Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Pierre Gagnaire Paris - 1st visit

The 2006 Easter holiday was the time when I eventually visited and savored the 3* restaurants at its original country - France, the home of the legendary Michelin Red Guide. As the guide suggests 3-star restaurant is a place that serves exceptional cuisine and worth a special journey. Here it comes: at the end of May this year (2007), I, all by myself, flew to Europe specifically to indulge more than half dozen of three stars restaurants, one of the most memorable experiences is a lunch at Pierre Gagnaire (Π) Paris. After having a decent experience at Pierre Hong Kong, this would be the right time to enjoy the Haute Cuisine extravaganza in the Hotel Balzac where the master himself was the man behind the stove. This establishment is a must-try for any real adventurous foodies; it is one of the most fashionable haute-cuisine dining spots - don’t come here and expect to have traditional French dishes. Every meal is complex and inventive, making each dish a new experience and discovery, his cuisine is indeed intellectual and poetic, no wonder some people call the chef-owner Pierre Gagnaire – the “Picasso of the palate”. Gagnaire always pursues new ideas; nevertheless he never forgets the main objective of giving his patrons pleasure through the art of cuisine. Here it is the story of my exploration.

About 1230 PM, I entered the main door of the restaurant – I’d better came early since they would charge me €100 had I not shown up that day. From the outside, few people would think this would be a place that is worthy of a special trip to Paris since it looked quite rundown (Hotel Balzac underwent a big renovation, left many dusts, dirty stones and some uneven stairs near the restaurant’s entrance). Thankfully, the hotel and the restaurant are two separate entities, inside everything looks as good as the other 3-star places I’ve visited, even better as Gagnaire himself greeted his guests. Just before I sit at my table, the waiter offered me a ‘potato croquette’, what special about it was that the crisp potato along with a little cheese inside was actually melting; finally I ate an amuse-bouche that is as delicious as ADNY’s gougères. There were 3 menus here – Le menu Degustation (lunch and dinner) and A la Carte. The maitre d’ kept insisting that I should have the a la carte; to be honest it looks very tempting. At Π, the a la carte menu would usually be one main ingredient served in several different preparations, however there’s always a classic problem – money. Two orders of the a la carte (without cheese or desserts) would easily be more expensive than the tasting menu. Because of this, I opted for the degustation menu – the full course (I would not fly more than 12-hour just to get the small tasting menu). Without further delay, these are what I had.

Menu Printemps nº03 (The 3rd degustation menu for the Spring season)

Gelée d’olive noire Taggiasche, mousseline de celery rave. Coeur de cabillaud (grille-poché) dans une huile d’olive au miel du desert des Agriates (Jelly black olive Taggiasche, chiffon of celery turnip. Grill-poached Codfish/Morue heart in olive oil with honey of Agriates desert) - The fish is tasteless and slightly too soft accompanied by bitter black olives, the overall taste is rather funny. I don’t like it. This could be an example where Gagnaire’s experiment failed. Not a very good start …

Asperge du Perthuis, émincés d’oignons nouveaux au paprika, carottes multicolores, lichettes de gruyere assaisonnées. Crème d’amande au citron vert. Jus d’étrille lié d’avoine (Perthuis asparagus, thin slices of new onions with paprika, different kinds of carrots, seasoned gruyere – Swiss cheese – nibbles. Almond cream with green lemon, crab’s juice of oats) - A great vegetable dish - not inferior to Passard’s, you should mix the veggies along with the crab meat sauce, there is a harmony of taste created with different intensity level of flavors. The carrot is also good when you eat it by itself

Aubergine et rouget, tomate et betterave rouge. Gousses d’ail sablées. Jus de bouillabaisse au poivron rouge. Toast à bécasse et sardine fraîche, givré de concombre à l’amontillado (Eggplant and red mullet served with tomato and red beet. Cloves of garlic shortbread, fish soup juice with red pepper. Toast with woodcock and fresh sardine, sorbet of cucumber with a pale dry sherry) - It’s always amazing to see the complexity of Gagnaire’s cook. The combination above gave a sweet taste with slight bitterness. The cucumber is OK while the sardine is good. The egg plant is the most dominant element of the dish, to appreciate the dish, you need to combine 2-4 ingredients altogether

Bar de ligne rôti à la peau; tranche de navet kabu, jus de cresson. Beurre doux au fenouil (Seabass roasted with its skin served with slice of turnips kabu, watercress juice and soft butter with fennel) - My favorite dish and the most outstanding Seabass I’ve ever tasted. It’s really delicious and not cloying at all, the skin along with the fish’s fat is very crisp. The sauce enrich the fish’ flavor while the veggies tried to balance it out. When someone said that one great dish at Gagnaire is sufficient for the whole meal, I guess this could be one of those dishes. A masterpiece by an artist …

Gras de seiche déclinés; gnocchi de tomate. Cubes (thon rouge – foie gras de canard). Quelques coquillages d’été (Reduced-fat cuttlefishes and tomato gnocchi. Blue fin tuna and duck foie gras served with some summer shellfishes) - The squids served in 3 ways (plain, seaweed and with its ink) are average. The tuna belly is as good if not better than Japanese top sashimi, very tasty and melting in my mouth before even I had a chance to bite it. The piece of foie gras is intensely good. The rests - integrate the tomatoes’ sweet & sour taste with the cockles flavor to create a savory palate. Another excellent dish

Glace de petits pois à la menthe poivrée; marinière de legumes verts et infusion d’herbes fraîches au lait de coco. Nèfle pochée (Cold peas with peppermint, mariner’s style of green vegetables and fresh herbs infusion with coconut milk as well as poached medlar/Japanese loquat) - A very refreshing spring vegetables. It clears and takes out any after taste left from the previous dishes, a short break before the main course

Biscuit chaud de langoustine à l’épine vinette, émincé de quasi de veau de lait au persil simple. Crème de morilles fraîches au vin jaune du Jura (Warm biscuit of langoustine with highbush cranberry, and slices of milk-fed veal with parsley served in cream of fresh morels and yellow wine from Jura) - The veal is tender and juicy, combined with tasty morels. But, the essential taste of the langoustine is not really there (hidden) since its preparation rather unusual for me

Cabri ariégeois, poire au vinaigre de coquelicot. Fouchtra, croustade de pain au vieux levain; celeries dorés. Velouté de brebis à la coriandre fraîche, pressé de Valençay (Young goat cheese served with pear and poppy’s vinegar; cow’s milk cheese from Auvergne with croustade of the old leaven’s bread and browned celeries; cream of sheep’s-milk cheese served with fresh coriander) - I like the goat cheese best, while cow’s milk is sour. The bottom cheese taste and smell like mon’t d’or - quite bitter actually. A unique set of cheeses

Les desserts Pierre Gagnaire (The desserts a la Pierre Gagnaire) – The dessert is a mixture of 6 different kinds of small ones. They are lemon mousse with cucumber, light and refreshing; cream of orange and carrot with white cheese below, mild fruit sweetness. There are also coffee plus 2 kinds of cherries, bitter and a bit awkward; pistachio ice cream with summer raspberries - fresh with sweet and sour balanced. In addition, apple jelly and crispy apple "chips" - fragrant apple aroma, but the taste is more on the sour side, maybe to take out the chocolate’s sweetness. Lastly, a glass of dark chocolate cream, if you really love dark chocolate, Pierre’s is the place to go, I ate the bitterest dark chocolate at Gagnaire’s place (Paris as well as Hong Kong)

The wine list at Π is competent. I had a half-bottle of 2004 Saint-Peray, Domaine Bernard Gripa. This is probably the least expensive wine I’ve ever had in the 3* establishment (€28 – this could easily be the cost of a glass of champagne at ADPA). However, it went quite well with Gagnaire’s food. Its freshness and acidity balanced out the strong taste from some of the dishes. Additionally, I also drank a glass of sweet wine to accompany many different dessert combinations a la Pierre Gagnaire - 2001 Jurançon Moëlleux domaine Cauhape. It is fresh and rich with a blend of exotic fruits and citrus, moreover it has an aromatic finish. The dining room is elegant in modern décor accompanied by honey-colored wood and artistic blue wall paper. While the tables are well-spaced, it gives no sense of history or grandeur. The restaurant was surprisingly quiet; only about 10 people including myself ate there during lunch time. The service is refined, relaxed and professional without any sign of the French arrogance, here every guest is valued and respected whether you’re a regular customer or not. Only about half of the waiters are unfortunately capable of speaking decent English. Near the end of my meal, Monsieur Gagnaire smilingly stopped at the table and asked how things were going; all I could say was c’est magnifique!

Pierre Gagnaire is one of the most original and artistic chefs working anywhere today. His styles are contrasts in color, texture, temperature, vibrant flavors and mixture of surprising ingredients. Eating here is an adventure and the patrons should be eager to be part of his exploration though his inventions may not always work (like the first dish I had, luckily the rests of them were fine). Even Pierre admits that he takes risks with his cooking and his over-enthusiasm occasionally goes overboard. For me, it’s well worth my time. I think it’s always interesting to eat here since one would hardly eat the same dish twice, even for each season Π could serve 2-3 different savory menu. Hence, if any of you get chance to eat here, all I can say is just sit back, relax and enjoy. Let the wizard charm you with his show! If any of you would like to see pictures of what I ate, please click the following link below, http://picasaweb.google.com/Andi.Chahyadi.Hermawan/PierreGagnaireParisFrance1stVisit#

Food (and Wine): 97 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 94 pts

Overall: 96/100

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

L'Arpege Alain Passard - 2nd visit

Michelin 3-star establishments have always been identical with places serving excellent food and wine accompanied by outstanding hospitality set up in unique and comfortable ambiance. Being an adventurous person who loves surprises, I do not want to return to the same place twice unless that restaurant is, of course, exceptional. By that time I arrived at this place, I have been fortunate enough to eat at more than ten different 3-star restaurants in Europe. After having breathed fresh air along the sides of Hôtel des Invalides, I finally reached a deathly quiet street near Musée Rodin just before the sunset. Where was I? The title above should tell it all … yes, at the end I “betrayed” my own tradition. L’Arpege, the place serving me the meal of my life a year before, is the first and only 3-star temple so far where I’ve visited twice. At first, I prefer to try other places like: Guy Savoy or Le Meurice after receiving several excellent reviews from many foodies whom I respected. However, the cooking of L’Arpege’s chef patron – Alain Passard, a great chef who is almost certain to go down in history as one of the best ever, is very difficult to resist. Throughout the year, I could still “taste” his prawn carpaccio with osetra caviar, slowly cooked monkfish with mustard emulsion or free range chicken with garden vegetables in my dream. With such wonderful memories, I was convinced that I had to return to L’Arpege, especially after having found out from the website that it offers many dishes I’ve never tried before.

Upon entering the restaurant through the heavy door, I was escorted to my table located in the center of the restaurant. For most part, the décor at L’Arpege looked familiar to me – it is (still) relatively small and informal in which brown and earth-colored orange dominate the wall. A candle lit at each table as well as the place’s limited cove light make for an austere ambiance; at the back of the restaurant, one could see the portrait of Alain Passard’s grandmother, from whom the chef drew his inspiration. In addition, a watermelon from the chef’s farm is put at every table this time. Unlike the décor, I hardly recognized any L’Arpege’s staffs except for one – Helene; the lady who fried my all-time favorite dessert – crystallized tomato with 12 flavors. Later I found out from Laurent Lapaire, the restaurant manager that half of the L’Arpege’s front team has changed including the former chef sommelier, Stéphane Thivat who currently managed a wine cellar outside Paris. But we know that Passard’s team members usually leave because of bigger opportunities to improve their career – Pascal Barbot and L’Astrance is probably the most famous example. Not only that, even Passard gave his regular customers’ contact lists to help L’Astrance took off faster. Furthermore, the chef’s former apprentices are spread out all over the places including Singapore and Tokyo.

Anyway, let’s get back to the main theme: my 2nd experience at L’Arpege. As soon as I sat down, I was offered an aperitif - this time I had a glass of Champagne Krug Brut Grande Cuvée - balanced and full of finesse, wonderfully creamy and more importantly has a long, lingering finish. In short - simply stunning! After that, while flipping the menu, I indulge myself in Monsieur Bordier’s irresistible salted butter from Saint-Malo spread over in-house freshly baked bread. Upon reading the menu, I “happily” decide to order the degustation menu (combining the elements of earth and sea) even though it would break my bank account. The only dishes that were not changed compared to what I had before are the house specialties – the famous poached egg (Good news: it’s the restaurant official amuse bouche and you no longer need to order the tasting menu anymore in order to taste this dish) and cheese selection by Bernard Antony. Moreover, this time chef Alain Passard was in the kitchen, so it’s normal to expect that I would have a better overall dining experience compared to the first one.

Menu Pleine Terre, Pleine Mer

L’oeuf à la coque (A warm egg poached in its shell served with sherry vinegar and maple syrup) - If you just take the top without mixing it with the syrup, it’s rather acidic due to the fresh cream - but the mixture of it (bitter and sweet) is fantastic – pristine taste with silky texture. The egg itself is barely warm and runny. A good way to awaken my palate

Parfums (belle saison) crème soufflé au Speck (Veloute of vegetables served with cream of smoked ham) - This "soup" served warm; the saltiness of the ham is reduced with the vegetables - leaving out the possible cloying taste from this dish. Oh … that Krug champagne helps too

(Radisotto) printanier à la moutarde d’Orléans parmigiano reggiano (Spring radishes “Risotto” served with mustard and parmesan cheese) - My anticipation is high, but I just realized that the best ingredients for any "risotto" dish is still rice. The flavors worked just fine, but some mustard and the cheese make it a bit too sour

Jardinière Arlequin à l’huile d’argan (cuisine choisie) à la coriandre (Selection of fresh herbs from the garden – beetroots, couscous, turnips, different kind of carrots - served with Argon oil from Morocco) - Is this supposed to be the star for the night? Well, surprisingly I’m not too impressed. Most of the vegetables are freshly prepared and excellent, especially the carrots - crunchy and sweet - and the Argon oil - light and delectable, but they don’t mixed too well … I prefer to enjoy each vegetable separately as side dishes

Turbot de Bretagne (belle saison) (Slowly cooked Brittany turbot served with butter sauce and fava beans) - I expected much more in L’Arpege than simply some vegetable dishes. Here is the savior: a thin and precisely cut turbot (the whole fish is cooked in low temperature for several hours). The taste is unbelievably delicious, one can taste the tasty meat integrated with the full flavor of the fish’s skin and fat. I could not tell which one is better - this or the monk fish I ate a year before

Aiguillettes de homard des Îles Chausey côtes du Jura (Lobster from the Chausey archipelago braised in the yellow wine foam of the Jura and peppered cabbage leaf) - A perfect dish! The portion is generous; the lobster is ethereal - deliciously sweet and buttery with "tender" structure. In addition, it’s enhanced with the acidic taste from the yellow wine and sorrels. Mamma mia! Another back to back perfect dish - the last time was the monk fish followed by the chicken

Fines ravioles fleuries aux herbes consommé vegetal (Thin vegetables ravioli served in clear soup) - Somehow, it took quite some times for the kitchen to prepare the lamb. That’s why I receive this bonus dish - simple consommé where the vegetables, along with the soup’s salty essence, are right and balanced

T-bone d’agneau de Lozère aux algues et escargots de mer poivre noir Serawak (T-bone of Lozere’s lamb served with sea snails, parsley sauce, potatoes and Sarawak black pepper) - Another perfect dish? Well, almost … the sides part of the lamb’s tender meat served with its crispy skin plus the sinful layer of fat are amazing. The potatoes and parsley sauce are good. The only weakness is that the meat’s part near the T-bone is slightly overcooked hence rather hard; the flavor there was also weakened unfortunately

Fromages de chèvre de Bernard Antony affineur (Goat cheese supplied by Bernard Antony) - I was a bit sad when only goat/sheep cheeses are available for that night (aka no comte at all). However, they actually did not disappoint. I have soft La Gayrie, nearly sweet Chevrotin des Aravis, creamy Laurentine, and buche du Gers

Framboises à l’infusion de l’huile d’olive, le vinaigre et le miel (Raspberries served with olive oil, white vinegar and honey) - I requested this special dessert (the original version is with strawberries, but they’re not in season). The taste is a bit funny since they do not blend together nicely, but one can still enjoy the sweet raspberries

Citronnelle crème brûlée (Rich custard in lemon grass flavor with caramelized sugar on top) - Simple but decadent. The lemon grass custard is smooth, silky and refreshing with clean caramel flavor

Île flottante moka-mélisse caramel lacté (Mocha sorbet floating on a lemon grass sauce and caramel milk) - Another bonus dish from the restaurant - the idea is that the pastry chef try to create harmony between the sweet caramel and blend lemon grass, but the strong mocha sorbet makes the overall flavor slightly too sweet. Refreshing and the portion is big

Dessert de cuisine trios macarons du jardin (Three different vegetable flavors of macaroons) - The tasting menu’s dessert consists of (rhubarb, sorels and veggies mint) macarons; the sweet part comes from chocolate and almond biscuits

Another meal, another feast – that’s how I would describe my 2nd visit at L’Arpege which currently is my favorite restaurant in the world. The cooking of Alain Passard is shockingly simple (home style/peasant technique), but somehow he proficiently is able to transform the simple tastes and textures of the ingredients into memorable dishes. Like many other top notch chefs, Passard always pays the ultimate respect to the finest ingredients; perhaps the ultimate distinct identity of his food is that he sources the vegetables from his own gardens (around Sarthe and Normandy) where he often dirty his own hands just to pick the best available vegetables for the customers. However, I was not really moved by many of the vegetable dishes during this dinner; the only terrific one was the different kinds of carrots (really out of this world). I guess I’m more on the carnivore side. Even though Passard abandoned cooking red meat in 2001, thankfully he still does so sometimes, such as preparing the lamb’s dish for that night. His skill is still fantastic; I think he should not give up cooking red meat. Then, when I brought this issue to Laurent Lapaire, he told me that currently Passard only completely stops cooking beef with the exception of Kobe beef once in a while.

The wine-pairing that I had last year under the guidance of Stéphane Thivat was wonderful, but the cost was too much for me to repeat it again this time. Many people know that the wine’s price mark-up at this restaurant is possibly one of the highest in Paris. Therefore, I did not bother to open the list and settled on a glass white and red wine. The champagne I mentioned before was the best. Other wines I drank were: Domaine Laroche Les Vaillons Premier Cru Chablis 2004; it is fruity and full bodied with mineral structure and very good balance, a lovely choice for the turbot and the lobster. For the lamb, the sommelier suggested: Château la Gordonne Domaine Listel 2002; this still wine is fresh and light; barely sweet which is good since the lamb is palatable. There were 2 sommeliers for the night and they seem to be “equal” in position – neither was the chef sommelier yet; both of them are friendly, have good sense of humor and patiently explain the guests about their recommendations. The service here, as usual, is graceful and rather relaxed with the sole purpose to take care of the guests. Laurent Lapaire, in my humble opinion, is the best among all of the maître d’hôtel I have ever met. He is not only very good in leading his team, but also is superior in directly serving the guests. Speaking superb English and some Japanese, monsieur Lapaire is willing to excitedly go over the dishes in the menu one by one with the customers as well as answer whatever questions one may have. For instance, he took 2 lobsters from the kitchen – one is cooked and another one is still alive – and showed me how the lobster from Îles Chausey was different from the regular blue lobster. This establishment indeed has a wonderful hospitality.

Naturally, some of you may wonder how this experience compared with the first time I visited here. Well, startlingly I would say that the first one was better despite the fact that Alain Passard was not behind the stove (it was an Easter Monday holiday); the sous chef Anthony took care of the kitchen. Food-wise: in my 1st visit, I had many of L’Arpege classic dishes since the restaurant celebrated its 20th anniversary. The main differences were: the appetizers - nothing I had in my 2nd visit that’s as good as Carpaccio de langoustines du Guilvinec, caviar osciètre royal d’Iran or Bavarois d’avocat et caviar osciètre royal d’Iran, huile de pistache. The main courses are about the same level - the first time I adored the monk fish and chicken while this time I loved the turbot and lobster. When it comes to the desserts - Tomato confite farcie aux douze saveurs, sucre à l’orange or Millefeuille pralin simply killed whatever sweets I had this time around. Furthermore, L’Arpege was run out of comte … I could not help but conclude that I was fed slightly better the first time I ate here. Wine-wise: the champagne (1996 Billecart Salmon Cuvee Nicolas Francois is on a par with Champagne Krug Brut Grande Cuvée) and the Chablis are equally good. It’s just that in my first visit, I drank a terrific 1991 Porto Colheita Niepoort and 2002 Mambourg Grand Cru - Marcel Deiss. As mentioned before, there was not much different regarding the décor except I found that the restaurant “forced” to put 2 additional tables in the middle to accommodate more guests that made the small dining room even more crammed. Consequently, it affected the service a little bit as the staffs could not move as smoothly as they’d like to. Probably, because it’s Friday night and very packed – sometimes they were incapable of responding to customers’ request as fast as they want to; nevertheless the staffs still enthusiastically served the guests without any signs of tiredness. Regardless of the “flaw” above, my 2nd dining at L’Arpege still ranked very high (3rd place according to my notes), only below my 1st encounter here and Alain Ducasse Paris, and thus L’Arpege solidify its position as my numero uno dining destination in the world. Please check the link below for the pictures: http://picasaweb.google.com/Andi.Chahyadi.Hermawan/LArpegeParisFrance2ndVisit#

Food (and Wine): 98 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 96 pts

Overall: 97.5/100