During my meal at Gagnaire I tried hard to find the words to describe his cooking. The best I could come up with was comparing him to an international marriage broken. He takes first class ingredients from different cultures and introduces them to each. The result of the marriage is as it should be in all marriage, 1 plus 1 equals 3. And most often it is polygamy with several ingredients going to the alter together, but each one bringing its special quality to the union. The ingredients are often contrasting and most people would not believe they could make a good couple, but as in many good marriage it is the contrasts and difference that make it successful. Gagnaire is a traditionalist in his techniques, the bride is wearing white at this wedding. The critics that say it is not French are wrong because they are only thinking about the ingredients and ignore the preparation.
Those that have said the service is poor must have eaten somewhere else. I was there on September 30. The menu already had October on it so it could not have been more than 1 week old. And everyone in the restaurant that night that I could see had the tasting menu. This meant the staff had to bring about 15 plates PER PERSON to every table and the kitchen had to cook all of these new dishes. And no one missed a beat all night from what I could see. The pacing was perfect, not too fast, not to slow. The staff took time to explain the dishes and discuss ingredients and ask questions of the chefs. When it was time to serve a table its dishes there was no panic, a group of waiters and waitresses just seemed to appear at the same time to get it all done in a professional manner. Everyone seemed to help everyone and the customers benefited. If you did not know it you would have thought the menu had been in place for 6 months at least.
And the food was shockingly good. The details are below. So, what can be said on the negative side. The only thing I can come up with is the temperature in the room. I felt very hot at my table, which I think was a combination of bright lights just above and a lot of calories. Several other gentlemen guests also seemed to have shiny foreheads. So a little more air conditioning, or cooler lighting might have been an improvement. Otherwise, I could find no fault.
I know that many have said that Gagnaire cooking is pretentious and he simply puts strange ingredients where one would not expect them in order to shock people. I have to vehemently disagree. It is my opinion that Pierre Gagnaire simply loves what he is doing and wants every dish to be an experience that is 110% complete and unique. Every ingredient has a purpose. Why do I feel that? First, he went bankrupt before, the only 3 star to do so. Yet he continues with the same style of cooking. It would be so easy for him to be a little more conservative and take fewer risks. Yet he does not, as I feel he truly believes in what he is doing. In fact, if you see pictures of him a few years ago and then see him today he appears to have undergone a change similar to that which Charlton Heston Moses went through in the film The 10 Commandments. After meeting God, Moses hair had turned white and his face had a look of honesty and calmness on it, because he now had gotten confirmed what he believed in and dedicated his life to all along. That is the way Gagnaire looks today. His red hair and Asterix appearance has mellowed to that of an elderly statesman. And he keeps his restaurant open 6 nights a week and he is there working. I was there on a Sunday night and both he and his wife stayed there the whole time I was there and were frequently in the dining room making sure everything was perfect and all guests were satisfied. He could have been home sleeping. I cannot believe that a person with this much dedication to his cooking and business would choose ingredients just for shock value even if they did not add anything to the dish. And I am happy to say that his restaurant is still fully booked after September 11 and it seems that he just like Moses has proven to everyone that he was right. Kudos Messieur and Madame Gagnaire.
The food and drink.
I started with the house aperitif, Campari, white port and marinated cherries which was a perfect way to get the stomach juices going. I chose a simple half bottle of white St Joseph as an uncomplicated white to match the first 6 courses and a glass of Cote du Rhone Villages with the one meat course. Thats it for wine talk, now to the food.
Several small tidbits came out first. Some cod with crème and a spinach wafer, a salt cookie, and some eel with cucumber jelly. This was a good introduction to Gagnaire cooking; traditional techniques, with some unusual ingredients like the salt in the cookie, or some unusual combinations, like the eel and cucumber. Next came 4 different breads. Standard white, foccacia, wheat and chestnut. No trouble finding one or two you loved and no trouble find one to match all the different courses to follow.
The first real course was turtle, with lemon confit, celery jelly, tatsoi and pear, all with a parsley crème. The contrast of rich and tart flavours married perfectly. The turtle is similar to crab meat. The tatsoi gave a nice texture contrast. Accompanying all this was a small brioche with a slice of dried parsnip on top that was held together with a fried spaghetti spear. A perfect first course showing Gagnaire international marriage planning talents.
Course 2, a mélange of various shellfishes including cockles, langoustine and oysters cooked with oyster creme surrounded by a thick watercress soup. The separate parts of this dish, included each separate shellfish stood on their own while complementing and enhancing each other. Both fresh, salty sea flavours and creamy earth flavours are present again in this dish. The langoustine, fried in chick pea flour was the highlight ingredient, pregnant and bursting with fresh sea flavor. Gagnaire must have a very close relationship with his suppliers to get so many different and unusual ingredients in perfect condition. Of course there was an extra with this dish (causing the wait staff a little extra work to complete the dish at the table which makes it all that more amazing that they were able to keep up with the guest all night). This time it was a grilled cockle served in the shell with anchovy butter and kindly placed on the oversized rim of the soup bowl.
Course 3, Baby scallops and caviar in a creamy sauce made from fresh brebis goat cheese. The sauce is almost like an uncooked meringue. A surprise of a warm log of the cheese is hidden under everything. And every now and then the second surprise hits you. Peanuts! Seems weird even after I have eaten this, but they added a perfect texture change and a little extra earthiness to make this a surf and turf with no meat. This dish was pure genius. And by now I was in heaven.
Course 4: St. Pierre roasted on the bone and topped with a sweet onion crust. The whole roasted fish was brought out to my table and all the others before serving. I guess that had made one whole fish just for presentation purposes that whole night and then made new ones as tables when through their meal dividing the fish to several tables that were on that course at the same time. There was a sauce of roasted garlic (with some whole garlic cloves) and green papaya to accompany all this. Layered in between all there were a couple of leaves that I could not identify and that the staff could not translate to English (but otherwise they were able to handle all my other questions and did show with pleasure). These very bitter leaves added an extra dimension to all the other rich and sweet flavours that were at work here.
Course 5: Seasonal fruits, vegetables and mushrooms. The dishes included many ingredients including chanterelles, black trumpets, carrots, apples and plums. Several of the ingredients must have been cooked separated in order to give each its proper cooking time and allow it to keep its own flavor. Then all the ingredient get mixed together. A lot of work for the kitchen, a lot of pleasure for the diner. But this dish does not stop here. A light cream sauce is added at the table. And then a cup with a side dish is brought out. This is the reason why an 8 course meal at Gagnaire is really closer to 15. This time the side disk is a cold roasted red pepper cream topped with a green tomato soup. Sweet, sour, and earthy flavours make my taste buds dance with glee. I love picking wild mushrooms at home in Sweden and know how hard it is to find black trumpets. This whole dish is an orgasmic experience with very simple parts added to a greater whole. Gagnaire has at this point won my heart, my soul and my mind.
Course 6: Venison with juniper and black pepper served with a cabbage filled with cabbage, onion and black current. Whole beetroots, a beetroots sauce and a date braised with honey complete the dish. I must honestly say that the overload of flavours is starting to kick in here. It is also wonderful to think that until this dish no meat has been served. No foie gras, no truffles. But some caviar. Gagnaire does not have to impress with expensive ingredients. He impresses with great tasting ingredients.
Course 6, cheese course, which is actually 3 separate courses. I find the whole interesting but somehow feel that I may have enjoyed the cheeses on their own with matching wines. But the experience of prepared cheese courses is unique. First a mimolette with carrot and raisins. Then a stilton ice cream with fried spaghetti. And finally a courge topped with a thin wafer. I found the stilton the most interesting combination.
Now comes the grand dessert Pierre Gagnaire. Hold your hats. First 3 dishes come to the table. Roasted red pepper cookies filled with wild strawberry cream and topped with wild strawberries. This dishes poses many questions. Can the ingredients work together? Yes, they do. The roasted red pepper seems to have a smoky accent of ancho or chipolte as the flavor has quite a bite. But when I asked the kitchen said these ingredients were not in the dish. Maybe the smoke came from the roasting of the red peppers. Either way the taste is amazing. Where do they find wild strawberries at the end of October (the season ends in July in Sweden)? A supplier just outside of Paris. Wish I had the address, I would start an import business to Sweden. If you have never eaten a wild strawberry think of a strawberry, reduce the size by 80-90% and double the flavor by 300% and add a bit of raspberry. Voila, a wild strawberry. I kill for them. Gagnaire has them in September!!!
The next dish is a raspberry jam surrounded by a jelly and whole blueberries and raspberries all on top of a very strong caramel cream. All the strong flavours come through and the ingredients have high summer intensity.
Dessert 3, dried fruits, pistachio and sesame wafer with a separate mint/raspberry cream. Rich and earthy.
Then 2 more dessert plates arrive. Dessert 4 a rich chocolate cake/cream topped with candied lentils. The lentils add a dimension of earthiness to the exceeding rich chocolate that actually works and also tells you that the meal is approaching its end.
Dessert 5 is maybe the best, a cup of pistachio cream topped with coffee juice (sweet, strong cold coffee). This unlikely combination with only two very pure, pumped up flavours is extraordinary. Even orgasmic. One of these a day and I am the happiest person in the world. What a finish.
But we are not done. The petit four start arriving. These include such wonders as rosemary marshmallow, chocolate with lemon crème, chocolate with calvados, Italian cookies, a tea cake, chocolate with peanut and some type of alcohol, and others. Simply amazing.
The experience as a whole is unique in my dining experience. A remarkable number of tastes, including many different ones in a single dish. Many free extras from the amuse bouche, to the extra side dishes with different courses to the petit four. A round the world trip in ingredients. A sampling of many different classical preparation techniques. Seasonal ingredients in almost every dish. Tremendous, attentive but not overwhelming service. And the bride and groom (Mr and Mrs Gagnaire) staying until the last dance to ensure all guests to the wedding leave with a memory for life.
Forget about the warm room, the only complaint I can have for the night is that my wife could not join me and I had to experience this alone. Good news is that the Gagnaire wedding is ongoing 6 nights a week and every one that truly love unique world class cooking is invited. Long live the bride and groom.