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July 31, 2009

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Meatless maisons in Paris

WITH the likes of cote de boeuf, foie gras and escargot, French cuisine is hardly the stuff of vegetarians' dreams.

In Paris restaurants, vegetarians often are met with looks of pity, headshaking incomprehension, even snorts of disgust.

Eating out can mean endless salades au chevre chaud, the warm goat cheese salads that are the only reliable meat-free menu item. But veggie visitors need not despair.

Tasty meatless dining is possible in Paris, where choices include a Michelin-starred establishment renowned for garden-fresh vegetable dishes, tiny tofu joints and restaurants dedicated exclusively to all things cheese.

At L'Arpege, vegetables are the centerpiece - literally. All the tables in this chic restaurant are adorned not with a tasteful floral arrangement but with ripe vegetables, like artfully sculpted crookneck squash or bouquets of asparagus stalks.

One of just 26 restaurants in France with a top, three-star rating by the Michelin Guide - the country's culinary bible - L'Arpege is the only one dedicated to vegetables.

Its most celebrated dishes include tomate confite aux douze saveurs, a stuffed, preserved tomato, and l'oeuf fermier de la Bigottiere en chaud et froid, a concoction of egg yolk, whipped cream and maple syrup served in the eggshell as an appetizer.

Long a bastion of slow-grilled meats, L'Arpege sent shockwaves through France's gourmet circles by announcing it was going - more or less - veggie in 2001.

The restaurant still serves some meat, such as free-range chicken and mutton as well as seafood, but vegetables are the uncontested stars.

L'Arpege's celebrated chef, Alain Passard, said his decision was not motivated by ethical or health concerns, but rather by a quest for a new challenge.

"One day, I woke up and asked myself, 'What have I done with a leek, with a carrot? Nothing, or maybe just 10 percent of what can be done with a carrot'," said Passard.

All vegetables served at the restaurant - 40 tons annually - come from its organic gardens in the Sarthe, Eure and Manche regions of northern France.

And the menus reflect what's in season: mostly tubers and leafy greens in the winter and a strange and copious variety, including blue kohlrabi, globe turnips and purple asparagus in the summer months.

But don't expect veggie fare to be easier on the wallet. Even if L'Arpege serves up more spinach than lobster, its prices remain in line with those of other three-star restaurants. At lunch, its eight-course tasting menu runs to US$170. At dinner, the 10-course menu costs US$450, not including wine.

"We want to create a grand cru from vegetables," said Passard. "I talk about carrots the way others talk about chardonnay or sauvignon."

To taste luxury veggies in their natural environment - or as close to it as you can in Paris - try La Cour Jardin, the Plaza Athenee Hotel's terrace restaurant, where the tables are interspersed with tomato plants.

The restaurant - which operates under the supervision of French chef celebre Alain Ducasse - changed its menu earlier this year to emphasize vegetable dishes.

"We put meat and fish aside so that the first ingredient that the client reads on the menu is a vegetable," said the restaurant's 26-year-old chef, Sylvain Fouilleul. "We're not trying to teach clients how to eat, but we want to show them we can eat differently."

Highlights include the cocotte de quinori et legumes croquants, a crispy vegetable casserole, and the fenouil confit au safran, light puffs of saffron-dusted fennel.

The dessert menu is heavy on fresh fruits - raspberries, wild strawberries and, intriguingly, a "lemon in acid and bitter declension."

At an estimated US$120 per person for lunch or dinner, drinks not included, La Cour is pricey. But the verdant terrace, which rings with the call of birds at play among the vegetables - not to mention the food - make it well worth it.

Far from the workaday staple that it is in China and the United States, tofu remains an exotic ingredient in France, where it is still largely relegated to Chinese restaurants and natural food stores.

But vegetarian restaurants - once an almost unheard of oddity that have mushroomed in recent decades - now serve up a wide variety of tofu-based dishes.

Highlights include:

Le Grenier de Notre-Dame: Founded in 1978, this cozy restaurant in the heart of Paris bills itself as the French capital's first vegetarian restaurant. Its large and lengthy menu offers a wealth of choices, the best of which include meatless variations on French classics.

Cassoulet, the bean and pork or duck casserole from southwestern France, is made instead from white beans, tomatoes, peppers and seitan, a meat-like protein made from wheat gluten.

Au Grain de Folie: This hole-in-the-wall in the Montmartre neighborhood specializes in heaping dishes of grains like quinoa, as well as an ever-changing menu of salads, tarts, terrines and casseroles.

Vegetarians who do dairy can sample some of France's reputed 365 varieties of cheese (estimates vary widely from this legendary figure), from international blockbusters like brie and camembert to rare goat's and sheep's cheeses.

The restaurant Pain, vin et fromages (bread, wine and cheese) is a fine place to start. Tucked into a building with a 17th-century stone basement near the Pompidou Center modern art museum, the restaurant serves up raclette, fondue and cheese platters, with each hunk adorned with a little flag rating its pungency on a scale of one to 10.


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