When I lived in Paris Chef Alain Passard invited me over to supper at L’Arpège almost every night. With a friend too. So I dined nightly at the priciest of Paris’s 3-Michelin-Starred restaurants and was the envy of all Paris. Friends begged and battled to accompany me to my cantine (as the French call one’s regular restaurant haunt) not alas for my charms but because of the stratospheric fame of the restaurant and the legendary aura of Alain Passard, the most charismatic, enigmatic, flamboyant and fascinating of 3-Michelin-Starred chefs.
Also the most audacious. Molecular cuisine isn’t quite as maverick or as mad as Passard’s unprecedented initiative. In a city fixated with frogs, snails and raunchy meats, Passard decided to go green, unleashing vegetables from his celebrated potager (“kitchen garden” now sprawling over acres), presenting veggies in a glamorous new avatar so irresistible they conquered the committed meat-eaters and became Paris’s most-sought creations. You need to go to this restaurant and this restaurant alone for those insidiously subtle Gros Chesnay potatoes smoked on beech wood, cauliflower in ineffably exquisite broth and exotic vegetables in foams and fumes or ravioli and risotto where fine-chopped veggies replace starch. Some of the more startling rather than necessarily pleasurable creations include geranium-infused sushi made of vegetables, Saint-Victor leeks in an acidulated liquorish emulsion or beetroot in hibiscus petal reduction. My favourite remains classic risotto endowed with a unique tantalising flavour that only Alain Passard can impart and for which I always clamoured like a schoolgirl but then the prolific Passard ever has a prodigious stream of creations one is required to sample. Yet, I’ve almost always been permitted the addictive “grand classique” dessert Ile Flottant Mokka Melisse or the monumental myriad-layered flake-at-touch millefeulle although on my last visit I discover apple tart crafted into a delicate rose bouquet which, like all Passard’s creations, cunningly insinuates refinement into the rustic.
On my last visit I see the last of the cheese trolley, Passard having eliminated his once-famous offering including aged compté to focus on his vegetables concatenated over 12-16 courses (this is, of course, NOT a vegetarian restaurant, vegetables being but the speciality). My dégustation commences at 7 pm. It finishes after 1.30 am. I depart if not transformed into a pumpkin then at least looking like one, but Passard doesn’t mind, veggies being in keeping with the restaurant’s philosophy.
I can’t quite recall how I get back, certainly not after all those wines. Passard is reputed to stock some of the finest labels, perhaps better by the bottle than the glass. Aperitif can be Billecart Salmon rosé, mine perhaps one this occasion isn’t quite as sharp as Passard’s wit but then I’m the first to arrive and no doubt the champagne was still cooling. Doesn’t matter, for the ambiance is all about chill!
The razzmatazz isn’t in the decor, disarmingly and daringly simple, almost pooh-poohing restaurants that lavish obscene amounts on ritzy interiors and glitzy china. The art of the table is on the plate, not the plate!
There’s a certain chaos as the modestly-sized restaurant is eternally chokka and if you’re expecting stolid Michelin-Starred service, you won’t find it, erratic being the norm, part of the charm. But it works, luring predominantly Parisians, as opposed to tourists, including some very young ones, a rarity at 3-Michelin-starred restaurants, with students declaring they’ve saved up just to come eat at L’Arpège as 65-year-old affluent French aristocrats who don’t want to spend what a student would assail me to get them invited…
But people don’t come just to eat, they come for the personality of the chef who, with twinkling blue eyes, an uncanny insouciance, impish grin and cheeky schoolboy humour, presides gregariously over proceedings. L’Arpège is an experience, Passard, un “grand personage.”
Also un “grand chef” from whose cookbook other Parisian 3-Michelin-Starred chefs have taken a leaf (metaphorically too), implementing vegetarian gastronomy, now the raging vogue. Everyone’s copying him, but Passard remains inimitable in his panache, personality and passion.
The chef whose protégés have themselves attained fame is so passionate about L’Arpège he’s amongst the only 3-Michelin-Starred chefs always in his kitchen and not wielding an empire of international restaurants unlike colleagues, more businessmen than chefs.
The one time Passard was travelling and I complained the food wasn’t as good in his absence, although the restaurant assured Passard’s seconds cooked like him, Passard riposted, “Picasso’s students didn’t paint like Picasso.”
We love L’Arpège for the extraordinary experience it is. We respect Alain Passard for his gourmet gallantry. I adore Alain Passard for making me the best-loved girl in Paris, even if only because I was the “ticket-restaurant” to Paris’s most unimaginable 3-Michelin-starred restaurant!
Where : L’Arpège
84 Rue de Varenne, 75007 Paris, France
Phone : +33 1 47 05 09 06
Note – A 3 Michelin restaurant deserves a special review metric – X Factor: the surprise element that gives a 3-Michelin-starred restaurant its cutting edge (pun not intended).