The best things come in threes. In this case, three stars. Three Michelin stars, at the nearly-hidden L’Arpège restaurant on Rue de Varenne.
Perhaps you know about it from Chef’s Table on Netflix? The latest season, based in France, opens with dramatic scenes of French chef Alain Passard—the master chef behind L’Arpège—walking through his gardens and feeling the terroir as his inspirational one-liners linger as B-roll.
I’ve been lusting over his vegetable-centric menu for quite some time now, keeping my eye on the menu and praying that maybe someday—someday—they will have a student formule*. Much to my delight and surprise (evidenced by a quick gasp and a sudden heart pounding as we arrived and I realized it was actually happening), L’Arpège was Clotilde‘s choice of restaurant for celebrating our one year anniversary of working together.** And now, let me take you on our Arpège adventure…
What I had been admiring for so long about Passard’s cooking was the disruption he caused in the French food scene, one traditionally filled with lots of meat, lots of butter, and fairly bland sauces (sorry! kind of). He highlights vegetables above everything else, cooking and preparing them in inventive, colorful ways.
As we arrived, the hostess took our coats and we were guided to our table. I struggled to keep up while taking everything in, from the vegetable table settings (ours were leeks!) to the swarm of waitstaff making the experience personalized for everyone there. Some of the waitstaff heard us speaking English and carried on with us, some questioned why we were speaking English together, and some warned me in advance that they would go slower for me in French. My favorite server, though, quietly nudged me toward the correct silverware in times of confusion—when faced with a tasting menu, all etiquette lessons go out the window.
Since Passard serves produce grown from his own gardens, the dishes are entirely seasonal—meaning winter offering’s require a more creative touch. We marveled over layers of celeriac paired with potîmarron and chestnuts, beet “tartare” with topinambour (sunchoke) chips, and a golden beet “sushi” with geranium-infused oil. Our tasting menu comprised 12 courses including dessert, and the small portions meant we never had to make any decisions, and just blissfully chatted as the chef made decisions for us.
Just as we waited for one of our last courses to arrive, Passard himself began walking through the restaurant, greeting tables. I looked back and saw him bending over to chat with those at the table behind me, thinking that I had just seen a celebrity and could now die happy. He then made a beeline straight to our table, and he and Clotilde talked about the tour she took of his gardens a few years ago. As their conversation wrapped up, Clotilde asked if he would pose for a picture with me, which he agreed upon with the caveat that I would put it in my kitchen. Yes, of course. (Once I have a kitchen, that is.)
The meal concluded with a Paris-Brest with walnut cream and clémentine gelato next to a platter of mignardises. But my takeaway? A perfectly wrapped creamy caramel, and an urging to be creative and work hard***. It’ll produce magic results that surpass the status quo. ♦
*This will never happen.
**I can’t even begin to describe how lucky I am that she picked me as her assistant. But enough gushing (for now).
***Well, that and the thought that L’Arpège ruined me for all other food. You have no idea how guilty I felt eating dinner that night.