Lunch at Arpege, another 3-star diary entry

Rohit Khare (
Fri, 12 Feb 1999 13:35:16 -0800

I, too, have my questions about the nature of a "dessert tomato" --
though my guesses would be in the vicinity of Jessica Rabbit :-)


RobertH: Any hot rumors to this effect? :-)


Jim Holt writes about science and philosophy for Lingua Franca and the
Wall Street Journal.

To read this diary from the beginning, go to

Day 5: Friday, Feb. 12, 1999

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 Arpege.

I had been hearing about Arpege 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

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 Arpege. 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 Arpege.

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. Arpege 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

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 Chateau Petrus (12,500 francs) and the Romanee-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 Arpege 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.