Pierre Gagnaire (Paris) – The Unusual Summer

“Do you remember the desserts? When they filled the table full of plates?” It is a shared memory for those who have worked through a Pierre Gagnaire tasting menu – a moment equal parts excitement and exhaustion – staring at an haute abyss. The servers, highly choreographed, endlessly dispense dishes on the table where many smaller plates orbit their larger counterparts. It is an overwhelming onslaught of food, ideas, and force – the triumph and downfall of Pierre Gagnaire – captured in one final course.

Pierre Gagnaire (PG) does not revel in the nature of ingredients like Michel Bras, or Alain Passard, but he is an undeniable master of the plate – on good days, controlling every dimension served – artist not curator.1 The last memories of Paris during the 2006 45 Michelin Stars in 24 Days2 were Pierre Gagnaire serving the best meal of my life. The expected tactics of perfect execution were there (no one cooks fish as great as PG, no one) as well as an elevated conceptual use of a land and sea in many dishes – in particular, two fish paired with foie gras and codfish intestine. But the tactics and concepts reinforced the true genius of that meal – a brilliant narrative flow that weaved tastes and textures into supporting and contrasting elements and motifs throughout the meal.3 The entire meal came together and had a clarity of focus unlike anything I’ve tasted since.

But PG is known to be a restless soul, changing dishes moments before they leave, sometimes differently for the same table, in a last-minute attempt to capture the moment. It is a stream of consciousness – improvised to some inner rhythm and narrative – an internal logic that had been more and more difficult to decipher with each of the past two meals.

Naively, given that recent history, the tasting menu was ditched in favor of a la carte (ALC), in hopes of codified dishes, instead of tasting menu whims. Surprisingly, the non-linear nature of the ALC option was even more difficult to navigate and comprehend. The accumulation of dishes turned the table into a study of negative space – each plate setting brought the madness of those aforementioned dessert tastings. How is one supposed to thread a narrative through six or seven component dishes at once? Apart from a few loosely related ingredients, how does one begin to decipher the riddle of relationships spread across the table? The dishes and tastes were mere vignettes whose ultimate purpose remained elusive.

Taking photos and writing notes, when seven dishes come out at once, is difficult. With the disparate ingredients and techniques involved in a PG meal, doing both is downright impossible – and I failed to invite a sternographer.

The amuses came out fast and furious, each one unremarkable on its own. There was, however, a kaiseki quality to it as the collective whole took the palate through a ‘warm up’ session – tuning and training the taste buds for the meal to come. Strong bitter tastes paired with the very sweet – a back and forth, almost exaggerated – to awaken, tease, and tempt. Canapés were subverted with unusual tastes and colors. The spectrum of foam to granita textures were quick sketches – setting up the boundaries for the remainder of the meal. Before ordering, there were no less than eight dishes on the table.

The ALC menu is loosely divided into two sections of four dishes each – without much distinction in price between appetizers and entrees – this is haute cuisine and you absolutely pay for it. The “dishes” read more like themes, followed by a very long list of ingredients and forms, “poetry” as Wandering Epicures says

Insolite – The Unusual

  • Bouquet de truffes blanches d’été, tuile d’abricot et flan de foie gras de canard ; sel de Formentera (Flourish of white summer truffle, abricot tuile and foie gras custard)
  • Navet Buren, cube d’olive noire Kalamata ; gelée naturelle de colineau aux câpres la Nicchia (Buren turnip, Kalamate black olive cube; natural jelly of baby hake with la Nicchia capers)
  • Court-bouillon brûlant de morue parfumé de soubressade : kokotchas, tripes, piquillos et piments de Guernica (Piping hot stock of cod flavoured with soubressade: cod cheeks and tripe, piquillo peppers and pimientos de Guernica)
  • Pièce insolite de bœuf français confite à cru, galette de sardine aux pignons, kinjiso (Unordinary piece of french beef confit raw, pancake of sardines with pine nuts, kinjiso)

PG’s dishes would always trend towards “unusual” when compared to others. What was unusual, for me, were the surprising elements of sweetness tucked within unexpected dishes. It was a re-occurring theme throughout the meal, as every other dish contained something sweet. The collection of dishes did nothing, discernible, as a whole. Eating five different plates, at once, with such a wide variety of ingredients and techniques, presents cohesion problems – what, exactly, is going on?4

Estival – Summer

  • Blanc de Saint-Pierre en tandoori, fine escalope de denti presque crue ; bouillabaisse mousseuse de rouget de roche (Tandoori filet John Dory, delicate escalope of almost raw dentex; bubbly bouillabaisse of red mullet)
  • Pressé de légumes à l’oseille, mitonnée de pistes, casserons et encornets aux poivrons verts (Vegetable terrine with sorrel, slowly cooked, baby cuttledish and squid with green pepper)
  • Scampi d’anémones de mer et de feuilles de basilic, sirop de piment d’Espelette (Deep-fried anemone and basil leaves, Espelette pepper syrup)
  • Cannelloni d’aubergine et daube de roc à l’ail rose de Lautrec (Aubergine cannelloni and casserole of roc with pink garlic from Lautrec)

The pairing of seafood with “landfood” leads to interesting textural effects, of which PG is a foremost authority, but the “Rubix cube”, my term, showcased PG’s fascination with form, expectation, and textural composition. Its appearance and construction harken back to a cliched French cuisine of the 80s. One would expect a slightly gelled vegetable puree – but the density of each cube was black hole-like – a very compact cube of {radish, spinach, carrot} puree, agar agar, and cream – each tasting, and feeling, like several vegetables had been reduced. It was heavy, dense, vibrant, over-powering, and completely un-expected.

This is not to say PG is all technique – his ingredients can be exceptional – the octopus carpaccio the best I’ve tasted.

Grand tasting of dessert

The desserts, despite past experience, proved to be restrained and refreshing. The entire meal had been rather heavy, with ample cream, but the desserts were light and crisp – an antithesis to the meal and the weather. The (very green) basil sorbet and the “mojito” were the highlights – both with intense herbal and acidic highlights – tastes not experienced since the amuse bouches.

Ordering the a la carte menu is equal parts sado-masochistic puzzle and choose-your-own-adventure, both formidable challenges. Does one try to get inside the mind of a scattered genius? Or does one plunge completely into their own narrative(s) and journey? Is the author or reader the final authority? The tasting menu, surprisingly, despite its whims, offers a generally more accessible middle ground – a “pop” Pierre Gagnaire that is no less serious. The a la carte option is for the intrepid or experiential. How does one “read a meal” across so many different plates at once? Does one try to make sense of it all – or surrender to the adventure?

(A final note: I have not visited LudoBites yet but Ludo’s Crazy, Magical, Delicious Bastide in 2005 was the closest thing state-side one could liken to Pierre Gagnaire – the food shared similar qualities in their “organic” approach to experimentation and form. I wish Ludo could find the appropriate vehicle, no pun intended, for his haute cuisine aspirations.)

- chuck

1 – I use the two terms to merely differentiate between the extremes of a chef who collects vegetables from a countryside or garden versus one who can not let a tomato sit, untouched, on a plate. There is no value judgement in either.

2 – If I were to do such a trip today, I’d go to Tokyo and Japan – the noma aesthetic has seemingly infiltrated every American restaurant, too often style over substance, but once more chefs are exposed to Japanese cooking, ingredient quality, & dedication, we’ll see a quality revolution.

3 – Urasawa is the closest restaurant I can think that creates patterns out of its food for the sake of narrative, albeit in much more restrained and controlled fashion. Ingredients serve primary, secondary, and even tertiary roles throughout a meal. It is also a theoretical disagreement I have with many chefs, including Thomas Keller, who think that ingredients should only be used once in a meal. Does a character exit stage right, never to appear again? The re-appearance of the same ingredient (and, no, I’m not talking about Michael Mina’s what-do-you-want-three-ways approach) in different roles can lead to new interpretations and understandings.

4 – Ever try reading Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow? It is one of my favorite books but did you really understand what was going on all of the time? This could be the culinary equivalent, complete with that implicit post-modern threat that there is no meaning at all.

  • http://www.epicures.wordpress.com Michael

    Thank you for the great report and photos, but I think you have convinced me to stick with the tasting menu when eventually we return to Pierre Gagnaire. The answer to your last question is definitely “surrender to the adventure.”

  • http://www.ulteriorepicure.com ulterior epicure

    Sounds like it was a farrago. :)

    Thanks for the report and brilliant photos.

    —–> Oh, and willing stenographer right here! <——

  • http://www.sygyzy.com David

    Chuck, amazing review. Have been waiting for this. Sure you’ve answered before but what sort of camera/lens are you using these days?

  • chuckeats

    david, same camera as usual – there could be some d90 slr action in the near-future

  • http://uhockey.blogspot.com/ uhockey

    Fantastic review – even better photography. Cheers.

  • http://www.weezermonkey.com weezermonkey

    Thanks for the link! Your blog is awesome. :)

  • stephen

    I’m sorry, I’m confused. Each one of those is a “single dish” of the ALC menu?!?! Or did you order whole sections of the ALC menu? What percentage of the whole ALC menu was that?

  • chuckeats

    stephen, this entire blog post consists of amuse, app, entree, & dessert (!!!) each “dish” that you order contains 6-8 plates.

  • Dustin E

    awesome review, chuck.

    wow, you would say pierre gagnaire cooks fish better than any of the places in japan you’ve been to (koju, hyotei)?

    also, have you found codfish intestine dishes anywhere else, or are they very much a pierre gagnaire signature?


  • chuckeats

    Dustin, the raw fish is better in Japan but PG cooks fish better than any chef I’ve tried in Japan. I personally haven’t had codfish intestine anywhere else but I’m sure they exist in many dishes around the world

  • Dustin E

    Pierre Gagnaire was a challenge for me to appreciate for my meal there last summer. I’m not sure if it was an off night, or me suffering from palette fatigue. But your reviews certainly make me want to give it another try, especially your assessment of their fish.

  • http://verygoodfood.dk Trine

    With this review you make me want to go back and re-visit Pierre Gagnaire! :-)


  • http://www.karineatsworld.com karineatsworld

    Interesting post…who knew that a la carte could be so adventurous?! I had the tasting menu last year and found it to very heavy and difficult to get through all the courses.

  • http://upescalator.wordpress.com/ JC

    I was at LudoBites 5.0 (and so lazy about typing stuff up now). Crazy and at times challenging food, but not always successful. And it really could have benefitted from a more refined space, utensil changes, beverage service, etc. Given the prices, it didn’t make me inclined to try for a 6.0 reservation, although I heard that it is being held at a better location.

    Not as insane and all-over-the-map, but for roughly the same price point, Bistro LQ in LA is IMHO a slightly better experience overall. But it makes me wonder – if Ludo can make the stuff I ate in a little sandwich shop (albeit one outfitted with his own PacoJet and stuff), what could he make in a world-class gourmet kitchen?

    As for PG…one of these days…

  • chuckeats

    JC, my LB 6.0 (my first) is coming up soon.

    When he was at Baside, a world-class restaurant, it was one of the top 5 restaurants in the US. (Unfortunately, LA did not support it. I wonder now, with TV fame, how it would do)

    I can see the casual format inducing a certain laziness in his food – and i fear LB 6.0 won’t live up to the wonderful memories of those old Bastide meals.

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  • http://PierreGagnaireParis cassie sheehan

    I am going to give my husband a birthday present of a tasting menu at Pierre Gagnaire when we are there in july. Is there any difference in food and/or service on the different nights of the week? i.e. It is open every night but which night should we pick?

  • chuckeats

    Hi Cassie, that’s a *great* present ! :-) Afaik, every day is business as usual at PG – the service has never been anything less than top-tier on my different visits. The only thing to note for that time of year – it’s *hot* in Paris and, on my visit, it was uncomfortably hot inside the restaurant. (In the old days, taking off your jacket was unspeakable, but I did spot a few jeans in the dining room last summer.)