Gaya (Paris) – Beware of Empires

The biggest threat to fine dining may not be opportunistic government officials (or chefs), laboratories posing as restaurants, or global warming (can’t we blame it for anything these days?) – it may be greed and an ill-informed dining public. “Chefs” have discovered a formula – use your popularity, whether from Food Network or an embarrassing display of Michelin stars, and open a lot of restaurants.

What are the problems with this from a fine dining perspective?

The obvious problem is that the chef is no longer in every kitchen. The chef, already a manager of sorts, must now supervise and maintain quality control over multiple restaurants instead of just one. Thomas Keller does this through live-feed TV’s linking his restaurants but can he watch all 10,000 of his restaurants at once every night? Was The French Laundry a better dining experience 8 years ago? Do the American outposts of Guy Savoy, Joel Robuchon, and the entire Las Vegas restaurant industry come close to the quality of the originals?

A second problem, from a fine dining perspective, is margin. The outposts are generally down-scale from the original yet still retain the underlying brand to draw in the crowds. They operate at a lower price point (re: lesser ingredients) but probably operate at a higher margin thanks to down-scale service, ingredients, and talent. And then increase that margin by volume. The outposts are probably more successful restaurants, financially speaking. Then add in the sweeteners that hotels kick in to attract these big names. It pays to go down-scale and open as many as possible.

Of course, who can blame them? If I was in a position to make more money, I’d probably do it. (Actually, I would do it.)

Gaya is Pierre Gagnaire’s seafood bistro in the Left Bank. Gagnaire’s handling of seafood was so spectacular, I couldn’t imagine this restaurant could disappoint. He has the ability to source excellent ingredients and he demonstrated he may be the master of fish. How could he/we go wrong?

1. Bonito Confit w/ tapioca gelee

The bonito had a strong salty taste and the gelee re-hydrated the dry bonito. In a way, this was Gagnaire-light as the 2 disparate elements came together in flavor and texture. However, it was a simple technique and what was its point? Ok.

2. Scallop tartar w/ Avocado & Citrus

Not a refined dish, but straight-forward and tasty. The scallops were of very high quality and the citrus brightened the dish up perfectly. Good.

3. Seared scallops w/ braised endive & porcini-sesame sauce

The scallops were cooked well, and the sauce complemented the scallop’s crust, but it was a fairly pedestrian dish. On an absolute scale, it was probably a good dish but not for these prices. Ok.

4. Langoustines

Mushy and tasteless, a disgrace to the langoustine and the Gagnaire name. We didn’t eat them and they took the charge off the bill without hassle – maybe they thought they could pawn these things off of unsuspecting English-speaking tourists? My cynical side says yes. Not Good.

The review reads well but visiting this restaurant is pointless. If you are hoping to experience Gagnaire’s cuisine “on the cheap”, you’re mistaken for two reasons: 1) it’s not even close to cheap – this meal was about 50% the cost of Pierre Gagnaire proper, and 2) there’s nothing in the meal that begins to explore the taste and textures of a proper Gagnaire meal. Likewise, the fish quality and execution is inconsistent at best. There are too many restaurants to explore in Paris – don’t bother wasting your time or money here.

Didn’t I learn anything from my Senderens and Table du Lancaster meals from the last trip? As they say, “three strikes and you’re out.” No more outposts for me – stick to the source.

Is there any silver lining from this meal? Absolutely! As we walked out, the immediate window display had a very large stuffed lobster in the window. Neat, we walk in, and it’s a eclectic store selling all sorts of odds’n'ends. However, an unassuming staircase that led up to a second floor of the most amazing taxidermic animal display I’ve ever seen!

They had lions, baby elephants, crocodiles, countless bugs, foxes, bears, and anything else you can imagine. I could only snap one picture before they rushed over in a huff. The below picture is but one of five rooms! (i’ve also linked the picture to a larger version

I forget the name or address of this place but it’s right next door to Gaya.

- chuck

Official Site: http://www.pierre-gagnaire.com/francais/cdgaia.htm