This is not a story about natural champagne. There’s some natural champagne in the story, but the focus lies on l’Arpège, the starred restaurant by Alain Passard. L’Arpège is one of the best restaurants in the world, yet all dishes revolve around vegetables. What’s interesting, is that Alain’s way of working is very similar to the way natural champagne producers treat their vines. It’s why I wrote the story below, and I hope you’ll be just as inspired as I was.
The ultimate birthday gift
In the days approaching my boyfriend’s birthday, we usually start our annual fight about how we’ll celebrate. My boyfriend thinks birthdays are “stupid” and “a non-event”, whereas I am a birthday romantic. This results in either a great day for me or a great day for him: there’s always a loser. But not this time, as we had this exact discussion over the phone:
“I know what to give you for your birthday.”
“Really, it’s fine. I don’t want anything.”
“I thought we could go to Paris and have lunch at that restaurant you love.”
“What, we’re going to L’Arpège? Yes okay.”
So, on December 23 in the year of 2019, we drove to Paris.
What is L’Arpège and who’s Alain Passard?
Before we go inside, let me tell you a little bit about l’Arpège and its founder Alain Passard. Alain is a French chef and a true breton. He started his career at Le Lion d’Or in Liffré, which is not that far from Rennes where I studied. Later, he worked for La Chaumière in Reims (hi there Champagne region), followed by L’Archestrate led by Alain Senderens in Paris. Also in Paris, Alain opened his first restaurant Le Duc d’Enghien that soon got a Michelin star. Later, he moved to Brussels to work at the Mariton, which got the restaurant two stars within two years. It was a fine career, and he hadn’t even turned thirty.
Alain kicked fish and meat off the stage and created a new show with vegetables in the lead role
In 1986, Alain moved back to Paris to take over Senderens’ restaurant L’Archestrate and turned it into L’Arpège. By 1996, this restaurant had acquired three Michelin Stars, and the world got curious about this talented chef from Bretagne. At the time, Alain was a classical French chef cooking classical French food. Things changed when he decided to kick meat and fish off the stage and create a new show with vegetables in the lead role. The amazing thing was that he treated vegetables as if they were meat. He started braising, grilling and searing them like you would do with fish or steak. Alain shocked the world, and people thought it would cost him his Michelin stars. Obviously, it didn’t. L’Arpège became the first French star restaurant that focusses on vegetables and is now on the bucket list of gastronomists all over the world. Take that, foie grass.
Light light light
Back to the present. Monday came, and around 1 PM we arrived at Rue de Varennes. Inside, everything looked brighter than usual. The atmosphere, the smiles on the faces of the staff, even the walls of the cellar where we were seated.
Arthur was introduced as our waiter, whom we instantly liked as we could tell he was genuinely proud of the institution he worked for. We insisted he speak French, which he seemed to appreciate. After the well performed introduction, we ordered the Déjeuner des Jardiniers (gardener’s lunch). It was exactly that, as the menu didn’t contain any fish or meat. You could choose to add some, but you’d have to explicitly ask. When in a restaurant, I always put my faith in the hands of the chef, so we went 100% vegetarian like two Amsterdam hipsters.
Just like Anselme Selosse does with his Lieux Dits, Alain Passard lets nature speak through his dishes
The two kitchen gardens of L’Arpège
Arthur kicked off our lunch by telling us some background information. We learned that all dishes were centred around vegetables coming from their own two gardens, that are located west of Paris. The gardens differ in terms of soil: the one in the Sarthe region, for example, is very “sandy”, whereas the garden in the Eure region contains a lot of clay. This reminded me of the role that minerals, chalk and clay have in Champagne. Just like Anselme Selosse does with his Lieux Dits, Alain Passard lets the terroir speak through his dishes. How brilliant to find a piece of the champagne philosophy in Paris! After his little presentation, Arthur served us home made bread with salted butter from Bretagne, which he said was dangerously delicious. As you probably know, there’s no denying Michelin star bread. So we ate it all.
The bread was delicious, but then came the steak tartare based on beetroots, the carpaccio of radish and carrot, the union compote, the pumpkin soup, the beetroot burger with egg and parmesan, the lasagne brioche with shallots and kalamata olive soup. The dishes lifted me up and for the rest of the day, I felt like I was flying. Never had I felt so light after more than ten courses, and never had I felt more Parisian, despite the absence of foie grass, scallops and confit de canard. It just worked, all of it. And, to my boyfriend’s surprise, we also got to taste the famous chaud-froid d’oeuf (also known as the “Arpège egg”): a pièce de résistance of technical cooking. I say famous, but I had never heard of it. It didn’t matter, though, as you can’t taste fame but you can taste genius.
The wine from Puligny-Montrachet is a big, fat classical Chardonnay that tasted as if someone had melted our beurre demi-sel in a saucepan. Brilliant!
Champagne and melted butter
I can’t tell this story without drowning you in imaginary champagne. Ever since I got hopelessly drunk and sad at the Jane in Antwerp, I no longer do wine menus. There’s just too much alcohol and too many flavours that mess with my head, my tasting buds and my balance. Therefore, we usually have one glass of champagne to start and one glass of white when we’re halfway through. For me, this is the perfect amount. Champagne has the power to get you in the right mood, and a glass of white puts you back in focus when you threaten to drift off.
At L’Arpège, we started with a Huet Champagne, which we knew was good before we even tasted it. It just danced in our glasses, and if scents could talk, this one would say: “Hi there, I know you had champagne yesterday, but now try me and taste the difference”. Hence, ruthlessly delicious. Halfway through the Déjeuners des Jardiniers I also had a white wine from Puligny-Montrachet: a big, fat classical Chardonnay that tasted as if someone had melted our beurre demi-sel in a saucepan: brilliant!
Trying to talk to Alain Passard
In the middle of all this lightness, suddenly, there he was: Alain Passard himself. “Oh my God is that him?” I whispered to my boyfriend, who said: “Yes, that’s him. Chill out, will you?” Again, I was starstruck by someone I had never heard of, just as I was with Guillaume Selosse in Reims (read that story here). “Oh no he’s coming over. I should ask him something. Something I can put on my website!” I whispered. But it was already too late. Alain put his hands on my boyfriend’s shoulders and greeted us as if we were old friends.
We told him we were from Amsterdam, and it turned out Alain had just been there to receive an oeuvre award for his contribution to gastronomy. He had also paid a visit to Bord’eau, to cook with the famous Dutch chef Bas van Kranen. We told him Bord’eau had been my first Michelin star experience, and that we had enjoyed it. “This is better, though” I managed to squeeze out, and I decided not to interview this man. It was just too much, and I felt all light because of the food and starstruck because of the man in the painfully white apron.
Later, I’d find out his food is inspired by music, which explained the singing in my head. What an experience, and that on a Monday!
Going upstairs- going home
Just before dessert, Arthur (thank God for Arthur) asked us if we’d like to switch to a table upstairs to experience the difference in atmosphere. We followed him to the ground floor, where we got not one, not two, but three desserts plus coffee and sweets. Although it filled us up, we didn’t feel as exhausted as we usually feel after a 10+ course meal. Something was different. We felt alive and inspired, and we started to make plans for a cycling trip and our next trip to France.
The check came and I paid, which seemed to please the woman that brought it over (take that all you rich men in expensive shirts). It made me feel even more balanced, and as we walked out, I couldn’t stop smiling. I had been fascinated by the Mugaritz in Basque Country but for me, this was what food is all about. We drove home, made more plans, and I became a vegetarian the day after (I must admit that it didn’t last long but still, I tried). What did stick with me, was a fascination for real food, the beauty of vegetables and a soft singing in my head when I think about Rue de Varennes in Paris.
That’s what L’Arpège can do.