The documentary on Netflix did not do L’Arpège justice. A stingy person might describe it as a hostage situation for which you pay your own ransom. The ransom is “cheap” at only 145 euros. At that price, you might have expected it to take a few hours. In stead it takes 4 hours and consists of many more courses than you would have guessed. Then it ends abruptly so that you do not know it’s over. It seems like this hostage situation was well sought after. There were at least three other people, presumably foodies, who were happily taken hostage on a fine Monday afternoon. You can tell because they were dining alone like me.
The restaurant is in a pretty little corner by the Rodin museum, in the 7th. The restaurant itself is tiny. Not grandiose like other 3 star restaurants. It’s not in Le Bristol, or the George V. No, it’s a tired, carpeted room, and the diners squeeze in like sardines. The tables feel squished in to make room for an accidental overbooking. A single diner is positioned to face directly at my side, as if she were drawing my portrait. And I was positioned looking at someone else.
The start of the lunch was rather precarious. I had announced my arrival and they could not find my name on the list. I took a look at the list upside down and found my name highlighted. Apparently someone else had gone in under my name. A man then asked to see my reservation email and after reading it asked me if I had confirmed the reservation as the email requested at the bottom. I had, in fact, though perhaps not in the timeframe he had in mind, but my retort was that my name was on the list, and already admitted so clearly the issue was not mine but rather between the restaurant and impersonator. The waiter then had a very funny response along the lines of there might be another person with the same name. Although this attitude is on one level Parisian, on another level it isn’t. Parisians usually at least make sound arguments. This clearly was not a sound argument, and he could see that. He acknowledged that he had lost the debate by then and showed me to an awkward table.
L’Arpège is in many ways an odd 3 star restaurant. Most 3 star restaurants pride themselves on splendid service. Service at l’Arpège’s is rusty. Waiters and waitresses are frazzled, running around aimlessly. They are not helped by the tight quarters and the two levels of seating. Plates were dropped and splattered on the stairs. There are carts where dirty plates sat within reach of patrons for the entire service. Other plates were placed haphazardly in random corners of the restaurant. The 3 star restaurant does not have 3 star service.
Nor does the modern patron care. The room is overwhelmingly English speaking and largely fixated on the food. I count 15 courses plus a petit four plate, which probably makes this the best three star deal in Paris. Usually restaurants cater the cheap lunch to the business crowd that wants a quick and unexceptional meal. The L’Arpège lunch was a normal 3 star meal that was highly discounted.
To start is a l’Arpège favourite - foamy egg with maple syrup. This is a dish that is served in many good restaurants but the maple syrup here is differentiating, giving it a sweet quality against the umami. The next courses are vegetable driven, which have propelled l’Arpège to the top in Paris (at least according to the Top 50 restaurants list). Take, for example, the al dente potato pasta sitting in a buttery sauce - so decadent and no meat to speak of. A burrata salad with tomatoes, cucumbers and melons is delicious, and later makes a reprise between the carnivorous dishes (perhaps the chef ran out of ideas here). There were no real misses, just a few average dishes like the beetroot sushi, which didn’t make too much sense to me as it didn’t taste better than sushi. The vegetable dumplings also failed to inspire, and made you feel sorry to be vegetarian.
The best dishes contained more than vegetables. The fish dish was absolutely delicious. Here a simple dover sole was sliced horizontally to be a very long, and spanned a big plate. It was coated in butter sauce, allowing for a rich indulgence. The vegetables on the side asserted L’Arpège’s strengths, such as a potatoes that tasted rich and flavourful. A dollop of nutty purée accentuated the fish.
By the time the second main comes out (there were three vegetable courses in between the mains) there is little fight left. It was a standard tasty french duck dish, though this one comes with a gorgeous purple beet puree. The standard skin-on duck breast also came with some duck liver. One criticism of the restaurant might be the recycling of ingredients. Cauliflowers are a strength as seen through the cauliflower veloute, very hearty and rich. But do we need cauliflower in the three other dishes it appeared in? Little “Mexican” cucumbers that most people would mistake for cherry tomato - that appears in at least three dishes.
Dessert was also good, with rosemary creme brûlée and caramel profiteroles with basil ice cream that was supremely enticing. A large plate of petite fours is unfathomable at this point, though we do wonder why there wasn’t any chocolate.
So the 3.5 hour dinner ends after many good courses a few great ones. The bill comes and you thought you just stole the lunch and that some of the rough edges were certainly worth it (the wine, by the way, aren’t demanding either). But you do feel the need to get out of the claustrophobia as quickly as possible. To call this meal fun (as Pete Wells did) is a stretch. It’s more like a laborious foodie pilgrimage through one of the world’s iconic restaurants. Star-gazing in Paris takes a lot out of you.