Jim Holt

Jim Holt

A weeklong electronic journal.
Feb. 12 1999 9:30 PM

Jim Holt

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A perfect day. The midwinter sky over Paris, normally oyster-shell gray and ominous of rain, has brightened to an unexampled cobalt blue. In today's Le Monde, the imminent acquittal of Bill Clinton is hailed as a triumph of the sagacious maturity of the American people, and our Constitution comes in for such praise that it almost seems worthy of being folded into the Napoleonic Code. As for me, I am still savoring the most memorable gastronomic experience of my life: yesterday's lunch at the restaurant Arpège.

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I had been hearing about Arpège for years. American expatriates in Paris, none of whom could scrape together enough money from their trust funds actually to dine there, expressed disdain for a restaurant named after a perfume. One did not go there to eat well, it was said; one went there to worship at the feet of a fashionable chef. New Yorkers returning from holidays in Paris, by contrast, tended to rave about the place in copious detail, complaining only that one required the intervention of a French Cabinet minister to get a reservation there.

I have always been something of a gastronomic philistine, and I generally bridle at having to pay more than $500 for a dinner for two, which is always a risk in a celebrated Paris eatery like Arpège. But a while back I read a fascinating article about the place in The New Yorker by Adam Gopnik, who began by describing one of the chef's most curious innovations: a dessert tomato. This struck me as utterly miraculous, an almost alchemical transformation. What could a tomato you had for dessert possibly taste like? I became obsessed. I had to dine at Arpège.

Yesterday was clearly the day. With the Nasdaq racking up its biggest point gain ever and the dollar continuing to strengthen against the euro, I felt financially empowered. Booking a table for two at a day's notice proved not to be a problem. My only misgiving was that I might be subjected to the sort of ritual humiliations sometimes visited upon foreigners by snotty staffs at French gastronomic temples.

In the event, I had nothing to worry about. Arpège is located on the rue de Varenne, an old and narrow street in the faubourg Saint Germain, a few blocks away from the prime minister's residence. Entering the small establishment--I counted a dozen tables--my luncheon companion and I were greeted in a formal yet warm manner that, amazingly, bore not a trace of condescension.

We were ushered to a table under a portrait of the chef's grandmother. It was a singularly pleasant room--bas-reliefs from the Orient Express on the handsome wooden walls, windows by Philippe Starck, modernist Lalique plates, perfect acoustics. At nearby tables sat some French publishing types quietly gossiping and disputing; an attractive pair of Parisian teenagers apparently on a tony date; and some stylish looking Americans who, inappropriately, I felt, kept talking about bingo.

What could I say about the food? Brillat-Savarin himself would have been hard pressed to do it justice. Things started with a warmed egg in its shell laced with maple syrup and at least six other distinguishable flavors. There followed a plate of fois gras accompanied by a sweet mille-feuille; sweetbreads skewered on an anise stem; a multicolored soup made of the leaves and petals of a flower I had not heard of and some part of the sea urchin that we are forbidden to eat in America; and innumerable other courses, each lovingly described by one or another waiter as an amiable smile played about his lips. We drank a modest $100 bottle of Saint-Emilion, having forgone the Château Petrus (12,500 francs) and the Romanée-Conti (15,000 francs). As the level of the decanter dropped, my intellectual analysis of the gastronomic complexities gave way to a sort of warm, oceanic feeling of privileged satisfaction. And, try as I might, I could not succeed in committing a faux pas in this place. So much for the comedy I had hoped to inject into this account.

When we got up from the table after three hours of exquisite gourmandizing, the chef approached. He introduced himself, made some charming small talk, and insisted to me that I consider Arpège my only restaurant in Paris. This was seductive but, having just paid $300 for the lunch, I felt it would be imprudent to make any promises. Dreamily exiting into the chill late-afternoon air, I suddenly had a horrible realization: I had forgotten to ask for the dessert tomato!

Oh, well. It is always good to have a reason to return to Paris.