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cabrales

Pierre Gagnaire: the good and the bad

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Wilfrid, I'm saying that if there is a representational context it's that we have these vegetables and animals and such that come to us from nature and up to a point cooking is just about making them taste better. That's sort of representational. If you got a tool like one of those replicators in Star Trek that creates food at the molecular level, then you could go straight from the chef's mind to the food on the plate without having to worry about how a piece of duck behaves when you cook it various ways. But since most serious chefs are oriented towards natural products they're all pretty much in the representational school if you want to call it that -- even Gagnaire and Adria.

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I hear you, but it the analogy is stretched. A roast duck doesn't represent a duck, even a roast one; it just is one. But if we try your approach for the sake of argument, I suppose one would call a roast duck which was made to resemble and taste like something other than duck a kind of abstraction of roast duck. Okay, but I'm a bit nervous about it.

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I suppose if you turned it into caviar it would taste better.

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A duck hotdog might work. If nothing else I bet we could get some good media exposure for the product. What would we call it? The Hotduck? Quackdog? Duckfurter?

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And it wasn't yup, Steve, you're right, it was yup, Steve, let's not go all over that again.

One takes what yups one can.

In painting and such, as I understand it the boundary between regular art and abstract art is simply whether the art is representational. I don't know exactly what the boundary would be between regular food and abstract food.

Perhaps abstract food wouldn't represent food. At least as you know it

A roast duck doesn't represent a duck, even a roast one; it just is one.  

It also represents dinner.

I love abstract roast duck.

Now what would the point be of turning a duck into something else?

Spoken like a man who's never had duck sausage or better yet gallantine. Come to think of it, Duck Soup was a work of art.

I suppose if you turned it into caviar it would taste better.

Only if you liked the taste of caviar better than that of duck. It would however taste more expensive perhaps regardless of your taste. If you turned it into pajamas, you might have something you could call abstract food, but only if you didn't like the taste of pajamas.

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The duck hotdog posts crossed my last post. I mentioned sausage, but we already have chicken and turkey hotdogs and we have duck ham and pastrami. That's ecumenical if not abstract.

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You don't need to enjoy Stravinsky's music for it to be good art. In fact it can be great art and disturbing music. But horrible tasting food isn't "good" food no matter how artistic or cerebral it is. You can't serve rotten, moldy food with maggots on it and claim it makes an aesthetic statement so it is "good food." Food, like clothing or decorative arts has to have a pleasing functionality in order for it to be good.

People who do not enjoy Stravinsky's music, tend not to think of it as great art.

Horrible tasting food is not good food, but we may not all agree on what's horrible tasting. Do you like olives, natto, durian? I'm if I kept on going I'd find something you don't like but someone else treasures.

You can serve rotten, moldy food with maggots on it. Moreover, there are those who will enjoy it. Some people like their game to be hung until it is un, rotten. Many of us here enjoy some very moldy cheeses and in parts of Spain there are connoisseurs of a certain cheese that is considered best when the rind is infested with wormy maggots. Of course the rind and maggots are eaten.

Pleasure in food, is far more relative than one might suspect

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It's not a matter of pleasure in food, it's pleasure in food within the constraints of haute cuisine which we are discussing. That pretty much means maggots are out I think. And game hung too long might be as well.

And people who don't like Stravinsky's music might not think it's good art, but they will admit it's art. Same with Gagnaire. Everyone will admit its food. But not everyone will think its good food. But it can be good art even though its bad food at the same time.

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It's not a matter of pleasure in food, it's pleasure in food within the constraints of haute cuisine which we are discussing. That pretty much means maggots are out I think. And game hung too long might be as well.

And people who don't like Stravinsky's music might not think it's good art, but they will admit it's art. Same with Gagnaire. Everyone will admit its food. But not everyone will think its good food. But it can be good art even though its bad food at the same time.

We just get into definitions of what haute cuisine might be and differences in opinion about both maggots and what's too long.

I disagree that people who don't like Stravinsky's music will admit it's art. I suspect that's more true today than it was when Stravinsky was at the height of his creativity however. For that reason alone, it's unreasonable to compare contemporary criticism of Gagnaire with how Stravinsky is regarded today. Food can be nourishing or not. It can be rotten, spoiled and riddled with disease carrying bacteria, but whether it tastes good is subject to the discriminating taste of the eater.

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I disagree that people who don't like Stravinsky's music will admit it's art. I suspect that's more true today than it was when Stravinsky was at the height of his creativity however. For that reason alone, it's unreasonable to compare contemporary criticism of Gagnaire with how Stravinsky is regarded today. Food can be nourishing or not. It can be rotten, spoiled and riddled with disease carrying bacteria, but whether it tastes good is subject to the discriminating taste of the eater.

Well this is the heart of the subjective/objective debate. Anyone who thinks Stravinsky's music isn't art doesn't know what he is talking about, or has let his personal feelings interfere with his abilty to think rationally. Because whether or not you like his music, that is separate and apart from being able to recognize what about it is art. And I don't care what anybody says, whatever definition of art you impose, Stravinsky's music meets the standard. But it's for that same reason that Gangaire's food might be art, but not be good food. I see those as two separate things. I would never argue that Gagnaire's food is bad art. As so many have said here, there are brilliant flourishes and improvisational statements etc. But the same thing that might make it good art can be preventing it from being good food. As for maggots, the way you state it is as if it's relative and it's not. It's one thing to say that a three star chef might devise a recipe that includes maggots and within that framework he will construct an argument as to why they should be included in the cuisine. But until that happens, I can safely say that they are excluded.

I think it's a terrible mistake to confuse the potential inclusion in a discipline with saying that taste is relative. Taste is only relative outside of the rules one accepts for the discipline. So the fact that a farmer in the west of Spain might be eating maggot infested cheese has no relevence to this discussion. We are talking about what they are serving on rue Balzac. Not the theoretical possibilities that Pierre Gagnaire might serve that cheese one day. He might serve human flesh if it came to be in vogue. The argument that everything is art or can be good if presented by the right person is a good argument. But it can't leave out the fact that haute cuisine means that you have to serve maggots in the style of haute cuisine. Possibly a greater burden to overcome for a chef then finding anyone to order the dish.

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I'm wondering if Adorno ever wrote any food criticism.

You think it would help if he had? :rolleyes:

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There are those who would agree that Stravinsky's work is art, while not agreeing that it's music. For them it's noise and music what they like. Ditto the distinctions between Gagnaire's art and food.

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I'm wondering if Adorno ever wrote any food criticism.

You think it would help if he had? :rolleyes:

Well he wasn't a big Stravinsky lover - if I remember rightly...

And there is the particular issue of neo-classicism which is apposite.

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What about John Cage. Would "everyone" agree that his work is art, or music. Is a recording of silence, labeled "sonata no. whatever" music just becaues the artist labelled it so. What I'm getting at is how far something can be manipulated before it stops being that thing. Someone (I'm not good at operating the quote device) here said that most chefs respect the natural ingredient. For me that is the natural limitation on how far the chef can take their art. Adria's potato foam is fine because it not only represents potato it is potato. But if someone finds a way to turn duck into caviar, I'm leaving.

I'm not sure I'm getting at what I mean. I guess it requires a definition of food, so that we can say, "That's not food, that's art." (Something my chef has actually said!) Steve P. I'm asking for a definition!

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Pootie Tang recorded a hit song with no music or lyrics, because he's too cool for words. Indeed, it has often been suggested that Pierre Gagnaire is the French Pootie Tang. Plotnicki, Pootie Tang was one of your films, right?

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There are those who would agree that Stravinsky's work is art, while not agreeing that it's music. For them it's noise and music what they like. Ditto the distinctions between Gagnaire's art and food.

This makes no sense because noise can be art. This is just a more complex way of expressing preference. Just like silence can be art. Whether it's good art or not is another thing. But both noise, and silence can be (notice I didn't say they definitely are) valid expresions of an esthetic by an artist.

I'm not sure I'm getting at what I mean. I guess it requires a definition of food, so that we can say, "That's not food, that's art." (Something my chef has actually said!) Steve P. I'm asking for a definition!

We've had this conversation before. My definition of art is food that is intended for the sole purpose of an esthetic (isn't that what your chef means when he says that) and not for the purpose of being eaten for pleasure. We can apply this definition to everything. Take a bacon cheeseburger on a seeded bun with lettuce, tomato and ketchup dripping down the side. It can be a delicious wonder. But we can also spray it after it is cooked and display it in a museum as something that expresses something about American life. So when I ask if PG's food has crossed the line, I am asking about whether his cuisine is too contrived to evoke a response to the esthetic he is trying to create and isn't balanced in terms of the sensual pleasure that comes with dining. Simply, more to think about then to savor. Does that make sense?

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Though I had the aforementioned "worst dish ever" at PG and I thought his desserts were awful on a technical, not conceptual level, I would still very much return. Perhaps that is enough to signfy that I don't think Gagnaire "has crossed the line". His food does not seem merely interesting-for-interesting-sake, but seems to be a genuine exploration in flavor, rooted in the idea that food is meant to be eaten, not studied. Or, I should say, only studied.

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His food does not seem merely interesting-for-interesting-sake, but seems to be a genuine exploration in flavor, rooted in the idea that food is meant to be eaten, not studied. Or, I should say, only studied.

Scahem - Well do you think as a chef that your personal evaluation of whether he has gone too far is materially different then the way non ITB (in the business) diners think about it? That's an important aspect of fine dining these days. For instance the market for cookbooks from high end chefs is almost completely supported by other chefs. Not that I am saying that Gagnaire's patrons are mostly chefs, he has many rabid fans among eaters. But what if your evaluation of his worthiness and relevancy is skewed by your particular vantage point of being in the business?

Let's take that point a step further. Let's say that the world's greatest chef comes along with new technique etc. But he never ctaches on with the public and his techniques and styles aren't imitated. But aesethtically he/she makes what you consider to be the world's greate food? How do we categorize that person?

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This is the hardest review to write for a number of reasons. Pierre and Chantal Gagnaire are special friends in a way that goes beyond owner-customer. We feel that we would enjoy them as social friends, if we spoke French, they spoke English and we lived closer together. They are both exceptionally charming. Also, Gagnaire's food is so improvisational that from day to day, from customer to customer, a dish can undergo numerous changes. In speaking with a chef who knows Gagnaire well, he mentioned that a chef who does a stage at Gagnaire rarely comes away with a repertoire of dishes to replicate as everything is subject to spur-of-the-moment altercation. For us, Pierre is a leader on the world culinary stage. He is not always perfect. He can be scattered. He can be out of joint. There are misses, but there are also highs; it can be a culinary coaster ride. This time, there were more misses than we have ever experienced before. In spite of this, Restaurant Pierre Gagnaire, has been and will be a favorite. We have been rewarded for our loyalty with superb service, special wines, good value and always some "gifts" during the meal. Other places charge us (often a lot) for our champagne--at Gagnaire it is always "offert"--FREE--a rarity in France this year--that's for sure.

With this caveat, in mind, is the personal relationship an excuse for praising bad food--no way! We try hard to be objective and have a "trained" approach to dining. We also are guilty of judging the "total experience" which Pierre, Chantal and the staff go out of their way to provide.

First night in Paris--Pierre Gagnaire

It is our tradition to have our first and last dinners on the trip at Pierre Gagnaire. Chantal and Pierre treat us as if we ate there regularly instead of 2-3 times per year.

The excitement and "color" of Gagnaire is on the plate--the room is minimalist, simple, in soft muted tones.

We decided on the September tasting menu. As an aside, it is very difficult for us to take extensive tasting notes as some of the time is spent catching up on the latest news from Chantal and exchanging "updates" from their friends in the U.S.

With our champagne aperitif, Pierre is not serving an extensive array of amuse. He presented 4 different types of "chips" beet, nori, parmesan, and foie gras imbedded in potato. This is a change from the past and we missed the excitement of his extensive array of small amuse plates.

First course-fondant de foie gras de canard aux amandes fraiche, jus natural de persil simple, coriandre et estragon. Corres dí ambondance (dark brown wild mushrooms) and cebette (a vegetable similar to a leek)--just saying it makes you hungry--the amazing thing about this dish is that as you mixed the multiple ingredients up in your dish, the foie gras acted as the "sauce" for the dish and unified the ingredients.

One of the things we have learned about eating Gagnaire's cuisine is not to treat each ingredient separately, i.e. as if you were eating a composed salad. His food is meant to be mixed, it is meant to be enjoyed in its entirety. Every ingredient is necessary for the whole. This held true for each dish in the tasting.

2nd Course--Fleur de courgette (zucchini) huitres plants du belon (oysters) et girolles (chanterellees) et aigne doux. The oysters tasted as if they had just been plucked from the sea and the mushrooms added a pungent earthiness.

3rd Course--Marmelade de tomates et jeune fenouils (fennel) gelee au citron. Bouquet díecrevisses (crayfish) pattes doux au curcuma (tumeric) pousse de pois et trefle (clover) blanc.

Tender bites of crayfish were placed in a rich tomato "marmelade" stock that was enriched with a tumeric infused butter and scattered clover on top. The clover did not add much to the dish and in fact was a distraction, rather than an enhancement.

Again, this dish had to be mixed to be enjoyed, it was served in a bowl with a spoon.

4th Course--Croustade de truffes blanches de fin díete pesto díartichauts crus epineux.

This dish just did not work for us. The truffles were bland (as most summer truffles are--our friend who was dining with us the next night is a French Chef at a major U.S. hotel--he does not buy summer truffles for just this reason--they just aren't up to the flavor that you expect from truffles). The taste was of cardboard and the grilled eggplant and artichokes just didn't add enough flavor or help at all.

5th course--salpicon de rouget de roche and capres la wicchia, lard blanc colonnata, feuille de bar de linge mi-fume, deux variete de carottes.

This was one of the best dishes of the night--smoked bar underneath the rouget (a layered sandwich effect) with the smokiness of the bacon, the slightly sweet drippled carrot sauce--just amazing in conception and taste--Gagnaire at his very best.

6th Course--declinaison de cepes radis noir aux mirabelles et cuir de veau croustillant. With this course Chantal came to the table and we got into an involved discussion on France's economy, the effects of 9-11, and their new venture in London. I do not have any tasting notes.

7th Course--Aiguilleette de printade chaponnee "rotie braisee en cocotte aux aromatiques, petits oignons doux aux olives vertes et noires, mousserons au poivre sarwak.

The guinea hen was presented in its cocotte at the table, then plated in the kitchen. The aroma of this dish was an overwhelming, intense assault that had us salivating just on the aroma alone. The hen was perfection, but at the table, the waiter over-whelmed the dish with some sort of "special oil" that destroyed this dish. We were able to "save" it by pushing the oil to one side of the plate and eating around it.

8th Course--fromage--3 different composed cheese courses--just did not work for us--definitely a way of saving $$ by not having a huge cheese board--not a good concept.

9th Course (s)--many many desserts. Again, no tasting notes that I can blame on serious jet lag, a lot of wine plus a lot of blah! blah! with staff and our guest.

There are few chefs as committed as Pierre and few "front -of-the-house" wives as active and as charming + elegant as Chantal.

Even when Gagnaire misses, his food is worth trying. He is not far out or weird, but he is pushing the envelope. His food is definitely not for everyone (most people would not pay the price $175 each + wine). But, for those who are committed to trying, learning and knowing great cuisine from the leaders of the world's kitchens, Pierre Gagnaire consistently impresses with new, innovative, exciting, and generally delicious food.

Repeat visits are mandatory to see the development. In many ways Gagnaire's evolution is as interesting as the food. He is a true leader.

Wines:

The sommelier at Gagnaire is very good. Over the years as they have prospered in Paris the list has expanded significantly. This year the prices seem to have shot up, along with everything else.

My husband selected:

98 Pernand Vergelesses -this is a favorite, right next to Corton Charlemagne - very fruity, young and full bodied - perfect with the cuisine of fish, vegetables, etc.

97 Monthelie Les Duresses - light and savoury, nothing fantastic, but certainly good and fairly reasonable cost.

LAST meal --Pierre Gagnaire

Going to Gagnaire for our first and last meal on a big France trip is a tradition. Although we were not exactly blown away by our first meal--tradition prevailed.

We worked with Claude, the Maitre d' to find two "small" dishes that we could enjoy after so many meals at so many restaurants. These were to be une pour deux--that is one for two--very small tastings

With champagne we were presented with 5 amuse--we should have seen the evening developing even then..

1. deep fired oyster with eel done in a sushi bar style

2. beet root and mackerel with a raspberry on top

3. mussels with coco beans with a small melon ball on top

4. in a Crochet Cup (a unique egg-type cup set on a cock-eyed angle attached by a small magnet to the plate)-- he presented a melange of cut up vegetables --it was a sort of ratatouille.

5. a glass cylinder of green on the bottom (cucumber), red (tomato) and white (described as sorbet of sheep)--

All very nice.

Approach to the menu--

On our first visit, we felt that the "tasting menu" was disjointed and lacked harmony and direction. Many of the dishes, taken individually, were excellent, but there didn't seem to be a cohesiveness.

We have always ordered the tasting menu so I have never really studied the over-all menu carefully. This time I did and seemed to

detect (after we tried two dishes) a direction in Pierre's menu.

For example, what appears to be happening is that each menu selection is structured to give the diner a new way to enjoy an entree (remember entree in France is the first course).

Pierre does a series of small dishes based on a theme. For example: Oriental theme, Pays Catalan theme, Langoustines theme, Rouget theme, etc.

With Claude's help we selected Plein Mer.

The "dish" consisted of 3 individual presentations on this "sea" theme.

1. tempura-like scampi and squid in a sauce of the juice from a green crab

2. spider crabs and periwinkles with seaweed, sea fennel, a touch of almond all in a creamy sauce --served cool. On the side, Pierre presented Maladon salt to be added by the diner.

3. small abalone in strips served with a beer mousse presented on the side in a shot glass.

The tempura was extraordinary, but I hated the beer mousse idea to be eaten with the abalone. By itself, the abalone was superb. My husband is not a big fan of periwinkles and found the dish too fishy.

For our main course, we ordered the duck. Again, Pierre, chose to present 3 distinct approaches to the duck.

This was a wonderful, creative dish. On one small plate he put a crispy wonton wrapped around lettuce and topped by a triangle of "Pekin Duck" crispy skin. It was described as "duck sushi" and we could have eaten a whole plate of this.

Another small plate held a round (about 1 1/2 inches) of compressed duck leg confit with a touch of glazed sauce--intense, perfect, super flavorful.

The larger white plate held chunks of boneless Pekin Duck breast meat which had been roasted with some cinnamon and a "salmis" sauce based on wine and the natural juices pressed from the duck.

This is where you see Gagnaire's genius - taking a dish which you have had many times and changing it in such a way as to be both inventive and more flavorful than most other duck presentations.

Wine:

Since moving to Paris about 7 years ago (from St. Etienne where he first received the 3 Michelin Stars) Gagnaire has had two sommeliers. Jean Luc the original wine master was in his early 30s when he left two years ago. His able assistant continued the careful, smart approach to an ever growing list.

My husband has found that the sommelier at Gagnaire always has a "hidden treasure" that he wants to present to frequent, interested diners like us.

These treasures are generally unknown or little know wine makers in odd or different locations. Usually these treasures are unbelievable bargains also.

This night was right on--

2000 SAINT AUBIN 1er Cru Les Frionnes, Hubert Lamy 350 ml bottle

Lamy is a familiar name. This 1/2 bottle was a perfect choice with the seafood. St. Aubin is a favorite of my husbands. You don't see a lot of it in the US, but it is usually a good value. This time 31 euros. Nice, crisp, clean finish that felt perfect in the mouth.

98 Cotes Du Rhone Villages, Domaine De L'Oratoire Saint-Martin, Haut-Coustias, F & F Alary, St. Martin.

Full bodied Rhone, perfect with the duck. Solid, dense, not overly tannic, but certainly a lot of potential to age. Could have mistaken it for a Cote Rotie - a very good value at 73 euro.

Were these the best meals we had in France - no if taken as a whole. However, some of the dishes were extraordinary, innovative, creative, delicious and truly reaching culinary heights. Within that context, when you hit a miss or a low, it stands out like a sore thumb. Gagnaire's cuisine has always been challenging and unique. His style is anything but safe. But, as I stated earlier, if you are committed to trying, learning and knowing great cuisine from the leaders of the world's kitchens, Pierre Gagnaire is still a must even with some of the disappointments.

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7th Course--Aiguilleette de printade chaponnee "rotie braisee en cocotte aux aromatiques, petits oignons doux aux olives vertes et noires, mousserons au poivre sarwak.

The guinea hen was presented in its cocotte at the table, then plated in the kitchen.   The aroma of this dish was an overwhelming, intense assault that had us salivating just on the aroma alone.  The hen was perfection, but at the table, the waiter over-whelmed the dish with some sort of "special oil" that destroyed this dish. We were able to "save" it by pushing the oil to one side of the plate and eating around it.

lizziee -- Thanks for the accurate description of the first meal at Gagnaire. The 7th course of guinea hen was overwhelmed by argon (or argan) oil that was very aggressive in this context. :wink: The guinea hen did indeed seem delicious from its aroma in the cocotte. However, when it was presented to us later, I am not sure the hen was "savable" relative to the apparently nicer version we would have received, had there been no argan oil introduced. :hmmm:

I continued along my path of being open, at the beginning of every Gagnaire meal, to trying to appreciate his cuisine. However, like every other Gagnaire meal I have encountered, I ended up disappointed by the cuisine, although not in any way, of course, by the special company of lizziee. :wink:

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We had our dinner at Gagnaire the other night. maybe I'll get to write something of a real report when we return to NY, but the short report is that we enjoyed dinner very much. I suspect it's not everyone's food and we might have questioned a few things ourselves, but it was a great dinner experience and that means it was delicious on the whole. We've eaten there once before--that was the year it opened in Paris. At the time we were astounded, but absoltely hated the desserts. We were probably less astounded the second time, but this is after two meals at El Bulli, one at the Fat Duck and numerous other meals of note. On the other hand, we didn't hate the desserts this time. We even loved a few of them.

There was some trepidation about spending what was guaranteed to be in excess of five hundred dollars for two after hearing some reports which led us to worry that Gagnaire had gone over the top, or off the deep end. On the whole we found him to be a chef very much in control and I was happy to honestly say that to him when he greeted us on the way out. Nothing in life is really perfect, but I understand the need many diners have for a perfect dinner at these prices. Nevertheless, perfection doesn't exist at the cutting edge and if you want to understand contemporary haute cuisine at its very "hautest," you need to experience Gagnaire and to do so, you need to dine without preconceptions. One of the hardest preconceptions to give up is what a particular ingredient should taste like. With luck, I'll continue this thread on my return.

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