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So how was l'Arpège?

June 25, 2012 | 11:53 am

There are few things worse than someone coming back from vacation and insisting that you sit down and look at their slides. But almost everyone I've run into in the last week has asked, "How was l'Arpège?"

The short answer? Just about as perfect as a meal could possibly be. I had high expectations (well, Parisian three-star, who wouldn't?), but it topped them in almost every way. Probably one of the half-dozen best meals I've had in what even I will admit has been an overpriviledged life.

I'll try to come up with some deeper thoughts on the subject for a column soon, including some recipes from chef Alain Passard's fascinating new cookbook.

But for now, after the jump, here are some highlights -- nothing but eye candy courtesy of my intrepid girl photographer.

Arpege9Let's start with the table setting. Passard's cuisine is vegetable-based (though certainly not vegetarian), and remarkably transparent -- very little modernist funny business. So it was fitting that the tables were set very simply with thick white tablecloths and seasonal produce, bound in raffia. Here is thick white asparagus. Other tables had green garlic and some had razor clam shells.





The amuse was a series of tiny, exquisite tarts. Nope, don't remember exactly what they were: tomatoes, carrots, English peas. Just remember being dazzled at the gem-like construction.

Arpege13The first course was shockingly simple, setting the tone for the rest of the menu: sauteed spinach, carrot puree and grapefruit zest candied in a beet syrup. Perfect ingredients, perfect technique. What, are we in California?

Arpege12I loved the 62-degree egg, the yolk just set, the whites still wiggly, served in a bright green, fragrant velouté of hyssop.


And, of course, white asparagus, slowly roasted in butter with bay leaves.

The big picture above was another of my favorite dishes. So simple: carrots, beets, cucumbers, each very simply cooked and brought together with what Passard calls a "sweet-and-sour" sauce, that is made from a bit of honey, some lemon juice and olive oil whisked together with an immersion blender. This one was infused with some chrysanthemum leaf that lent a slight green bitterness to the combination.

Arpege2Another terrific, deceptively simple dish was the green garlic soup topped with a cream made from smoked herring.

Though Passard emphasizes produce, there are meat courses. The day we ate, we were given a choice of two of his signature dishes: slow-roasted turbot or guinea fowl roasted with hay.



Then came the mignardise: miniature apple tarts, macarons, chocolates filled with tea flavors and, most remarkably, an English pea dessert tart that was absolutely delicious.


Oddly enough, the only lackluster dish of the day was the dessert -- strawberry tart. Maybe we were just full by that time. All the elements were terrific (particularly the slightly salty pastry crust), but the strawberries were just OK. Or maybe we're just spoiled by California.


There were a couple of other courses that didn't get photographed: tortellini stuffed with spring vegetable purees served in an English pea broth and a really fascinating dish of smoked potatoes.

Now for the dirty details: The meal was expensive,without question. But on the advice of a worldly friend, we booked for lunch and chose the vegetable tasting menu, which dramatically reduced the price. For a perfect meal, with matching wines and really terrific service, figure about $300 per person. Expensive, yes, but in terms of value, an amazing bargain.

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-- Russ Parsons

Photos: Kathy Parsons