Friday, May 3, 2019

Pierre Gagnaire Paris - 6th visit

As a foodie, ideally, I should go and visit as many new restaurants as possible. Probably either I often choose the easy way out or I simply love Paris. As it has always been, at least half of my top 10 favorite restaurants in the world are located in the city of lights. The yellow vest acts did not deter me to return to Paris in January this year - in fact, I was blessed as somehow my short stay there excluded the weekend. I have never been to Pierre Gagnaire au hotel Balzac in Winter, so it was a no-brainer that I would re-visit this place especially after a spectacular meal I ate in the early Autumn of 2017 (Gagnaire Paris 5th meal). Unlike my previous visit, the Picasso of cuisine was not present during my dinner. Instead, his most trusted man - chef Michel Nave, who has been working with him for more than 30 years, was leading the kitchen. I knew I was in good hands.

Having a meal at Pierre Gagnaire restaurants could be overwhelmed for some people. Not long was I seated at my favorite spot, I was already 'bombarded' with welcome canapes consisting of more than half-dozen of different nibbles. For instance,  Tomatillo pulp with tarragon; Large crab nolpi; Sardine rilettes with oyster leaf; Smoked haddock bouchee etc. They were good, fun and rather unique. Except for my maiden visit in 2007, I never ordered any tasting menu anymore at this place. The a la carte dishes were too good to resist. However, this time I decided to sample numerous Gagnaire seasonal creations focusing on the prized ingredients of French black truffle from Perigord. There were lots of food and they were remarkable. My 2019 best meal would actually occur in the first month of the year? Very likely ... 


1st appetizer
Damier de Saint-Jacques d’Erquy, bouillon de boeuf au tapioca (Damier of scallop from Erquy, beef bouillon with tapioca) - Erquy is known as French scallop capital. The kitchen arranged the pristine scallop carpaccio and thick slices of black truffles in alternating colors like a checkerboard. The scallops were delightfully fresh with soft texture and mildly sweet flavors, in contrast to the firmer and more intense Tuber melanosporum. The beef broth & tapioca were lightly umami, gave additional delicate taste in the background. This scallop dish was served with 2 different side dishes ...
Corolle de haddock : encornets, morue, artichaut poivrades (Smoked haddock corolla : squids, cod, small artichokes) - On the contrary to the clean scallop, the broth here was creamy, more flavorful yet not overly rich. The haddock was slightly sweet and smoky, in harmony with the black truffle aroma. The addition of squid, cod and artichokes delivered texture and flavor contrasts; these ingredients beautifully absorbed the yellow sauce as well. This bowl and the earlier damier scallop were both excellent
Mousseline de choucroute, radicchio (Sauerkraut mousseline, radicchio salad) - The last part of the first course was slightly acidic mousse of sauerkraut mixed with rather bitter radicchio and pungent truffle. It gave an interesting accent for the other 2 items

2nd appetizer
FiFine – crosnes, mange-tout, pamplemousse thaï (FiFine – chinese artichokes, butter beans, thaï grapefruit) - (Fried) Crosnes was a bit juicy, having pleasant & earthy flavor + crunchy texture. The 'artichokes' were accompanied by grainy butter bean, sour grapefruit and unique truffle flavor ... this dish was light, a bit sweet and really enjoyable + easy to eat
Crépinette Sarladaise, velouté d’épinard, ail noir Aomori (Crépinette Sarladaise, spinach velvety soup, black garlic from the Aomori region) - Quite the opposite to the crosnes ... here, some kind of pork internal organ was cooked with goose fat resulting in intense rich taste. It was served with tender aged garlic that somehow tasted like plum with subtle balsamic aromas and creamy spinach. A solid & classical French flavor to balance the more modern & Asian-influenced chinese artichoke item

Accompanied by wine: Lanson extra age brut (Full body & fresh, delicate color, red fruit notes, and smooth with good balance) 

3rd appetizer
Une tourtière de légumes (A vegetable pie) - The freshly cooked soup was boiling. It had some characters and flavors of the Japanese food - delicious and full of umami taste. Some of the vegetables were: cooked sweet yet savory & juicy turnips (appear golden) as well as sweet and nutty parsnips. Last but not least, the earthy black Winter truffles with its distinct aroma and flavors elevate this excellent vegetarian soup!
Gelée de coing, glace poire | gorgonzola (Quince jelly, ice cream pear | gorgonzola cheese) - To "support" the soup above, the kitchen prepared 2 dishes. Here, I had soft and tarte quince jelly that (surprisingly) went well with sharp and salty gorgonzola. The pear ice cream with small amount of pecorino provided a good bridge for the jelly & cheese while the chopped Perigord truffle gave some crunchy texture to this dish
Rémoulade de céleri-rave (Shredded celeriac in a remoulade sauce) - The pie crust was not wasted as the kitchen used it along with the traditional preparation of Celeriac remoulade. The celeriac was fresh and crisp, combined with airy pie and black truffle-infused remoulade sauce. The umami soup was in harmony with soft quince jelly and crunchy (raw) celeric - overall, what an amazing 3rd course!

Main course - fish
Fine escalope de féra du lac Léman à la nage ; voile de Savagnin, Paris boutons, panais, feuilles de capucine (Thin escalope of whitefish from the Geneva Lake ; veil of Savagnin wine, Paris mushrooms, parsnips, nasturtium leaves) - The quality of prized "fera" was superb. The thinly sliced and perfectly cooked whitefish fillet was moist and delicate without any fishiness. To develop more flavors, Chef Nave put Winter-inspired sauce of Paris mushrooms and black truffle. The versatile parsnips would reduce any strong taste and fresh nasturtium gave light accent - very good
Gagnaire prefers to prepare the side dish on a separate plate. For the whitefish, the kitchen provided clean vegetable bouillon with soft Corsican cheese and some Perigord truffle - this chilled soup assisted the parsnips to balance the whitefish's rich sauce

Accompanied by wine: 2016 Blanc de Chasse-spleen (Medium body & acidity, smooth with citrus nose, long and rounded finish; a solid pairing for the vegetarian pie and lean fish)

Main course - 1st meat
Blanquette de veau fermier – grande feuille de romaine, endive et red meat (Blanquette of farm veal – large romaine salad leaf, chicory and red meat radish) - Despite known for his innovation and (often) complicated technique in cooking, Pierre Gagnaire respects tradition and possesses technical mastery of classical French cuisine. For my 1st meat main course, the chef interpreted an iconic and timeless mild stew of poached veal. At 3-star level kitchen, as I expected, the chunks of veal were tender and tasty, enriched by velvety and refined sauce having deep flavor. To make it even "better", the cooking team added slightly sweet radish, mildly bitter and spicy taste from romaine and chicory as well as aromatic fungi. It was wonderful and I never felt overwhelmed with any intense flavor here - a comforting and elegant veal stew
Galette de polenta blanche, oignons grelots (Galette of white polenta, small onions) - The flat pastry with creamy & oaky Winter truffle sauce and crisp & sweet small bulb onions became a pleasant and ideal supportive side dish for the veal blanquette

Main course - 2nd meat
Blanc de poularde de la ferme de Culoiseau en vessie (Fattened hen breast from the Culoiseau farm cooked in a bladder) - Inside the hot water, the (pig) bladder swelled up ... then it was punctured in front of me and following that, the fattened hen was carved by the table side. The idea of using a baldder was to retain and integrate the flavors of the poularde during cooking. It was a "half-portion", so the kitchen picked a smaller hen for me. A beautiful homage to Mere Brazier?
Blanc de poularde avec petit épeautre du pays de Sault, puntarella et Sauce Albufera (The poularde breast was served with spelt from the Sault region, puntarella salad and Sauce Albufera) - Voila .. the dish was presented with all of its glory. The en vessie cooking resulted the breast meat to be tender and moist with lovely and subtle tastes of lardons and black truffles (if consumed without the sauce)   
Foie gras poché, gnocchi de parmesan et pignons de pin (Poached foie gras, gnocchi of parmesan cheese and pine nuts) - The classic albufera sauce and duck liver enhanced the poularde's flavors; some spelt and light gnocchi beautifully absorbed the creamy sauce while the nuts gave solid accent and texture contrast. Ultimately, the Tuber melanosporum (slipped beneath the bird's skin when cooking as well as from generous slicing) elevated this traditional dish to even a higher level. C'est parfait!
Friselli d’agria, fondue d’oignons doux | lard de colonnata (Friselli of agria potatoes, slow-simmered sweet onions | colonnata lard) - The thin & crisp potatoes in deep yellow color + simmered onions + fragrant Perigord truffles delivered some moderate sweet flavors to perfectly complement the savory taste of the chicken from Culoiseau farm

Accompanied by wine: 2015 Vincent girardin Volnay (Nose of ripe cherries & plum, lovely but rather young, good tannin and acidic as well as medium body)

Grand desserts
Mont Ventoux - A mont-blanc with the addition of mushroom galette and Perigord truffles. It had different layers of texture and flavor variations. Unlike the classic version, the chestnut, meringue and cream filling at Mont Ventoux were less sweet ... the earthy and firm mushrooms added additional dimensions. I liked it a lot   
Royale Richerenches - It might not look too appetizing but it was some kind of cream cheese with good balance of sweet and a little sour taste plus musky & tasty truffle - better than expected
Cassate citron de Menton, oranges sanguines liées d’un sirop de clémentine (Cassate flavoured with lemon from Menton, blood oranges thickened with a clementine syrup) - A creative take from the traditional Cassata. The firm and cold cake was moistened with lemon & blood oranges and layered by some cheese (ricotta?). The use of blood orange generated more sour / acidic taste which was very useful in the grand scheme of the other desserts altogether. This one would reduce any sweetness but the truffle did not make any big impact here  
Un trait d’huile d’olive de votre choix (A hint of olive oil of your choice) - The extra virgin olive oil with passion fruit cream and Winter truffles contributed some bitter taste in a gentle way 
Sablé de mâche (Lamb’s lettuce salad shortbread) - A smart combo of rich & sweet sable pie with raw & tangy lamb's lettuce successfully highlighted the unique aroma and flavor of chopped Tuber melanosporum on top - awesome!
To fully appreciate the dessert creations of Gagnaire was by eat a little bit of everything continuously in random orders or according to your palate preferences - I truly enjoy this many desserts showcasing the use of black truffle; well done!

The dinner food was exceptional, but what made the overall meal extraordinary was that the front of the house team also performed at (very) high level in particular from the "middle level" staffs. Herve Parmentier, the restaurant director, did not work on that Monday night. I was mostly taken care of by the assistant manager, who helped the opening of Gagnaire Bordeaux and a junior maitre d' lady, who used to work in Ireland. Whoever served you, the younger staffs at this place mainly were patient, spoke fluent English, had good knowledge about Gagnaire's (complex) dishes, and amiable. In the last 2 visits, I noticed things that I only encountered at Pierre Gagnaire Balzac. Any meal here usually would last 3+ hours, so before I actually completed my lunch / dinner ... if my maitre d'hotels had to leave first, they would come to my table and politely excuse themselves - apologizing that they're unable to stay until my meal finish, thanking me to have come and the opportunity to serve, and lastly introduce another staff who would attend my table until the end. I thought it was a very kind and professional gesture. Strangely, the memorable hospitality I received at Gagnaire Balzac was generally rendered by staffs whom I would never see them again when returning here a couple of years later whereas the service from long-service staffs at the manager / director level was somehow just ordinary.

Having visited and dined at Pierre Gagnaire's flagship restaurant for more than a decade, what more needs to be said? I was still blown away by his innovative, artistic and 'experimental' cooking. The master's ability to cleverly juxtapose flavors, textures and produce to bring dishes to the next level never ceased. Each dish preparation, execution and presentation was, as always, excellent. With the open mind and adventurous spirit, it's hard not to like this place. The menu kept evolving; there's no specific signature dishes. Even the Parfum de terre's content usually changed every season & annually. Guest could have a fantastic langoustine a la carte, come again 1-2 years later for the "same" dish ... to his / her surprise, the smaller and large plates combinations of the langoustine would be different. The mineral water at Gagnaire was often free; the restaurant had pretty good selections of wines at reasonable prices and the sommelier could adjust to the diners' need accordingly.

The only "downside" was perhaps the dining room begged for upgrading given the great status of this institution. Lastly, a few words about the passionate and accomplished Executive Chef Michel Nave. Michel Nave to Pierre Gagnaire is Eric Bouchenoire to Joel Robuchon; they were simply inseparable. As a MOF recipient, Michel's ability in classical French cuisine was unquestionable. Similar to his boss, Michel loved challenge and progress. How Gagnaire's attitude to never stay on his laurels happened to be suitable to Chef Nave's personality and ambition. Michel Nave was crucial when Gagnaire managed to recover his 3rd Michelin star after having moved to Paris. Then, Chef Nave has safeguarded the main restaurant's quality and operation as Pierre expanded his empire. Now, with nearly 20 restaurants to oversee under Gagnaire's brands ... well, the humble and talented Michel Nave has to get used to travelling overseas as well. Sometimes, Gagnaire and Nave even got to travel separately to ensure their restaurants perform at their desire levels. The pictures of this meal can be found: Pierre Gagnaire Jan '19. This is one of the "4-star" (the better ones among Michelin's best) restaurants in my notes and I can come here again and again without being bored.   

Food (and Wine) : 98 pts

Service (and Ambiance) : 96 pts

Overall : 97.5 / 100

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