Love it or hate it, a maiden culinary voyage to Paris (in a post-Covid world anyway) is incomplete without a visit to L’Arpège, the famed 3 Michelin starred restaurant helmed by renowned French chef Alain Passard. Hailed as a visionary and icon of French haute cuisine, Passard was once revered for his mastery of meat dishes, but went against all odds in 2001 to shift his restaurant’s focus towards an entirely vegetarian menu. The risqué move paid off, paving the way for the humble vegetable to take the lead in fine cuisine all over the world.
L’Arpège has since incorporated meats, fish and seafood back into its menu, although organic vegetables, herbs and fruit – which are entirely grown in the chef’s three gardens and are freshly delivered to his restaurant each day – still take centre stage. During our first visit to the restaurant back in Spring season of 2018, seasonal produce were highlighted from the beginning of our meal, taking the form of classic dishes such as sweet and exquisite vegetable purée tartlets and beetroot “sushi”.
Vegetables in a league of their own
While the France Michelin guide lists L’Arpège’s cuisine as ‘creative’, chef Passard’s cooking leans towards classical French and employs the radical ideation of developing new tastes, textures and scents with vegetables. In that vein, Passard’s cuisine does not attempt to mimick the sensations of meat, but respects the many dimensions of high quality vegetable produce that are often overlooked or ignored. Chef Passard also famously does not keep a log of his recipes, choosing instead to adapt his dishes according to the day’s best produce. But perhaps the best part about dining at L’Arpège is that chef Passard cooks at his restaurant most of the time – a rare quality in this day and age.
It was on this note that L’Arpège (alongside fish restaurant Le Duc) took high priority on our dining reservation list in Paris. This, despite the fiercely debated opinions of published food writers (who argued that the restaurant relegated a “crushing disappointment” in their experience), versus the support shown by the Michelin guide, World’s 50 Best and OAD Top Restaurant listings as well as popular foodie travelers hungry for Passard’s cooking. I personally find that the LondonEater’s reviews provide a more insightful overview of what to expect (and definitely how not to be disappointed) should you decide to invest in an expensive meal at L’Arpège.
Beyond vegetable focused dishes, Passard’s meat and fish dishes were a standout in their own right. Every dish had its flesh perfected cooked, never over or under done, each complemented beautifully by flavourful and non-heavy sauces – an important element of French cuisine. Desserts too were faultless, luxuriously buttery and delicious, but the most important question remains: does the high pricing at L’Arpège justify its simple cooking and ingredients?
In our opinion, restaurants such as L’Arpège – and an increasing number of reputable Kaiseki restaurants in Japan – emphasise strongly on caring for and respecting the high quality ingredients given to us by nature, by taking on the uphill task of direct sourcing or growing their own produce, peeling back layers of flavour and textural complexities in a single ingredient and turning their into divine dishes with plenty of R&D, slow cooking, perfected techniques and patience. They may not cash in on the latest dining trends, employ intricate molecular gastronomy science or use the fanciest ingredients in abundance, but chefs like Alain Passard embody the most important thing in their pursuit of culinary perfection: cooking with a lot of heart, passion and soul.
Of course, some may still be on the fence with L’Arpège when it comes to making the choice for a fine dining meal that would feel worth paying for. Hence, opting for the lunch tasting menu (approximately 140 to 175 euros, served Omakase style) provides a succinct introduction to Passard’s cooking philosophy, compared to the heavier investment required for the full menu or during dinner. Be sure to contact the restaurant ahead on the availability of the lunch menu.
84 rue de Varenne, Paris, 75007, France
Opening Hours: Lunch and dinner service from Monday to Friday. Closed on Saturday and Sunday.