarde d’Orléans and aigre-doux – using elements such as honey, lime, lemon, pine nut oil, soy and balsamic vinegar separately or often together – to liven sauces, introduce some spice and stimulate the palate with their complex savours.

For the last twenty years, the chef has followed those first examples set forth by his grandmother, using his eyes and his ears, listening to the flame and slowly, gently cooking – ‘il faut aussi apprendre à maîtriser le feu afin qu’il n’agresse jamais mais plutôt qu’il caresse’. Steaming, frying in a wok and even using ovens are outlawed in his kitchen for ‘being far too aggressive…ruining colour and perfume…and drying everything out’ respectively. Here, the temperature of the pan is capped at 100ºC; poultry is cooked on the stove over the lowest possible heat in almost no liquid (except for some salted Bordier butter), turned by hand, the skin never broken, for a couple of hours; and chefs grill in salamanders set at eye level, where the heat is easier to control. These meticulous methods really do yield special results – it was during my initial time at chez Passard that I tasted the turbot and lobster that are both now the benchmarks by which all other renditions of those two ingredients are judged.

Passard promotes the relationship between chef and ingredient, which he feels has been lost through the modern use of gas and electric cookers, and urges his staff to use all their senses whilst at the stove – ‘it becomes a meditation and the kitchen, a place of listening’. As he regards cooking to be the work of the ear, he so considers it, by extension, a cousin to music. Thus, taking into account that he himself is a saxophonist and lover of jazz (in particular John Coltrane), any sort of discussion about l’Arpège is impossible without any mention of music as well as art, which together are inseparable from and underpin the restaurant’s philosophy and both of which are personified by the man, the cuisine and even by the dining room.

Passard’s own style clearly shares characteristics in common with his favourite musical form; both are creative, expressive and innovative. Whilst traditional chefs were still singing the blues, he was making it up as he went along, improvising on the off-beat – others focused on the flesh, whereas he played with forgotten vegetables. As his cooking can be symbolised by syncopation, so can his restaurant by a polyrhythm. The front-of-house and kitchen, each almost independent, marching to the beat of two bands, come together to form a harmonious whole. And the musical analogy is easily extendable with Passard playing the ‘composer’; his ingredients the ‘instruments’; flavours, textures and scents his ‘quavers, crotchets, minims and semibreves’; and so on.

From the décor further inferences may be made by the open-minded and interested eater, explicitly that the essence of l’Arpège and the very animus of the chef are encapsulated and expounded within the length and breadth of the building. Melody and the garden, Passard’s other passions, again come to the fore: a guitar grows out the pear wood; Greek figures dance and make music on the walls; the menu is laced with musical iconography; and the very name that sits above the door sings volumes. More subtly or subliminally, the space is constructed from curves, circles and rounded edges in subconscious reflection of an artist’s open and free spirit, famously opposed to strict rules and parameters, and thus, straight lines and definite edges. Then there is Passard’s affection for his crops and the countryside, which has brought the garden quietly into his home: the walls, wrapped in wavy wooden boards, imitate the trees or maybe fence that invariably borders the jardin; a mural, like those more commonly found outdoors, is painted between the two windows that look out upon the street and shows the chef carrying his produce in his hands; atop tables, replicas from the vegetable patch are set; and this green theme extends to the earthy brown hues of the room and even the chariots that have been fashioned from wood. Then again, these may just be the musings of an overactive imagination.

l’Arpège appeals and agrees with me on every level, but it is of course not perfect, or at least, not to everyone’s taste. There does appear to be a pattern that suggests those arriving later might receive meats/poultry that have been cooked longer than their liking – and this may have something to do with Passard’s own preference for the well-cooked. There is also undeniably at times a seeming chaos to the place – dishes arriving almost at random; staff entering/exiting the kitchen through a set of black doors that require a swift kick to open; such swift kicks that often lead to those same doors swinging into colleagues; a din from within suggesting anything other than concord and a careful listening to the flame and hob…

The first difficulty can be solved by simply arriving earlier, but the second is a matter of preference. Some are just naturally more at ease with a Ducassian discipline or would rather dine in a more refined, formal setting, such as one would find at l’Ambroisie. However, although disconcerting to a few, this absence of strict structure renders the experience only more interesting to others and, actually, makes the simple, careful, harmonious marriage of flavours that finally arrives all the more remarkable. It is indeed a compliment to Hélène, who conducts service sublimely and gives the impression that, without her, l’Arpège could not be l’Arpège. She is the rational, cautious force that allows Passard to express his artistic liberty and license without worry.

Whatever the individual’s exception (and it usually does revolve around a disbelief that a meal of mainly vegetables can be worth the cost on the carte) it seems that l’Arpège gets only one chance to enchant a diner. If it disappoints them on that one encounter, then the restaurant will probably never see them again. If, on the other hand, it impresses, it has gained a lifelong fan.

Each of my own experiences at l’Arpège has offered wonder, excitement and festivity. There is an atmosphere here that is hard to equal and impossible to replicate: the restaurant itself is warm and comforting; the staff welcoming; and Passard, at its centre, adds easiness, affection and whimsy to it all. Peaking through the kitchen door, greeting guests, smiling at some, giving others a tender squeeze of the shoulder as he walks past – his very presence disarms and charms those in his dining room.

Passard’s cooking is the cuisine de couleur. Light, bright and vibrant, it is born from a love of food, art, music and of life. This same spirit is embodied in all that is l’Arpège, which itself seems simply an extension of the chef’s own home and indeed of his own self. Each meal, each dish and every bite is a celebration; it is comforting, fulfilling…and it is nourishing.

- Foodsnobblog.wordpress.com

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The happiest corner on earth

The happiest corner on earth

If good food is to be celebrated, then there is much too little mirth at the high end of gastronomy these days. And, it seems that the more you spend, the more sombre the scene, the more severe the service.

At their best, meals should be fun and delicious, a party for one or for many. Alain Passard understands this. At his restaurant l’Arpege in Paris, there’s a lightheartedness about the dining room that betrays its Michelin stars and its status as one of the best restaurants in the world. It’s unexpectedly breezy, shockingly spartan. Here, the focus is on the quality of the ingredients, which is extremely high, and the cooking, which is daringly simple.

At its best, the food at l’Arpege is unbeatable. And if the company around your table is good, then yours is surely one of the happiest corners on earth.

 

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l'Arpege

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I have heard that the quality of a meal at l’Arpege hinges on whether Passard is in the kitchen and how well you know him or his staff. This is worth noting, because quite a few people I know have had mixed experiences there – regulars and tourists alike.

But I can only vouch for my own visits to the restaurant.

The first time I ate at l’Arpege, my friend and I were treated well enough. More significantly, the food was different from anything else I had ever had. Of it, I wrote: “…it takes you on a journey back to childhood, when things were mysterious, yet simple. Passard’s food moved me back to a place and time that I had forgotten; a place devoid of pretense, a time when dishes weren’t dotted and dashed in Morse code, and a world where food tasted like it’s supposed to taste. This is how l’Arpege changed my life.”

But, as extraordinary as that meal was, I left convinced that I hadn’t experienced the best of what Passard has to offer.

So, on my recent trip to Europe, l’Arpege topped the list of restaurants I most wanted to revisit in Paris. This time, I returned as a guest of Bruno Verjus, a regular at l’Arpege and a good friend of Passard’s. At Bruno’s table, there was no menu. And afterwards, I saw no bill.

Over the course of five hours, here is what the kitchen sent out to us for lunch:

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1st Course
l’Oeuf Parfait
Truffe noir.

2nd Course
Raviole au Canard

3rd Course
Betteraves et Carottes au Violettes

4th Course
Carpaccio des St. Jacques
Radis, matcha.

5th Course
Endive avec le Coraille de Homard

6th Course
Coquilles St. Jacques a la Cote d’Emeraud a la Truffe Noir

7th Course
Salade d’Epinard
Truffe noir, soya.

8th Course
Cabillaud
Betterave, celeri.

9th Course
Langue de Veau
Truffe noir, panais.

10th Course
Veau
Puree de celeri-rave, l’ognion.

11th Course
Canard avec le Caviar
Pommes de terre fume.

12th Course
Comte de Garde Exceptionelle Millesime 2007

13th Course
Mille-feuille

14th Course
Crème Brûlée de Celeri-Rave

15th Course
Paris-Brest
Chantilly au raifort.

16th Course
Poire
Pochee en vin rouge, glace vanille.

17th Course
Mont Blanc
Chantilly au raifort.

Petits Fours

-

Domaine Hauvette, “Dolia,” 2007

Domaine Prieure Roch, Clos de Beze, 2000

Arbois Pupillin, Maison Pierre Overnoy, 1998

 

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1st Course: l'Oeuf Parfait

* * *

Passard is a minimalist, a luxury he can afford given the incredible ingredients he gets, most of which come from his biodynamic farm near Le Mans. His food is stripped so bare that some accuse him of hardly cooking at all.

He takes vegetables, fish, and meat to varying levels of doneness in order to achieve a desired flavor or texture. Sometimes, this means doing nothing at all. But in everything, he juxtaposes ingredients in the most fantastic and unexpected ways.

At our lunch, he shaved raw watermelon radishes over raw scallops and dusted them with matcha and crumbles of raw cauliflower florets (“Carpaccio des St. Jacques“) – a showcase for shades of natural sweetness: earthy, briney, grassy, and nutty. The blushing, paper-thin coins of radishes and the crumbled cauliflower added a crispy snap as well. This was an incredible composition.

Fleshy, baby spinach leaves he tossed with fresh black truffles, which shared a deeply satisfying earthiness with the soy sauce in the salad’s vinaigrette (“Salade d’Epinard“). This was simple, yet spectacular.

Sometimes, gently heating ingredients just beyond their natural state was Passard’s method of achieving the ideal.

It’s pretty gutsy for a chef to call his food “perfect.” But, there it was – the “perfect egg” – Passard’s opening volley to our lunch (“l’Oeuf Parfait“). Suspended in that magical state between raw and cooked, the wobbly orb arrived an opaque dome of white wrapped around a warm, runny yolk. The egg was set on a light cream sauce heavily flecked with black truffles. Where the mild flavor of the egg ended, the aroma of the truffles began, each respecting the other’s space – together, they were perfect.

* * *

Canard au Caviar

* * *

For me, two dishes at our lunch stood above the rest.

A silver bowl of beets and carrots infused with violet might have been our collective favorite (“Betteraves et Carottes au Violettes“). The root vegetables, tender and fleshy, were incredibly sweet with natural sugars and carried the slightest floral finish. They tasted as beautiful as they looked.

The other was a gorgeous strip of duck meat, pink and juicy, lined with caviar (“Canard avec le Caviar“). Passard said that the caviar helped magnify the gaminess of the meat. He was absolutely right. The amazing texture of the duck aside, the flavor was incredible – rich and bold; a departure from the mostly delicate flavors that we experienced otherwise. Served with the duck were smoked canons of waxy potatoes.

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Domaine Prieure Roch, Clos de Beze, 2000

* * *

Although Passard is best known for his vegetable cookery, he does amazing things with fish and meat as well. At this lunch, we had a beautifully cooked piece of cod, served with a creamy sauce and a fine puree of beets and celery. There was a quartet of delicate ravioli stuffed with duck meat, and tender pieces of veal tongue served with a diced parsnips. At the end, a candy-sweet, roasted baby onion arrived beside an impossible juicy slice of veal rump that had been lightly smoked. This last dish came with a wonderful puree of celeriac.

We agreed that our least favorite dish was the only one we got off the regular menu. It was a sliced sea scallop, frilled with black truffles to look like a pineapple (“Coquilles St. Jacques a la Cote d’Emeraud a la Truffe Noir“). It was a novel sight, but lacked flavor or character.

Likewise, a barely cooked wedge of endive – still firm and a touch bitter – stuffed with lobster coral was more interesting to look at than it was tasty. It was a bit too austere for me.*

* * *

Comte de Garde Exceptionelle

* * *

Hand-shaved ribbons of Bernard Antony’s famous Comté heralded the beginning of the end of our meal. Our plates of cheese were blanketed with freshly shaved black truffles, an extravagant display of favor. This cheese course went wonderfully with a bottle of vin jaune (“Arbois Pupillin, Maison Pierre Overnoy, 1998“)

I, alone, had never had Passard’s famous mille-feuille, and so a slice was set aside for me. It was ultra flaky and delicate, layered with an unusually light pastry cream. This was very good.

Also arriving at our table was a Mont Blanc, which I found terribly gritty and overly sweet. Passard’s interpretation of the Paris-Brest was disappointing as well. What was supposed to be a round of fluffy choux pastry arrived a crispy biscuit, nearly burnt and inedible. The only thing interesting about both of these desserts was a delicious dollop of horseradish creme chantilly that topped each.

A crème brûlée made from celery root was unobjectionable – the custard was fine and smooth, the top crispy and sweet. The flavor of the root vegetable in the custard was unmistakable, an unlikely but convincing companion to the milk chocolate sauce striped across the top.**

But above all, there was a pear, magnificently poached in mildly spiced red wine. Beside it, a velvety turn of vanilla ice cream melted away into a rich sauce. Among all of our desserts, this one alone was the equal of Passard’s finest savory courses. It was simple and comforting, the flavors were pure and honest.

* * *

Mille-Feuille

* * *

Food aside, a wonderful cast unexpectedly assembled at l’Arpege that day for lunch.

Joining Bruno and me at our table were Mikael of Gastroville, with whom I had lunch the day before, and a food journalist to whom I shall refer as Red Beard.

Despite having met in London the week before, Food Snob and I failed to figure out in advance that we’d be at l’Arpege on the same day. He and a mutual friend landed at the table next to ours. One table over from them was a trio of French journalists, friends of Bruno’s.

And halfway through our first course, A. A. Gill, restaurant critic of The Sunday Times and contributing writer to Vanity Fair, walked in, dapper like Draper, with his date.***

There were exchanges among our tables throughout service, jokes and jabs across the aisle.

As the restaurant emptied and Passard came out to sit and chat with us over trays of petits fours, l’Arpege became our own little party. Joyful and jolly, this is what fine dining should be like more often.

I needn’t tell you that we were hospitably served, treated more like friends than customers. Hélène Cousins – my server from my first visit – remembered me, and made sure that I got all the crusty elbows from her basket of bread.

This meal was, undoubtedly, better than my first. While I’m certain that I’ve gotten glimpses of Passard’s best, I’m still not convinced that I’ve seen l’Arpege at its best. If, as the restaurant’s name suggests, the ideal l’Arpege experience is a broken chord that, when played together, aligns in perfect harmony, then I have yet to have the ideal l’Arpege meal.

But this one was pretty close.****

- UlteriorEpicure.com

EntreChefs.co.uk - Laurent Feneau
A panegyric to the garden

A panegyric to the garden

Alain Passard

Endowed with an amazing degree of expertise in product assessment and an absolute mastery of the different methods of cooking, Alain Passard, a master of his time, offers a style of cooking as refined as it is complex.

For thirty years, Alain Passard has constituted himself an interpreter of produce and its flavours. Like an impressionist, he uses deft little touches to recreate their authenticity. He ensures the purity of the product by taking care to preserve its original colour, essence and aroma. This delicacy of interpretation is, above all, due to his precise touch in cooking. Born to a musician and a dressmaker, the young Alain Passard very soon discovered the importance of the touch of a skilled hand, "it was a part of myself that I really fell in love with," he confides. As his father did not pressurise him to become a musician, Alain made a foray into the pleasures of cooking with his grandmother, Louise Passard. Well aware of her grandson's passion for food, she helped him discover the joys of treating himself and others to a splendid meal, the excitement of shopping, the fever of preparation, all that goes into making a meal a ceremony and a celebration.
The apprentice cook then learned the ropes with Michel Kerever, a rare Breton star of his time, with whom he learned to love a good product, and later trained at Rheims with Gaston Boyer, who taught him the art of seasoning and cooking. Finally, it was on meeting Alain Senderens, "a perfectionist in constant search of originality, that I discovered my creativity," explains Alain Passard. After a stint with the Carlton in Brussels and at the "Duc d'Enghien", at twenty six, he became the youngest two star Michelin chef. He then returned to his first love, the "Archestrate" of Alain Senderens, and created the "Arpège" where he has cultivated his garden for twenty years.

The Sacred Fire
Twenty years during which the chef has never ceased to explore new territories. "I am always alert, and my cooking calls for opening new doors and closing others. It is simple cookery characterised by elimination of unnecessary steps; my aim is to maintain a unique and essential feature for each dish," he explains. In the year 2000, Alain Passard began to refine his menu, to bring together land and sea. "Finding the marine counterpart of every land produce is to rediscover the original character of a product in an almost musical harmony," he confides. In this context, he experiments a lot with aromas, herbs and spices to give expression to the idea of land and sea.
This new path very soon led him down another, that of "vegetarian cooking". "This was not programmed, but a natural evolution; it was just that I had begun to feel a certain lassitude, an inability to find any creativity in cooking meats", avers the chef of Arpège. Alain Passard therefore followed his instincts and was able to discover an extraordinary palette of flavours in vegetables. In an effort to create a noble product, to bring out the subtle taste of vegetables, he created original combinations of herbs, spices, dairy products, shellfish and even flowers. However, even though the green hat has voluntarily cut out some twelve classic dishes from his menu, it does not prevent him from turning back, at times, to meat dishes. "My approach is not a challenge to meat; there are some things I want to retain, like certain items of poultry, for example. The pleasure that I gain from this relates strongly to the source of the product, such as the range chicken that we feature on our menu, which have been grain fed for six months in the farmyard" ...specifies the chef.

The Garden of Eden
Surprisingly, it is the "art of the fire", as he himself puts it, which has inspired him to work with vegetables. His fascination for this element goes back to his childhood. "My grandmother was very good at roasting and fire was a veritable passion for her. The flames literally made her cooking sing, and she went a lot by ear", he remembers. These days the owner of Arpège seems to find the joy of an alchemist in the flames. "To keep the saucepan moving over the flame to prevent bruising the vegetable, working the fire to prevent evaporation of the juices and above all to avoid loss of the vegetable colour, is truly fascinating", marvels the chef. The love and care he lavishes on his vegetables has brought him to plant his own kitchen gardens, of which he has three. "Nothing can replace the joy of creating and watching the produce grow", he adds. His nurseries, often a source of inspiration to this nature lover, have become as important as his cooking. "I consider the garden as an ocean and I often imagine a stretch of water where colours, scents and flavours flourish", says the poet chef.
When he is not in the garden or in the kitchen, Alain Passard draws and writes. "I always have a book of flavours and scents in my head. The times when I am able to leaf through it are the cooks to talk about cooking, but rather to have the cuisine talk about the cooks", he explains. A fine grand project…
best ", he confides. The chef is also in the process of writing a book. "The idea is not to ask the...

Chinese Portrait
"If you were…"
- A virtue: love of good food
- A vice: "I have too many …"
- An animal: a horse
- A country: France
- A musical piece: a piece by Coltrane
- A film: a love story…
- A book: The Benezit, a dictionary of painters and sculptors
- A famous woman: Edith Piaf
- A dish: an aubergine caviar
- A wine: An wine from Anjou
- A flower: a peony

EntreChefs.co.uk - Laurent Feneau

 

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