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Pierre Gagnaire: the good and the bad


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It gets better for those of us who read only in English.

Here is the link for English speaking Amazon users. Given the exchange rate, it seems cheaper to buy it in dollars (because Amazon.com has a discount).

Edited by mikeycook (log)

"If the divine creator has taken pains to give us delicious and exquisite things to eat, the least we can do is prepare them well and serve them with ceremony."

~ Fernand Point

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pierre gagnaire, la cuisine imediate published by robert lafont 1988

great book though as far as i know only in french


...and sadly long out of print. I tried to put my name on a waiting list at Kitchen Arts and Letters, should they ever come across a copy, years ago, and at the time I was politely told not to hold my breath... Was never able to find one at Librarie Gourmande either.

I'm excited for a new Gagnaire book, but somehow apprehensive as well. Perhaps I'd be disappointed with anything but a complete Adria style documentation of his work...

Michael Laiskonis

Pastry Chef

New York


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The US edition is due out in October from Stewart, Tabori, and Chang as Gagnaire - Sweet and Savory.

On an earlier STC book (Perfect Vinaigrettes) I had the pleasure (and the labor) of testing the Gagnaire contribution. No such luck this time. Definitely not the sort of cuisine one can whip up in an hour after work.

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  • 2 months later...

An update for anyone who's interested. I ordered this book in September (live in NY) and the estimated delivery was Oct. 7-9. After much waiting, I have noticed the book is now being prepared for shipping. Only two months late. :wink: If anyone else has been waiting, check out your Amazon order for an update.

"If the divine creator has taken pains to give us delicious and exquisite things to eat, the least we can do is prepare them well and serve them with ceremony."

~ Fernand Point

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  • 3 months later...

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.

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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I would suggest that the genius of Gagnaire is most visible when ordering a la carte. The tasting menu, as described, I would characterize as vertical, a long succession of small dishes, that have some relationship to one another from the perspective of meal composition. Ordering a la carte is horizontal. The a la carte is composed of dishes named after their principal ingredient, lamb, pigeon, turbot, venison, etc. However, these are not single dishes, but actually 2-5 variations along with other accompaniments such as a flute of passion fruit juice, for example. The famous langoustine appetizer provides five variations. For each of these courses, the dishes are placed on the table simultaneously. What Gagnaire then shows brilliantly is not the essence, that's not what he's about, but the potential for each of these foods to be taken in new and unimagined directions. Yet he does ultimately maintain a respect and connection to his raw material, rather than transforming it beyond recognition, which is one of the reasons that I strongly prefer him to Adria, a subject for another day.

When we last ate at Gagnaire, it was a Sundey evening in late November 2003. We sat on the balcony at the rail with a full view of the entire restaurant, which seats 35-40 people. The clientele that evening appeared to be at least two thirds French, and at least 75% of the guests were ordering a la carte, so I believe that this is the preferred way to go, and I would suggest that even visitors make this effort. Mme Gagnaire will be more than happy to help. Other advantages of ordering a la carte are not having to take the composed cheese plate or the grand desert, which are on the a la carte menu, but are never ordered there, as best I could see. There is a conventional chees cart which is quite popular, although at 29 euros per person seems to be quite exorbitantly priced. If one orders a la carte and skips the cheese, the price for the food will actually come out roughly the same as the menu, around 200 euros per person. Whether one likes or despises Gagnaire's deserts is an interesting matter of discussion, but once again the deserts available on the carte are more interesting that the grand desert which has grown tired.

One other comment I would like to make regards dress. In general, dress even in Paris and other major European cities is quite informal. At Gagnaire, more than two thirds of the men did not wear a tie and a number were in shirtsleaves. I suspect that on a workday it might appear more formal, but this would only be because of what people were wearing already, not the requirements of fine dining.

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What Gagnaire then shows brilliantly is not the essence, that's not what he's about, but the potential for each of these foods to be taken in new and unimagined directions. Yet he does ultimately maintain a respect and connection to his raw material, rather than transforming it beyond recognition.

That is very true I believe. The tasting menu might not give 5 different ways of seeing an ingredient, but it gives one creative view of many different ingredients. It's as if you took one of the five small plates that are part of a "à la carte" dish and served it on its own. You do not get the full deconstruction-reconstruction of the ingredient but as the meal develops you do get a pretty fair idea of what his cusisine is about and of the way he can treat differents products. As such, I do not believe there is a big difference of nature between the menu and "à la carte" (and the vertical and horizontal ideas suggest this too).

What I would suggest is that a tasting menu is a nice way to see whether one enjoys Gagnaire's cuisine in its principle, which you very well established above, whereas "à la carte" is a good way for a convinced "adept" to dig further into his style. I know I tend to like cuisine that is more focused around the idea of bringing out the best in a main ingredient, often by linking it harmonously with an other one acting as a supporting character (Briffard does that so well at Les Elysées). As such, Gagnaire may not be perfect for me, but I might go there again once in a while to enjoy the creativity and the occasional combination that matches my subjective preferences.

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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.

Thank you very much to have posted this! It makes me think I should go there again soon.

Interesting is also the point about ordering à la carte or the menu. I myself have always ordered the lunch menu which I always enjoyed and already gives for less € a good impression of Gagnaire's cooking, I think. But I will change my mind perhaps next time.

(Edit: sometimes I have the impression that in France as in Belgium, ordering a menu is not very commonly done; also in Belgium top-restaurants guests tend to order à la carte. May it be related to a country, such a choice?)

Edited by paulbrussel (log)
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I enjoyed both admajoremgloram's post and marcus's follow-up on the March menu very much. I suspect we were there just a few days after amg (may I? :smile: ). A few of the dishes were served differently, which is in itself interesting, I think, and we responded differently to some which were the same.

First, the amuse gueules: I agree that there was a degree of sweetness about several of these, but didn't find it unpleasant or unbalanced. The whole thing was about different textures, for me, and as such amused both the mouth and the mind.

In total agreement about the langoustine dish: quite wonderful. By the time we ate the dish on Thursday 18 March, the langoustine was being served whole, and there was no veal.

Nor was there ice cream with the scallops. However, the "flan" was, I think, made with sheep's milk which contributed an unusual and enjoyable slight sourness to the dish. The array of pale shades was also very beautiful: the slices of translucent scallop looked like a flower displayed over the scalloped edges of the flan.

Unlike amg, I loved the razor clam/merlu dish. It was a new (to me) method of bringing out an earthiness in fish - not the usual, overwhelming red wine-mushroom route. The earthiness came from the chickpea pancake, the diced beet greens (not cucumber for us) under the beetroot jelly, the lightly cooked mustard leaves and the wide smear of pumpkin puree.

I suppose the sea urchin/onion dish could be seen as more traditional - to me it seemed quite unusual. Perhaps, though, one could see it as a play on the traditional onion soup. Very deep, fishy, complex flavours cut through by the fennel and grapefruit.

amg's description of the foie gras could not be bettered although I didn't like it quite as much as he did. The dark chicken jelly was just a bit much on top of the stock used in the earlier scallop dish. For me, the fish dishes were more successful than the meat throughout this dinner.

Again, I loved the rouget. A perfect combination of flavours, colours, textures.

I agree that the wagyu was most disappointing. Fascinating to know that it was cooked for 72 hours. It was like a deconstructed beef stew. The high fat content of the meat was quite apparent in the way in which it melted on the tongue but the lingering flavour was not especially pleasant. The highlights of the dish were the cubes of celeriac and the pear.

I quite liked the composed cheese course, though the simplest combinations (soft chevre with slices of raw artichoke; Brillat Savarin with a nut-stuffed date) were most successful. The Fourme d'Ambert mousse with a disc of almond paste was horrible.

I think we received seven desserts in all, not counting the plate of wonderful petits fours that preceded them or the fine chocolates that accompanied the coffee afterwards. Several were extremely good, my favourites being the big glass of fluffy lemon mousse over diced pinapple with specks of lime zest and the plate with a strip of rose marshmallow half-surrounding a slice of confit lemon with a quenelle of lime sorbet on top.

Overall, as must be apparent, I loved the dinner and found it not only delicious but also very interesting. I liked the room and received the best service I've experienced. I would love to go back - probably to eat from the carte.


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One other comment I would like to make regards dress.  In general, dress even in Paris and other major European cities is quite informal.  At Gagnaire, more than two thirds of the men did not wear a tie and a number were in shirtsleaves.  I suspect that on a workday it might appear more formal, but this would only be because of what people were wearing already, not the requirements of fine dining.

Just to follow up marcus's point on dress. We were there on a Thursday night and again perhaps 75-80% of our fellow customers were French. There was only one man not wearing a suit. It's probably quite different on a Saturday night.


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Just to add a minor comment on dress, we were at Gagnaire last on a Friday evening in October of 2002. Ties and jackets predominated. There was a party of four--two youngish couples from the UK. The women were informally elegant, but the men were just tieless with white shirts and dark jackets as if they removed their ties after work. There was also a family that appeared to be from Spain. The mother and father were well dressed, but the children were not. I seem to recall the grown son was in jeans. Everyone else seemed to be wearing a tie and jacket.

It's been my experience that I've enjoyed the tasting menu far more than ordering a la carte when in restaurants driven by very creative chefs. I'm quite convinced that when faced with unfamiliar foods, I'm best off letting them orchestrate the meal. As my familiarity with the cooking increases, it may make sense to order a la carte at times, but I am a fan of approaches such as the one taken at El Bulli, where the diner is just fed. Nevertheless Marcus makes a compelling point about the carte at Gagnaire, enough so that should I have the chance to dine there in the near future, I would be likely to order a la carte. Until I do, I'm not in a position to take sides on the issue of which way to go on a first visit, although my gut reaction is still to take the menu set by the chef the first time.

Robert Buxbaum


Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Wow. Fascinating post, I'm really happy we could compare these two experiences.

A couple of ideas that spring to mind:

- the amuses were not at all bland or uninteresting, I actually believe they would be a rather nice pairing with champagne but clearly clashed with my salty sherry. Does any one know of restaurants other than Lucas Carton where the choice of aperitif determines the amuses, or at least is taken into account? It seems pretty important to me to do so, not to the point of always having a separate menu for aperitifs as at LC, but to some extent.

- another interest of the menu, to those who care about pairing, is that it seems to make it possible to pair the food with wine, as all the fish dishes come first. It worked nicely for me. I believe the horizontal approach of à la carte makes this very difficult, as a given wine will clash with about half of any of the many preparations. But that is a very side-aspect of the matter (though important to me) and I do agree that for those who have seen they enjoy Gagnaire's cuisine a lot, then "à la carte" is the way to dig further into his cuisine.

- notice that Gagnaire's website description of the menu is a bit different, especially as regards the wagyu dish which is described as being filet and as being served with a "jus Hervé This". I would have liked to try that.

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Pierre Gagnaire, March 2004-03-26

I’ve just sat down & already I’m being pummelled by little amuses – a little too fast to take it all in but they include: a frozen cube of grapefruit with some white fish – very cold & unexpected but oh so pleasurable; a little pasty with tapenade; some veg sushi; more little pastries; a cone filled with vegetable & fish slithers; and a slab of crystallised something or other. All good.

Pre-starters of

- watercress & shitake soups – worryingly – slight tasteless

- rabbit is its own jelly – unbelievably good

- lasagne of potato, walnut & Roquefort

- dish of deep fried cockles & various mini-vegetables – good but not helped by waiter spilling some red wine into it

- haddock with salmon eggs & crystallised toast – so very good

starter was scallops with grapefruit marmalade - scallops as you’ve never had before & I still dream of this now. Very large bowl of scallop pieces with variety of mushrooms, tiny cucumber dice with a beautiful please yellow/orange sauce with pieces of caramelised grapefruit (the marmalade) mixed in. On top of this was a disk of flattened crisp bread with slithers of scallops & a large roasted scallop sitting on top. The depth of that sauces still haunts. This was served with (separate plate) a herb salad & crab with a bitter lime jelly this had the marvellous effect of cleansing the palate before the on coming feast. Bloody amazing really.

I miss translated the main course & was slightly surprised at the outcome: beef with squid. I usually avoid squid – but thankfully this turned out to be quite sublime. Large piece of wagu (sp) beef sitting on a disk of lettuce – on top are several slithers of squid. Next to this was a stack of black radish & a few slashes of green pimento sauce. What a wonderful combination and the beef was meltingly good & complimented perfectly by the squid. On the second plate was a mousse of foie gras topped with a crispy disk of something or other & squid slices. Aniseed undertones to this. The 3rd plate had beef cheeks slowly cooked with the most satisfying caramelised shallots – a wow. What a great dish

Too full for dessert

The bill arrived but I signed without looking as I’m too afraid – also don’t want to ruin the fine mood I’m in – the bad news can wait.

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  • 5 months later...

Formal men’s attire; a cocktail dress and high heels making for an uncomfortable, brisk walk while running slightly late for our dinner appointment; and, finally, the jerky reflection of headlights and the distant rattling of a cab, juddering up the road, stopping swiftly on our hail. A cocker spaniel, napping comfortably on the front seat of the cab, lazily opened one eye, as if expressing her annoyance with a temporary disturbance, only to fall back into the pleasant hue of her dreams under the monotone voice of the provincial-looking young driver, whose enthusiastic manner and rapid speech somewhat contradicted his fine melancholy face, which otherwise expressed reserve and taciturnity.

The thought that “Politeness is most acceptable hypocrisy” (Ambrose Bierce) crossed my mind as I watched my consort engage the chatty driver with “oui” and occasionally “oui, oui” whenever his French, limited to only several phrases (“Je ne mange pas pour cinq jours” from Ilf and Petrov’s “Twelve Chairs” being the longest), and his intuition rightfully or wrongly suggested a need for confirmation. I leaned against the window, detaching myself from the amusing absurdity of the situation, feeling a warm vibe of anticipation of the upcoming meal as I recounted the pictures so eloquently transcribed into “poetry” by Francois Simon in “Pierre Gagnaire: Reflections on Culinary Artistry,” which I purchased several weeks before our trip to Paris.

“An ingredient does not commit itself immediately. You have to wait for it, catch it,” played in my head as we climbed the steep stairs and entered the restaurant through the relatively narrow and unremarkable door just to the right of the entrance of the Balzac Hotel on rue Balzac near Champs Elysees. “From time to time, it is necessary to slow down, to impose certain serenity. To take an empty space and only fill it with bare necessities.”…And we passed through the gloomy bar area and into the modest, two-level dining room with large, round tables placed at a distance from each other, as if creating a sense of sovereignty for their transient, nightly settlers.

The eye lingered from instant to instant, from a striped rug to a light lacquered wood, not caught by any detail, rather considering the whole, which in its bleakness and austerity brought a sense of ever-more-subtly refined substance – compact, gridded and symmetrical – designed for contemplation and ceremony.

Each course on Gagnaire’s menu is itself a play of many acts, where the principal ingredient is “acted” in different scenarios and generally presented to the diner somewhat theatrically, in the manner of several small dishes placed on a table all at once, so that the detailed hierarchical presentation of a menu, broken into five sections of Les Entrées, La Mer, La Terre, Les Fromages and Les Desserts, each of which lists the main theme (L’Agneau, for instance) and a meticulous account of all “improvisations” on this topic under it, is quite helpful and serves as a compass among the multitude of plates in front of the diner. I would recommend holding on to the menu during the entire dinner.

Following others’ recommendations on the approach to ordering at Gagnaire, we bypassed the chef’s tasting and chose a la carte, which was orchestrated in such a way that any attempt to deep one’s oar into other than his own plate resulted in breaking the rhythm and compromising the palate so that we constrained our efforts to our own choices, to which I’ll limit my description as well.

“Amuse whets the appetite without breaking the spell, spoiling it all by being too intrusive, heavy or filling. A prelude should provide the tempo without revealing the score.” …And a profusion of amuses flying in a Mephisto valse, breaking itself into subcategories of bits and bites, confusing and lucid, playful and dull, primitive and exotic, was brought to us in ensemble and separately in, what seemed to be a never-ending narrative.

It started slowly, intending to set the mood – a nice refreshment with no intrusion, just a little perk leaving a clear finish on the lips. A small cube of pressed ice shavings, shimmering brightly with its amber color on the white surface of a petite round plate, froze the palate for a moment, as if dispersing any debris of the past lingering in the mouth, only to rupture with a grapefruit tartness softly offset by the clear, subdued aromatic sweetness of passion fruit and fresh figs.

Almost buoyant, emboldened by brisk, brazen flavors, this crisp and light amuse was followed by the nearly random juxtaposition of the simultaneously rendered little bites, as foreign to each other in their flavor essences as they were in their roots. Flat sweet-and-salty shortbread sticks; a cigarette-shaped seaweed roll wrapping gently pickled carrot and celery (a variation on the Korean theme?); slightly bitter eggplant caviar in a light, buttery puff pastry (reminiscent of eggplant caponata); a thin caramel sheet sticking to the teeth, the purpose of which remains vague; and a crisp, sweet cone (a la Keller), holding shreds of black radish, all shortly became assertive in their abstractness, for even the refinement of their execution turned immaterial in the modernist context of this cacophonic mix.

A fresh breeze came with the next amuse, tomato in a watercress velouté, making a strong, long-awaited statement.

The stark, uncompromising visual richness of colors and the geometric proportion of a perfect, burnt-red skinned tomato, “floating” on the surface of a deep-green watercress liquid and appearing to advance toward our eyes while the background of the plate receded, gave a pervasive sense of equilibrium from the balance of color and form.

Seasonality is such an important aspect of our dining – encouraging a search for the freshest seasonal ingredients to nourish the palate with what only nature can provide, dismissing farmed, out-of-season products as imposters or mere imitations of works of the real master whose short-lived indulgence is such a treat – that the out-of-season tomato at the center of the dish made our eyebrows raise with suspicion. The tomato was roasted to a point of very concentrated acidity reminiscent of tomato paste, and watercress exposed a pleasant mild bitterness, without the sharp, almost stinging spike of its summer brethren (the pungency of which is more clearly expressed during the hot summer months when the flowers bloom). Yet, when the watercress penetrated each pore of the tomato and the tomato merged its flesh with the liquid, the flavors were unexpectedly transformed to reflect a calm sweetness. Until now, we didn’t understand what made it work, but Gagnaire’s efforts in the area of molecular gastronomy were evident, and this dish would make an excellent case for those defending the use of non-seasonal ingredients in the kitchen.

It has become fashionable nowadays to employ theatrical tricks in food presentation: syringes, food transformations in front of the diner’s eyes, peculiar tableware, spoon feeding and other tricks to entertain and amuse trusting patrons, sometimes diverting their attention from the essence of the dish itself with the superficial pursuit. Blumenthal’s spoon feeding arose my dismay; the bonito strips dancing on top of the sea bream, imitating live fins (an effect achieved through temperature contrast) at Gagnaire’s Sketch was entertaining and provoked curiosity, but the strong smoked taste of the tuna was too stark for the delicate fish. Though there were no such extremes during our dinner at Pierre Gagnaire this time, some element of theater was introduced with the next amuse as well.

A small, round plate reclining forward, as if standing on its rim, almost perpendicularly to the surface (supported by a porcelain stand from behind), and a small espresso cup attached to the plate in a suspended posture by a magnet, visually defying all rules of gravity and revealing its context to the diner, appeared as a precarious arrangement of awkward and slightly surreal structure. The theme of this amuse was Wagyu beef. The concentrated, dark-brown aspic in the cup, adorned with crunchy dice of black radish, had a rigorous intensity.

The cup was crossed by the small spoon, holding a cube of the same savory beef jelly used as a mold to bind meat shreds, which in composition was reminiscent of a Russian rural dish, “cholodetz,” the recipe of which calls for boiling beef leg for no less than six hours (which process also produces enough gelatin for the aspic), after it’s been soaked in cold water overnight, preserving the liquid and shredding the meat into thin strips, which are later covered with the preserved stock and refrigerated until the texture turns gelatinous.

The elegant presentation of this rustic dish could hardly dilute its strong flavors, making us wonder about the next course and its ability to clear the remains of the overpowering taste.

When the mélange of raw bits of clam, mackerel, haddock, mango and blood orange –the bright colors of which were freshly caught in a small cup, as if by chance, between unthinking brush strokes, like luminous paradoxes of reflected radiance – appeared before us, we couldn’t hide our surprise. Indeed, it was sad to see all the elaboratness and meticulous presentation to be lost on the palate, which was blinded by the lingering beef debris. However, if the purpose of this amuse was to clear the palate, it certainly performed its purging function well, as its acutely biting wasabi sauce washed away all flavors, including those which it accompanied – a pretty but discordant amuse with an amusing placement on the menu.

Any expectations of a bridge between the present and the future, a dish that would play a role of viaduct making a logical connection for the palate to smoothly plunge into the next, more expressive chapter of the dinner, were failed with the last amuse featuring a rectangular lasagna sheet imprinted with green, herbal patterns of fish scales, blanketing smoked haddock mousse, dusted with egg yolk and topped with salmon roe. The tender lasagna, of a perfect execution, offset the strong, fishy (but not unpleasant) taste of the smooth mousse (somewhat like an improved version of Zabar’s whitefish salad) making a brawny conclusion to the amuse saga. This perfectly fine amuse, however, required a thorough mouth wash before the next set of langoustine dishes could be appreciated.

May is the beginning of the season for Brittany langoustines, which generally continues through summer, and the chance to see how Gagnaire’s imagination embraced these delicate creatures in his cuisine was too tempting to forego.

Les Langoustines

Tartare de langoustine, jus de pomme verte et navet blanc croquant.

Considering that there is a general perception of langoustines being more interesting cooked and that their raw representation may lack the expressive sweetness for which they are praised, so that even Gagnaire admitted that “deep-frying brings out its [langoustine’s] true personality. The constant even temperature reveals its inner character,” I was curious to try this dish.

A raw, plump and meaty langoustine, sprinkled with confetti of tiny bits of zucchini and crunchy raw apple, cradled on the plate as if in submission, was wrapped in a thin veil of translucent, green apple broth, slightly viscous and frothed, creating a placid rhythm of tranquility and meditation. The gentle flavors of the langoustine, light and puffy, establishing a pervasive presence of its own against the background of the slightly sour, fresh and earthy mildness of the apple sauce, aided by the unobtrusive sweetness and crunchiness from the thin caramel nougatine encrusted with filberts, and the overall calmness of the dish, despite its unusual flavor collage, made the langoustine entrance very pleasant. Turnip was not utilized in this dish contrary to the menu description and was replaced by the nougatine.

Grillée, vinaigre réduit au thym argent et nougatine.

The dish of grilled langoustines presented on two wooden skewers in a sweet, slightly viscous and overpowering balsamic vinegar reduction with a strong thyme overtone wouldn’t have registered in memory if not for the small square of pressed bean purée accompanying the dish. The purée lent such a gently sweet flavor that it slightly resembled a parsnip purée, though somewhat denser and more velvety. The Tarbais beans utilized in this dish – a highly praised species cultivated in southwestern France and named for the city of Tarbes, to which its bishop first introduced this crop after his trip to Spain in the early 18th century – contained enough natural sweetness to require no additional manipulation to achieve this extraordinary taste. (Nougatine was not used in this dish.)

Poêlée “Terre de Sienne,” lentilles vertes du Puy et jeunes courgettes.

Gagnaire’s passion seemed to lie along Moroccan /Mediterranean route in this awkward dish. Gently sautéed langoustine, heavily coated in a thick, sweet, burnt-red-orange “Terre de Sienne” sauce, which, according to the wait staff, was based on a Moroccan spice, was served separately from the French green lentils profoundly spiced with curry. Perhaps his utilization of spices could be praised for extending the horizon of traditional French haute cuisine, but the dominant sauces relegated both the lentils – grown in the volcanic soils of the Auvergne town of Le Puy and having a subtle, rich and earthy flavor – and delicate langoustine to a secondary role of a textural buffer behind the strong spice. Excellent, but wasted ingredients behind inappropriate saucing was my verdict.

Bouillon glacé, bavaroise cendrée de caroube.

Bouillon glacé, which echoed the beef aspic appetizer with a different main ingredient, was of a dark-brown color, had a very concentrated langoustine flavor and was topped by a langoustine mousse. Though interesting, this dish was not memorable, and the taste of aspic became somewhat tiring.

Mousseline, beurre fondue à la melisse.

Sweet langoustine on a pillow of intense langoustine mousseline in the crater of the deep, white plate was engulfed by a wash of pale-yellow, frothy butter sauce with gentle, sour notes of lemon grass, sparked by tiny green bits of zucchini. Harsh flavor contrast was not at the center of this dish, every element of which bore different nuances – concentrated and light, bright and subtle – of the langoustine taste against different textural backgrounds.

Sometimes – with a little spark of imagination, a tribute to an ingredient that doesn’t take up the space but rather blends with its surroundings unobtrusively, innocently – a dish can acquire an unexpected glamour. The red raspberry sauce, making curved pirouettes on the butter foam blended into the swirling background as if caught in mid-step of its stylish dance, merging the sweetness of the sea and earth, elevated the dish to a considerable grace. In his book, Gagnaire describes a langoustine mousseline dish seasoned with berbere, an Ethiopian spice mixture. Based on my reaction to the poêlée “Tierre de Sienne,” I was glad this version was not what I was served.

Le Turbot

Tronçon de gros turbot de ligne rôti-poché dans un beurre mousseux à la maniguette; pok choy, nashi et pointes d’asperges du Pertuis.

Une sauce crémeuse au Mac Vin.

Waking from the inertia of tailored existence, which breeds apathy from the opiate distractions of modern technology, i.e. television, and promotes gradual decay as the ultimate ideal of bliss, generally opens new choices for one to bring, if nothing else, a slight thrill to his existence. The “place of birth,” however, is something given to him outside of his choice. I wonder occasionally whether I’d be willing to trade some of the dear moments of my youth – watching a candlelight flicker anxiously, distracted from its route by the gentle blow of our breath when reading Gumilev and Akhmatova aloud; the stage anxiety before a performance; the fervent arguments on Wagner; the idealistic rambling on Jean-Jacques Rousseau etc., etc., etc. – for another chance at life on another continent, and I concede that perhaps I’d still be able to live through all these experiences somewhere else, yet, what I would certainly lack is the ability to have a magnificent Black Sea turbot an hour from its being caught in the sunny city Odessa in Ukraine.

Indeed, turbot is a European fish, and since it doesn’t seem to retain its extraordinary delicate taste and texture after being kept in a frozen state, turning dull and uninteresting, it became a subject of continuing disappointment in U.S. restaurants over the years, so that I finally found a way out of my relationship with the fish, using a standard it-is-not-you-it-is-me approach, accepting the premise that it could’ve been just I whose tastes changed, though the fish was quite acceptable according to local standards.

It took me a trip to Paris to realize that the frozen specimen of turbot served in the U.S. is indeed of a much inferior quality, and the fresh version is as magnificent as I remembered it. (Please mind that Black Sea turbot is a slightly different species from Brittany turbot, despite their similarities.)

The month of May and the first two weeks in June are the peak season for wild turbot in Brittany, and the fish is certainly a treat not to be missed. When a plate with two overlapping large chunks of turbot on slightly wilted bok choy mixed with crispy asparagus tips was presented, I made a note that the piece served at Arpège the other night must’ve come from a much smaller fish whose flesh was softer and slightly sweeter without the density and robust flavors of the more mature specimen. Large turbot feeds heavily on larger fish, which changes its intrinsic taste and texture, and is sometimes more desirable due to the extra frills – the fatty meat around the edge of the fish, which Gagnaire utilized in the next course. I was thrilled to try two different versions of turbot within a period of several days, and personally preferred Passard’s interpretation; however, the dish served at Gagnaire was no less glorious.

Paprika with turbot, a classic combination, is far from novel, but these red flakes glittering in the foamed cream sauce (served on the side and which you had to pour on top of the fish on your own), only slightly offset by the white wine’s acidity, were larger and lent a slight spiciness with a soft jasmine illusion, emphasizing the mild fish by its silent dissonance and adding spontaneity to the whole composition.

The exotic tang of ginger and cardamom, released by that same melegueta pepper – a tropical African spice practically unknown in modern Western cuisine, though utilized extensively during the reign of Elizabeth I – didn’t conceal the strong classical motif of the dish, evoking that which has gone by – a past. In retrospect, how I wish that this wonderful dish had been the logical conclusion of the Gagnaire “tour!”

Le gras du poisson enrobé d’une fine polenta au curry de Madras.

In a deep white bowl, several fatty turbot strips, coated with finely chopped chives and occasional bits of red onion, wrestled in a mud of slimy polenta, heavily spiced with Madras curry and the same African melegueta pepper and cooked just enough to coat the back of a spoon, but not to form a solid substance, like a watery mousse, the smoothness of which was broken by the tiny corn meal grains screeching on your teeth like sand. I have never seen such a fine ingredient be disrespected in such a direct, uncompromising manner. “Try this,” I asked my consort without providing him with any indication of my own reaction to the dish. “Do you think Gagnaire even tasted this dish before placing it on the menu?” he replied. This was probably the strongest conviction one could give to the dish and the chef. Gagnaire may have used a second-grade day-old shrimp for that matter, and it would’ve not made any difference as the polenta would’ve drowned any ingredient with its straightforward, strong taste and slimy texture. A thought that perhaps I should send it back crossed my mind, but the problem seemed to lie in the composition of the dish, not its execution. I quickly rescued the magnificent turbot strips, and left the polenta nearly untouched.

A palate-refreshing bok choy, lightly cooked in butter and freshened by thin slices of raw Japanese pear (nashi) completed main courses and was the last dish before the desserts.

I became a fan of Gagnaire’s desserts after visiting his Sketch Parlour in London, and still retain an opinion that Gagnaire’s desserts are most provocative, invigorating and exciting. Hermé, whose desserts I found overly sweet – an opinion unexpectedly confirmed by several new Parisian friends we made during our stay, who indicated that Hermé is popular predominantly among foreigners and less attractive to locals due to the sugar over utilization – was left far behind after the tour de force of the “Le Grand Dessert De Pierre Gagnaire” consisting of 8 courses. We were quite full at the time, and my consort respectfully declined the last course. You should’ve seen how many times a little extra spoon, brought by our thoughtful server, despite my husband’s objections, plunged into my plate!

I will not describe desserts in detail in this post, but will continue with my overall observations on the meal at Gagnaire.

I was stunned to observe how inconsistent our one meal was, ranging from ecstatic to unbearable. Perhaps, however, a pattern can be traced if the meal is viewed from the perspective of predefined criteria: ingredients, technique, imagination and artistry, balance, and flow.

Along with the excellence of the ingredients and Gagnaire’s superior technique, there is a profound desire to “procrastinate,” to put off the day when every experience will seem to have been expressed. He mocks the pretension of the rigid past, without completely dismissing it, improvising, making sense of it with rules and laws that depend entirely upon a human perspective: not of a single system of perspective, but alternative ones, suggesting ways in which they overlap or intersect with totally different kinds of order or structure of ingredients and techniques. He uses perspective in a way that at a first glance disturbs rather than codifies patterns of tradition.

A world of this magnitude, whose boundaries seem to have been marked out by instants of experience (Gagnaire’s spontaneous improvisations and fruitfulness are well known) and whose outlines are marked by unexpected encounters, cannot be reduced to any map: This is the most admirable quality of the chef. However, the tension between form and content that makes all creation possible should communicate itself through purpose, which, during our meal, in some instances was quite difficult to identify, inevitably leading us to assume that this particular dish was placed on the menu because “he could”; that another dish was created with an outrageous combination of ingredients or preparation, which clearly tasted vulgar, because “he could.” Where is the minimalism that Gagnaire praises in his book, “Minimalist cooking with the justification of every ingredient on the plate”? The Le gras du poisson dish could not be accepted even by the most tolerant diner. Where is “this caring respect for the ingredient”?

The erratic inconsistency among the dishes and the eccentric flow of the meal, specifically the amuses, were the expression of a highly subjective thought process, and we couldn’t easily make judgments about the logic of what was expressed. I would’ve been ecstatic to have the tomato amuse, tartare de langoustine and Mousseline/beurre fondue à la melisse appetizers, and the gros turbot de ligne rôti-poché main, which would’ve been the most invigorating experience without the disturbances of less interesting dishes, but sadly, our actual meal was reduced to a mere “good,” with no desire to rush back. Gagnaire was not in the kitchen that day.

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