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Vivin and Mao Paris Installment One: Arpege

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Vivin and Mao Paris Installment One: Arpege

Mao | Feb 24, 2002 04:26 PM

Last week, I flew to France to eat with 2 other good friends. I eat at the high end in NYC regularly and was curious if the myths and legends of French superiority which haunt NY’s finest places were indeed myth or had any substance. Our goal was thus to go nuts in Paris 3 Star land for a week, having not really eaten that much at this level in France except briefly once before—I had been to Gerard Boyer’s Les Crayons this summer and my two companions had enjoyed a transformative meal at Guy Savoy while it was still working its way up from 2 star land. So this was a trip with one goal only—to eat up the haute cuisine of Paris.

(Our initial itinerary was probably too manically overbooked and we ended up canceling two meals when it became very apparent that the body can only absorb one 3 star meal a day.)

As a dining experience, Arpege was very sophisticated, but also very philosophical. Passard seems almost a moralist with his “I believe in doing this” and “I believe in not doing that” philosophy of food- thou shalt slow pan cook; thou shalt not consume red meat. And consequently, eating there is some combination of philosophical lecture and quietly evangelical sermon. The meal seems generated to demonstrate precisely how subtle a meal can be within the self imposed limitations Passard has constructed for himself. I must say that at times the meal was a little too quiet, but that overall it was a superb experience. The “vibe” I took away from the meal was definitely more intellectual nuance than sensual pleasure. And while I don’t think Passard does enough to convince of the universal necessity of his approach, he is a brilliant practitioner of his own philosophy.

Table started with OK glass of champagne, which in the blur of the meal, I have forgotten what is was Don’t recall it being particularly interesting, however.

1stdish was poached egg in shell with maple syrup, chives and some sort of mild and seemingly tasteless vinaigrette. A portion of the egg whites had been foamed up with the maple syrup (folder lightly in). This was a group of very familiar flavors put into a new texture. Breakfast defamiliarized and deconstructed. Brecht meets breakfast. Sorry had to say that.

Next came light sea urchin ravioli with chives, saffron and cumin served in a seafood consume. I can still remember this dish. It was breathtaking, and clearly meant to be something like wonton soup reinterpreted through a different lens. Each taste hit the tongue one after another-- the slurp of clear broth into a bite of soft ravioli, the onioniess of chives arriving into your mouth at the same time as the texture of sea urchin followed by whiffs of saffron and a final bite of cumin.

Caviar with couscous in green herb and thyme sauce. Rich, but neither complex or interesting. Coucous and caviar are a nice textural combination, but the starchiness of the couscous too easily and often overwhelmed the caviar. And the sauces were too quiet to even begin to affect either caviar or couscous.

Langoustines from Cornwall in ginger and cintronelle sauce-more of the Asian flavoring hinted at by the ravioli wonton. Langoustines were excellent combination with bite and sweet of sauce.

While I had this, my two dining companions had a paper thin onion gratin with parmesan and black truffles cuts that were actually almost as think as the onion layer that was underneath it. The modest cheesiness of the onions along with their sweetness and soft crunch was just this incredible background for the rather large bite of black truffle explosion that shoots up as the last aromatic sensation of the dish. The first dish besides the ravioli that I would describe as intellectual and sensual.

Next lobster and turnips with vinegar & honey. More Chinese & Italian food undertones. The turnips effectively covered the lobster and make for an excellent light textural crunch and contrast of the lobster along with rosemary meets sweet and the final punch of the vinegar. Great stuff.

Then what was for me the highlight of the meal. 2 scallops served very minimally/quietly in tiny amount of oil and balsamic, and surrounded by two different reductions --one shallot based and the other parlsey. Murder. Hands down the dish of the night for me and the two best scallops I have ever had. These were perfectly cooked and ligamented sea creatures. To eat this was to know how scallops should taste. A food essentialism Craft can only aspire to. Under bite, soft strands of flesh made way to the slightest hint of balsamic sweetness, then a light parsley crunch and the aromatic crunch of scallops. Texture, scent. Reference dish. Sometimes food needs make up because its bad, sometimes the make up can make the food more essentially what it is.

Finally chicken from Bresse (is there any chef in Paris who doesn’t source his chicken from Bresse and indicate it on the menu?) subject to Passard’s deep moralizing methods of slow cooking at low heat in a pan and a sauce of leeks and excessive black truffles. Truffle me to death. It was good, very powerful, thwack me in the head with travels ending to a quiet subtle meal. One last scream, you could say.

Yawning and light vanilla Millefeuille like breath.

Finally the famous Tomato Confit dessert with 12 flavors including dried nuts, herbs, cinnamon etc. Liked it, but did not love it, unlike my two dining companions who were glee stricken. OK, so tomatoes can be fruit. So what? This I know from simply growing up in the Great Garden State and experiencing summer tomatoes. You can pick them up an eat them like a peach. I have done this. I do not require 12 other ingredients to drive the point home. In the end I also thought that a) the texture was overly dominated by the dried fruits and nuts, imparting a firmness I wasn’t wild about, b) the 12 flavors kind of stepped on themselves a bit too much for me. Too much stuff going on for me and not enough of it clearly enough for my palate.

As Vivin said this was one of the best meals of the trip (though not in the same league as Le Grand Vefour or ADPA), and quite frankly I would go back at the drop of a hat. I thought the service was enormously attentive and the food was an intellectual and moralizing tour de force. But it was also a very heady art. I couldn’t eat this way all the time. It lacks a certain boogie and heart and honesty and occasionally borders on the pretentious. Still, not unlike listening to Bjork. It was an art and voice that has to be appreciated in own terms, and I will say that I appreciated it enormously.

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