L'Arpège has a reputation as being the best vegetable restaurant on the planet, it has three Michelin stars and perhaps also the most expensive degustation menu on the planet as well. When our waiter asked if there was anything we didn’t eat Heidi so wanted to say ‘vegetables’.
The dining room at street level is relatively plain with clean lines and good light. It is a relatively small space with perhaps 2 too many tables in it and 4 or 5 too many staff. When I got up to go to the toilet I bounced around like a 6 foot 4 human pinball. There is a downstairs dining room as well which I’m led to believe is a little cramped and claustrophobic.
Service last night was erratic. We had contact with 5 or 6 different staff, two were brilliant, the others were up and down like a toilet seat at a mixed party. I had to ask for the wine list twice before it arrived. I ordered a 2005 Vincent Dauvissat Chablis ‘Les Clos’ which the wine waiter could not find. Our first red selection, the 2007 Jean Foillard Morgon ‘Côte du Py’ was at first wrongly presented as some 2009 Moulin a Vent and then after 10 minutes could not be found either. Our sommelier, who was a nice chap and rightly embarrassed, asked if he could find me something off the list to which I responded ‘maybe’. He said ‘how about a wine from Provence’, to which I said ‘let me think about this, NO’ and snatched the list from his hands. Eventually a 2007 Pierre Matrot Puligny-Montrachet ‘Les Combettes’ was found, opened and poured quite cold. It was a little mute and once it finally came up to room temperature I detected a faint whiff of cork taint. Over half the bottle was consumed so we battled on without pointing this out to the staff. It had good intensity of orchard fruits and a rigid mineral spine.
Let me say this, that for all of the distractions going on, it could not detract from the food, it was indeed faultless. You probably have to view the cuisine here a bit like Grand Cru Burgundy. You are paying more for less. You pay for finesse, balance and elegance not sheer size and weight. Three different radishes straight from the garden had the perfect balance between sweet and pepper and were served simply with pink salt. A little plate of delicate vegetables and purees on light pastry bases ignited the senses for the menu proper.
A perfect egg shell arrives with some warm yolk on the bottom, a little crème fraiche, cauliflower puree and speck. Not sure I’ve ever had vegetables as delicious as a ball of spinach cooked down with butter served with mashed carrot with orange and some bitter grapefruit. All were delicious on their own but symphonic when tasted together. Next a gratin of sweet onions with some citrus, Parmigiano Reggiano and topped with a little mesclun de Sylvain. It was a dish of great intensity, and balance between sweet and savoury flavours. Root vegetables in argan oil were visually pleasing and came with a dark ‘faux sausage’ the colour of a bruise. It tasted rich and hearty and was loaded with spicy harissa. Our final ‘vegetable only’ offering was a small selection of different raviolis in an extraordinarily fine bouillon based on asparagus but tasting quite meaty. We had asparagus and garlic, parsnip and sage, cabbage and dill and beetroot with something a little strange which we can’t remember.
The abalone dish was exquisite, simply cooked in butter and served with red onion confit. Whilst still retaining some of the natural rubberiness this crustacean possesses it was indeed quite tender, meaty and sweet with terrific length of flavour. Our waitress commented that the chefs would ‘hurt the abalone for 24 hours’ (I think she meant tenderise) and I responded by suggesting that they must have huge arms like Popeye if they bashed them for 24 hours. She responded that ‘no, they were all very skinny’. I suggested perhaps it may have been from all of the cocaine and speed they would have had to take to stay awake for 24 hours straight bashing an abalone, she insisted that no, they were all clean and very healthy.
A quite large lobster was presented whole to us, then taken away, cooked in some butter and Jura wine, split in half served to each of us. The flesh was pure, sweet and nutty and it was incredibly good. The final savoury course was the most youthful, milky sweet veal that could only have been a matter of weeks old. It was so tender and succulent, opening the floodgates in the salivary glands as you allowed the flesh to melt on the palate. Served with beetroot done two ways, puree and a tiny white beetroot ‘candy wrapped’, along with a vegetable gnocchi. Our red wine that we eventually ordered and was in stock went very well with the veal. The 2008 A-F Gros Vosne-Romanée ‘Aux Réas’ had lovely spicy lift on the nose. There were notes of freshly grated ginger and crunchy cherry fruits. It was sweet in the mouth with nice detail and good cut to the finish. Our sommelier also poured us a complimentary glass of 1985 Château Musar from magnum. It was very fresh with sweet red berries and a little of the equine character that one often sees in Musar. It was generous and full in the mouth with a nice balance of sweet fruits and savoury meaty traits. There was a little leather and tar development and it finished with breezy acidity.
Each table is adorned with a little artistic gathering or food sculpture and there was much mirth and merriment as our adjoining table’s Rhubarb construction came crashing down. I think Gustave Eiffel made the right decision in choosing steel over rhubarb as his preferred material to work with.
Our pre-desserts were excellent and we were certainly feeling a bit bogged down as our final course, a dessert of millefeuille was due to arrive. Our waitress presented a serve of another dessert, their version of Ile Flottante to share. It was loaded with mocha and citrus cream and was brilliant. I ordered a camomile tea, only to be told 5 minutes later that they had run out of camomile tea. We sat there for 10 minutes longer than was comfortable, with an empty plate waiting for the promised millefeuille to arrive and then gave up, ordered the bill (the only thing that we really didn’t want to arrive but it did), paid and left. There is a place on earth somewhere that every tennis ball you lost in the back yard plus the 2005 Vincent Dauvissat Chablis ‘Les Clos’, 2007 Foillard ‘Côte du Py’, camomile tea and millefeuille from L'Arpège all happily now reside!
Despite the comedy of no shows we actually had a very good meal. The food was some of the best we have ever eaten and I would entertain returning to eat it again. Perhaps we’ll investigate their policy on byo wine, tea and dessert for next time?