The Army Museum contains military weapons, uniforms, and artifacts highlighting French military conflicts. As a history major and a student of European history I was excited about seeing this impressive venue.
It has six major areas. I concentrated on a couple of them. The Contemporary Department that concentrates on the period between 1871-1945 and the Dome des Invalides -- where Napoleon's Tomb is located.
It's possible to spend several hours here to get a full picture. In all honesty looking at a lot of different cannons and medieval armor really isn't my thing. I did find the displays of uniforms and artifacts, not just from France, but from allies and foes alike, fascinating.
The Dome des Invalides is beautiful. It houses the Dome Church and the tombs of Napoleon I, French War Hero Ferdinand Foch -- Supreme Allied Commander in WWI, as well as dozens of other French War Heroes. It is modeled after St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
I thoroughly enjoyed the few hours I spent at the Army Museum. The displays and movies -- especially the section on the holocaust and the death camps -- are very moving.
To say I am an art expert is laughable. To say I am an art aficionado is stretching things. The best way to describe my relationship with art is, "I know what I like". I like the work of Auguste Rodin. I like Rodin because he redefined what "sculpture" meant. His works were mocked and ridiculed by the experts and yet, when we look back today we realize his ideas about the human form were revolutionary. Many of the works he did were left unfinished by design. He came from a working-class background and you can see see the reverence he has for people striving in an everyday world.
The museum itself is housed in his former residence. You could spend hours here looking at the various sculptures, sketches, paintings, and models. I enjoyed wandering through the main house and the gardens. One of the things I love most about travel is being able to put into perspective things you've seen pictures of or heard about your entire life.
Most people will immediately say "The Thinker" when asked about their knowledge of Rodin. I admit to doing the same. There is no doubt that Rodin's work "Le Penseur" is universally known. Yes, the figure in the statue is contemplating, but the figure is muscular and rough, not the type generally thought to be a "thinker". It's again the genius of Rodin making the viewer themself re-think their idea of intelligence.
I was also captured by the painstaking detail and passion in his work "The Burghers of Calais". Commissioned by the city of Calais in 1884 to commemorate an occurrence during the Hundred Years War between France and England (use the Google machine to look it up if you're interested.) Again what is so striking is that these subjects are not canonized -- although they were heroic -- they are shown with all their flaws. They are literally sculpted larger than life, but they are so...human. I was surprised at how much this piece moved me.
"The Gates of Hell" is another of Rodin's huge masterpieces displayed in the museum's gardens. Commissioned in 1880, Rodin worked on this piece until his death in 1917. Depicting a scene from Dante's Inferno, you can see Dante perched atop the gates looking over his characters. The piece depicts figures from the classic work. Again, the detail is amazing. Walking up to it you get a sense of the time and effort Rodin put into this. I could have spent the better part of an hour just looking at the individual figures in their varying degrees of pain and suffering.
I wasn't able to get to the Rodin Museum in 2006 but I am so glad I made time on this trip. His work is so inspiring and so modern, but with a foot firmly placed in the classical style. Definitely a highlight.
L'Arpege -- My Lunch with Chef Alain Passard
They say you never forget your first time. In this instance, Chef Alain Passard's iconic restaurant L'Arpege is my first. My first three-starred Michelin restaurant. Michelin determines that a restaurant is worthy of their coveted trois étoiles if it has, "exceptional cuisine that is worth a special journey". I assume flying over an ocean qualifies as a special journey.
As soon as I booked my trip I knew I would be dining at L'Arpege. I had seen Chef Alain Passard, his restaurant, and his farms on an episode of Chef's Table:France and I was stunned. Here was a Chef who had achieved the ultimate, three Michelin stars, serving primarily roasted meats. Then all at once he took meat completely off the menu and served nothing but vegetables. The press, critics, and many of his long-time customers were aghast. Surely there would be no way he would keep his stars serving vegetables! Keep them he did, and now, with seafood and some poultry back on the menu, he is enjoying his 22nd consecutive year of the honor.
Chef Passard grows all the vegetables for L'Arpege at one of three farms he maintains outside Paris. Each farm has a unique terroir, so the same vegetable grown at the three locations will have a different taste and character.
I knew I was going to eat in some wonderful places on my trip to Paris, but something about the story, and the way the food looked, and Chef Passard himself, made this my destination meal. I would not be disappointed.
I had done my homework on L'Arpege before I arrived in Paris. I had spoken with my friends Lisa and Matthias who have been several times and got some dishes to ask for. I was prepared. Or so I thought.
I've been to a two-star Michelin restaurant -- The Clove Club in London. It was fantastic. The food was amazing and the service was as well. I wondered what would be different at L'Arpege to elevate it to the tree-star level. I didn't wonder for long.
As soon as you enter everything starts. I went to the host stand and gave my name and at that moment it was like no one else existed for the staff -- even though the restaurant was full and bustling. I was shown to my table, given my menu, and asked my preference for water and any pre-lunch apéritif I might like. I had already decided on the Gardener's Lunch tasting menu and I knew there would be several glasses of wine involved so I declined the apéritif.
My thoughts on wine are the same as my thoughts on art. I know what I like. However, I had decided to just go with the suggestions from the sommelier. I was doing wine by the glass so I could try several things. Because the menu is mainly vegetables I expected more whites, but I ended up with a lovely combination of reds and whites.
Again, I was doing the Gardener's Lunch tasting menu. The menu itself simply said, "This morning, the gardens have blessed us with a pallet of flavors...let yourself be guided by the Chef's improvisation and experience a sensory stroll." I was putting myself in the hands of Chef Passard and his culinary team. I did have a couple of specific dishes based on the recommendations of friends. I knew I wanted Ravioles des Legumes, Onion Gratin, and, because they are in season, scallops.
The first two dishes come one right after another. The first is an amuse bouche of small tarts filled with beet, carrot, and spinach purees. Each one is a tiny flavor bomb. Every table gets these and I realize that this dish has been made en masse meaning it could have been a complete throwaway but it wasn't. I also realize that if this is how the meal is starting, I'm in for something special.
I need to mention that there is a real intimidation factor for me here. I don't want to do something wrong or say something wrong or heaven forbid, use the wrong utensil. This quickly dissipates as the dining room staff is completely warm and welcoming. They move around the dining room effortlessly. No one has an "assigned" table. Every table is a guest of the house and are treated accordingly.
Next dish is the famous Hot-Cold Egg. A coddled egg with sherry vinegar, spices and maple syrup. I have no idea why this works, it just does. The depth of flavor, the contrast of temperatures, the sweet versus acidic notes from the maple syrup and vinegar. It's wonderful. I sit back and contemplate the thought process behind this dish. It's not the last time I'll be contemplative about this meal.
When Chef Passard envisioned his all vegetable menu, I have to believe this next dish is what was in his mind. Ravioles de Legumes is a simple dish of three ravioli, each filled with a different vegetable, in a broth. My ravioli were filled with spinach, beet, and winter squash. Each one was so flavorful, so individualistic. Each vegetable was allowed to shine. The broth on the day I was there was celery based. I wasn't sure what to expect. The danger of cooking with celery is that it's such a strong flavor it can overwhelm everything else in a dish. The depth of flavor in the broth was earth-shattering. I simply could not believe how good this was. On its own the broth would have been one of the best things I had in Paris. When I took a bite of ravioli and broth together it was insane. Everything worked together perfectly. Truly remarkable. This is what I was hoping for when I booked my table.
The next course was the onion gratin. Onions and parmesan cheese perfectly cooked under the broiler. I'm not sure if this is how it was supposed to be eaten but I slathered it on the dark, house made bread. it was heaven.
I'm figuring out why L'Arpege has had three Michelin stars for so long. Everything they do is purposeful. Every dish has been thought through and the ingredients are so good that something as simple as an onion gratin gets elevated to something truly special. It's not that this dish couldn't be done really well at another restaurant. It's that this dish, with these ingredients, is as important to Chef Passard and his kitchen staff as anything on the menu. It separates good from great and great from exceptional.
The courses kept coming, perfectly timed. There was a gorgeous vegetable sushi -- sushi rice with vinegar, mustard, and a slice of beetroot. A pumpkin soup with a savory whipped cream served tableside. A scallop mousse in a seafood foam that blew me away.
There was dish of grilled lettuce, beet puree, and green onions in a savory sauce; and beet tartare -- topped with an "egg" of creme fraiche with a gelee "yolk", beetroot leaves, butter lettuce, and parsnip chips that was whimsical and delicious.
Chef Passard is known for roasting poultry and the bird served the day I was there was capon. I was given the breast with roasted carrots and beets, and whipped potato. Then a dish of Dover sole that made me rethink how fish could be prepared and taste. After that sweet, whole scallops in a velouté and topped with purple radish that nearly brought me to tears.
I had been dining for nearly three hours by this point. During that time I had seen Chef Passard coming through the dining room, greeting guests -- some very casually, some more formally, but he made a point to spend time with each table. I could tell there were tables with people he knew very well. He would sit down and have an intimate conversation. Or lean in and share a joke. He was always moving, but never seemed in a rush. Then he would disappear back into the kitchen.
In between the beet tartare and the Dover Sole courses he stopped at my table. Here is where staff is so important. They had told him I was American. He came up and in English asked how my meal was. I told him I was having the experience of a lifetime and he beamed down at me. "I love my restaurant. I think making food with these kind of ingredients makes me the happiest." I assured him that I would remember this meal for a very long time. Then I asked If we could take a picture. "Of course!". He came around to my side of the table and...
Later when I looked at the picture (and saw I should have taken my damn glasses off) I realized that he was being slightly cheeky. It made me like him even more.
I had placed my order for the dessert soufflé earlier in the meal and was very excited to try it. Of course this being L'Arpege, there couldn't just be ONE dessert.
First there was a dessert board with small elephant ears, tuilles, house made caramels, and a chocolate/hazelnut bar. I tried every one and they were all amazing. Next came a mocha flavored floating island in a milk caramel sauce that would have been a perfect ending to any meal served anywhere.
The soufflé came and it was as good as I'd hoped. Light and delicious. This WAS the perfect end to my meal. I think. To be honest I was in in the throes of a food coma at this point. I know it was delicious.
At last it was time for the meal to end. As I was leaving Chef Passard, who was sitting at another table, got up and came over to me. He gave me a huge hug and said, "Thank you so much for coming today. I hope you come back and see me again!" It was very special.
I was having a difficult time processing what I had experienced. It would be several hours before I could. I ended up cancelling my dinner at another highly rated restaurant. Mainly because I was ridiculously full, but also because it would have been hard to enjoy after such an experience.
All in all, my first full day in Paris was a complete triumph. I had a day that completely overloaded my senses. I had my first three-star Michelin experience (hopefully not my last), saw world famous art, and got the answer to the question, "Who is buried in Napoleon's tomb?" My trip was off to a screaming hot start. I couldn't wait to see what came next.