May 31, 2015

25 for 25: Cooking for the Senses at Arpege

My creativity comes from nature – and the smell and colour of vegetables and fruits are, for me, a real source of inspiration. I try to respond emotionally to nature in order to respect it fully. 
Chef Alain Passard

The first restaurant report in our series 25 for 25, in which we chronicle our dining adventures at the world's 25 best restaurants.  Richard shares our meal at L'Arpege in Paris.

Elizabeth and I had happily accepted friends offer to ring in the New Year in the south of France.  Our friends' restored farmhouse is perfectly located in the heart of the "golden triangle" of Provence, in Maussanes-les Alpilles, and a short drive to the delicious wineries of the Rhone, concentrating almost exclusively on the Syrah varietal, featuring Cote-Rotie, Saint-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas and of course, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, perhaps the best known wine of the region. 

Having ate and drank our way into 2015 in the sleepy ambiance of off-season Provence, and with Maussane-les-Alpilles being a hop, skip and a jump (otherwise know as a train ride) from Paris, we decided we would end our French holiday by adding a couple of days in Paris, one of our favourite cities and - more importantly - the home of Arpege, number 25 on San Pellegrino World's 50 Best list.

So..come hell or high water, we werent leaving Paris without kicking off our culinary marathon. Chef Alain Passard, one of Frances greatest and most influential chefs, opened Arpege in 1986 and within a year, Chef Passard had collected his first star from the Michelin firmament. By 1996, Arpege had three Michelin stars, which the restaurant has held onto since, firmly establishing Arpeges position as one of the brightest beacons in the restaurant constellation.

Our reservations were secured for eight pm the night before we were to leave Paris. Even though Arpege is tucked away in the 7th arrondissement at the corner of Rue de Bourgogne and Rue de Varenne, our taxi driver knew exactly where it was.

The elegant yet unassuming Art Deco dining room is warm, comfortable and intimate. On the dark and chilly Monday night we dined, the cozy room was full, but not crowded. Old school formality, crisp white linens, everyone from a young family celebrating a birthday, a table of business colleagues on a splurge, to two Asian tourists minutely examining every bite and a young couple on a date.

Over a perfectly chilled glass of Marguet Champagne, we reviewed the menu and agreed that the Terre et Mer 12 course tasting menu was the way to go. Although the tasting menu features meat and fish, Passard's true mastery is with vegetables, with the restaurant for a time only serving vegetarian fare. All the vegetables served at the restaurant come from one of the restaurant's organic gardens in the Sarthe, Eure and Manche regions of northern France.

Chef Passard cooks for the senses - his philosophy evident from the very first palate pleaser. Each course striking, at various levels, our sense of taste, smell, sight and even our sense of touch with the many different yet subtle textures.

His passion for all things vegetable is evident through out his career as well as his cooking. Since 2002, with the help of six farmers, Chef Passard has not only grown his own vegetables but at his garden in Fillé sur Sarthe, has created an entirely pesticide-free ecosystem where, with the help of a beehive, pollination is ensured and honey is produced. Perches, trees and shrubs planted to welcome birds and raptors, ponds to support amphibian life and strategically placed stones to house weasels, hedgehogs and reptiles. Thus joining the hands of the grower with those of the cook.

The first official course in our degustation was Chef Passards famous Chaud Froid dOeuf au Sirop dErable: Warm-Cold Egg with Maple Syrup. Reminiscent of a soft boiled egg and served in its shell, the magic of this dish rests in its simplicity: a warm egg yolk at the centre, surrounded by a room temperature cloud of lightly whipped cream with a splash of Sherry vinegar and finished with a touch of maple syrup.  C'est magnifique! 

The attentive and knowledgeable staff brought at a leisurely pace course after course, suggesting wine pairings to go alongside. Although the tasting menu listed 12 courses, by the end of the evening, we would count 17 courses, including several amuse bouche and one or two additional dessert bouchées.just because.

Even these several months later, the tastes still dance on our tongues. Each dish truly a marriage of "Terre et Mer" - earth and sea.  Below a description of a few of our favourites.  From left to right:

 Bouquet de homard de Chausey acidule au miel de notre jardin: A "bouquet" of ceviche-style Chausey lobster acidified with the farm's honey, served on paper thin globe turnip. A marriage of earthiness and delicacy. Served with Leon Beyer Cuvee des Comtes d'Eguisheim 2013 (Riesling)

Huitre de Marennes-Olerons au vinaigre dOrleans: One perfectly plump and briny oyster from Marennes-Olerons with a soupcon of Orleans-style vinegar and finished with new garlic and black truffle. This was my favourite amongst a standout menu. Served with Leon Beyer Cuvee des Comtes d'Eguisheim 2013 (Riesling)

Chaud Froid dOeuf au Sirop dErable: Airy, delightful and unexpected. See below for the recipe. Served with: Singulier Clos de Renards 2013 (Chenin)
Celerisotto cremeux au caviar krystal”: A "risotto" made of perfectly braised and creamy celery with Parmigiano Reggiano and topped with plump, briny and buttery caviar. Served with Leon Beyer Cuvee des Comtes d'Eguisheim 2013 (Riesling)

Pot Pie a la Louise Passard: Okay this isn't what this was really called but for some reason neither Elizabeth nor I can recall the name of this dish, nor was it named on the menu.  Was it a special extra treat? We don't know but what we do know was that it was a creamy mix of chicken and winter vegetables encased in the most flaky and delicious pâte. Served with: Tenuta Enza la Fauci Obli 2010 (Nero d'Avola blend)

Jardiniere Arlequin et merguez vegetale a lharrisa: Elizabeth's favourite dish, this was a simple showcase of the harvest of Passard's seasonal garden: beets, black radish, artichoke, carrots, dressed with harrisa. Served with: Etienne Sauzet Puligny-Montrachet 2011 (Chardonnay)

Grande rotisserie dheritage Louise Passard: A dish hearkening back to the chef's grandmother, Louise Passard (whose portrait graces the restaurant's dining room), veal was the star of this dish, perfectly pink, meltingly tender and flavourful. Served with: Tenuta Enza la Fauci Obli 2010 (Nero d'Avola blend)

Peche cotiere du Golfe du Morbihan au Cotes du Juras”: Coastal turbot served with black truffle and a smoky sauce. Etienne Sauzet Puligny-Montrachet 2011 (Chardonnay)

Comté Grande Garde exceptionnelle á la truffe noire: One generous slice of exceptional Comte cheese, even more generously shaved with fresh black truffle. Served with: Tenuta Enza la Fauci Obli 2010 (Nero d'Avola blend)

A beautiful meal, and an auspicious start to our culinary journey. If this was number 25, who knew what further amazing food adventures awaited us?

Until the next meal,

PS. See below for the recipe of Alain Passard's Chaud Froid dOeuf au Sirop dErable. 

Up next: A new list and a new journey?

RECIPE: Alain Passard's Chaud Froid dOeuf au Sirop dErable
(from The Paris Cookbook, Patrica Wells)
6 servings 

4 tablespoons heavy cream
About 3/4 teaspoon sherry vinegar, or to taste
Sea salt to taste
6 very fresh eggs at room temperature
2 teaspoons finely minced fresh chives
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
About 2 teaspoons maple syrup

An egg cutter or a very sharp knife, 6 porcelain egg cups

1. Place a bowl in the freezer for at least 30 minutes. In the chilled bowl, whisk the cream until soft peaks form. Season with the sherry vinegar and sea salt. Set aside.

2. Place an egg in your hand, tapered end up. Using an egg cutter of a very sharp knife, carefully slice off about the top third of the eggshell. Carefully pour the egg white out of the shell into a small bowl, holding back the yolk with the flat side of a knife. (Reserve the white for another use.) With a damp paper towel, wipe the bottom of the shell. Place the shell in a porcelain egg cup. (If you return the eggs to the egg carton, they are likely to stick and will be impossible to remove later.) Repeat with the remaining eggs.

3. Select a large, shallow skillet that is large enough to hold the eggshells in a single layer. Add water to about 2 inches in depth. Bring just to a simmer.

4. Carefully lift the eggshells from the egg cups and place them in the simmering water (the eggshells should just bob on top of the water). Cook just until the yolk begins to set around the edges, about 3 minutes. Using your fingertips, carefully remove the eggshells from the water and return them to the egg cups.

5. Sprinkle each cooked egg yolk with minced chives. Season with sea salt and pepper. Then carefully spoon the whipped cream over the yolk up to the rim of each egg cup. Drizzle with maple syrup, and serve immediately.