Arpège – prices difficult to stomach

My first, and certainly last meal if I am paying, at Alain Passard’s three-star Michelin restaurant Arpège in the heart of the diplomatic quartier of Paris, involved initially several phones and eventually one hugely flexible credit card.

Having used my phone to make the booking, I was startled by a phone call at 09.10 during a recent half term break in Paris from the restaurant to reconfirm our booking for that evening. Somewhat inconsiderate was my wife’s opinion; ultra-professional, thought I.

Just before 20.00, after we had been escorted to a corner table in this intimate restaurant (there are only 16 tables and a former cellar, now converted to a private room for ten), the restaurant’s phone rang. It was the chef, presumably on his mobile, checking how things were progressing with the manager responding by giving him the names of those who had arrived and those who were expected. My wife’s reaction was sceptical, “I suppose that means his sous chef is in charge tonight.” But just over an hour later Passard walked into the restaurant from the kitchen wearing a white apron over a grey striped shirt and looking very much in keeping with how he had been described by one Bordelais chatelaine, ‘ the handsomest of all the three-star Michelin chefs.’

Mobile phones played their final part at the table of three, two women and one man, next to us. Having deposited their three mobiles and three packets of cigarettes on the table, the hostess decided to play ‘phone a friend’ with the wine list. She spent several minutes consulting an obviously knowledgeable friend before giving the young sommelier a hard time over several vintages and then settling for Ch La Mission Haut Brion 1997. Fortunately for any non-smokers the restaurant is very well ventilated.

By this stage of our meal we had fallen into, and then out, of love with this restaurant, after swallowing the shock of the prices which are extraordinary and ultimately I believe, on the basis of what we ate, unjustified.

Half a dozen vegetarian dishes which can be first courses range from 46-60 euros (Arpège was entirely vegetarian for several years but is no longer) while others are 80-90 euros; main courses are 75 to 200 and the tasting menu 320. From the wine list there is little of interest under 150 euros a bottle. I am somewhat ashamed that our bill for three, albeit there in a professional capacity, came to 677 euros, of which wine and water made up a relatively modest 155 euros.

Arpège’s charms were all up front. The corner site is a delightful tribute to Art Deco with Lalique windows and panels in wooden panelling which wraps around the room. The only artefacts are a surrealist statue of a cello and one painting of a woman by the entrance to the kitchen. All this understated elegance (no three-star chintz and furbelows) somewhat softens the first sighting of the prices – although why there are still unpriced menus for women in 21st century egalitarian France is a mystery.

The restaurant then displayed its pedigree twice. Initially, it was by doing nothing but allowing us to unfurl our fine linen napkins (big enough to cover a baby’s cot) ourselves. No practice in the restaurant world is, in my opinion, as ridiculous, time wasting or unnecessary as waiting staff unfurling napkins and placing them on to strangers’ laps.

Then, immediately after we had ordered, came the highlight of the meal – the bread and butter. Instead of wasting energy on six or eight different breads as so many other restaurants do, Arpège’s obviously highly talented baker puts all his energy into one stunningly delicious brown loaf which is then sliced and served from a plate. With it comes what must be a 150 gram triangle of the most sensational salty butter from St Malo. This was a truly exceptional combination although not eating too much of either remained a challenge.

In between, however, our meal took a wrong turn. My wife who wanted to explore Passard’s vegetarian dishes without taking his six-course 180-euro vegetarian menu asked the advice of the young, enthusiastic manager who suggested three rather than two of these dishes to make a meal and took his advice on which the third should be. While the 52 euro gratin of onions from the Cevennes and the whole beetroot cooked under a pyramid of Guerande sea salt with balsamic vinegar dribbled over the plate (60 euros) were a success, the main constituents of the proposed third course, a harlequin of baked root vegetables (56 euros), were predominantly a repetition in texture and flavour of the beetroot that had preceded it. When my wife, who left most of this unappetising dish, explained precisely why to another manager who came to clear her plate, he smiled and explained in turn that this was the season’s rather than the restaurant’s fault. Although mainly uneaten, it still appeared on the bill.

As Passard appeared at our table, two of us were served an unexpected, delicious (admittedly complimentary) creamy mushroom soup as my wife ate the second of her vegetarian dishes. This meant that I, having eaten a vegetable consommé with vegetable ravioli as a first course, was served soup twice in succession – something a restaurant of this level should know to avoid. And although our guest, who has not eaten mushrooms since an unfortunate encounter some years ago, explained her aversion, there was neither action nor reaction from the staff. Her bowl of soup remained in front of her.

There were one or two brighter spots. The most dramatic was the presentation of an entire slow-cooked monkfish that must have been almost a metre in length from which three slices were cut across the bone and served with cabbage as my 100-euro main course. And it was somewhat of a relief to gulp on the tiny, warm financier almond cakes which came as our bill was being settled .

The following day I recounted the bad taste the price of this meal had left in my mouth to a journalist from Paris Match. “Ah, you know, Passard does like to provoke,” he explained. Much too far, in my opinion.

Arpège, 84 rue de Varenne, 75007 Paris, Monday-Friday lunch and dinner