At some point during our Good Friday inspection of Gordon Ramsay's first venture in gastro-pubbery, Howard brought up the subject of his birthday. There is some form here: in the past this occasion has been marked by first trips (for me at least) to a stellar selection of restaurants including Tom Aiken, The Fat Duck and St John. My birthdays, conversely, are usually marked principally by a selection of Stella.
Once again, we apparently discussed all sorts of fine dining options and I readily agreed to all of them. I know this because two days later I received a text saying he'd booked a table at L'Arpege, the Michelin three-star in Paris. And apparently I was going with him. I really should be more careful about what I agree to when I've had a few...
I was quickly over the shock, however, and the prospect of going to Paris for lunch soon began to feel quite natural. Eurostar was booked, we rounded up a couple of other likely coves and the die was cast.
Chef patron at L'Arpege is Alain Passard, one of a select band of superchefs whose name is set to go down in history as the ultimate exponent of a certain style of cuisine. Passard's cooking is first and foremost about paying ultimate respect to the very finest ingredients. Although by no means vegetarian (by all accounts he has an amazing touch with venison, for instance), his focus is certainly on the best seasonal produce from suppliers he knows he can trust (in many cases the produce comes from the restaurant's own garden). Simple but beautifully crafted dishes that let the individual flavours of the best vegetables and seafood dominate his menus. There are no quirky molecular gastronomy experiments or tricks of perception here; this is the natural extension of classical techniques and - to an extent - nouvelle cuisine, and, if Passard's reputation as the most accomplished exponent of this type of cooking was to believed, we were in for a treat. It was, and we were.
After a painfully early start, a journey only marked by Howard's accidental separation from his bag (hence the lack of pictures) and a mildly desperate search for somewhere near the restaurant where we could grab a pre-lunch beer, we settled into L'Arpege's small and surprisingly informal dining room. The menu presented us with a choice of a tasting menu or an à la carte choice with one or two eye-popping prices next to them. I had heard tales of how expensive this place was going to be so I felt forewarned if not necessarily fore-armed but the final reckoning wasn't half as bad as most of us had been expecting. More on this later.
Munching away on exceptional bread and dangerously good butter, we opted for the lunchtime tasting menu with a couple of additions and substitutions from the à la carte. First up was a Passard signature: an egg. An ordinary egg, but at the same no ordinary egg: served in an amazingly neatly decapitated shell it was softly cooked, possibly even coddled (or maybe I just wanted to use the word) and flavoured with a little maple syrup and some sherry vinegar. Simple and fantastic. A sign of things to come.
A soup followed, a delicate concoction of parsnip and Jerusalem artichoke with the slightly theatrical table-side addition of a big quenelle of chantilly somehow flavoured with speck. This worked really well, combining earthiness, smokiness and sweetness into far more than the sum of the parts. A "radisotto" worked less well: nothing wrong with the combination of spring radish and parmesan but risotto is made with rice, not diced radish, for a reason.
There followed a palette-cleansing little salad of fresh young broad beans and pink grapefruit before one of the day's highlights. A huge whole turbot that had apparently been roasting for a good couple of hours was presented to the whole dining room in all its splendour before being spirited away for dissection and distribution. What we ended up with was a generous tranche of perfectly cooked flesh, topped with deeply flavoured skin, with a single smoked new potato, some great spinach (not something you'll hear from me very often) and a decadent butter sauce. Quite lovely.
After this came a special additional request, a brace of lobsters shared between the four of us. This meant more butter (the waiter thought twice before agreeing we could order it!) and was a messy, pick-it-up-and-suck-it kind of dish. That we were doing this in one of the great restaurants in the world made it all the more fun somehow.
After these culinary highs it was perhaps inevitable there would be a downward turn. No complaints about the cheese board, which was impressive in both size and quality, with an emphasis too on seasonality (a new one on me), but the desserts were a bit of a let down. A moccha sorbet floating on a lemongrass sauce neatly mirrored the presentation of the soup we'd had earlier but even the addition of a caramel sauce failed to disguise the fact that it might have worked as an interesting mouthful but was hard work as a full bowl. The grand finale, a chocolate millefeuille for which the restaurant is famous, also didn't quite reach the heights we'd been expecting. I'm not a big fan of chocolate desserts at the best of times, to be fair, but I thought the lightness, flakiness and slight saltiness of the beautifully crafted slice could have done with something else to set it off. Even a little simple cream would have helped.
Overall, then, very good savoury courses, less good sweets. A surprise really as this is where most fine dining restaurants tend to pull out all the stops, presumably on the reasonable assumption that it's the last things you eat that will stay with you.
And the price? With a couple of relatively modest selections from a wine list that made it hard to spend less than €120 a bottle, and bearing in mind the two lobsters we added were, I think, a cool €140 each, we did pretty well getting away with a little more than 200 quid a head. €330 actually felt like pretty good value. Part of this is down to the fact that we were here at lunchtime. The dinner equivalent of the menu we'd based our lunch on (which frankly looked very similar, albeit with a couple of additions) was more than two and half times the price. It's very hard to see how they can justify such a hike, although I fully expect Howard will want to find out. Half a shandy for me please, Gordon!
L'Arpege, 84 rue de Varenne, 75007 Paris. +33 (0)1 47 05 09 06