News about Umberto Eco

24.04.2011 - Some like it haute: Arpège, Paris

Umberto Eco was in Paris the other day promoting the French edition of his new bestseller The Prague Cemetery. Set in late-19th-century Paris, its frightful anti-Semitic protagonist is Simone Simonini, described as “the most hateful man in the world”.

This ghastly individual also eats at some of the best-known restaurants of Paris (Lapérouse, La Tour d’Argent, Lucas Carton), and admits that he finds good food much more satisfying than sex. The Italian author, who is himself a connoisseur of haute cuisine, told a French Sunday newspaper that for Simonini eating was tantamount to masturbating.

In the same interview, Eco also acknowledges that, at its very best, dining in a great Parisian restaurant could be considered a complete aesthetic encounter, as the American philosopher John Dewey suggests in his 1930s book Art as Experience. As it happened, I was promptly able to test Eco’s culinary theories, having been invited to lunch at one of the French capital’s top gastronomic establishments – Arpège, the three-star Michelin restaurant of Alain Passard.

I had long wanted to try this small and discreet place near the Rodin museum in the well-heeled Rue de Varenne in the 7th arrondissement. Passard is considered by his peers to be the “poet of vegetables” – a rarity in three-star cuisine, which has a bad habit of neglecting vegetables in favour of expensive meat and fish. But in Passard’s case, vegetables, many grown on his farm in the Sarthe, are also considered exclusive and do not come cheap. An entrée curiously called “cueillette éphémère” is one of the less expensive dishes at €60. The full menu costs €320 a head without wine or water. Presumably, Passard believes a good radish is just as noble as a spoonful of Beluga caviar. He may, of course, be perfectly right.

Instead of the traditional flowers on the table, we had a bouquet of baby leeks. My host and I relied on the chef’s humour of the day for our meal. We started with a cold concoction around finely sliced courgettes and then some warm vegetable ravioli. It was certainly very good but not the aesthetic experience I had imagined.

The main course of duck with vegetables “du moment” was perfectly cooked but you needed a microscope to spot the specks of freshly picked and cooked vegetables, positioned around the plate like the parterre of a formal French garden under construction. It was all too clever, and that is often the problem with three-star celebrity-chef cuisine these days. It hardly lived up to the Eco and Dewey thesis that a meal in Paris should stand out “as an enduring memorial of what food may be”.

Now we come to the epilogue with the pudding – and Eco’s masturbation theory. We were served a garlic crème brûlée that was simply revolting. After half a spoonful we both sent it back and got a more restrained rhubarb mille-feuille instead. The crème brûlée was certainly no sexual stimulant. If anything, it could be far better used as a good antidote to Viagra. By Paul Betts


<< Back
Numero Zero
The Prague
The Vertigo
of Lists
The Name of
the Rose
The Island of
the Day Before
History of
The Mysterious
Flame of
Queen Loana

Web design and web development