ARPEGE - INTO THE VEGETABLE GARDEN
Perhaps it has to do with age, becoming more wise, or the evolution of the palate, but recently I have starting eating more “clean” - so to speak - with far more vegetables than protein in my diet. Truth be told the quality of the meat that I find weekdays around my office leaves so much room for wanting that I rely mostly on salads and soups for my weekday meals.
At the same time, the purity and the simplicity of the vegetables when done well is also a trend that is starting to develop in high end, and also elsewhere and I became more and more interested in this.
Thus, on a recent trip to Paris I could not resist going to and reviewing the mother of all veggie places, L’Arpege, a restaurant that places focus mostly on vegetables brought from its own farms around France and less and less on meat or fish. For a number of years Alain Passard, the master of Arpege stopped cooking meat altogether and only recently has he introduced it back in limited forms into his menu. Naturally I had the choice of going to the grand dames of Parisienne three star cuisine such as L’Ambroisie or Guy Savoy, but it was because of the craving for the freshest summer vegetables done in the most interesting ways that I decided for L’Arpege. Somehow the simplicity and treatment of the ingredients likened it in my mind to something close to Etxebarri, which was my recent favourite. Also, because the lunch menu is a measly 140 euros only compared to twice or three times the amount in the evening.
The only problem was my flight was delayed and I had a meeting starting in two hours time, so I had only an hour and a half for the grand tasting menu that should have taken around 2 or 3 hours to go through. Very amateur indeed, but what could I say? I told the servers fair and square. And behold, instead of the rumours on the much maligned French hospitality that should have resulted in “Sir, we cannot simply serve you in that amount of time” or “ You will not be able to experience L’Arpege in such a rush” all I got from the very friendly waitress is that sure, and they will do all they can to put together a menu that best represents the cuisine in such a short time. After that everyone else was also super-friendly and the whole experience was grand from a service POV.
Onto the dishes. As you might or might not know, Alain Passard has six gardeners working at the vegetable garden in Fille sur Sarthe and three people look after the vegetable garden in Bois- Giroult. It really is a sustainable and biodynamic environment in every sense of the word: “Draught animal power, no pesticides, no chemical fertilizer, watering holes for batrachians, stone houses for the weasels, hedgehogs and reptiles, perches for raptors, hedges, embankments and trees for the birds; all of this wildlife is welcome in our gardens, this way we avoid any treatment.”
Crème fraiche with Othello grapes, watermelon, tomatoes. A signal from the kitchen that everything will be ultra-fresh, ultra-seasonal, ultra-light.
Churned butter and bread. As expected, the butter was amazing, smooth, salty. Not sure about the bread though, could have been more fresh, warm, etc. Have had better much bread before.
Beetroot tartare with a fake egg on top. The beet tartare was seasoned or infused with fennel, it had a sweet, earthy, deep, flavour: really delightful. I just closed my eyes and inhaled the sweet and rich taste. On top the faux egg was crème fraiche with half a cherry tomato. Tomatoes were really everywhere – as decoration on the table and in nearly every dish. An abundance of the sweetest and best Summer tomatoes.
Next Arpege’s own tabbouleh. This version came with apples, carrots, not much parsley or root mixed with the silky soft bulgur. I mostly felt fruit mixed in in a non-traditional way. The best thing underneath it all was the creamy, purple-pink raspberry and cauliflower puree. What an idea! A bit of bite from the bulgur, some crunch from the fruit and veggies and the soft puree to cap it all off. Wonderful.
Next stuffed fresh zucchini with onions and peppers bathed in a Parmiggiano Reggiano foam and sauce with loads of fresh thyme. I must say I enjoyed this course only moderately, as the zucchini and its filling were too simplistic, however I ladeled up the cheese foam and thyme quickly.
Really interesting this next course. A consommé of tomato seasoned with geranium with three different raviolis inside. The umami factor in this dish was off the charts as the rich and rosy-tasting, bitter consommé merged with the first ravioli made of bitter lemon, aubergine puree and marjoram. Just a taste explosion. Then another scoop and the incredibly thin and delicious ravioli skin dissolves in your mouth to give way to tomato, bell pepper and basil cream. Add the consommé which cuts through the rich veggies with its bitterness and freshness and you have a perfect dish. The third ravioli was zucchini and garlic.
Next they showed around a grand tarte made with the freshest tomatoes, all various colours and sizes with some anchovy fillets on top. Oh that puff pastry, and the lush tomatoes lacquered with garlic and the salty anchovy. It’s the simplicity and yet the amazing quality and freshness that is so inspiring here.
I was actually one of the three, or four lonely diners in the small restaurant. Interesting to see all the solo-foodies and what they do around the table and how they react. Seems weird in a way. The lady in front of me nearly had an orgasm from the tomato consommé and was constantly closing her eyes and mumbling, while the lady to right was constantly preoccupied with her camera and taking shots at different angles with and without the waiting staff. And I was taking notes vigorously while emailing back and forth regarding the upcoming meeting.
Anyway, I had the luck (?) of having the serving trolley right next to my table. I saw all the plates in their full glory before being whisked to the tables. Soon there appeared a massive plate with a great lobster sitting split in half on the middle of the plate. It looked like one of those sharing plates, that was meant for two or three hungry people. I was amazed to see that it landed right in front of me the next minute. Lobster with butter sauce and fresh steamed veggies, such as zucchini, mini squash, carrots and baby potatoes. The size of the beast was immense: its claw was the size of a baby hand.
The worst lobster I had was in Cuba, where the extracted the poor things from a cage in the sea and then dipped them in boiling water on my diving boat with some potatoes. No taste whatsoever. Then this must be the antithesis. Firm and sweet lobster meat, poached claw soft and pink, vegetables with a light crunch. All bathed in a rich and creamy sauce. The amount of meat was astounding, I could hardly get through it. It was overwhelming from a quality and a quantity point of view as well.
I had no time whatsoever to go for desserts as I had to run. But I did get a delicious rhubarb sorbet with crunchy nuts and a box of petit fours to take with me.
I missed the famous egg and probably three or four other world class and famous courses but I caught a glimpse of what cooking with the worlds freshest and best vegetables looks like. I was very glad I made the choice to go to Arpege and experience the true simplicity and quality of these vegetable dishes. That they are in no way inferior to dishes that arrive with caviar or grouse or lamb chops.
Flavours and umami can be extracted from an ingredient in the most wonderful ways, vegetables can be coerced to give a salty, deep, rich, creamy, sour, fresh, whatever flavour and one that is immensely pleasing to eat. I will definitely visit again to go for the full monty. I later found out that Alain Passard was cooking in his garden that day for Aiste and a group of foodies, so next time hoping that he is also there!