Pierre Gagnaire -- March 2008 report
(pictures are available here: http://www.alifewortheating.com/paris...)
Whatever image comes to mind when you hear the word “chef”, odds are that Pierre Gagnaire doesn’t fit it. Maybe you picture that cranky short guy with the tall white toque from Ratatouille. Or maybe a jolly, plump character like this guy. But the man making his rounds in the dining room near the end of our meal fit neither stereotype. He wore a scruffy five-day-old beard and he exuded the grim aura of a battle-hardened war veteran.
If anyone in the room needed a drink, it was him. Clearly the guy wasn’t exactly sipping champagne and listening to Mozart in the kitchen. I figured he had been far too busy fighting instead. Not with his cooks, necessarily, but with the ingredients. Like a mad scientist just emerged from his lab, he had been trying to bend the wackiest food combinations to his will, never totally sure whether the reactions would create explosions or masterpieces.
And that dichotomy is just part of the game with Pierre Gagnaire. A meal here is the truest definition of culinary gambling. Sometimes you win, and occasionally you even hit the jackpot. But almost as often, you lose. Like a frat boy who hemorrhages money “training” for the World Series of Poker, you wonder if you shouldn’t kick the habit and put your time and money into something a little safer. But I was feeling lucky, so I chose to let it ride this time. And I can’t say that I was either surprised or disappointed that the very same meal yielded both the best and worst dishes of my trip to Paris.
Several dishes on the winter tasting menu sounded tempting, but I wasn’t sure I had 245€ worth of confidence in it. Instead we chose the more reasonable Menu du déjeuner at 105€. Looking at the verbose menu description that ran all the way down the page, I wondered whether the meal was three courses or twenty. But it all depends on who is counting, because each course at Pierre Gagnaire is a veritable armada of up to ten plates. We tweaked the menu a bit, with Adam supplementing an additional entrée of langoustines and me requesting Le Grand Dessert de Pierre Gagnaire. The sommelier suggested a bottle of white Burgundy — Domaine J. Confuron-Cotetidot 2002 Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Petite Chapelle (145€) — and soon, the first plates arrived…
AUTOUR DES AMUSE-BOUCHES
Tartare Terre et Mer, oeufs de saumon organique et feuille de dorade royale.
Infusion au vadouvan, râpée de radis et petits coquillages au naturel.
Mousseline de Pompadour en persillade, chair d’aubergine à l’origan.
Brochette d’escargots petits gris.
Moutarde de Shiitake en aigre-doux, pain d’épices croquant et champignons de Paris.
Gras de seiche César aux taggiasche ; sorbet d’olive verte de Lucques.
This paragraph on the menu signaled a parade of amuse-bouches before the entrées were even a gleam in our eyes. The first to arrive was a combination of cucumber gelée, spring vegetable-stuffed hearts of palm with sprouts, and a crispy tuile topped with herb “paper” and raspberry confiture. Definitely a refreshing (and in retrospect, gentle) introduction to the meal. The flavors would only escalate from here, I figured.
Next was a small piece of soy-glazed eel served with tiny gingerbread cookies. Sounds crazy, and it was. But the eel had the pleasantly chewy texture of beef jerky, and the sweet spiced gingerbread balanced out the saltiness of the soy. Really tasty.
A long rectangular beet tuile topped with anchovy paste came after that. Alongside it was a roasted peanut cornet filled with peanut cream and a few whole roasted peanuts. Another strange-sounding combination that I thought worked pretty well. The salty peanut flavor was especially good.
The waiter came by with several types of bread, and through a complex nonverbal conversation of bilingual hand gestures he understood that I wanted to try all of them. (It would have been rude to point, after all, and even more rude to stare him down until he left the entire tray at our table.) There was pain au lait; a walnut roll; a rustic white roll; and a thin pistachio crisp. All were very flavorful. The butter that came with it was decent, but a far cry from what we’d had the day before at l’Arpège.
Round two of the amuse-bouches started with some beef tartare topped with salmon roe, resting on a translucent slice of sea bream carpaccio. I found this surf-and-turf combination to be unbalanced, with the salty roe drowning out the subtle flavors of the fish and meat. Which is too bad, because the description actually sounded really nice to me.
The lightly jellied vadouvan infusion with grated radish and small raw shellfish got us back on track, though. The clam pieces were a bit bland on their own, but the texture and flavor were both complementary to the subtly spiced infusion. The different texture that resulted from jellying the broth also helped the flavors linger on the tongue a bit longer, which I liked.
The mousseline de Pompadour (no, not that kind of Pompadour) was definitely my favorite amuse-bouche. It was a parsley-flavored mousse whose recipe probably hails from the French commune of the same name between Paris and Toulouse. The texture of the mousseline was thick, but light and almost frothy at the same time. Its fabulous parsley-and-garlic-spiked flavor coated the tongue and lingered long after each bite. Every mouthful that included one of the grilled snails was even better. This hors d’oeuvre took the classic combination of snails, parsley, and garlic and elevated it to something nearly sublime.
Next we had some sweet-and-sour shiitake mushrooms. On the rim of the bowl was a thin gingerbread tuile on a round slice of raw white button mushroom. The mushrooms tasted almost like they’d been lightly pickled, with the acidic flavors outshining the sweetness. But the inherent earthiness of the shiitakes still came through. And while I really liked the tuile layered with the raw mushroom on its own, I’m not sure it added much in combination with the shiitakes aside from a contrasting crispy texture.
The last amuse-bouche was a few strips of cuttlefish with finely chopped taggiasche olives and Lucques olive sorbet. I happen to love the texture of cuttlefish. I also happen to dislike olives most of the time. But luckily, Lucques olives are my favorite variety. The sorbet wasn’t at all icy and it had an almost gummy texture, which was surprising but enjoyable. I also liked the cold sorbet with the room temperature cuttlefish, but the overall flavor combination left me unconvinced.
Finally having worked our way up to the entrées, we all had the Voile de mortadelle, pétoncles noires au citron vert. Jeunes navets, asperges vertes de Mallemort et brunoise de pomme verte. Bouillon d’asperge. It was a “veil” of mortadella, an Italian cold cut that comes from the city of Bologna (just don’t let an Italian hear you call it baloney). There were tiny black scallops (the shell is black, not the scallops themselves) with lime; green and white asparagus; a delicious asparagus broth; young turnips, a few leaves of mizuna, and a brunoise of green apple. Reading the menu description, it sounded too busy with so many different flavors crowding the plate. But my fears were unfounded and the combination worked beautifully. It was meaty, vegetal, buttery, tart, and sweet. And most importantly, it was all harmonious. Frankly, I didn’t understand it and I’d never have come up with the flavor combination myself, but it just worked.
Then came Adam’s brilliant idea for a second entrée:
En tartare à la mangue verte, feuille de nougatine.
Grilleés, beurre fondu relevé de poudre de carcasse.
Poêlée à la coriandre fraîche, Sketch up. Bouillon de santé voilé de farine de maïs.
Juste écrasées à la spatule, servies sur un toast chips au lard ibérique.
En consommé glacé cendré de caroube.
En mousseline ; soja frais et pousses de moutarde.
Langoustine tartare with green mango and a thin crisp of nougatine. The minced mango was tart and slightly bitter, so its flavor was a nice complement to the slight natural sweetness of the raw langoustine. The tenderness of the langoustines suggested that they were incredibly fresh. It almost seemed like cooking something that is already so great raw would be a crime.
Skewers of grilled langoustines with melted butter and seasoned with a powder made from the carcass. Actually now I take back what I said before about it being a crime to cook langoustines this fresh. This very simple cooked preparation highlighted the freshness of the product once again, but this time in a new way. The langoustine pieces were incredibly juicy. They had been given just enough time on the heat to be kissed by the fire, but were thankfully still just shy of being cooked through on the inside so the result was very tender.
Sautéed langoustine with cilantro and diced tomatoes. A lot of people seem to hate cilantro. These people, for instance. But I think it has its place. It definitely added a nice pungency here that lifted the flavors of the buttery langoustine and the sweet and slightly tart tomatoes. My only complaint was that I think the langoustine could have been more easily appreciated in combination with the tomato and cilantro if it weren’t on the skewer. But that, my friends, is called nitpicking.
“Healthy broth” with a veil of cornmeal. I had no idea what this was until I Googled it later and found a nearly 200-year-old recipe in The French Cook by Louis Eustache Ude. So I guess now the next time I’ve got six pounds of beef, half of a hen, and a veal knuckle lying around in the fridge, I will know what to do. But on this afternoon I wasn’t really in the mood to analyze every single ounce of food that was set before me. Sometimes you just sip some broth, think to yourself “Hey, this tastes pretty good,” and you move on. This was one of those times.
Very coarsely ground langoustine on toast topped with a slice of Spanish ham. This was beautiful. The paper-thin slice of ham on top was wonderfully fatty but somehow still crispy. Spain’s delicious answer to Italian lardo. You could sandwich anything under that salty pork and it would be pretty good. But the langoustine here (again, just ridiculously tender) was great.
A jellied langoustine consommé with carob powder. This had all the richness of a highly reduced langoustine stock but it was nicely balanced out by the slight sweetness imparted from the use of the carob powder. I’ll admit that I didn’t have the slightest clue what this ingredient was at the time, but I do know it offered a nice contrast to the intense gelée. Also, I think the texture that resulted from jellying the consommé had a nice effect, giving it more character and a more lingering flavor than the simple clarified stock might have had in liquid form.
Mousseline of langoustine with soy bean sprouts and baby mustard leaves. This was another highlight. The mousseline was certainly full-flavored, but light and almost frothy in texture. The sprouts and mustard leaves added a slight bitterness that complemented the rich, slightly sweet flavor of the langoustine mousseline really nicely.
Adam was kind enough to share some of the different langoustine preparations with us. But he may not have been so generous if he’d had a chance to try the main course he was getting next:
LE PLAT PRINCIPAL
Gigot d’agneau de lait rôti au colombo, taillé en fines tranches, servi sur une poêlée de blettes aux panoufles.
Caillette de légumes de printemps.
Tarte sablée de gousses d’ail, pâte de pruneaux.
Oh, I know. It sounds innocent enough. Just some thin slices of leg of suckling lamb roasted with colombo spice blend, served with sautéed swiss chard and pieces of lamb sirloin. But Adam took a bite of the meat and didn’t say a word, though a glance my direction said it all — he hated it. Apparently not content to cut his losses and send the dish back, he moved on to the caillette: minced spring vegetables and lamb meat wrapped in caul, the fatty membrane that surrounds the lamb intestines. Another silent reaction from Adam this time, but with a noticeable frown. Then in what I can only assume was an act of retaliation for a previous transgression of mine, he offered me a bite. Or more accurately, he basically shoved the plate my direction, and demanded asked politely that we switch dishes “just for a quick taste”. Sneaky bastard.
I like to think of myself as a equal-opportunity eater, so I tried each part of the dish. The leg meat was tender and juicy but the sirloin was, well, not. I liked the fact that both were powerfully gamy unlike most of the lamb one can eat in the US. I also liked the accompanying crisp roasted garlic tart with prune paste and swiss chard that Adam seemed to have neglected. But the spicing on the meat, the stuffing of the caillette, and really the overall flavor combination just did not do it for me. I pushed the plate silently back Adam’s direction. He knew without me saying a word — I hated it.
Then again I’m never particularly fond of that type of curry, even if it’s supposedly only very subtle. So after the amuse-bouches, I had taken the liberty of asking if they might substitute a different main course of the chef’s choosing for me. That was probably the best decision I ever made, since Santa Claus slid down the chimney with…
Petit canard Pékin rôti entier à l’étouffée, aux aromatiques :
Les filets sont taillés en petits pavés ; carottes multicolores ; feuille de datte sèche aux mûres.
Scarole, parfait glacé de brebis et sirop de pétales de coquelicot.
Betterave rouge comme un condiment.
The waiter arrived tableside with a heavy black cast iron casserole. He brought it under my nose and lifted the lid to reveal a whole small Pekin duck sizzling away inside. The aroma alone had me smiling ear to ear as they swept the dish back to the kitchen for plating. Moments later, they returned with the breast meat cut into thin slabs and accompanied with multi-colored carrots. There was an almost translucent thin sheet made of dried dates and a scattering of pleasantly tart blackberries to mellow that sweetness. Large tiles of crispy rendered duck skin were strewn here and there, and all of this was generously drizzled with a bitter chocolate sauce. On a small side plate were a few pieces of escarole with frozen blue sheep’s milk cheese parfait and poppy petal syrup (yeah, I hadn’t heard of it either). On another was red beet “as a condiment”, which in this case meant a vibrant combination of beet mousse and beet sorbet.
There’s no sense in me trying to explain why this was so incredible. (But for a clue, please re-read the last paragraph and try to taste it this time.) I would run the risk of spouting off a whole series of food writing clichés like “cooked to perfection” and “melt in your mouth”. See, look what you made me do! What I can say is that this was one of those dishes that are so unbelievably good you want to share a bite with everyone who’s ever smiled at you. I felt like my kindergarten teacher Mrs. Hatch definitely deserved one. Ditto for that neighbor of mine who always waves when I pass by in the mornings. Hell, even my stock broker deserved one, though I have noticed he smiles much bigger when I am handing him money. This course was, in short, a triumph. A magical dish that was the best of the trip, the best of the year so far, and frankly one of the very best things I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating.
As you can imagine, my head was in the clouds after that phenomenal duck, and what better way to stay there than by eating ten desserts? Yes, you read that correctly. Ten desserts is exactly what we had on the way…
LE GRAND DESSERT DE PIERRE GAGNAIRE
Inspirés de la pâtisserie française ; élaborés à partir de fruits de saison, de confiseries peu sucrées & de chocolat.
The mignardises were not counted as part of the nine desserts, but they came first. They included an “acid drop” (thin hard candy shell with dehydrated strawberry powder and citric acid); an almond meringue cookie with marzipan; dark chocolate with kirsch; a “cherry” (actually a black currant wrapped in marzipan and glazed); white chocolate with lemon curd; and a marshmallow rope. The acid drop was great, tingling as it dissolved on the tongue like pop rocks. The others were all enjoyable, too, but this was just the beginning of a long parade of sweets, which also included:
Coconut and vanilla tapioca, toasted coconut, pistachio ice cream and red bell pepper. This one sounded delicious… until the waiter mentioned the bell pepper. But in a sadistic effort to satisfy my curiosity about the flavor combination, I tried it all together. Suffice it to say that it was all quite good and something I’d love to eat again… except for the bell pepper.
Lemon-almond ice cream with almond gelée, red bell pepper stuffed with dried fruit. Now I’m as happy to help the Mexican economy (the world’s biggest exporter of bell peppers) as the next guy, but if I was disappointed with the presence of the bell pepper in the previous dessert, I was perplexed by its recurrence here. Sure, bell peppers have a subtle natural sweetness. We get it already. Once was more than enough. The almond and lemon flavors in this dessert were another winning combination… without the bell pepper.
Vanilla ice cream in a white chocolate shell, white beer foam, strawberry purée. The foam had an almost creamy frothiness (not unlike a pint of beer poured fresh from the tap) and a subtly sweet flavor. Breaking through the white chocolate sphere gave way to the ice cream inside and the purée below. Adam thought that the beer foam was good “because it didn’t taste like beer”, but I thought the foam was actually what kept this dessert from being too sweet. With both good texture and taste, I thought this was a rare instance of foam with a purpose.
Cucumber sorbet, cucumber gelée, arugula. The sorbet and gelée were cool and refreshing, and went well with the peppery arugula. A nice transition for the palate to better enjoy some the more acidic flavors that followed.
Almond cake, lemon confit, caramelized sugar shell, papaya-lime purée. This had a flavor that was bright, sweet, and pleasantly acidic. The crunchy layer of caramelized sugar on top of the buttery moist cake and the lemon confit was really nice for a different texture and the sweet-tart combination of the papaya and lime was a great topping.
Orange and kumquat confit, orange sorbet, orange mousse, orange toast. The wide range of temperatures and textures featured the same flavors again and again in new ways. This added a nice level of depth to a dessert that could have easily been monotonous in the hands of less skilled pastry chef. This was probably my favorite of the bunch.
Lemon sorbet, lemon confit, shaved pineapple. The last in a series of really refreshing citrus-based desserts. We all mistook the veil laid on top of the bowl for dried pineapple, but it was actually a razor-thin slice of the fresh fruit. Hidden beneath it was an second equally thin slice that rested directly on the pleasantly tart sorbet and confit. This was exactly the kind of palate cleanser we needed after the first six desserts. (I dare you to re-read that last sentence and not crack a smile.)
Raspberry meringue, chantilly, raspberry confiture, fresh mango tart. This was sweet, tart, crisp and creamy. And like several other desserts that preceded it, I really enjoyed the range of different textures with this one. Biting through it, each layer had a distinct feel on the tongue. The continued emphasis on such vibrant fresh fruit flavors was making it that much easier to just sit back and keep eating. Not that this has ever been much of a problem for me. But you know what I mean.
Dark chocolate ganache, chocolate straw, praline tuiles. Like I’ve always said, I’m not a chocolate guy. But maybe that’s just because chocolate is usually the last dessert to be served. So there’s always a bit of sadness associated with it. Praline tuiles can help anyone through such tough times, though, especially when they’re so pleasantly salted. This kept the slight sweetness of the chocolate ganache in check. There are worse ways to say goodbye.
And with that, our lunch was done. I had come in to Pierre Gagnaire expecting to be wowed, and I was — both positively and negatively. The duck will be a dish I’ll dream about for years to come. Truly exceptional in every sense of the word. The lamb, on the other hand, I’d like to forget as soon as possible. And I don’t think the presence of bell pepper in a few of the sweets has inspired me to sprinkle little bits of it into my breakfast cereal, either. Even so, I think that when you succeed, you should push yourself to succeed in a big way. And likewise when you fail. Some of Gagnaire’s creations seem to be the product of an inspired genius. Others, the product of psychoactive drug abuse. But all these combinations — the wacky and the tried-and-true — exhibit the soul of a chef who is not content to be like all the others. He wants you walk away from the restaurant having tasted his food, think “Man, that was crazy”, and then question whether or not that’s a compliment or a criticism. Often, I think, it’s both.