We have a device, it is like a laser,” explains the elegant young waiter. Sitting on the table in front of me is the first course of what is destined to be the most expensive lunch of my life. A little brown boiled egg, with its top surgically removed. “L’Oeuf” is all it says on the menu. The egg. The only description is “fermier de la Bigotière” – it comes from a farm in a little village on the Loire. At these prices the hen must have a pedigree going back to the Bourbon monarchs.
The egg is nestled in a silver egg cup. It has been soft-poached by some kitchen alchemy, the white whipped to a stiff froth then reinserted in the shell along with the runny yolk. On top have gone a dash of maple syrup and a splash of sherry vinegar.
It tastes, well, interesting.
I am in Alain Passard’s Paris restaurant, L’Arpège. Tiny in size, it is huge by reputation – it is one of only 25 French restaurants this year to have received the ultimate three-star accolade, the gastronomic equivalent of Olympic gold, from the Guide Michelin.
Before I go any further, a word to explain what I am doing here, and what a food story is doing in a travel section. Many cities have an activity with which their names are inextricably linked. Why would anyone travel to a boring place like Le Mans if it wasn’t for the motor racing? You would be foolish to visit Milan and not shop for clothes. Burgundy without visiting the vineyards. And Paris? Much as we love ridiculing the French obsession with stuffing their faces, is there any real doubt that this is the compass bearing for serious cooking anywhere in the world? And can anyone not envy a city where chefs outnumber lawyers three to one?
So, when I get the chance – and have the money – I like to try a three-star restaurant. Some people spend their disposable income on flash cars or fancy clothes. My vice is to spend an evening eating duck somewhere like the Tour D’Argent, a venerable institution overlooking Notre Dame Cathedral.
L’Arpège is not the newest or smartest three-star restaurant in Paris. That honour probably belongs to Joël Robuchon (the man who made mashed potatoes famous) whose stunning “atelier” in Rue de Montalembert takes no reservations, not even from Madonna, and seats people at two black marble counters around an open kitchen with a menu of starter-sized courses. Go for the pigeon poached in a cabbage-leaf wrapper.
But L’Arpège is the most interesting. I have been reading about Passard in one of Jeffrey Steingarten’s terrific books. Steingarten is the food editor of American Vogue, an adventurous, obsessive gourmand and a worthy successor to those other great writers in English about French food, Elizabeth David, Waverley Root and A.J. (Joe) Leibling.
What particularly caught my attention is that Passard is a vegetarian – not, thank goodness, out of any religious concern for the taking of animal life, but because he loves veges. Celebrates them, worships them. He tells Steingarten he simmers them in water rather than steaming them because steaming would be “too violent”.
So passionate did Passard become at one stage that he was sued by the operators of the Rungis wholesale food market in Paris after he blasted the depressing tastelessness of their hydroponic vegetables, and suggested their beef might be infected with mad cow disease. He has since reintroduced fish and meat to his menu, particularly his famous Bresse lobster, and a pigeon roasted with sugared almonds.
The restaurant is located on an inconspicuous corner in the Rue de Varenne, across the road from a museum devoted to the works of Auguste Rodin, the great sculptor. It is also just up the road from France’s Parliament House (who else but politicians could afford this extravagance) and, indeed, the day I am there three députés are dining with an ambassador. I know this because the great man himself, the superchef who refers to himself as “an artisan of the senses”, emerges from the kitchen in a pair of patched jeans to introduce himself all round.
This is not one of those great intimidating temples to haute cuisine like Alain Ducasse’s Plaza Athénée with its huge chandeliers and starchy waiters. It is a chic, intimate room with pink ceiling lighting and pale pear-wood walls. The tables are set simply with a bundle of liquorice twigs instead of flowers (whose scent would distract), and the arrayed silverware includes a sort of flattened-out spoon for scooping the light, frothy sauces from the plate.
After much discussion with the waiter (the floor staff glide around on air cushions and occasionally outnumber the 10 or so diners) I decide against the vegetarian menu. Mainly because the degustation menu promises chicken as Passard’s Breton grandmother used to make it.
One look at the daunting wine list, a thing the size of the collected works of Shakespeare and starring such divinities as a Burgundy from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti for a mere $4000, and I am content to allow the sommelier to counsel an unassuming little white from the Rhône. The food, after all, is the star here and there are nine courses to come after the egg.
A highball glass filled with beetroot jelly is followed by a froth of avocado anointed with oil of roasted pistachios on a base of Iranian Osciètre caviar, which looks like grey frogspawn. A tiny portion of lobster is served ravioli-style on petals of turnip with a sauce of sherry vinegar and acacia honey.
My selections from the vegetarian menu are a plate of tiny smoked potatoes and a remarkable combination of crunchy green beans, strips of peach and fresh almonds, served on a sort of coriander beurre blanc. It is probably the highlight of the meal. A superb poached fillet of sole is served simply with a vin jaune (a Jura region wine) sauce, and granny’s succulent chook turns out to be roasted with black sesame and soy sauce.
I regret to say I rather pigged out on the suitably malodorous cheeses, and left little room for dessert, a homely dish of tissue-paper-light choux pastry with a caramel sauce.
And then l’addition arrived – 379 euros for lunch for one, including three glasses of wine, which those helpful folk at Visa translate into $639.
Was it worth it?
Well, yes, it was – for me.
L’Arpège, 84, rue de Varenne, Paris 75007. Phone (0011 33 1) 4705 0906, email email@example.com
Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 25 October 2003
Sub section: Travel
Word count: 1153