Tuesday 24 April 2012

L'Agapé Substance, Paris

Of all the restaurants I visited during my Paris trip, without a doubt L'Agapé Substance is the one that I’d be most keen to revisit – to say I loved it, would be a massive understatement.

However, having opened in 2011, it’s a relatively new kid on the block that I do appreciate may have elements that are not everyone’s cup of tea (the ‘intimate’ space and sitting on high stools) - it certainly was not Michelin’s who failed to award them a star when they opened last year, despite its pedigree as a pie in which Alain Passard's green fingers are rooted.

A chef with incredible Michelin credentials, in 1982 at the age of 26 he became the youngest chef to be awarded two stars. After gaining another two stars in his next venture, in 1986 he purchased the three-star L'Archestrate from his one time mentor Alain Senderens, renaming it L'Arpège.

A year later, L'Arpège won its first star and its second, one year on. Going onto claim its third in 1996; which it has retained ever since. In 2001 Alain shocked the culinary world by announcing the removal of all red meat from the menu and now offers an almost entirely vegetarian menu with most of the produce grown organically and without machinery on his 2-hectare farm in Fillé (any kitchen waste is returned to the garden for use as compost.)

In 2008, Alain Passard's opened Agapé with his trusted restaurant manager Laurent Lapaire in charge and young chef Bertrand Grébaut (who has since gone to open Septime) behind the stoves – a Michelin star was awarded a year later.

Chef David Toutain (centre) Laurent Lapiere (right)
In 2011 Lapaire left Agapé to open L'Agapé Substance, seizing an opportunity to once again work with Normandian chef David Toutain, (another L'Arpège old boy) when he returned to France to raise his family after stints abroad at Mugartitz and Corton in NYC.

Having obvious influences from his former mentors Marc Veyrat, Andoni Luis Aduriz and, or course, Alain Passard, as well as his time in NYC, Toutain brings the modern concept of a ‘gourmet counter’ to Saint Germain des Prés - an area famed for the Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore, well known as hangouts for surrealist artists, existentialist philosophers and ‘Lost Generation’ literary greats.

Whilst the the open kitchen and sleek, contemporary ‘table d'hôte’ contributes to L’Agape Substance being one of the most exciting and talked about restaurants in the city at the moment – it’s perhaps this modish approach (possibly more well suited to London, New York or Tokyo) that makes Michelin uneasy about awarding stars to such a venue in Paris.

Regular readers of my blog will know how much I enjoyed the experience of dining in Aulis at L’Enclume (see here) watching Chef Dan Cox cook Simon Rogan’s food - for me, feeling a part of the kitchen and being able to watch David creating his dishes with flair, passion and technical precision was a real treat. It was interesting to see how he used the many mirrors in the restaurant, including those on the ceiling to monitor and feed off of the dining room.

Showcasing the season’s finest ingredients, there were two tasting menu choices for ‘déjeuner’ at L'Agapé Substance: the €69 ‘Carte blanche’ (€109 with Substance’ wine pairing) or the €99 ‘Carte blanche’ (€169 with Substance’ wine pairing) - I selected the €99 which bought me some 22 mostly exceptional courses.

The first two amuse bouche included a paper thin sweet Beetroot Crisp and a crisp Turnip Leaf flavoured with black olive and sesame.

A Ginger Sablé topped with trout roe quickly followed these accompanied by the most deliciously light Wild Garlic Sponge and crème.

The next dish consisted of a ‘snow’ made from ‘Ficoïde glaciale’ or ‘ice plant’ – an uncommon ingredient (Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin also uses it) with a mild citrusy flavour, a cutting was presented to demonstrate the plant’s bubble coated stem, inspiring its name.

L'Agapé Substance’s breads were exceptional as were the accompanying Salted Butter from Brittany and Seaweed Butter.

The next couple of dishes showed creative uses for vegetables including, onions from the Champagne region, cucumbers and turnips - different cooking methods and ingredients, such as peanuts, created textural interest.

Perhaps not as visually striking as some dishes, the next course featuring a low temperature egg with corn and cumin really delivered on flavour. The corn kernels sprinkled on top had cleverly been dried and tasted of popcorn…  without the pop.

Starring a humble carrot and an Asian influence, the next course consisted of vibrant parsley and galangal emulsions, topped with citrusy lemongrass foam – absolutely delicious.

Visiting Paris during asparagus season was definitely the right decision (albeit a happy coincidence) – the white asparagus were fantastic, paired with sweet onion, orange and hazelnuts.

After such wonderful showcasing of vegetables, the next few courses featured seafood. The first, razor clam with sweet chard or ‘blette’ with a blue cheese emulsion.

The next dish offered a taste of perfectly cooked squid with a sharp wild garlic crème – a simple yet stunning dish (although most courses were small, this was certainly one that I wished there was more of).

The following turbot course with avocado, sorrel and celery I know would have been the favourite of my wife had she been there – again, perfectly cooked, wonderfully moist fish.

Featuring a sauce made from another little used ingredient with a clove like perfume called ‘Herbe de Saint Benoît’ (known in English as Herb Bennet and under various other common names), the next dish contrasted mushrooms with a hazelnut crumb.

Another course tiny in appearance but big on flavour paired luscious potato gnocchi with meltingly soft cube of foie gras – this was then surrounded by a heavily scented potato skin consommé poured from a test tube.

A final fish course before two meat dishes offered three tasty bites of ‘anguille’ (eel) in a black sesame broth – another dish more pleasing to the palate than eye.

Despite having five or six front of house staff and a similar amount in the ‘kitchen’ (for sixteen diners), the lamb dish was actually presented by David Toutain himself – it’s clear that the chef thrives on this interaction with the customers.

The lamb, resembling a rock on the plate, had been coated with black olive and served with radish, parsley root and a parsley root cream.

When I commented how much I was enjoying the ‘theatre’ of the experience and compared it to my meal at Momofuku Ko in New York (see here) he seemed genuinely pleased and had actually told his staff about David Chang’s two-starred restaurant and used it as an inspiration when planning the concept.

The next dish, also lamb, was drizzled with a seaweed jus and a hollowed-out cylinder of potato, filled with a potato mousse. I feel I should also mention the knife that I kept throughout the meal (other cutlery was changed with each course), a Couteau Perceval ‘9.47’ Le Français with a scented juniper wood handle - a beautiful object which is now at the top of my Christmas list!

An unusual cheese course followed, from the Auvergne region a Bleu de Laqueuille had been piped into ‘crisp cigars’ – wonderful little bites.

Presented with what looked like sails made from olive oil meringue on a sea of lemon, first sweet course also contained buckwheat seeds. I’m a big fan of Japanese soba noodles made from buckwheat but this was (to my knowledge) the first time that I have had the seeds in their natural form – definitely an ingredient that I’ll look out for in the future.

Whilst some ingredients used at L'Agapé Substance could be considered ‘uncommon’, the dried pear was perhaps the most unusual – it had a leathery texture with an almost tarte tatin like caramelly flavour. I wasn’t sure at first but then decided it was delicious, accompanied with a vanilla ‘crumble’ and a ‘fermented milk’ ice cream.

With raspberries, shards of beetroot crisp, chocolate ‘soil’ and the surprise addition of red bell peppers the penultimate dessert was both interesting and delicious – a real triumph.

Finally, the marathon drew to an end with one last hurrah, a course entitled 100% Chocolate – enough said!

When I posted about my meal at the three-starred Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester (see here), I commented on how the passion fruit caramel petit fours ‘won the day’ for me – David Toutain’s with passion fruit and mango were even better!

After 22 courses personally I was full, but if you are still hungry after a meal there (as The Skinny Bib was – see here) don’t forget that Pierre Hermé and Ladurée both have outlets just around the corner.

Like I said at the outset, I loved L'Agapé Substance – phenomenal food and an amazing experience made all the more wonderful by the friendly staff and of course chef David Toutain.

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