Monday, July 9, 2007

A Tale of Two Restaurants - Part One

I’m baaack from a wonderful time in Paris. So much running around the last few days, but I must tell you in particular about 2 meals - each with a sprinkling of delicious mouthfuls, but each ultimately disappointing in its own way.

I certainly don’t make regular pilgrimages to the world’s leading temples of gastronomy, but I’ve been to my fair share. However, during my last few visits to Paris, I skipped all of that and just ate at regular places, not even planning ahead. Overall, each meal was terrific, although none was life-changing. This time, I thought I’d plan a couple of amazing meals.

The first restaurant I must report on is Alain Passard's L’Arpege. This 3 star Michelin restaurant appealed to me, because the chef is a true original. Back in 2001, he declared that he was tired of the usual meat preparations and turned his attention to vegetables. He even started an organic vegetable farm some 200 kilometers from Paris, where he grows gorgeous specimens that he uses in his restaurant. Among his favorites are beets, mine too!

For a time, his restaurant was all vegetables, then he allowed non-red meat dishes back in. I had read that he had a vegetable tasting menu. Luckily, or so I thought at the time, my friend, A, obtained a reservation for 3 on one of the nights we were in Paris. I was very excited to be partaking in this trailblazer’s cuisine.

We were greeted warmly and placed at an attractive table, with a good view of the small space. Panels of Lalique glass featured figures of beautiful nudes. There was a single almost round watermelon sitting on each table.

We were attended to immediately (which I came to appreciate based on my next restaurant visit) and the menus were presented. I perused mine for the vegetable tasting menu. None was to be found. I asked the Maitre D’ and he said not to worry that they would put together one. The astoundingly good looking sommelier provided Kir Royales to A and me and Husband had a glass of wine. Our amuses were thin potato slices, fried crisp, crisp, CRISP and filled with beets among other vegetables. Just perfect. Divine, in fact.

After a brief discussion with my husband, who was pretty opposed to the tasting menu idea, because he didn’t want to be there for 4 hours, I won (a Pyrrhic victory, at best) and the tasting menu it was. (He had the traditional tasting menu which had lamb and fish, but was also heavy on the vegetables. A and I went for the vegetable-only one.)

In my defense (which I needed later with my poor put-upon husband), I was handed a menu without prices, which is rather ridiculous in the 21st century. So, really, I had no clue what I was committing to. Then when it was feverishly whispered, I took a moment to think about it and decided that I would forever regret not tasting the fruits of Alain Passard’s labors in this unique way.

I didn’t attempt to write down a detailed description of every last dish and garniture. I was thinking I would be in Nirvana and I would only be capable of a painting a picture with broad strokes. Plus, I had to keep up my energy for the long night of tasting ahead of me.

We started with a heavenly poached egg with maple syrup and vinegar. It was served with whole wheat bread and wonderful salty butter, which apparently is a great favorite of Passard’s, even though it was surprisingly presented in a big lump. The white of the egg was smooth and velvety, the yolk was runny and rich tasting - the flavoring of the maple syrup and the vinegar of Xeres was genius.

Next was the not so new kid on every block - a foam, this one a mushroom foam with a white truffled foamy accent. It was the very essence of woody mushrooms with a very pleasing texture.

The next was a radish dish called a risotto, in which the radishes took the place of the rice. Interesting. The radishes were very delicate, without a hint of sharpness. This is where the growing of his produce seemed to make the biggest difference in quality.

My eagerly awaited beets made an appearance next. They were yellow, red and pale pink (I think) beets served with a final pouring of 12 year old balsamic vinegar. Very sweet, very good, but not the awe-inspiring dish I had been expecting. I was beginning to wonder if I had misled our table on this culinary adventure.

The next course was potatoes served in a foam and my inability to recall the exact nature of this dish says more about ITS lack of memorable-ness than it does about my addled brain.

Leeks came after, beautifully presented, but as I chewed them, I realized I had to REALLY chew them. They weren’t soft and melting. They were STRINGY and, while tough may be an exaggeration, they seemed to be highly resistant to my attempts to break them down.

The next dish was the signature L’Arpege Harlequin of Vegetables, prepared with Argan oil, which, although exotic, did nothing to enliven the flavor of these tiny homegrown veggies.

We were feeling a little let down, I must say, by this point and wondering what was to come. Remember we didn’t see a list of courses on the menu…they were just presenting them to us. The watermelon was removed from the table.

The cheese board, with TWENTY FIVE selections was brought over. Interesting that, with the exception of a single Comte (I think), all the cheeses were goat or sheep’s milk, which was fine with me. I LOVE goat’s milk cheese. I decided to try the freshest goat’s milk cheese and the most aged. They were wonderful and exactly as one would expect, the new one was fresh tasting and lively and the aged one had the typical “smelly” aroma and was melting all over the plate. Strangely, though, no bread was served and no nothing else either. A thought there should have been bread AND perhaps a piece of fig or a leaf of something or other, AT LEAST.

A plate of vegetable macaroons took some getting used to. No, actually, there WAS no reason to get used to them. I like unusual things maybe more than the next person, but these were pointless.

Dessert followed. it was a Strawberry Millefeuille, which was dramatically oversized for this type of menu. It was the finest example of its kind that I’ve ever had, but even THAT was not enough to make up for the misses of many of the courses of the preceding meal. It was too large a portion and somehow just felt out of place.

The problem with L’Arpege was that EVERY single morsel should have hit a homerun. It is a 3 star restaurant, for goodness sake! Every bite should have been totally and completely delectable, delightful, delicious and distinctive. Distinctive it was, ambrosial it wasn’t.

I've had a few days to think about it, and I thought perhaps I would reconsider my findings, that I would think in retrospect that the enormous respect Passard gives to the fruits of the earth would somehow render the meal more appealing. But the truth is, to me, many of the dishes lacked...dare I say it...flavor. I didn't find, in his stylings, a reason to go vegetables-only.

I suppose that at a third of the price I could have lived with it, but with its current astounding price, my conclusions stand. One other note, while the food itself was mostly tarted up pretty well, the dinner service (the plates themselves) and the other dishes were plain almost to the point of ennuie. Plus, although I understand his serving of only one type of bread is intentional to avoid taking the focus off the vegetables, its presentation was lackluster. And certainly with the cheese, a crust of bread couldn't have been out of place.

How much did this meal cost? I’m not being coy, but I CANNOT bring myself to tell you. Email me, if you must know. Suffice it to say, that 3 William McKinley’s would have covered it by a nose.

Next time...a test of patience.


JennDZ - The Leftover Queen said...

Welcome back! Sounds like you had a wonderful trip!

Sue said...

Hi Jenn,
We did, notwithstanding a few disappointments in the fancy restaurant category...But Paree is always amazing!