At about 4 p.m. owner Alain Passard sat at a table in his restaurant, Arpege, smoking a Rafael Gonzalez Lonsdale and sipping a 100-year-old Malvasia Madeira. The lunch service was over-except for a handful of people also puffing away on cigars and drinking espressos--and Passard was taking his daily ritual of savoring a good cigar after each service and reflecting on how it all went at his two-star restaurant.
There wasn't much to think about. Passard does most of the cooking himself, leaving very little to chance. After studying 17 years under the extremely talented Alain Senderens, another chef/cigar aficionado, now at Lucas Carton, Passard has the same light touch for spices and a pinpoint accuracy in focusing on the ingredients in his cuisine. In fact, he bought Arpege from his mentor in 1984 when Senderens left in search of three-stars at Lucas Carton.
"I don't want my food to be marred by these chi-chi sauces or anything else," Passard explains, taking a drag off his cigar and then a tiny sip of the Madeira. "What I want in my cooking is to emphasize the food itself. It should be light and flavorful." The starters, of a soft-boiled egg with a light cream sauce served in its own shell and a delicate spicy soup of freshwater crab, were exquisite; however, the moussaka of lamb with Asian spices highlighted Passard's feather-light style. Moussaka is notoriously heavy and bland, but Passard's rendition was intensely flavored, and the spices, minced lamb and eggplant worked together in perfect harmony. My lunch companion's pan-seared salmon in a light spicy sauce with celeriac crepes was equally flavorful.
The wine list at Arpege is top flight and extremely well priced. There are plenty of great bottles of Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy with a vast range of vintages from key producers. Red Burgundies are particularly well selected, with excellent wines from Faiveley, Jacques Seysses's Domaine Dujac and Domaine de la Romanée Conti. However, what makes this list special is the selection of extremely interesting wines from the Midi and southwest France, which represented incredibly good bargains. We started with a dry white from Jurancon, a 1989 Domaine Bellegarde. Rich and round with perfumed fruit flavors, it was a perfect aperitif and went well with the appetizers. For the moussaka and salmon, the sommelier recommended a 1987 Madiran from Alain Brumont's Château Montus. A lighter vintage, the rich yet elegant red, was an excellent accompaniment to our main courses. Combined, the wines came to only 220 francs ($40)--unheard of in a Guide Michelin two-star restaurant.
It's all par for the course for Passard, however. He doesn't seem too concerned about what people think. The interior of his restaurant is very simple with walls lined in pear wood and the remainder of the restaurant painted in light, warm earth tones, giving the interior an almost Southwest American feel. The only thing on the walls is a single photograph of a woman in one corner of the restaurant. It's a portrait from the '30s or '40s of Passard's grandmother, who was also a chef and after whom he named his special duck dish: canard Louise Passard.
Passard insists on keeping his decor to a minimum, which is understandable since there's only space for a couple dozen customers each service. "You have to have space in restaurant," he says. "The last thing you want is to feel confined in a restaurant where you'll be sitting at a table for three or four hours."
The open space also makes Arpege a cigar smoker's paradise since it assures good ventilation. The selection of cigars is good (all Cuban), kept in a humidified cabinet near the entrance. The restaurant has a slightly irritating policy of offering customers a few cigars from a small silver platter instead of a humidor. I would prefer to look at the whole selection of cigars myself and then choose. But it didn't matter the day I was there. My friend had brought some seven-year-old H. Upmann Sir Winston Churchills, and after lighting up and smoking for awhile, both Passard and his maître d'hôtel, Dany Vidie, came over to ask what we were smoking. When told, they went away and came back with similar cigars, and we had an impromptu cigar tasting. A large cloud of smoke quickly surrounded our table, and the cigar conversation continued for some time. You get the impression that Passard is often smoking cigars with clients after lunch or dinner--making Arpege one of the most cigar friendly restaurants in Paris.