Pierre Gagnaire (Paris) – Truffles and Value
Pierre Gagnaire has served me the best meal of my life. Along with Mr El Bulli, he is probably acknowledged as the most creative chef on the planet. Unlike the El Bulli derivatives and disciples, he approaches his experimental edge from a more “organic” angle as opposed to the chemicals and scientific laboratory equipment. He probably uses, or has influenced, such techniques but his end result more resembles our traditional notions of food. Unfortunately, the notions can still be challenging or uneven as I found out in my October 2006 meal.
Pierre Gagnaire is my favorite dining room in Paris. It’s formal and proper but spacious and relaxed. The waiters are friendly without being overbearing. It’s a warm experience unlike the austerity of Alain Ducasse or Les Ambassadeurs. We perused the truffle tasting menu, a look of terror swept the table after seeing the price, but ordered it anyways. Pierre Gagnaire has had well-publicized financial troubles in the past and he might have found a solution – one-up L’Arpege for Paris’s most expensive meal. Is that even possible?
Unfortunately, I’ve waited three weeks to write this review. Writing a proper Pierre Gagnaire is difficult enough due to the confounding numbers of variables at play – taste, texture, and temperature of many different ingredients. Where L’Arpege is a minimalism perfected, Gagnaire is pushing every seam – a cuisine for our sensory overload generation. The difference, of course, is even when Gagnaire fails, he still eclipses many of his contemporaries.
There was no shortage of truffles on the truffle tasting menu; unfortunately, they lacked impact. A basket of truffles was paraded around the dining room, a celebration of the last truffles of the season. Unfortunately, the truffles, for the most part, were non-factors in the dishes and did nothing to justify the rather steep truffle menu price. The “roller coaster” curse of Gagnaire struck us on this evening – great dishes followed by disappointing dishes.
1. Creme glacee de pomme de terre agria, veloute de legumes d’hiver
A seemingly classic Gagnaire-style dish that works with taste, texture, & temperature – it’s easy to see where Ludo Lefebvre of Bastide got the inspiration for his cuisine. It’s very hard to capture a dish like this with words due to all of the sensations jumping around in your mouth. It was creamy and sweet but the truffles gave it earthiness and dimension. The veloute grounded the flavor throughout. My only gripe? The the ice cream was a bit too icy and cold. Very Good.
2. Feuilles de banane plantin, fondue d’oignons doux et salpicon de langoustine a la pomme verte
More taste and texture madness where the onions and green apples were a bit too strong for the pristine langoustine (none of that Gaya business here.) Good.
3. Pate de chataigne aux celeris dores – toast noir a la moelle
A textural marvel where the marrow gave way to the truffle and toast, with the marmalade sitting in the background the entire time. The flavor began with the marrow and ended with the aromatic truffles, the whole thing slightly sweet from the marmalade. At this point, I was thinking “repeat” of my first Gagnaire meal last May. Excellent.
4. Corolle de haddock, BLT, gras de seiche
The title of the dish doesn’t make sense to me, and notes are merely limited to “very salty.” The fish was cooked fine, as only Gagnaire can do, but the truffle definitely didn’t add anything. Ok.
5. Royale Rossini, huitres speciales et champignons de Paris <>
More texture madness but this dish was very divisive. The rich foie and big, fat cooked oyster complemented each other texturally with the truffle giving it a necessary crunch. The brininess, then earth taste, would have been fine but the rich foie taste may not have been a good match for the oyster. Regardless, the cooked oyster was definitely disputed to varying degrees, and it brought the dish down. Ok.
6. Scallops / Leek Bisque / Truffle
A make-up dish for the previous. The scallop / truffle combination has been proven to work before but this truffle was not intense enough to make it noteworthy. The leek bisque, while tasty & comfortable, was one-dimensional in flavor. Perhaps Gagnaire was playing it safe for our re-calibration. Good.
7. Ballaotine de poularde de lait Demi-Deuil, tranche de patate douce roti au sel
The milk-fed chicken had good flavor but it was too dry. The truffles in this dish were disappointing and, sadly, added nothing. The dish seems less complex for Gagnaire (from what I can tell from my eater’s perspective.) The pop music fan in me wanted a big crescendo – a commanding end to the meal – we got a flawed whimper. Ok.
8. Carpaccio poele de pigeon gauthier, just court au Banyuls lie d’un trait de chocolate amer, Gateau de choux vert au lard
I merely had a bite but it was clearly better (conceptually & taste) than the chicken dish. The truffles were some of the better of the meal from what I remember. The slightly bitter chocolate and earthy truffle flavors were a great match together. Very Good?
9. Gorgonzola fermentation naturelle, gnocci de potimnarron, Bouillon d’Emmenthal Brie de Meaux, barbe de capucin
I outsmarted myself with these notes and I don’t remember what notes go with which element. Some adjectives, in pure stream of consciousness, include “rich, bitter, earthy, refreshing” and “tempered the cheese.”
10. Soupe d’artichaut “vanille et oranges confites”
I am a huge cotton candy fan (an irony considering my distaste for overly sweet desserts and an object of ridicule at baseball games) so this textural delight fascinated me – my other dining companions were merely amused. The vanilla was overly sweet but the truffles tamed it quite well – think the earthiness of a good dark chocolate bar. Very Good.
11. Salad Dessert
It’s too exhausting to keep up w/ the Gagnaire dessert parade so I completely forget what this was. It seems as if France loves savory components in their desserts – L’Astrance’s pepper sorbet, L’Arpege’s avocado souffle, and Regis Marcon’s candied morels are some examples. Desserts that may not be? I like it!
It was a competent meal, largely performing at a Michelin 3 star level, but it lacked the fireworks of that mythical first meal. For the price, the truffles should have been the best of the trip; instead, they just left a slightly bitter taste in my mouth. I’m putting Pierre Gagnaire on suspension during my next Paris trip to try a few different meals – Ledoyen, L’Ambrosie, and Hotel Meurice. However, if you’re visiting Paris, and you are interested in exquisite experimental cuisine, Pierre Gagnaire should be a mandatory visit.