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Feb 25, 2009 09:04 AM

Paris Restaurant Advice for a Molecular Gastronomy lover

My boyfriend and I are taking a trip to Paris in April. He is a real foodie and amateur chef and loves novel, interesting cuisine... He bought the El Bulli cookbook and loves to experiment with molecular gastronomy techniques. I was wondering if anyone has advice on which restaurants have exquisite food, but also a one of a kind interesting experience. Thanks!

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  1. Pierre Gagnaire is the acolyte of Herve This, the "Father of Molecular Gastronomy," and his restaurant is one of a kind. Souphie will surely be along to tell you what you can expect (or maybe what you can never be sure of) at this haute temple of Molecular Gastronomy.

    I have never been there, although I have dined with M. This at a molecular gastronomy banquet. so sorry, I cannot give you a first hand report on Pierre Gagnaire.

    1 Reply
    1. re: ChefJune

      Agree totally, sit back and enjoy the ride. Probably not quite as far out as El Bulli or Andres, but pretty far out. Ate there once in St Etienne in the old days and in Paris about 8 years ago. My good friends ate there last October and we discussed over coffee and drinks later that evening and they still are in the clouds about the meal. Take big bucks, cost me with prix fixe lunch about $ 480 about 8 years ago, and cost them with very, very good wines $2200 for four last October. You can check the prices on the web site.

    2. Agree on Pierre Gagnaire - the molecular techniques that I recognized at my meal there were less chemical and more structural (no calcium alginate or xantham gum as far as I could tell, but a fair amount of foam and dehydrated disks). Oh, there were a number of gels, so I guess there was some use of chemicals.

      What sets Pierre Gagnaire apart, though, are the novel flavor/texture combinations - I haven't written up my meal yet, but the big standouts when I went were a remarkable olive and veal kidney dish, where the texture of the kidneys seemed to mimic the texture of the olives, and the gentle bitterness of the olives echoed the bitterness of the kidneys. The flavors were rounded out by some apple puree and pimenton. Totally bizarre on the page, phenomenal on the palate. I also have vivid memories of a sea bream with sea urchin dish - it came with an endive and Stilton puree. I expected the Stilton to completely overwhelm the delicate seafood, but instead, the strong umami notes of both Stilton and sea urchin came through and harmonized beautifully.

      Almost every review of Pierre Gagnaire seems include "roller coaster" as a descriptor, and for good reason - not every dish works, and when you spend this much money (255 euro prix-fixe for lunch - I think they used to have a 95 euro option, but no longer), you do kind of want every single dish to be great. That said, while I found my lunch the following day at L'Astrance more purely pleasurable, Pierre Gagnaire is the meal I'm still thinking about today. I think that if you're really seeking novel and interesting food experiences, and you're ready to spend a lot of money, and accept the risk of not everything being delicious, Pierre Gagnaire is the right place.

      13 Replies
      1. re: daveena

        I wonder if the "roller coaster" effect is simply because the food is challenging? An individual has to expect that range of experiences: if you can't accept that then maybe the cuisine isn't for the individual. It isn't "safe" food, and always involves risk.

        I have eaten at a number of top MG restaurants in the UK and Spain, and I generally go with the same six friends. At every meal each course divides opinions, some love some dishes whilst others are unmoved, and what is interesting is that there is usually no pattern. From the four who love the first course, two may dislike the next whilst the remaining four love it. With the same group of friends, at traditional meals the opinions are usually more consistent.

        1. re: PhilD

          Come on, in Gagnaire's case, it's not because the food is challenging. It's because it's plain bad every other time.

          I'm not sure that Gagnaire would satisfy someone focused on MG. I doubt that there really are such restaurants in France anywhere, let alone in Paris. Ledoyen uses just as much MG techniques as Gagnaire, if not more. But their food is nonetheless intensely traditional. For playing with alginates and other stuff, I'm really not sure where you could turn.

          1. re: souphie

            I have been to Pierre Gagnaire restaurant 4 or 5 times and never had a bad dish. A few of the numerous dishes might not have been outstanding, I can agree, but never bad. You must have been really unlucky or you are probably not ready for a modern twist in cuisne. ;)
            As for molecular gastronomy you can try Chez Lena et Mimile in Paris (never been there), Thierry Marx near Paulliac (one of the best places I have been to in the last few years), and maybe Jacques Decoret in Vichy (have not been there but is on my list).
            Back to the original question ("one of a kind interesting experience" in Paris) , I think Pierre Gagnaire is an excellent match.

          2. re: PhilD

            My feeling on PG is that the cuisine is very personal - presumably, he creates dishes that he thinks taste good. The gamble, then, is whether or not your tastebuds experience things the same way his do. There are a lot of flavor combinations that the vast majority of people find pleasurable - truffle/veal stock/cream, soy sauce/sesame oil, etc, but when you get really out there, as he does, there's a much higher risk that your tastes don't line up with his. I'd be willing to bet that Theobroma would have enjoyed a number of the dishes that souphie had, and that souphie would have hated most of the dishes that Theobroma enjoyed.

            Anyway, to the OP - as I attempted to say (and souphie said much more clearly) - if what you're looking for is hard-core molecular gastronomy, PG is not the right place (the techniques he uses are the more mainstream ones). However, if you're willing make a somewhat pricey gamble that your palate lines up with the chef's, you may experience brilliant flavor combinations you would never have considered... or you may end up with an expensive meal that you hate.

          3. re: daveena

            " That said, while I found my lunch the following day at L'Astrance more purely pleasurable, Pierre Gagnaire is the meal I'm still thinking about today"

            I think that speaks volumes. My experience at PG was the same. I thought it was amazing and really enjoyed my meal when I was there. And as time passed, I found myself thinking more and more about the dishes I had there and the incredible experience. I think it's the higher highs that make the "pretty good" dishes seem "disappointing" in comparison.

            I also like that fact that I still recognize the food as "cooking" and not just odd MG techniques aimed to surprise or shock. Flavor and cuisine is still the focus at PG.

            1. re: Porthos

              Not only that, but PG's Tokyo restaurant is at the same level as the 3-star Tokyo Parisian-French restaurants, but somehow only managed 2-stars, and 2-star prices.

              1. re: Porthos

                Which is what make it not purely a MG play. There's no question that this is a great restaurant, but if you're focused on alginates and lypohilization, Gagnaire is not necessarily the place. As I said, I think Le Squer at Ledoyen uses these techniques more than Gagnaire does those days. Marx would be more it, but he's pretty far from Paris. Same reason I did not mention Decoret in Vichy or Klein in Untermuhltal.

                Lena and Mimile maybe a better response to the initial question, not to mention a much, much less expensive one.

                Theobroma, if a modern twist on cuisine means poor execution, then indeed I'm not ready for it. To respond your question, I was unlucky, but if you did not have a bad dish in four times, you were pretty lucky. I did not have a good one (OK, maybe one or two) in six times and I stopped trying.

                1. re: souphie

                  i'd just like to echo souphie here on gagnaire... i went in september and we all expected it to be the highlight of a 3 day eating trip and it was complete and utter rubbish. i guess i should stress at this point i used to work for a 3 star chef some years ago and have been fortunate to have eaten my way round some of the better places in the world, so it's not as if i don't have a foundation to base this opinion on.

                  gagnaire sucked from the moment we arrived, i don't even know where to begin so i'll bullet point them:

                  - despite offering a degustation menu, no wines avail by the glass
                  - the degustation was par for the the paris 3-stars at €215 a head, but the a la carte was - wait for it - a whopping €130 - 199 for starters and €150-200 mains, which means food alone for 2 courses carte would average €350
                  - the service was terrible, we even had to pour our own wine at one point!
                  - the food was awful, the lowest point was tuna ceviche on melba toast with vinegar (untreated) from a pipette with dry pop corn on the side
                  - the duck main course was over-cooked!
                  - i didn't think it warranted a star let alone 3!

                  am not sure this whole mg thing is floating my boat right now. go to places like noma and, although they're using some exciting techniques, i think you'd be surprised by how unfussy much of it is.

                  my favourite paris experience of late is probably piege at the crillion, which on my last visit, seemed to be the perfect marriage of incredibly presented food with technique, flavour and experience. the parade of pre-desserts and chocolates has to be seen to be believed, you could really tell he is a ducasse disciple.

                  1. re: marcus james

                    Then obviously, PG is not for everyone.
                    I myself have been to quite a number of top restaurants (or considered as such) and consider myself as rather picky, not impressed at all by the mainstream recommendations.

                    I totally agree that JF Piège is absolutely wonderful, much better IMO than some other 3-stars (such as Alléno for example, and that and other things make me wonder about the Michelin).

                    I didn't know about Noma. I happen to be in Copenhagen in two weeks time. I will try. Thanks for the tip.

                    1. re: Theobroma

                      Don't miss Noma. And MR. Those Danes, they're the single most exciting thing happening in gastronomy in years.

                      1. re: Theobroma

                        if you haven't already, book noma now theo, it's a roadblock.

                        as souphie points out, mr is almost equally as good. a chef friend of mine started here in my home town of nottingham (at the very excellent sat bains) and has now ended at the stoves of noma via mr. we had an incredible experience at the latter when we went to visit him. also check out geranium, i've not been but friends who've been of late suggest it is giving noma a good run for its money.

                        copenhagen, arguably the scandinavian san sebastien!

                        1. re: marcus james

                          Thanks for the details. I might try the other ones you and Souphie mentionned.
                          I am booked for Noma.

                          (I hope Noma will be better than Arzak ;) I was underwhelmed there. Akelare OTOH was superb.)

                          1. re: Theobroma

                            Like the OP I also like to experiment with mg techniques, went to Sole Graells in Barcelona specifically to buy the necessary ingredients. My experience at Pierre Gagnaire blew me away. It was an amazing meal in every regard, the highlight of a two-week gastronomic binge through France and Spain.

              2. Boy are we all over the lot on this one. As usual I agree with my twin separated at birth, Soup. PG is so yesterday. And while I've had a bit of the Coney Beach Cyclone experience myself at L&M, my report a year ago still brings tears to my eyes:
                It was only one time, but it was pretty impressive.

                8.2 Chez Lena et Mimile, 32, rue Tournefort in the 5th,, closed Saturday lunch, Sundays and Mondays, was one of those places that entered Paris under my radar screen, but has gradually built up a reputation for good, solid, but traditional food, deeply influenced by Herve This, the God of Molecular Cooking. A minute on that point - This, author of several books and advisor and some say Svengali, to chefs and restaurants such as Pierre Gagnaire, Inaki Aizpitarte + Les Magnolias, has had an enormous influence on cooking world-wide. I'm impressed differently by the way the above three places/persons have shaped This' thesis; for me Gagnaire has overwhelmed us with dishes and calories, Aizpitarte startled us by rubbing our noses in raw carrots and beets, and Jean Chavel has been the most reasonable yet magical interepter of This' principles - until I ate today at Chez Lena et Mimile. On the one hand, it's in a magnificent location, sitting almost two stories over a sculpture garden/fountain at the end of the street but on the other hand, upon entering, it's as unprepossessing as any place in the 5th. The menu is quite broad and despite the restos reputation as a shrine to This and Thiebault, it's quite normal. I did want to test the molecular bent so I ordered strictly from the This items. First, I had a soup of mushrooms with two slivers of toast atop which were threads of congealed egg yolks - the soup may have been the best I've ever had. Then I had four large scallops with a fluffy sauce of grey shrimp, again I cannot recall a better scallop dish. Oh and besides it was a dish of steamed February veggies with a wondefully spicy taste. Finally, while I didn't really have room for it, in the service of you, dear reader, I sacrificed my body on a "sandwich" (my word not theirs) of sable with chocolate chantilly inside. They did have one other This item, beef cheeks with a fluffy sauce of Syrah polyphenes and at night feature a 55 E all-This meal. The bread was (I'm sure) Poilane, the coffee quite passible and the wine reasonably priced. The bill, hold your seats = 47 E.
                Go? Yes indeed.

                PS I went back with "our gang." They hated it as they have grown to hate PG since his arrival from the sticks.

                John Talbott

                4 Replies
                1. re: John Talbott

                  I went to Léna and Mimile last week. The "molecular" label striked me as pure labelling for a bistrot that is first and foremost ingredient driven. The Bellota ham welcomes you in the hallway, the desserts are simply bought from Pierre Hermé, the vegetables are of course "de Joël" (Thiébault, I assume).

                  Some dishes on the menu have an asterisk that means that they "apply the principles of Hervé This", whatever those principles are. I got one of those: scallops with a grey shrimp emulsion. Not sure how that's not full on Nouvelle Cuisine, but it was good, despite the fact that the scallops were cold and the "emulsion" has some sands molecules. The side of vegetables was pretty good.

                  Some pictures here:

                  The place is lovely and so is the service. I was particularly impressed that the chef whipped some cream for my coffee. I see no point in crossing town to go to L&M or calling it molecular, but it's totally a good place.

                  1. re: souphie

                    You are right about the "molecular" label, my understanding is that most chefs dislike it and most chefs using these techniques don't see it as a different style of cooking, instead they see it as an extension of classic techniques by using modern technology.

                    Certainly, the use of new ingredients/techniques have evolved a different style of food (spherification, gels, Pacojets, liquid nitrogen etc), but most restaurants labelled as "molecular" also have lots and lots of dishes with solid traditional techniques. After all one of Heston Blumenthals classics is "Homage to Alain Chapel" which is a quail jelly, cream of langoustine, parfait of foie gras with an oak moss and truffle toast, a dish which has a lot of classical technique.

                    IMO lots of "molecular" chefs are simply chefs who understand the science of food preparation and use the science effectively, and often it is the same "science" that underpinned the classics anyway. It can obviously be frustrating for the diner if they are after space rocks, foam and dry ice, and all they get is intense flavours and perfectly cooked ingredients. After all is Sous-vide a classical or molecular technique?

                    1. re: souphie

                      Well, "truth in advertising" time. In defense of L&M, the two times I went for lunch the carte clearly stated that the cooking of three, count that, three items (one entree, one plat, one dessert) were "informed" or "influenced" by M. This. So I ordered fully warned. That said, my confreres, as stated above, disagreed violently with my enthusiasm for the place - ending: we never went back.

                      1. re: John Talbott

                        John, interesting use of words (informed/influenced) because Hervé This' work includes a lot of refinement of standard techniques i.e cook carrots in butter with no water as the carrot flavour molecules are water soluble and leach out if boiled, or don't salt Aubergines, instead simply blast them in the microwave to denature the cell structure and stop them absorbing excess oil (you end up with less greasy fried aubergine).

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