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

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