The etymology of the name Apicius is a curious, complicated and controversial thing.
There seems to be three Apici whose names have survived for posterity – the first, a professional glutton living during the Republic whose love of excess and excessive love of food meant that his name was henceforth applied as a nickname to future gourmands; the second, and most eminent, Marcus Gavius Apicius, who lived in the first century AD; and the third, a cook who lived a hundred years later and discovered a method for packing and sending fresh oysters to emperor Trajan whilst he waged war in Mesopotamia. As mentioned, the second was the most famous and the most infamous, so much so that even the likes of Pliny and Seneca felt obliged to comment on him and his habits. One story attributed to Marcus is that having heard that the largest, sweetest shrimp were to be found near the Libyan coast, he commandeered a boat and crew from his home in Minturnae (just north of Napoli) and made the storm-tossed voyage there. As his ship drew close to the shore, local fisherman pulled alongside him in their little boats, offering him their shrimp; utterly unimpressed with these, he immediately turned back without even going ashore. Another anecdote has him, having discovered that he had frittered away a fortune of one hundred million sestertii and with only ten million (a considerable amount) left, so afraid of not being able to eat and entertain himself in the manner he had become accustomed to, committing suicide. His appetite for indulgence however lived on in the Italian language: in comparable fashion to how foie gras is produced today, this Apicius found a similar technique for pork liver whereby he (force- and over-) fed his pigs on figs, then slaughtered them with an overdose of the aperitif mulsum (honeyed wine), their livers, by now, ficcatum (literally, figged). This term has evolved into the word fegato, Italian for liver.
Besides these three epicures, however, there also exists a fourth/fifth (they have not decided yet) century Latin cookbook either filled with the second Apicius’ recipes; edited by yet another Apicius, Caelius…; or given the subtitle, Apicius, in honour of the aforesaid trio. Whomever it was written by/edited by/named after, it is the earliest cookbook ever found. Officially titled De Re Coquinaria (On the Subject of Cooking) and holding nearly five hundred recipes, its contents are today a useful reference for reconstructing the dietary habits of the ancient world and reveals that the Romans passed onto their Italian ancestors their love of agrodolce flavours, pasta, spelt, sausage making and the use of reduced wine in sauces; it also has possibly the first instructions for paella, tian and cassoulet.
For those who are still reading, I apologise for the protracted preamble – as you may have guessed, I have more than a passing interest in ancient history and literature. Anyway, the reason, or raison, for all this waffle? Well, that would be the Parisian two-star run by Jean-Pierre Vigato on the rue d’Artois, also dubbed Apicius (after the book and none of the men).
Born on the Île-de-France, in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, Vigato first apprenticed at local hotel Moulin d’Orgeval, before completing his CAP and joining Le Moniage Guillaume and then Charlot le Roi des Coquillages, both in Paris proper. After this, he went to Chez Albert (2*) where he studied English and oenology, eventually making maître d’hôtel. In 1978, he bought the restaurant Les Roches Gourmandes in an auction, only to sell it within months. The next year, he opened another, Grandgousier, which proved more successful and won him his first Michelin star (1981). A year later, he sold this too. In 1984, he launched Apicius near avenue de Villiers. After one year, the restaurant had earned its first star; after three, Vigato and Apicius had their second. This success secured further honours; Guide Hachette named him ‘Chef of the Year 1998’ and he was selected to represent France at the 1992 Universal Exposition in Seville. In recent years, he has been busy setting up smaller bistros around the capital. If not a chef, he has said he would want to be a writer or a sculpture. This artistic trait betrays itself in his cooking; he is renown for his innovation; modernising of traditional dishes; fusion of rustic and refined; and for using uncommon combinations. He is a bon vivant himself who enjoys dining with his friends – his weakness, a good cigar after a good meal.
Twenty years after Vigato first opened Apicius in the 17th, he decided to move. As of late 2004, his current location is a nineteenth century hôtel particulier, which used to belong to the Comte Artois, and sits nestled in private gardens behind the Champs-Elysées. The mansion once housed the Schneider family and then Helena Rubenstein before Luc Besson bought it. He first rented the space to Schroders Bank, but later invited Vigato, his friend, to join him. The director still keeps his office in this Hausmannian home.
Once across the courtyard and through the door, one finds himself in a vast atrium with tall ceilings. To the left there is a bar where classical, contemporary and Belle Époque meet and mingle; think Greek columns, black bar stools and crystal chandeliers. To the right, there is a long corridor running along the outside of the dining area that has been split into three semi-separate spaces; this creates privacy without isolation. Along the outer side are French windows swathed with silk curtains that are chocolate and orange at one end, harlequin green at the other. Walls are khaki whilst the carpet, ecru. Soft brown banquettes rim the room and chairs are wooden with woven straw backs. The Eric Zeller designed area is decorated with 3D artwork, seventeenth century Indian bibelots, Polynesian sculptures and nineteenth century Flemish paintings. These touches are eclectic and colourful, but not at all garish. In stark contrast to the surroundings, tablecloths are brilliant white and laid with Ercuis cutlery and custom-made cover plates; no two tables share chargers of the same colour. There is a minimalism with clean lines, smooth surfaces and subtle furnishings; it is elegant and very comfortable.
Amuse Bouche 1: Toast avec Poivré; Betterave, Fromage de Chèvre; et Financier avec Legumes Provençal. The meal started with a trio of amuses. First, a savoury sablé sprinkled with black pepper that was pasty and thick on the tongue and left a distinct, spicy aftertaste. Secondly, a little ladle laden with beetroot and goat’s cheese that melted in the mouth, its sourness syncing well with the slightly pickled beet. Finally, there was a financier filled with a farce Provençale of tomato, onion and aubergine all caramelised until warm, sweet and earthy.
Le Pain: Pain Blanc. There was no choice for bread – simply white was offered – but it was baked on the premises (the dough having been bought raw from a suburban baker). Sel de Guérande – a hand-harvested fleur de sel from Brittany and thought the best of salts – was generously strewn over the smooth and creamy butter that came from Indre-et-Loire, in France’s Centre region. This is the same salt that was first collected in the ninth century and only by women (men were believed too brutish for its delicate farming) to be served only to royalty.
Amuse Bouche 2: Saumon Mariné. A simple second snack consisted of wild salmon marinated with lemon juice and olive oil and minimally garnished with thin slices of carrot, potato and sliver of red onion. The fish, clearly very fresh, had good rich, clean taste and smooth, verging on creamy, flesh. The vegetables provided textural contrast, but little else; instead of these, the salmon with some more lemon would have worked just as nicely.
Entrée 1: Foie Gras de Canard Poêlé ‘Classique Apicus’, aux Radis Noirs Confits. Pan-fried foie gras of duck, resting on a brunoise bed of carrot, courgette, celery and turnip and hemmed with three wafer-thin cuts of confit black radish and a brace of baby spinach leaves, was drizzled with an aigre-doux sauce. This is one of the restaurant’s specialities – foie is a favourite of Vigato’s and, at Apicius, he serves it in five styles, depending on the season. And indeed, the liver, with a runny middle and faintly crisp coating, was delectably cooked. The sweet-and-sour sauce of sherry, red wine and white wine vinegars, sugar and white peppercorns, was pleasingly powerful. Black radish confit provided some earthy-sweetness and enforced these flavours whilst, the diced vegetables offered a refreshing counter. The fact that the foie had not been deveined, considering how this is one of the chef’s classics, was noted. That said, Vigato is both an advocate of rustic cooking and of not overworking ingredients; maybe that is why the vein remained.
Entrée 2: Grenouilles Dorées au Beurre Salé et Soupe de Grenouilles. Arriving elaborately in a perforated porcelain bowl were golden, parsley-speckled frogs’ legs accompanied by a small serving of frog soup. The crunchy, crisp legs were surprisingly succulent and their slightly peppery herb coat, infused with salty butter, contrasted agreeably with their natural subtle sweetness. As testament to the kitchen’s skill, they left not a trace of grease. The adjoining drink was composed of frogs’ calves, their stock, garlic and more parsley. This was warm, light yet creamy and boasted clear, distinct flavours with crispy, meaty bites that had collected at the cup’s bottom.
Plat Principal 1: Cabillaud Demi-Sel Cuit à la Vapeur et Laqué, Multitudes d’Herbes en Vinaigrette de Soja. Chunky cod loin, layered with a verdant variety of fresh herbage – mint, flat parsley, coriander, shallots and white onions – and soused in light soy vinaigrette, was served sitting on spinach sprouts and edged with ginger compote. Four rhomboids of tomato at each of the cod’s corners, plus the herby heap on its back, playfully produced the appearance of a turtle. The poached, semi-salted fish was excellent. Perfectly cooked, thick, firm white flakes with subtle, fine taste provided a good foil for the South Asian flavours here. The greens packed a punchy, peppery sourness that, though tamed a little by the moist tomato, enlivened the dish. Soft ginger had clear, lingering warmth. All these elements were well-judged and formed a gentle fusion that cleansed the palate after the stronger-savoured first two courses.
Plat Principal 2: Ris de Veau ‘Rôti Nature’, Mijoté d’Abats, Sauce Poulette. Four sturdy cubes of celery root, circled by spirals of jus de veau, supported a roasted veal sweetbread dressed with chives; this plate was partnered by pomme purée with black truffle jus and a soup of veal foot, sweetbread, Paris mushrooms and sauce poulette. The sweetbread was milky and delicate, but its skin, in sharp contrast, was very crisp with an almost barbeque smokiness. If I were to be harsh I could argue that it may have been cooked moments too long and that the caramelised surface had almost started to turn chewier – but this was barely discernible. Dense, coarse celery supplied crunchy substance and the strong jus was a pleasantly spicy addition. The potato had good consistency, but the truffles disappointed. In contrast, the potage was very good, full of flavour and soft, juicy pieces of veal; the mushrooms thickened it and instilled some woodiness and the sauce poulette (basically chicken stock, crème fraîche, lemon and parsely) provided twang and kick.
Dessert 1: Fantasie du Pâtissier. A scoop of coconut and quenelle of quince sorbet were matched with meringue threesome, all atop a compote of quince cooked in syrup; tableside, mildly warm nashi pear and coconut milk tapioca was poured into the bowl. The fruity, sweet aromas, of coconut and particularly rose (from the sugar dusted around the rim) were lovely. Both sorbets were excellent, but texturally, very different; coconut was smooth whilst quince, almost airy yet crumbly at once. The crisp and sticky meringues were fresh, whilst the candied cubes of quince beneath were like honey. The tapioca – a rich, milky cream bestrewn with pearly bubbles that twirled around the tongue – was actually terrific. The distinct flavours in this dessert really impressed.
Dessert 2: Soufflé au Chocolat et Chantilly sans Sucre. Dark chocolate soufflé, with crusty, dusted top came with sugarless whipped cream and Bourbon vanilla ice cream. The soufflé, straight and standing, seemed well made, and was. Smashing through the dense surface, the mousse-like middle was hot and heavy with cocoa. The Valrhona 70% Guanaja had intensity and long lingering finish. To help mitigate the chocolate’s might, a light, sugarless Chantilly had been administered, as was a very cold and deeply perfumed vanilla ice cream.
Petit Fours: Pâtes de Framboises; Nougat Classic; Caramel au Beurre Salé; Tartelette de Praline Rosé; et Tuile de Carambar. A long lunch lasted a little longer thanks to a slate slab of petit fours: raspberry jelly; rustic nougat; salty caramel; rose and nut tartlet; and Carambar tuile. The pâte de fruit had strong savour, but was too firm; nougat was also quite hard, but well-stocked with pistachios, peanuts and hazelnuts; and the caramel was very sticky though nicely salted and melted to touch. The tartelette had a thin, brittle base and thick, again sticky, filling hiding croustillant crumbs; its rose essence came through clearly. The tuile was my favourite. Carambar is a bright, pink caramel children’s sweet from France and here it had been liquefied in the oven and then cooled. It had an addictive burnt toffee and raspberry tartness and was crunchy and did not cling to one’s teeth.
The food could not be faulted for its execution or flavour with good ingredients used simply and effectively. What stood out was the distinct taste that each element of a dish had, as did the superb soups that supplemented some of the courses – I can see why this was a theme as these are clearly a strength of the kitchen’s. Vigato’s cooking is noted for the juxtaposition of bistro and haute cuisine traditions and this was evident today from the frogs’ leg and offal. Alongside these however, there was also the almost inapropos Far Eastern-inspired fish dish. After the meal, I asked where the idea for this had came from and was told that the chef enjoys using produce from across the world, but the focus is on the product and not the technique; an admirable philosophy given the common criticism levelled at cooks who try to use foreign methods without the necessary training. Coming away from the meal, I feel that maybe the sweets were better, or personally more enjoyable, than the savouries. The fantasie du pâtissier was, visually, a bit of a mess, but tasted delicious. Although I must admit, I am very fond of quince, rose and coconut, whilst nashi pears are an Achilles’ heel of mine. Chocolate soufflé is chocolate soufflé and always a crowd pleaser.
One other detail I rather liked was how the menu dégustation is decided. From the ALC one chooses two entrées, a fish, a meat, cheese then a dessert – or you can substitute cheese for a second dessert if you are as silly as me. I thought this pick’n’mix approach quite a good one.
The restaurant itself is beautiful and elegant, whilst the staff were very good. Service was, of course, professional yet laced with friendly humour. All were attentive, polite, obliging and smiling. English was spoken well by everyone, but they took the lead from me as to which language I preferred and when. One of the managers, Christian, who served me was very helpful and pleasant to talk to (having lived a year in London himself, we had plenty to discuss). Emanuèle, who runs the restaurant (I believe), was just as sweet and talkative.
I left having enjoyed a very pleasing meal. None of the dishes took my breath away, but all were certainly tasty; the restaurant was welcoming with a warm ambience; and the staff were top quality. At Paris prices, it was good value too. I would return, but were I to, I would go for the whole calf’s head that Vigato ‘proudly’ has carved at the table; that is, he claims, when he can ‘cater to true gourmands who come in for a big feast!’
The problem will be finding five or six others who would want to split a calf’s head…
20, rue d’Artois, Paris 75008
tel: 0033 1 43 80 19 66
nearest métro: George V, Saint-Philippe-du-Roule