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The Crushing Disappointment of L’Arpège

Is the big-game-trophy model of destination dining really worth it anymore?

The most recent season of Chef’s Table, a Netflix show catering to viewers who enjoy listening to bombastic classical music while gazing at food that resembles Christmas tree ornaments, turns its attention to France. The inaugural episode is a 45-minute panegyric to chef Alain Passard and his lauded restaurant L’Arpège, a temple to vegetables that attracts a steady stream of global pilgrims seeking their culinary truth in a chamomile-stuffed cabbage leaf.

The camera’s eye on the restaurant is meant to provide a revelation: We have spent our entire lives as deluded diners, mistakenly believing that beets and celery are supporting actors rather than culinary leads. But, as one of the talking heads in the episode proclaims, once you try one of L’Arpège’s exquisite vegetable dishes, "you can never see cuisine in the same way." Passard, we learn, doesn’t just plant turnips—he runs A/B tests on their growth in different soil types. He greets his daily shipment of produce with a level of ceremony befitting a foreign dignitary. And he has been known to sew together opposite halves of a chicken and a duck, like a culinary Dr. Moreau, before cooking the franken-poultry in hay.

L’Arpège, where dinner for two can easily surpass €800—before wine—is the only Parisian establishment to crack the top twenty of this year’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Pete Wells, the New York Times restaurant critic, reviewed the venue in 2014 for his first, and so far only, non-U.S. missive. Wells was frank about the restaurant’s high prices and occasional shortcomings, but he enjoyed his single meal there so much that he described the peas as "happy." Bon Appetit’s Christine Muhlke was also impressed by the temperament of the plants, calling L’Arpège the "happiest place in the world for vegetables" in a 2015 profile of Passard. Eater’s own list of essential Paris restaurants includes its vegetarian tasting menu as a when-in-Paris must. Earlier this year, the restaurant’s three-Michelin-star status was reaffirmed for the twentieth year in a row, an accolade that means its cuisine is "worth a special journey."

In an era when more and more people are choosing where to vacation based on where they can get a dinner reservation, L’Arpège, a thirty-year-old bastion of fine dining in a city increasingly known for its young, affordable, ambitious bistros, is having a moment.

So I went.

Passard has said he’s never written down or recorded a recipe—he creates or adapts dishes based on the morning’s delivery, a process that sometimes, according to Chef’s Table, chills him with fear. The practice enforces a regime of experimentation and guarantees a certain element of surprise, which is no trifling matter in an era when ubiquitous Instagram spoilers allow would-be diners to virtually experience every single garnish on every single course over and over again. A server handed me a gold-rimmed plate holding softly cooked chou-fleur with oyster foam and purple flowers. It glistened. It was possible that no one else in the world but me would ever try this particular dish, prepared this particular way.

Sushis (2009)

The first bite tasted of the sea; the second, of commodity cauliflower, simultaneously over- and undercooked. And finally, when the foam inevitably collapsed to a liquid, the evocation was of frozen grocery store vegetables, reheated in an indistinct white sauce.

I’m not particularly attuned to the emotional complexity of produce, so I can’t say for sure that the vegetables were devastated. But I’ll tell you what: I was. I wasn’t just dining at L’Arpège to assess whether, amidst the ramen burger–level hype, the restaurant actually warranted a special trip across the Atlantic. I was dining there because I’ve long been enamored of the haute-omnivore ethos that Passard has helped propagate, the style of cuisine that allows Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns to make a single salted piece of lettuce taste as luxurious as foie gras, or Manresa’s David Kinch to transform a sleepy red bell pepper into an exhilarating pâte de fruit.

I was in Paris for the briefest of vacations, and L’Arpège is where I wanted to spend one of my two fleeting afternoons. In exchange, at one of France’s best restaurants, I had one of my worst meals of the year.

As it enters its fourth decade of operation, L’Arpège is surely trending, again, because vegetables are trending, again. Momofuku’s David Chang, an erstwhile poster-child of the put-bacon-on-everything ethos that pervaded the mid-aughts, has become an unlikely purveyor of vegan fermented-chickpea paste. Noma became one of the world’s hardest-to-get-into restaurants by serving foraged vegetables. Jessica Koslow’s Sqirl, a cute daytime café in Los Angeles, developed a rabid bicoastal following thanks to, among other things, rice flavored with sorrel. And Alain Ducasse recently rebooted his Plaza Athenée to focus on produce and cereals inspired by the meat-free dishes of Japanese shojin-ryori cuisine. (One wonders whether a Buddhist monk would approve of pairing green lentils with Osetra caviar.)

The larger truth, of course, is that vegetables owe some of their current sizzle to L’Arpège. In 2001, Passard, having grown tired of cooking animals, shocked the culinary world by announcing that he had eliminated meat from his kitchen. Instead, he would focus on the bounty of the biodynamic farms he’d come to oversee in the regions of Sarthe, Eure, and Manche. The decision, in retrospect, felt like a resurrection of the light, bright nouvelle cuisine French chefs espoused in the 1960s—but it was also a volte-face from the restaurant’s own heritage as a three-Michelin-starred rôtisserie, a bastion of bloody, slow-cooked meats. This was the equivalent of Masa Takayama declaring that he’d no longer make sushi, and would be selling the world’s most expensive grain bowls instead.

The risk paid off—L’Arpège kept its Michelin stars as a vegetarian restaurant—even if it didn’t last. Passard eventually brought back fish and poultry, albeit in smaller quantities than before; he admits on his episode of Chef’s Table that his original no-meat policy was a touch extreme. But his undeniable success with a vegetable-forward restaurant provided the intellectual inspiration for chefs to free themselves from the tyranny of organizing dishes around a basic and predictable selection of fauna—here’s your shellfish course, then your fish course, then your red meat—in favor of more diverse, unexpected flora. A certain class of well-heeled diners, in turn, would begrudgingly come to accept spending as much on a plate of parsnips as on a hanger steak—or in some cases, spending even more.

You can order à la carte at L’Arpege, but a single appetizer of geranium-oil-infused beetroot sushi costs €90. The better deal, on a cost-per-course basis at least, is the tasting menu. L’Arpège still advertises a €145 lunch menu, but when I showed up for my 1 p.m reservation, a server informed me that it was not available—I was dining on Bastille Day, and I later learned that the restaurant doesn’t offer this option on holidays, though it’s not conveyed to diners when they reserve. So I was stuck with the choice of either a twelve-course vegetable tasting at €320 (the price has since been raised to €340), or a €380 (now €390) option featuring fish and fowl. I chose the latter. And there I was, unexpectedly spending half a grand on lunch. At least I was dining solo.

Poularde de Bresse in Fig Leaves (2009)

Throughout my three-hour meal, a small Pomeranian accompanying a diner sitting behind me barked regularly (albeit at reasonable volume). Waiters ran into each other as if it was everyone’s first day. A staffer set a stack of dirty glasses and empty wine bottles on a trolley inches from my table—and left it there. A runner blew his nose a few feet away; seconds later, he handed me a small casserole dish. There was no toilet paper in the bathroom.

Then there was the food. First came little tartlets of beet and basil purée, as memorable as passed hors d’oeuvres at an alumni reception. Beet and leek ravioli floated in an amber consommé that tasted of cough syrup. The composed salad—a medium that contemporary chefs often use to wow diners with their curatorial powers by showcasing obscure herbs, greens, and micro-seasonal vegetables in preparations from raw to cooked to dehydrated—was an unremarkable mix of strawberries, carrots, onions, and honey.

And what did a root vegetable and sorrel parmentier, an admittedly tasty riff on a traditional French shepherd’s pie, add to one of the world’s most expensive meals other than pricey nostalgia? I’m not sure. This isn’t to say that rustic fare doesn’t belong at high-end restaurants. But the more a diner pays for a dish, the greater the expectation that it will be qualitatively different than the traditional baseline, in a meaningful way.

The sole mark of brilliance among the vegetable courses was a berry-topped onion gratin. The allium was arranged in a paper-thin layer, ensuring a uniform, delicate caramelization; the aroma was mind-numbing, with an agreeable barnyard funk close to dry-aged beef or taleggio.

After that, an almost entirely separate tasting began: a succession of three animal proteins, served in portions so large they could have constituted a meal for two in their own right. First came half a lobster, devoid of its signature maritime flavor and overpowered by smoked potatoes. Next, a forearm-sized filet of Dover sole, remarkable only for its mealy, overcooked flesh. Last, a slice of duck breast no different from mediocre versions in any number of restaurants whose names I can’t remember, because they didn’t shake me down for quite so much money.

What I ate at L’Arpège wasn’t unadulterated, bounty-of-the-earth bliss. It wasn’t culinary wizardry. It wasn’t the work of a maître rôtisseur. Even in their failures, the dishes didn’t recall the calculated, thought provoking, maybe-this-will-work-or-maybe-it-won’t types of risks that come from decades of culinary improvisation. My meal at L’Arpège was a study in average, unevenly cooked fare, a tough sell in a city like Paris, where so many young chefs are putting out more refined meals at a fraction of the price.

Near the end of my lunch, a server regarded the cup of green tea—now cold and hours old—that rested at the side of my table setting, picked it up, placed it back down on a saucer in the center of the table, and left. It then took me about half an hour to find someone to bring me the check. My bill—reflecting a tasting menu, a cup of green tea, a bottle of water, and a single glass of wine—was €414.

No one can fully evaluate the merits of a restaurant based on just one visit, a fact that Wells admits in his own single-meal take on L’Arpège. As a critic, I typically dine at a venue at least three times before I issue a starred review. It’s possible I caught L’Arpège on a catastrophically bad day. It’s also possible that the restaurant’s flaws have deeper roots: Two of my Eater colleagues have also dined there in the past year, at separate times, and both reported exceptionally disappointing experiences. And as someone whose job it is to help people allocate their limited disposable income, I just can’t tolerate a bad day in the kitchen of a restaurant many diners might only visit once in their lifetimes the way I can at, say, the corner bistro.

Millefeuille "caprice d’enfant," une piece (2009)

This is a criticism of L’Arpège, to be sure, but it’s also an indictment of the very globetrotting, fine-dining mindset that brought me here. This perspective values, above all, the sort of restaurant whose very existence depends on diners spending thousands of dollars to get there, then thousands more to dine. Sometimes these meals are—kind of, maybe—worth it: My three-and-a-half-hour lunch at The Fat Duck in 2008, which included everything from liquid-nitrogen bacon-and-egg ice cream to gummy bears made from whiskeys of various ages, more than justified its $300 tab, both intellectually and in terms of pure gastronomic pleasure. But only a handful restaurants around the world practice culinary sorcery at the level of The Fat Duck. L’Arpège, by contrast, is operating in a heavily crowded field of farm-to-table restaurants across the globe, and I can’t say that it’s operating anywhere near the front of that pack.

Food, from the highbrow to the lowbrow, will always be a reason to travel, but my meal at L’Arpège made me think a little bit harder about the risks and opportunity costs of destination dining—or at least the ridiculous subcategory of that sport that espouses jetting around Planet Earth to collect big-game trophy meals. Does the promise of a yet another generic, tweezer-plated tasting menu justify sacrificing an entire evening in a country the diner might never visit again? Should prospective guests really commit to a thirty-course meal before they know whether they’ll be jetlagged or homesick—or before they happen to stumble across a little cave à manger they like better?

Series like Chef’s Table and guides like The World’s 50 Best expose an increasing number of novice gourmands to the wonders of fine dining abroad, but I’d argue it’s worth spending a bit more time meditating upon the financial burdens of doing so—and the crushing heartbreak you’ll feel if things go awry. It’s a wonder that a few tears didn’t well up as my fork shattered through the blueberry napoleon that was my final course at L’Arpege, and possibly the most flawless execution of this dessert I’ve ever encountered. The gently tart fruit cut through the delicate richness of a pâte feuilletée so light I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear it was some sort of mystical "puff pastry air" invented by one of the Adria brothers. The exquisite pastry was proof that Passard is clearly capable of dizzying culinary heights with even the simplest of ingredients. But even the greatest dessert in the world can’t eliminate the sour taste of so much lackluster cooking.

After I paid my check, I rose from the table and walked into the coat room, whose door was ajar and unguarded. I reached inside and removed my bag myself, and walked out into the rest of Paris.

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