The turnip tart came halfway through our nine-course lunch at L’Arpege in Paris.
The kitchen had prepared it in the style of a classic apple tarte tatin — caramelizing the halved baby turnips with a bit of honey in the bottom of a heavy pan under a sheet of puff pastry. When the turnips turned golden and sticky and the pastry had poofed into feathery layers, the chef flipped it over and served it with a thin drizzle of something called “roasted colza” on the menu. It was a rabbit hole of nuttiness, this oil, its gentle smell pulling you by the nose into a mystery of flavor, both familiar and strange, ephemeral and resonant.
Colza is what the French call rapeseed, which we know as canola. This gourmet ingredient is the same stuff we buy here by the gallon.
I was in Paris — rather than back at home canola-frying a batch of hush puppies — to celebrate my sister’s birthday. She had managed to persuade our brood of siblings to cash in frequent flyer miles and join her for a few days of merry making. While we mostly ate and drank in inexpensive bistros and brasseries, a couple of us broke away for this serious lunch.
On the drive in from the Paris airport, I had noticed fields of rape in bright yellow flower all over the city’s outskirts. Here we were now discovering its gourmet side.
L’Arpege, a restaurant famous for this nearly entirely vegetarian fixed-price menu, would seem at first an odd choice for our big dining splurge. Shouldn’t the one blowout in Paris be an excuse to wallow in foie gras and duck fat?
Maybe, but for years, tourists have been raving about this Michelin three-star restaurant, calling their meals revelatory and the best of their lives. I’ve also followed chef Alain Passard’s career path as he became more vested in growing his own food.
Today he operates three organic farms outside of Paris that use horse-drawn plows and follow biodynamic principles of planting and crop rotation. Yet he’s no locavore: One of the farms is 125 miles away, and the daily shipment of vegetables arrives via TGV, France’s high-speed train.
Passard prepares what he calls “cuisine vegetale, ” but that hasn’t always been the case. Atlanta chef Anne Quatrano visited L’Arpege in 1999, before Passard’s epiphany, when he was famous for his large roasts and hearty meat dishes. The centerpiece of her meal was the roast “cocou de Malines” — a huge rib eye that was wheeled to the table on a rolling cart and sliced tableside to cover the entire plate.
Passard soon began rethinking his relationship with meat. In a 2005 interview in the New Yorker, he said, “I took a roast out into the dining room, and the reality struck me that every day I was struggling to have a creative relationship with a corpse, a dead animal!”
Vegetable cuisine gave Passard nothing short of a new lease on life. “[T]he lightness of what I was doing began to enter my body and my entire existence, ” he told the New Yorker, “and it entered into the existence of the kitchen. Digestively, yes, of course, but also spiritually, a new lightness of step and spirit that entered my life.”
Quatrano recently saw Passard demonstrate a dish at a culinary conference in Paris, and she said he continues to preach the same gospel.
“He stated he went as far as he could go with meat and fish, and now is devoting himself to vegetables, ” Quatrano recalled. “He stated that nature has ‘thought’ in terms of taste — basically what grows together goes together seasonally.” For his demonstration, Passard cooked yellow plants — beets, turnips, onion and lemon — in a saute pan with water, adding more as it evaporated.
“His philosophy and his sense of beauty inspire me, ” says Quatrano, who supplies her restaurants in Atlanta with produce and eggs from Summerland Farm, the 60-acre family property that she and her husband, Clifford Harrison, farm near Cartersville. The closest thing to Passard’s vision of dining in Atlanta is Quinones at Bacchanalia, the restaurant below Bacchanalia that Quatrano opens on Saturdays with a nine-course menu.
But Passard’s once-radical idea to grow his own vegetables has influenced plenty of local restaurants. Billy Allin of Cakes & Ale farms a plot of land behind his Decatur home to supply his restaurant. Molly Gunn and Nick Rutherford of the Porter Beer Bar have an urban plot that supplies tomatoes in season. Hector Santiago at Pura Vida Tapas makes do with a rooftop for growing herbs and chilies, accessible via rickety ladder. Earth Day is a good time to reflect on the influence a renowned chef can have.
While you can spend a scary amount of money at L’Arpege, the kitchen offers a lunch menu of nine mostly vegetarian courses you’ll remember for life for 120 euros, service included ($158). Our early April lunch was called “L’eveil des Jardins”— “the awakening of the gardens.”
Passard and his staff have a way of drawing your attention to both the flavor of the primary ingredients and the astonishing technique of the cooking. That turnip tart was such a marvel of engineering. It shared a plate with a creamy carrot-orange mousse and a pile of cooked spinach as dark green as a pine forest and as thick of leaf as collard greens. And that toasted oil.
We sample a golden, paper-thin gratin of onion and Parmesan, topped with slivers of lemon confit and dressed greens. A piece of sushi constructed of warm rice, a cool sliver of white beet, feathery bits of horseradish and hints of toasted oil and soy. A play on merguez (spicy lamb sausage) made entirely of vegetables and placed in colorful array of cut carrots and beets, each cooked to an exacting spot on the crisp-to-tender scale. A creamy rutabaga bisque topped with smoked ham whipped cream.
Then we transition into the non-vegetarian part of the meal. For our main course, we’re offered a choice of lobster or chicken. Every diner within sight chooses the lobster, which comes with fennel and a butter sauce made with vin jaune (yellow wine from the Jura region).
This is a straightforward dish, easy to love. So is the cheese course, a sliver of pungent Tomme de Revard (a washed-rind cheese) served with a potato that had been smoked over beech wood and kept warm on a cart.
You appreciate this exemplary French food, pause, and then go right back in that rabbit hole of garden mystery. Out comes a huge tray of friandises, those little cakes and cookies that end a formal meal. Macaron cookies taste of beet and mint, or come with a carrot-orange filling. A white chocolate truffle tastes of thyme. And a nougat holds little cubes not of nuts but something familiar. What is it, I ask.
“Radish!” says our waitress triumphantly.
Good grief. This radish candy is the most delicious dessert I’ve ever eaten.
L’Arpege, 84 Rue de Varenne, 75007 Paris; 011-33-1-4705-0906, www.alain-passard.com.