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Arpege: dinner and lunch; 2002-2004


Steve Plotnicki
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"Do you not want individualism at that level. Isn't that what wins 3 stars and what you are paying the 300 Euros (bargin) for?"

That's a hard question. On a personal level, both for selfish reasons as well as wanting my fellow diners to eat better, I would rather see Passard's techniques spread throughout the world of fine dining. Lord knows how many chefs there are with dazzling techniques. Very few chefs are working in the market ingredients millieu of fine dining who make food as interesting as Passard, or even just on the haute cuisine level. There needs to be more of it in my opinion. Not that it is in competition with cuisines that rely on fancier and more manipulative technique. I surely enjoy that as well. But if the philosophy spread it would give diners all over the world additional choices of where to have a good meal. That's the most important bit.

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Steve, that was a tremendous review you wrote there. We had two meals at L'Arpege in two days and left with the impression that ordering a la carte is better, but only after some familiarity with the dishes, or at least being in possession of inside knowledge. In fact our a la carte lunch in July was one of our greatest meals in our life.

Passard is a hard chef to pin down, harder than Adria. He seems to be able to create remarkably balanced and elegant dishes using ingredients of opposites in the same dish, or taste sensations from opposite poles put together. I don't sense these days the working out of similar bags that the old cats were doing, or at least going to sensations-on-the palate extremes we now have (for better or worse). Passard is a clear example of what separates the very good chef from the spectacular ones: The latter grab the lead through some general, indefinable sense of elegance and ingenuity that appear in dish after dish. These are gifts that belong to only a handful.

I'm not sure that Passard's doing a cookbook would result in the influencing of chefs, at least truly good ones. Most cookbooks by great chefs are watered-down recipes they create for the amateur chef. It's the young chefs working for the master who spread the Gospel. I suspect that Passard does not want to write a cookbook, given how fastidious and deliberate his approach to cuisine is.

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I wish there were more young chefs who learn from people of Passard's ability and spread the happiness. If there is a market for his food, it will happen. Nobu in NYC has numerous spin offs (with varying success), because, there is a queue of people waiting to get in everyday at Nobu. I passed by at 10:35 last night and, surely, there was one. If there is no real demand, however, what can be done?? Same is true of arts/music etc. There is not much of a market for Bill Evans immitators - while everyone wants to copy the latest pop diva. You and I are arguing about something that few people care about (it probably always was this way - I could be wrong).

vivin.

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Robert - I think what really makes Arpege a great experience is that Passard actually knows how to organize and orchestrate a tasting menu. That's a skill you don't see as often as you did in the days of old. I mean the dishes I had were good but look at the order and how he built textures while introducing flavors.

I keep repeating myself but balance is the key. Mustard ice cream is great when there is a hint of mustard and the tanginess of the vinegar is offset by the creaminess of the fat and the way that cuts the tang. But add the wrong amount of mustard, or have the wrong fat content and the dish can go down the tubes.

I think that Passard's cookbook isn't really about his recipes, it is really a primer on how to balance flavors when cooking. I have no first hand evidence of this but, to get spinach the way he served it to me, the leaves of the spinach have to be a certain thickness, and have to have a certain firmness to them. And the fat content of the butter needs to be a certain level or the butter needs to have been manipulated at the source. And the exact temperature that it is sauteed at needs to be revealed. I might be wrong but, I think that the reason Passard's cuisine works so well is that he cooks with that level of specificity.

Vivin - The greenmarket phenomenon needs visible chefs to promote cooking techniques that people can practice at home. How happy would everyone be if they knew how to make Passard's spinach? There is a need to develop a type of cooking that takes the best advantage of those markets. Passard is poised (technically) to be the chef that style of cuisine rallies around. But he isn't a self-promoter in the same way as other chefs, so he isn't likely to be the one to consolidate the concept of market cuisine into a worldwide phenomenon.

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I keep repeating myself but balance is the key. Mustard ice cream is great when there is a hint of mustard and the tanginess of the vinegar is offset by the creaminess of the fat and the way that cuts the tang. But add the wrong amount of mustard, or have the wrong fat content and the dish can go down the tubes.

Steve, nightscotsman asked you "Was the ice cream sweet in anyway, or just the pure mustard (dijon, I assume) flavor?"

You've mentioned it had a hint of mustard flavor along w/ tanginess of vinegar and creaminess of fat... so does that mean there was no sweetness to it at all? (I was also curious about that).

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Mr. P. Thanks for taking me to Arpege with you in this fine report.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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Thanks for evoking memories of my meal there two years ago (which were obscured halfway through by four chainsmokers and the cigar cart).

By the way, where do you recommend for cous cous and is there one open on Sunday?

(Sorry if the last belongs in another thread)

beachfan

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Steve thanks for the very evocative review of Arpege. Your writing in general

transports one to the essence of the place. My one lunch at Arpege , while

memorable in every respect, was particularly significant regarding the appetizer of carpaccio of sea scallops. It has forever changed my view of raw sea scallops. As you report the ingredients were extremely fresh, but the slicing of the scallops were

so thin as to be almost transparent , and the texture resulting fromthe thinness

transformed the ingredient, while maintaining the integrity of the fish.I think that is

the genius of his cooking skill .

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Laura, is there sugar in that recipe. Steve, I don't think sugar is an ingredient in a trypical French mustard. The label on Maille - Dijon Originale - Traditional Dijon Mustard lists Water, mustard seeds, vinegar, salt, citric acid and sulphur dioxide, but no sugar. I won't vouch for American mustards.

My understanding is that sugar affects the texture of ice creams, although I assume it's not the only way to get a smooth product. I have had several savory ice creams and sorbets. Most have not tasted sweet, although good ripe tomatoes are somewhat sweet and even a savory tomato sorbet or salad is relatively sweet. I did have an overly sweet tomato sorbet with a crab salad in a small bistro on the edge of the 5th arrondissement. It was sweet in a way that Blumenthal's mustard ice cream and Berasategui's savory ice creams were not. That said, a new sweetness via caramels and maple syrup is creeping into the savory course in fine restaurants and it's bound to slowly change our tastes. Although the mustard ice cream was fine, I found some courses at the Fat Duck bordered on too sweet. Ditto for El Bulli.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Steve,

Thank you for the flood of taste memories and for wonderfully descibing your experience; I've been wanting to post my thoughts on my recent visit in July, yet have not yet taken the time to pull it all together. Mostly, I'm still trying to grasp just why it is I left vaguely disappointed...

We tasted many of the same dishes, as I too chose the Pleinne terre, pleine mer menu (300 euros). I began with a flute of Billecart 1990 and due to the price of the menu and the fact that it was lunch, I economized a bit with a half bottle of Jadot Beaune Grèves 1998. Oh, as with all my meals at Arpège and most other three stars, I dined solo... Might I also confess of a pleasing, ritual pre-meal stroll through the gardens of the Rodin museum across rue de Varenne!

I had tasted many of the dishes before- the Oeuf, the Avocat à la crème de sévruga, and the Gaspacho. I always felt the egg almost defied description, yet you did so quite eloquently. Regarding the mustard ice cream, we just might perceive it differently if it was served alone. In tandem with the gaspacho, however, Passard truly defines, as you stated, balance. It is indeed not that sweet; I would attribute its silky texture to either processing in a Pacojet, or merely spinning it at the crucial moment before each service.

I've often considered Passard's strength as consistently hitting that mark where a dish becomes greater than simply the sum of its parts. All three of these dishes exemplify this point.

I also enjoyed a slight variation of the same lobster dish- in mine, turnips encased the lobster, but the vibrant, honey-based sauce sounds similar. The highlights for me came under the umbrella of what the menu described as a Collection légumière. A beautiful carrot consommé was garnished with a single ravioli, filled with sweet onions. As with all of his consommés I've tasted (I've come to consider his the benchmark)- nearly clear as water, yet so amazingly full of flavor. Then, perhaps the most revelatory for me in it's simplicity, four or five super-thin slices of yellow tomato dressed in a verbena vinaigrette. I found myself almost sucking on those bites of tomato, much like one would a slice of sashimi, savoring the perfect texture and brilliant pairing with the verveine. The Collection was rounded out by a delicate gratin of sweet onions (again), with Parmigiano and a healthy dose of black pepper- the three flavors jostling with each other to arrive at a fourth, ineffable flavor. As a passionate fan of Gagnaire and his, at times, 'manic' layers of flavor, I find Passard's minimalism nearly as intriguing and satisfying!

My fish course was also sole, but the specifics aren't clear in my memory. I, too, enjoy the bit of pomp and circumstance with Passard's approach to whole roasted items, presented at table, then whisked away, to return nicely presented on the plate. Perhaps my least favorite dish, however, was the chicken. It returned from the kitchen broken down into several pieces, with all the requisite gizzards and baby root vegetables, but I had the feeling that not a single bone had been removed, resulting in a fierce battle with my Laguiole, trying to get at all the good stuff. Fine, but labor intensive.

The difference between the standard cheese cart and that of Arpège, is their emphasis on the bien maturé. (Perhaps they need a reason to justify having red wine on the list!) Like the Salers you tasted, the centerpiece of my selection was a Comté, vintage 1998. Desserts have always let me down some. While the mille feuilles are indeed impeccable, I yearn for desserts that match the creativity and understated innovation of the rest of the menu. Sure, one has the tomato, but he's been doing it so long now, it appears, to me, more like a museum piece. I was grateful, however, that I was able to sample the strawberries and hibiscus.

So why did I feel let down? Apart from a few lapses in service, and a wine glass that sat empty for more than a few minutes as the sommelier (only one on duty) fussed over a DRC ordered by a neighboring table (justified?), nothing was necessarily under par. I admire Passard's food and what I understand of his underlying philosophy. I don't even miss the meat, though his foie gras with dates and hydromel ranked as one of my favorite dishes ever. I've never felt less than warmly welcomed and attended to by Laurent Lapaire and on two occasions by Alain himself ( I once was encouraged to join him at table as service ended and was completely dumbstruck, I sat next to Passard unable to constuct the simplest sentence in French! I think I asked him, quite clumsily, how his vegetables were doing!). I guess I'm just wanting him to show me something new. Poring over menus from four visits in five years... too many "signature" dishes. Perhaps I'm at too far a distance to notice subtle shifts and perhaps internal motives, but with this last visit, while the food was so wonderful, Passard failed to amaze me like he had in the past. And I cannot totally dismiss the factor of value. As someone in the business, I appreciate more than most the cost of sourcing such incredible ingredients and all the hands necessary to transform them in the kitchen; I'm still sad to see the prices at Arpège climb so much. The same tasting menu just a year earlier in April 2001 ran 1400 francs, about two-thirds the price, and two years prior the comparable menu was 1200 francs. As a person of modest income, I didn't feel good dropping $450 that afternoon. I wish it wasn't so.

Sadly, Arpège will not likely remain a perennial stop for me. Gagnaire will surely remain so. What might fill that void, where I once held Arpège so dear?

Michael Laiskonis

Pastry Chef

New York

www.michael-laiskonis.com

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The recipe for Passard's Mustard Ice Cream is on page 148 of Patricia Wells Paris Cookbook.

Thanks, Laura. The recipes for the eggs with maple syrup and the gazpacho (at least it seems to be Arpege's recipe) are also in Wells' book. Also, Passard's recipe for turnip gratin.

No sugar in the mustard ice cream -- just egg yolks, milk, cream and Dijon mustard.

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For those of you who have dined at L'Arpege - or any comparable restaurants - would you enjoy the food itself as much without the same setting and service?

That's sort of like asking if someone would you enjoy swimming in a beautiful pool as much if the water was dirty?

Ambiance, environment, formality, decor, service, presentation and a few other things I'm forgetting are all part of the three star experience. The food might be the main aspect of it, and it might drive things to the extent where it makes up 80-90% of the rating, but the other things are of major importance in making the meal enjoyable.

Mlpc - I long to be tired of eating at Arpege. Unfortunately I've only eaten there twice and I haven't used up my quota of desire. And indeed I have already booked a table for the end of October. But I have to tell you, when you were describing your meal, it sounded like you enjoyed it and it doesn't really seem to fit with the conclusion you reached.

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That's sort of like asking if someone would you enjoy swimming in a beautiful pool as much if the water was dirty?

Steve, c'mon.

Do you believe that all less than 3 Michelin starred restaurants are dirty?

To use your analogy, would you enjoy swimming in and of itself in a not quite beautiful though clean pool? Or a pristine Alpine lake? Or a warm tropical ocean?

I know as well as one can know about the Michelin rating system. But that's not what I'm asking about. I'm asking fundamentally about the food - for what it's worth. And what it's worth seems to be the million dollar - or 300 euro per person - question.

Would we appreciate Rodin or Picasso or Van Gogh or Passard on their own merits? Or do we need the setting and the service?

I don't know the answer. I don't think you know the answer for me. I'm just asking for those who've experienced L'Arpege what might the answer be for themselves.

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But I have to tell you, when you were describing your meal, it sounded like you enjoyed it and it doesn't really seem to fit with the conclusion you reached.

Point well taken. I guess the main issue was that I felt, quality aside, I had taken in the same meal, or at least half the dishes, at least twice before. Taking into consideration the value factor... the fact that, if I'm lucky, I can only visit France once a year, and while there, am able to take in maybe just two such dining experiences... I will hesitate before doing Arpège again. It would sound pompous of me to say, "been there, done that," but I do sort of see it that way. As I said, I wish that it wasn't the case.

Not to say that Passard needs to reinvent himself, it's just that I would like to see more of the new and less of the old.

Am I being unfair?

Michael Laiskonis

Pastry Chef

New York

www.michael-laiskonis.com

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I think mlpc increased the intellectual value of this thread and I hope I can respond to some of the things he and Plotnicki are discussing, but first I'll like to tackle the question loufod raised--"... would you enjoy the food itself as much without the same setting and service?" I think Plotnicki's analogy was off base just as loufood noted in his response. I think we can separate, to a large degree, the enjoyment of a the food and the overall enjoyment of the dinner. To a certain extent however, the food is dependant on the service. Mlpc "had the feeling that not a single bone had been removed, resulting in a fierce battle with my Laguiole, [the knife I assume, and not the cheese :biggrin: ] trying to get at all the good stuff. Fine, but labor intensive," he said. Dining in a high priced restaurant we expect the labor intensive work to be done in the kitchen, or by staff in the dining room and not by the diner. This is one area where you can't separate the food and service in terms of the enjoyment of that particular food.

Context can be decisive. The ambience of a the dining room can raise the level of the overall experience without changing the food, but I think loufood understands this by his analogies to different sorts of swimming holes. There's more to apreciate than clean water. Most of my interest in food, is in the food. I find the service pointless unless the food warrants such attention. I might never have eaten in a "fine" restaurant had not my curiosity been for the food. Once I moved up and tried that haute cuisine, not only did I appreciate the food, but I began to appreciate the service and all that went into that sort of dining. You should know however, that Arpege is a very simple room of almost miimal design, or at least it was when I was there some years ago.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Loufood - I was trying to say that you can't have a nice swimming pool with dirty water. Just like you can't have a three star restaurant without

nice decor and a staff that offers top level service. But whether you like my analogy or not, the next sentence says the following;

Ambiance, environment, formality, decor, service, presentation and a few other things I'm forgetting are all part of the three star experience. The food might be the main aspect of it, and it might drive things to the extent where it makes up 80-90% of the rating, but the other things are of major importance in making the meal enjoyable.

If that doesn't answer the original question asked, I'm not sure what would. No restaurant can be a three star only because of the food they serve. That's because it takes more then just food to have a three star meal. How about a buffet? Can there be a three star buffet? I doubt it.

You can't compare the dining experience with viewing Rodin and Picasso. It's interactive, viewing Rodin is not. You have to have all the accoutrements of the meal down perfectly for a dining experience to be a three star experience.

Mlpc - No you aren't being unfair. I can see that 3-4 more visits might allow me to understand his food to the extent that I would find no reason to return. And don't be shy about saying "been there done that."

Marcus - That's a tough question to answer. How do I parse intelect from sensusal pleasure when they are so well integrated? It's not as if Passard offers senusality apart from the cerebral component. I think the biggest leap with Passard's cuisine is that the elements of heavy saucing and meat are non-existent. One has to learn how to enjoy the meal without them being there. I have a friend in Paris who owns a wine shop. He eats at Passard all of the time. But given the choice between L'Ambroisie and Arpege he will choose Pacaud because he likes to eat meat. Let's just say that I don't have that problem. And I found my meal enjoyable enough that I didn't miss the meat or the heavy saucing at all.

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