Eating Out

The Puzzling Mediocrity of L’Arpège – Paris, France

I am writing this half a year after my lunch at L’Arpège. Looking back, puzzlement is the best descriptor. If it weren’t for Ryan Sutton’s review, “The Crushing Disappointment of L’Arpège,” I would almost wonder if I went to the wrong restaurant. How could my experience be so far from what this vegetable-focused Paris institution, Michelin three star (since 1996!), and World’s 50 Best Restaurant would imply?

The food I had was mediocre, and the service so surprisingly amateur that I lacked motivation to write. Thank goodness I also opted for the Gardener’s Lunch Menu instead of the full Earth & Sea Menu. At 420€ (~$480) for food alone, the full menu would have placed L’Arpège solidly in the most expensive meal ever category. The lunch menu at 175€ (~$200) seemed, in comparison, like a steal.

Tasting Menu

L’Arpège’s country loaf was extremely dense and flat, with inconsistent crumb. The second serving later on was even worse. I was not expecting a three Michelin star restaurant in Paris to have such amateur bread.

Arpege - Bread (inconsistent country loaf) and butter
Bread (inconsistent country loaf) and butter

The hot yolk and cold cream starter was one of the better dishes – a fun temperature contrast with pop from the chives.

Arpege - Hot Yolk and Cold Cream, chives
Hot Yolk and Cold Cream, chives

The Vegetable Salad highlighted what Chef Alain Passard does well. The white asparagus had great crunch, and the sweet and sour dressing along with the unexpected lavender complimented the vibrant veggies.

Arpege - Vegetable Salad
Vegetable Salad – white asparagus, carrot, strawberry, lavender

Next was another salad of sorts – the first fava beans of the season, accompanied by raspberries, tarragon, feta, cucumber, radish, and red onion. Where the previous dish felt cohesive, this dish just felt like a mixed grab bag. The overpowering whole basil leaf garnish was jarring.

Arpege - First Fava of Season, raspberry, tarragon, feta, basil
First Fava of Season, raspberry, tarragon, feta, basil

A stronger course was a trio of ravioli in a bright celery asparagus broth. The skin on the ravioli was nicely thin and each vegetable flavor (pea, turnip, cabbage) held their own.

Arpege - Ravioli Trio (pea, turnip, cabbage) in asparagus celery leaf broth
Ravioli Trio (pea, turnip, cabbage) in asparagus celery leaf broth

Having just had plenty of razor clams in Spain, the razor clams here were clearly not fresh, and the flavors were not there.

Arpege - Razor Clam, zucchini, elderflower
Razor Clam, zucchini, elderflower

Following the clams was meaty, mild raw oyster. I’m a fan of this style of oyster and the herbs added great brightness, but it felt very uninspired.

Arpege - Oyster
Oyster

The potato salad looked modest, but I enjoyed the strong flavors of green garlic paste, sugar snap peas, and red mullet caviar flakes.

Arpege - Potato Salad, red mullet caviar flakes, sugar snap pea, garlic paste
Potato Salad, red mullet caviar flakes, sugar snap pea, garlic paste

I was most excited to try the L’Arpège white asparagus. The rhubarb wrapped presentation was lovely in its simplicity. Bright and smokey flavors accentuated the perfect crunch of the asparagus. The dish was satisfying, albeit simple.

Arpege - White Asparagus, rhubarb wrap, beetroot, smoked shallot
White Asparagus, rhubarb wrap, beetroot, smoked shallot

Closing out the savory portion of the lunch tasting menu was a lightly warm pea soup with a dollop of chilled garlic crème fraîche. The garlic was extremely strong and had the sting of nearly raw garlic. I love garlic so it didn’t bother me, but I could see it being extremely off-putting.

Arpege - Warm Snap Pea Soup, chilled garlic crème fraîche
Warm Snap Pea Soup, chilled garlic crème fraîche

Supplements

As our menu was winding down, we noticed a server walking around with a plate of the fresh catch of the day. We asked to add the salmon as a supplement, and the question seemed to catch the server off guard. The fish was presumably being cooked for the Earth & Sea Menu, but this couldn’t have been the first time someone inquired about a supplement given the lavish parading of the meat.

Arpege - Salmon paraded around dining room before cooking
Salmon paraded around dining room before cooking

The salmon was slightly overcooked and could have used more seasoning. At least the lemon butter sauce was good.

Arpege - Salmon supplement, lemon butter
Salmon supplement, lemon butter

After seeing the veal being shown, we asked for a supplement of this as well. I thought the meat was again dry and bland.

Perhaps our supplement request threw off the timing. We waited 20 minutes for the veal course. The table next to us waited even longer – we were done with our dessert when they got their veal.

Arpege - Veal Supplement
Veal Supplement

Dessert

After the two supplements, we were back to the desserts as part of the lunch tasting menu. I liked the flavor of the hay ice cream, but the texture was icy. The choux pastry had good crunch.

Arpege - Hay Ice Cream, choux pastry, honey, candied almond
Hay Ice Cream, choux pastry, honey, candied almond

The petit fours were unremarkable and served without any description (my husband wasn’t even at the table). The server looked very puzzled about the timing and hesitated for a while before finally dumping it in front of me and walking away.

Arpege - Petit Fours
Petit Fours

Then a strawberry hibiscus course was strangely served afterward the petit fours.

Arpege - Hibiscus juice, strawberry
Hibiscus juice, strawberry

Service

I noticed a server use the bread tongs to grab leftover crusts from my plate, then use the same tongs to serve others new bread. Napkins were not replaced or folded when we left the table, crumbs were not removed, and they even served the petit fours course when my husband wasn’t at the table. The servers were clueless about process, and the sommelier was completely clueless about the food being served. At a standard restaurant, these things wouldn’t be a big deal. At three Michelin stars and a lunch tab of 300€ per person, this was unacceptable.

Wine

We got a full bottle of Meursault at quite the markup (170€) and glass each of the other two (15€/glass). The Meursault was a very crisp and smooth Burgundy white with a pleasant short finish. The Jurançon was my favorite with warm tea notes, a wonderful acidity, and a very long, bright finish.

The final white I tried was recommended as a more complex wine to stand up to the meat course. This Northern Rhone white was clean, with a hint of hay, but had the least character of the three. Not a bad wine, but a poor recommendation.

Arpege - The Gardener's Lunch Tasting Menu 175€ (~$200)
The Gardener’s Lunch Tasting Menu 175€ (~$200)

Thoughts

Though I did enjoy many of the courses, nothing had that “wow” factor. The food was simple and lacked the innovation and complexity of other two and three Michelin starred spots. The meat supplements were average at best in execution.

The ingredients used were almost insultingly cheap given the lofty tasting menu prices. Given the reputation, I had expected so much more. L’Arpege was unfortunately the worst three star experience for me.

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