I had the pleasure of being in Paris on my own at the end of September so I could do some serious eating without being distracted by a business conversation. I had Guy Savoy (because of the recent tremendous review here), Gagnaire (because of a visit there earlier this year was a disappointment and I wanted to retry without the business talk) and Lucas Carton (because a visit there earlier this year was one of the top 3 dining experiences in my life). I had them in this order, 3 nights in a row. Except for these 3 meals I hardly ate anything else the whole trip. I will put up a separate note on each but here is summary.
My favorite was Gagnaire. I had an 8 course tasting menu which really adds about to about 15 courses but all very small. With this many dishes I am amazed to say that I found all of them delicious except one of the cheese offerings. Many of the courses combine ingredients you would never expect to see together (caviar and peanuts!), but the marriages works and have thought behind them. There is nothing being done in the kitchen just to impress. There is heart, soul and mind behind everything. Gagnaire aims to please serious diners that understand food, ingredients and classic cooking techniques. Your brain will be as tired as your taste buds when the night is over, but it will also have the feeling that it has just had one of the best stimulations of its life. And the fact this the menu could not have been more than 5 days old (it said October but the correct date on the calendar was the last of September) is even more amazing. Could these dishes actually get better when the kitchen team has had a chance to work with them a few week!?! And the meal was the cheapest of the 3 because with food like this I felt no desire to even attempt to find matching wines that would be special. I just had a simple half bottle of white St Joseph and a glass of Cote du Rhone Villages with the one meat course. My bar bill was 1/3 what it was at Guy Savoy and Lucas Carton. And with all the memorable food I did not miss the wines. The most memorable course was small scallops with caviar, and a creamy sauce of Brebis, a fresh goat cheese that had a consistency close to meringue. On top of this some scallop royale. It looked strangely like a dessert when it arrived. The taste was very fresh from the sea ingredients that was both contrasted and deepened with the creamy sauces. But this dish was to hold 3 amazing surprises. One was some strips of fresh squash that gave some texture. Next was a warm log of the brebis cheese at the bottom, that was a rich and succulent tidbit. And finally, about 4 times during the course, I chewed into a PEANUT. The peanut accomplished several things. First and foremost I gave a great bit of texture to the course which was otherwise full of creamy rich ingredients. Second it contrasted the sea flavor with some earthy flavor (a very unique way of getting a surf and turf together). Finally, it got your mind working. How many other chefs could find a way to put caviar and peanuts and goat cheese in the same dish without crashing into a wall. My guess is very few.
Guy Savoy and Lucas Carton came in as a tie. The food was more consistent at Guy Savoy and the atmosphere was better. The service was truly world class at both but the atmosphere at Guy Savoy was more upbeat. While the wines were very good at Guy Savoy the matching of wines at Lucas Carton was extraordinary and one course at Lucas Carton was much better than any of the others at Guy Savoy or Lucas Carton and at the same level as the best 2 or 3 courses at Gagnaire. So I will present them in the order I went to them
Guy Savoy. I could not get a table before 10 PM and the tasting menu was missing a course a really wanted to try (Langoustine and lentils) and had a couple that did not interest me. So I went ala carte with 2 half servings of appertizers (both creamy soups) a main course, cheese and finally two desserts. I had some great wines, both a dry than a sweet Condrieau. Guy Savoy is I believe really trying to get its third star. There were three amuse busche. First foie gras toast (which they brought an extra serving of) then a little cerviche of sea bass, then a little tray with three small bites, a vegetable brochette, some ham and a wonderful little carrot soup flavored with star anise. I think my favorite dishes was a rare tuna steak with a creamy ginger sauce. It reminded me a bit of sushi (tuna and ginger) and I asked Mr. Savoy if his inspiration for the dish was from Japan (he visited every table several times). I am not sure he really understood the question but he answered that it was not. Either way the course was a great contrast of freshness from the almost raw fish with the creaminess of the sauce. And I must say my choice of a Condrieau as the wine was perfect. The flowery aromas of the wines mirrored the exotic ginger perfectly while cutting right through the creamy sauce to keep the dish light. Again, details on the whole meal in a separate posting.
Lucas Carton. I saved this for my last meal and was really looking forward to it. Things got off to a sad start when I could quickly see they were not going to be full for the night. About 5 tables ended up empty the whole night. OK, it was a Monday, but in my first discussions with the sommelier whom I got to know from a previous visit, I found out that they have been suffering a lot since Sept. 11th. Lucas Carton has the most tables of all the restaurant I went to and probably the highest percentage of foreigners as they have no restrictions on when reservations can be made and no limits on the number of non-french diners. Which I personally find to be the most honest approach. Other restaurant make getting a reservation for a foreigner, especially if you are dining alone, a big challenge and I am sure many give up and never get a chance to dine at these places which is a shame. My expectations were extremely high due to my last visit, but on a course by course comparison this visit did not match up. All the courses were very good, but only one was one that I will always have at the front of my dining memory. This was a Bresse chicken with cepes risotto and wonderful, rich creamy sauce. The earthly flavors of the sauce and wild cepes matched the almost gamelike taste of the chicken. This was truly classical cooking and a symbol of the philosophy at Lucas Carton where 2 or 3 absolutely perfect ingredients are matched together to highlight their pure flavors with no distractions. Classic techniques like roasting are used to ensure that the ingredients are damaging as little as possible while giving them a texture that is like a massage on your teeth and tongue. And finally all this is matched with a great wine chosen just for the dish. Or in this case, a dish that was created just for the wine. After a visit to Domaine Leroy in Bourgogne, the team at Lucas Carton has recently come home with 200 bottles of a Meursualt premier cru from 1969!!!. They are serving this by the GLASS to the Bresse chicken. It is not cheap, over 50$ a glass (I dont have the exact price) but the wine is amazing. And they will fill your glass several times (I got three glasses) without charging you extra. The wine had a depth and richness that was truly a once in a lifetime experience for me with a white wine. It seemed like the oak had just mellowed (I could not imagine drinking this wine when it was only 10-15 years old). The wine was very earthy and rich and simply lifted the earth and rich chicken and cream sauce another 2 or 3 levels up to the stars. This was a case where I was very happy I was not eating small little courses like at Gagnaire. There as a LOT of chicken and sauce on the plate and as I said before the glass of wine kept getting refilled. I spent close to an hour ingesting this food fit for the gods. And it seemed that the flavors just kept development and finding new nuances throughout that time. The fact that Lucas Carton gave me 3 different courses at this level the last time I was there still amazes me. Again a complete review in another post.
So as a summary. Gagnaire impressed me the most but I am sure many people without a lot of dining experience who do not have food as the number one item on their list of past times and do not like adventure in their cooking would have hated it. Those who are like me will love but have to be willing to go there just to eat. No business talk. No large group. One or two persons at the most. And if it does not work that night, go back and try it again, because when it works it is unique.
Guy Savoy deserves the 3 star and for anyone that it new to Paris and wants to have a three star experience with all the food and service and wine that goes along with it with no risk of being disappointed this is the place to go, no matter how many stars they get from Michelin.
Lucas Carton is the still the place for food lovers that also love wine and classical cooking based on the best ingredients. It will be a version of soul food for you. Let the wait staff steer you towards their proven dishes that have been on the menu for years and some new classics that may only be there as long as the wine they created them for is still in the cellar (my guess is the 1969 Leroy and its matching chicken will be gone forever by Christmas).
You cannot fail at any of these if you know what you are getting into to begin with. Go, eat and enjoy. I know I will be back to all 3 as soon as I get the chance.