Monday, 30 August 2010


A truly memorable experience at a three-star restaurant which has been a temple of creative cuisine for many years.

For restaurants in France, the Guide Michelin is my bible. Every restaurant in it is one that the inspectors (who always dine in cognito) have approved. In other words, they refrain from listing a place that is not acceptable. The coveted stars ensure a restaurant's future and the Bib Gourmands are also tried and true indicators of places to seek out.

About a month before visiting Paris from Tokyo, my friend, Noriko contacts me so that we can make a plan to go to a grand restaurant--meaning one with stars and/or a great reputation. We have been to many together but today's experience was particularly memorable. It sparkled in the way I want a restaurant of this caliber to sparkle.

Alain Passard was the main chef for Alain Senderens for many years in the latter's restaurant L'Archestrate. Senderens had three stars for many many years and finally decided to move to bigger quarters. When this happened, Passard took over L'Archestrate, had it totally redesigned and opened it as Arpège. He was immediately rewarded stars, and 10-15 years ago, received his third.

Passard is an extremely creative and innovative chef and has developed a passion for vegetables. For our lunch at Arpège today, we chose the vegetable tasting that is representative of his art. Also on that menu is a choice of either fish (today's choice was poached lotte) or fowl (pigeon today). Noriko and I both chose the lotte but, in fact, when the restaurant began its parade of gâteries (treats) we were able to taste the pigeon as well.

The vegetable menu was fresh, original and delicious. During the meal, I remarked to Noriko that this really was a one-of-a-kind gastronomic experience. I never would have thought that vegetables could be so lovingly prepared and that new combinations of them could be so remarkable and so tasty.

With our aperitif came a bit of beet that had been roasted in a salt crust and served with a caviar of blackberries. The sweetness of the beet and the berries contrasted exquisitely with the salt. A simple mesclun salad came with a bit of sweet praline sauce and slivers of parmesan and that too made for a superb combination of salt, sweet and savory.

There was a wonderful green tomato gazpacho that had a scoop of celeri-rave/mustard ice cream: splendid. Light vegetable ravioli were each stuffed with something different and equally textured and wonderful. There was a gratin of red onions that was enhanced with lemon zest and black peppercorns. The onions became caramelized and so added a bit of sweetness whereas the pepper corns added savoriness and the lemon tartness.

Passard's signature vegetable dish was a medley of fresh vegetables (baby carrots, white asparagus, tiny grape tomatoes, cabbage, turnip, etc. etc.) each of which had been cooked separately and upon which was strewn semolina. The semolina added a bit of depth and consistency to what would have otherwise been a more pedestrian plate of vegetables. This dish was truly spectacular.

Passard has so much respect for vegetables and with his creative hand, transforms them so that they are definitely the stars of the show.

As time went on, we were regaled with other vegetable dishes that were not on our menu but were equally lovely. It seemed that we had gone to heaven!

For the main courses, we had both the lotte, which came in a light vin jaune cream sauce with smoked potatoes and crunchy fresh cabbage and the pigeon which was roasted in herbs and served with a smoked eggplant caviar. Although we didn't order both dishes, the staff wanted us to taste them both. And they were sublime.

We chose wisely when it came to the cheese cart as we were already quite full and had our dessert to anticipate. I had a three-year-old conté and a chèvre and tried something wonderful called the Tommette de Lorraine. The delicious bread also came with an irresistible butter that definitely held its own.

I don't know how to describe the three wonders that were our desserts. First was the tarte aux pommes "Bouquet" de roses with a caramel sauce made of salt butter. The "roses" that comprised the tart were basically apple ribbons that had been made into the shape of roses. The picture explains it better than I do. I thought that our meal was over, but then, one of the servers came out with a table to prepare our next dessert: the tomate confite aux 12 saveurs servie avec une glace mélisse.. This is a candied tomato in a very flavorful sauce served with a sublime herbal ice cream. The tomato is actually a ball of diced pieces of vegetables and tomato covered with the candied tomato skin.

Before our coffee, the server asked if we wanted to taste le millefeuille--an offer we could not refuse. This was layers of flakey pastry and in between the layers were plums and blackberries--no heavy crème patissière (the part of the millefeuille that I particularly don't like).

Noriko and I spent 3 1/2 memorable hours at our table tasting dish after dish of edible jewels. It truly was a luncheon I will never forget.

Le Bib Gourmand

A review of Le Troquet--a Basque restaurant in Paris that has the coveted Bib Gourmand in the Guide Michelin.

What exactly is Le Bib Gourmand? It is a notation much like the Michelin star that identifies a bistrot of outstanding quality where you will get a terrific meal at a reasonable price. I always look out for the little smiley Michelin man's head that is that symbol. I am rarely disappointed.

Eric took me to Le Troquet (a Bib Gourmand restaurant) in the 15th arrondissement to belatedly celebrate my birthday. Arriving on one of the first days after les grandes vacances (summer vacation), we were surprised to find a full and bustling restaurant at the early hour of 8:30. I thought to myself that many people had found the secret of this little hole in the wall and I was even more excited to check out the menu.

Le Troquet has a menu dégustation for 40 euros and a three course meal for 32 euros. Le menu dégustation consists of six small dishes representative of the chef's talents: 2 appetizers, a fish dish, a meat dish, cheese and dessert--all chosen from the à la carte menu. Everyone at the table must agree to choose this formula.

We decided to go for three courses and ordered many of the same things. First was a luscious dish of marinated salmon with red cabbage and fresh pistachios garnished with crème fraîche. Following this wonderful beginning, we each ordered a poached fish with sauce vierge--a sauce of capers and diced vegetables. Eric's dorade royale came with a purée of celeri rave (celery root) and my filet de bar was delicious without an accompaniment.

To end our wonderful meal, we each chose the panna cotta with a marmelade de pêches et d'abricots. This was a sensational ending to a perfect meal.

Many of the restaurant's offerings reflect the Basque roots of the chef. Charcuterie is well-represented as are regional aperitifs and wines and the delicious gateau Basque. What seems to be missing are the Basque peppers which you will find on every menu in the south.

We happily munched on our bit of Basque cake as we enjoyed our coffee at the end of the meal.

Once again, the Guide Michelin came through.