When I visited: March 2017
Location: Paris, in 7th arrondissement
Rating in the Michelin Guide: 3 stars
What to wear: Men – shirt and jacket and nice trousers and shoes; women – a smart dress and/or smart trousers and a top
Ambience: Formal, busy
Course of the meal: Leek with oysters from Oléron and cabbage
If I could change one thing: Fewer mistakes in service
My partner Owl wanted to go to Arpège for a birthday treat, so I tried to book it. This involved using the online booking form, which looked pretty simple but was ignored; then I tried emailing the email addresses provided on the website, in both English and French, and these emails were ignored as well. Eventually, I decided that this restaurant is just not good at communicating online and asked my Owl ancestor who speaks fluent French to ring up and book it for me (yes I could have just called them in English or basic French myself). This secured us the booking although we did have to call back ourselves the day before the reservation rather than them just sending an email confirmation like everyone else.
We were excited about visiting partly because of the restaurant’s great reputation for doing interesting things with vegetables – it hardly uses meat or fish in any of its menus at all, and if you want you can have a vegetarian tasting menu. The name Arpège refers to the French word for ‘arpeggio’ and there is a music theme throughout the restaurant’s décor.
We got there at the start of dinner service and were given a good corner table where we could people-watch everyone else. However, they took quite a while to serve us initially – we were asked if we wanted champagne (standard) and were given some gorgeous canapés, but only after we had already drunk most of our champagne glasses (and not because we were gulping them down). We had a glass each of the very dry and adult Champagne Blanc Prestige. The canapés were tiny pastry shell parcels of beetroot and sage, sweet pepper, and artichoke in ‘mini taco’ form.
After perusing the various menus and observing the casual sexism (see my fine dining hallmarks post) of female diners not having prices on their menus, even when their name is on the reservation, we decided to go for the non-vegetarian seasonal tasting menu ‘terre et mer en mars’ (earth and sea – March) and the sommelier helped us choose a lovely bottle of white wine (Mersault Premier Cru “Genevrieres” 2011 A Jobard), which had a buttery taste with a slightly mineral-y aftertaste. There was a slight mistake in their treatment of this wine, in that they correctly recommended that it should be at room temperature and then chilled later, but they then forgot to chill it so my partner Owl had to ask for this to be done when it got a bit too warm. This is obviously hardly a huge flaw but in a 3-star restaurant with extreme prices you kind of expect this sort of thing to be taken care of.
We were given some lovely soft dark bread and warned not to have too much or we would not be able to finish our meal; I heeded this warning and stuck to one piece, but would have had more if I hadn’t been planning to eat my way through a long tasting menu. The famous chef Alain Passard came out to meet us early on (he made an effort to chat to every table at some point) and admired my partner Owl’s jacket (which I chose in Japan, so props to me) and pointed at the amount of butter on my partner Owl’s bread and said ‘me too’. Most of the other guests were English-speaking; one was sitting on his own so was probably another reviewer.
The first ‘proper’ course was an ‘egg chaud-froid’ (cold and hot egg) served with four spices and maple syrup, which was both delicious and innovative. This was followed up with sea scallops from the Granville Bay with black truffle pieces, arranged to look like a chessboard. This course was one of the best-looking but disappointingly the truffle pieces didn’t have much truffle flavour to them (which was also a slight problem at Brasserie Gallopin). The third course was the fine multicoloured vegetable ravioli in a gorgeous broth (autumnal consommé).
The next few courses kept up the high standard: the gratinated onion from Bois-Giroult garden with Parmigiano Reggiano was very thin in texture but tasted amazing; the spinach velouté with hake cream was thicker and some of the best green food I’ve ever had; and the leek with oysters from Oléron (and sorrel from Belleville) was a standout course, absolutely perfect. Next came vegetable purple tartare with beetroot, another healthy and delicious vegetable-based course.
We got our fish course in the form of turbot (which was presented to us first!), called ‘coast fishing from the Gulf of Morbihan), which was very soft and tender, followed by ‘large heritage carvery’ – veal (again presented to us first), with one roast potato and more vegetables.
Our first ‘dessert’ course was the Paris-Brest with chestnut cream and caramel and was wonderfully light and tasty. They then served us an outstanding crunchy chocolate millefeuille (called ‘caprice d’enfant’) but halfway through brought us a lemon sorbet on the side – I think they meant to bring the lemon sorbet first as a palate cleanser, but forgot and then tried to cover this up. I don’t mind when restaurants make mistakes – who doesn’t? – but I don’t like it when they pretend they didn’t. I also think that Arpege could have observed the fact that it was my partner Owl’s birthday, which they did know about – lots of lesser restaurants make the effort to give someone a bonus mini cake with a candle or something and it does give a good impression.
However, we got some lovely mignardaises before ordering our green teas (which were very good and served in silver teapots): a “macalambo”, tuile biscuit, “caramiel”, palmier (mint / herby), a sweet soft toffee, a carrot mini half macaron, and a long thin finger wafer of very light caramel.
A slight drawback for guests wearing heels is that the only toilets are down some pretty steep steps, and a drawback for everyone is that there is only one toilet for each gender, which seems bizarre in such a posh restaurant.
Overall, the quality of our food was absolutely amazing and if it were only down to the food I would have given this restaurant 5 hoots. The mistakes in service were what made me take it down to 4, but it wasn’t an easy decision. The staff were friendly throughout and showed off their dry French sense of humour, and were especially helpful at the end, calling a taxi to take us back to the hotel and escorting us out to it in the rain.
Along with Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, Arpège is definitely one of the best restaurants I’ve been to in terms of its treatment of vegetable-based dishes and I would certainly visit it again to try some of the other menu options.