Restaurants & Bars 5

A meal chez Gagnaire, report

molochbaal | Mar 19, 200403:18 PM

After Lucas Carton a few months ago, here is the follow-up to my exploration of parisian three-stars. These are my impressions on the different dishes served as part of the March menu in Pierre Gagnaire's restaurant, also posted on another board.

The meal started with a few amuses, half of them being of the sweet and salty biscuit type, one being small rolls of seaweed (I believe, nori perhaps) filled with salted fish and the last one a combination of mango ice cream and green pepper presented as a small cube to be picked up with a stick. Nothing spectacular here, the simpler biscuits were the best, some of the amuses were purely sweet, which I found not too fitting (especially with the rather salty sherry I had ordered as an aperitif).

The first dish was one of my favourites in the whole meal. It consisted of a play on the texture, or rather the “mouthfeel” of three ingredients: raw langoustine (or perhaps grilled for a half second)chopped as for a tartare and displayed on rolls of veau de lait, the whole thing resting on sliced and puréed avocado. All these ingredients create a common sensation when in one’s mouth (a bit like raw cuttle fish). Assembling them emphasized this common point despite their very different natures and that was a nice touch. A few dashes of “pâte de piment nora” (red pepper paste) on the side contrasted nicely with the predominantly green aspect of the plate through their bright red glossy colour and with the smoothness of the ingredients with its sharp flavour. Some green apple juice in the avocado puree also helped balance the dish in acidity. There was also a sweetish “tuile” that added a nice element of crunchiness to the whole: a really well-balanced, elegant, thought-provoking, tasty dish.

Second dish was very reminiscent of Japan’s ochazuke but in a much more sophisticated manner. A circle that was about 5 centimetres thick and consisted of a layer of crab flesh, a layer of some kind of flan and a layer of raw scallops, cut in length, was in the centre of a shallow plate. A small slice of ewe’s milk and honey ice-cream was taken from a covered silver dish and placed on top of the whole thing. A hot infusion of combawa and lemongrass was then poured around it until it became a very intriguing little island. The dish was overly complicated and did not render its ingredients more interesting or savoury. Actually, seeing the very uncompromising quality of the crab and scallops, I would have enjoyed the more on their own, without the infusion + ice cream+ flan combination getting in the way. The hot/cold contrast, though not uninteresting per se, did not bring much here, and the dish lacked something crunchy. I blame it all on the flan actually. A “tuile” would have been much better separation between the crab and the scallops.

The third dish was the worst one of the meal. I call it a dish but it was really nothing else than nice ingredients juxtaposed on a plate. Here you had a beautiful slice of socca, a truly wonderful slice of merlu (a white fish) a couple of murex (these dreadful crustaceans that pierce holes into other crustacean’s shells and then do horrible things to them that include projecting their stomach into the other crustacean’s shell and eating out), a weird little deep purple jelly resting on thinly chopped cucumber, some pumpkin thick sauce in the middle. I often find that creative chefs have a tendency to fall into juxtaposition. They cook nice ingredients in tiny little different preparations and then just put them side by side on a plate and call it a dish. That’s not a dish, that’s tapas. At this point I was getting a bit disappointed and wondered how many misses were needed for the kitchen to serve one hit.

Then came a more traditional dish, a soup of urchins and Cevennes onions, with turnips, fennel and grapefruit. It was a surprisingly calm and straightforward dish after the others and I found that very pleasant. The urchin’s taste came through clearly but did not obliterate all the other tastes as I had expected. The onions seemed to be taming it down a bit, and the other ingredients all had the same effect of soothing the fiery urchins, while preserving their essential taste. It was an interesting dish, a concerto with all ingredients against one working together to produce a very harmonious result.

The next dish was my other favourite of the meal. A chesnut paste rested at the bottom of a wide shallow plate, covered with a very dark jelly of chicken broth and sake. On this were scattered a few tips of green asparagus (why don’t you go asparagi?) in sharp contrast of vivid green and deep black. A whole lacquered foie gras was then presented to me and a slice was cut and gently placed on the jelly alongside two stripes of duck meet apparently whipped with some Indian spice (but this was not very evident in taste as the lacquered foie gras was so strong). It was such a strange dish and I was instantly prejudiced against it when I saw it but it worked. The lacquered foie gras in itself is a fascinating idea and one that is interesting inasmuch as it treats a finished product as a raw one, and makes it undergo another transformation. In this case, the second step is also a pun because the foie alone is treated as the whole duck usually is. The deep red lacquer on top of the slice matched beautifully the glistening black jelly, the slightly bitter edge of the sake balanced the sweetness of the foie, the smooth chestnut paste brought the whole thing on the very edge, just before the fresh and crisp asparagi brought the palate back to sanity. Quite an experience.

Next dish was a thin, round, crispy, sweet and sour biscuit resting on soy beans and endive and covered with broken black olives and cuttlefish’ flesh. On top of this rested a delicious filet of red snapper. A dash of green pepper’s juice I could not see the point of this dish, yet another superposition. The waiter who talked to me about the meal at the end seemed to want my opinion on this one and quite frankly I had none.

Last dish was wagyu beef in thin stripes so tender they were eaten with a spoon, lying on a bed of winter vegetables. Diced pear in a heavy, bright purple, wine-based sauce were added on top and a little bowl of clear juice with herbs and Sarawak pepper was on the side, to be drunk while eating the dish. I was quite excited about tasting wagyu beef and this was a big disappointment. The dish had nothing special to it other than the meat, and it did not taste anything special. I enquired to know if it were not overcooked since I know in Japan wagyu can be served in thin stripes like these but is only swiftly dipped in the shabu shabu broth. The waiter was very nice and explained that it was the whole point, that they cook this meat for 72 hours before serving it, which accounts for its tenderness. This does not seem too convincing to me: if you have exceptional beef, why cook it for so long? After 72 hours in a hotpot, wouldn’t every beef be on the verge of disintegration? All these questions would have vanished instantly had it tasted great but it just did not.

Three prepared wheezes came next. They were mostly good but the point of this was lost one me. Good cheese is great on its own, no need to put little almond paste drops around it or to serve it on a glass of watercress and beer foam.

The “grand dessert” is a selection of five desserts, served in five different plates. They ranged from good to very good and included an orange “feuilleté” with a little bowl of clementine juice, baked apple with pistachios, a chocolate cake, a bitter jelly with “agrumes confits” and some kind of tasty millefeuille of which I could not tell what ingredients were inside.

Mme Gagnaire was there, very smiley, discrete and welcoming, and I had the chance to talk with the chef for a few minutes as he came to chat a bit while I was waiting for my coat. As often, the staff and the chef were pleasantly surprised to see a young Frenchman in their room and were eager to discuss my impressions. He was very nice, rather shy.

I had a very well priced half bottle of Chablis 1er cru 1998 (30 euros) and an overpriced, underpoured glass of Fitou, domaine Maria Fita (12.50 euros). This is a fairly good reflection of my general impression of the place: ups and downs. I do not regret having gone there one second, but do not feel the need to go again for quite some time.

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