Everything wonderful arrives obliquely, which is why I should have known better than to have made a reservation at Arpege a month in advance.
It only happened because Pierre Gagniaire, Mon Vieil Ami and so many other top drawer restaurants were ferme le aout, and I was too greedy and too unsure of myself in other respects to leave my 72 hours to chance. I heard that the betterave was worth the 80 or so euros and so it came to pass that after an absence of nearly 2 decades I celebrated my brief and halting return to Paris with a room full of Americans, each of around 15 tables visibly and, in the case of the 8 Texans (including 4 large bottle blondes one of whom told the server very loudly that she couldn't eat anything with cheese, butter or cream, I kid you not), audibly; willing the subdued and open room into the backdrop for their separate dramas. These included a couple of proposals (nerdy men with hair receding from their foreheads and slipping down their necks facing women with straight blonde bobs and black eyeliner, facing the room and each other occasionally and nervously, between exaggeratedly intense moments with their respective partners); a table that may have been from the Korean embassy around the corner, including a couple of delectably dressed and well behaved children; and a few additional couples and allsorts.
Chuckeats had said that Arpege was hit or miss and unfortunately I hit the miss. They offer a coupe de champagne as an aperitif, which was a lovely Billecart Salmon Brut Reserve (magnum), and three amuses, the first a tiny wafer with a bead of mousse (and now I'm forgetting what it was). The texture was a miracle, like popping a caviar egg between tongue and palate. This was followed by the much vaunted Egg which frankly I hated. The moussed white was ok but the yolk was just completely uncooked and pooled at the bottom of the shell like, well, a raw egg yolk. I didn't get the maple syrup either. I should say that I don't like my eggs separated in general, and I'm not much for sweets. But I could have been persuaded by this dish and I wasn't. Happily, this was followed by four more of the exquisite tartelets.
I ordered a la carte as I simply couldn't stretch to 350 euros for the tasting. And the other point that is significant to what follows is that I conducted my order in French. The staff all seemed to speak both French and English (good thing as almost their entire clientele was American, that evening anyway) and graciously asks diners which language they prefer. Part of the point of being in Paris was to exercise my sketchy language skills (the French ones) so it is entirely possible that the entree was my fault.
I ordered the entree for two primary reasons: 1) it was a variety of vegetables, so I thought it would best illustrate this reputed strength of the kitchen; and 2) the name of the dish was poetry-- which I can't now recall, but it was an evocation of the sensual experience of the garden. So the waiter told me that there were two preparations of the dish, the first a crudite with olive oil, and the second-- well, I remember 'melange' and 'salsifis' and 'speck' and 'mousse' and I had some idea that it was a cooked version of the dish, accompanied by a mousse of salsify and speck. Sadly, I missed the part about how the vegetables were all put in a blender with cream and pureed until a uniform beige, plated and topped with a large scoop of salsify and speck mousse.
The whole was oversalted, with zero visual and textural interest. And at 58 euros, that is just not acceptable, even if I did order soup.
The main course was a spectacular dorade that exhibited a depth and range of flavor (noticeably of nuts) that I had not previously encountered with this fish. The vegetables were quite nice but strangely cooked with NO salt, which was, however, amply compensated by the speck foam! that had been generously applied to the entire dish. The waiter had herself suggested the dorade after I had selected the unfortunate entree, and I wish she had alerted me to the fact that I was basically ordering a bacon tasting. What's worse is that the bacon was all vaporised so while everything tasted of speck, it contributed none of its potential crunch or chew or visual contrast.
I tried hard to enjoy myself, but I never fully recovered from the boredom (and lingering aftertaste) of the speck soup. As the evening wore on, the Texans got louder, the staff (I counted 6 front of the house for around 60 covers) were visibly stressed, and I started thinking about brushing my teeth.
I skipped dessert and returned to the metro, seduced and abandoned.
84, rue de Varenne
Tel : +33 (0)1 47 05 09 06