Pierre Gagnaire

Okay, look, don't expect a review from me. All I can really say is that it will probably be worth your while to dine here. When I went, the prix fixe lunch was 90 euros before wine. Dinner is around 200, I believe. Gagnaire is known for reaching heights of sublimity one day and then presenting you with food kindly described as challenging the next. It's a crapshoot that apparently has a lot to do with the particular mood he's in at the time. But I should think it would always be a worthwhile experience for anyone who appreciates approaching their food intellectually. I can't say that I do this most of the time; I go for comfort and warmth and satisfaction. But it's also nice to have your assumptions challenged.

So, with that in mind, I will tell you that the dining room is elegant, spacious and simple. To me, it felt American in its proportions. You will have room to stretch. You will have limitless waiters, silent and gliding service, and modern white china. At this level, they don't seem to want to make you feel like a massive jerk for dining there, which is nice of them. You will have a menu that will test the limits of your arcane French culinary vocabulary, and an English translation from your server that may or may not capture all the subtleties of the ingredients you are about to eat.

You will enjoy many courses, and perhaps by the end of lunch you will have eaten twenty plates both large and small. Our lunch began with a few amuse bouches, including crunchy beet crackers propped up in a dish of salty sugar, and a tiny sea snail with a dollop of something creamy that didn't taste like much. The next course consisted of approximately five tiny, intricate appetizers. There was grated coconut and cauliflower (slightly creepy), cucumber jelly with grapes and shellfish (rather green), pineapple and mango and green peppers (crisp and tangy), there was a wonderful cube of sweet potato that self-destructed into eight tinier cubes as soon as our fork hit it, like something out of The Matrix. The flavors were sweet and salty, sea and water, light and airy. Sometimes it felt like eating Japanese cartoons.

Then we received a plate of pressed foie gras with leeks, gambas and green olives that rested atop an impossibly crispy cracker. Gagnaire likes crisp and crunch. It was a transitional dish, smoothing the way with creamy liver and rich winter flavors and preparing us for the earthiness of the dish that was to follow. It was lovely.

The plat principal was deer served two ways. The main plate featured meltingly tender medallions of biche with red cabbage, red cabbage jelly, sticky sweet dates and winter vegetables, like salsify and crosnes. A small pot of stew that was so intense it was almost black in color was made from deer that had been slow-cooked en cocotte. Despite the cube of dark red jelly and an artistic smear of quince paste, the flavors of the main course remained traditional, almost rustic, and perfectly executed.

The bread wasn't good. It was too molded, too crusty, too fussy. One piece resembled a twinkie. It seemed like bread from someone's grim vision of the future, when all food will be joyless and overmanipulated. Maybe I'm being too harsh.

Our lunch menu shyly downplayed the symphony of dessert plates that were subsequently directed towards our table; the only description on the stark white page read "Quelques desserts." Indeed. We were instructed to eat them in a particular order that mounted in intensity as we progressed. Some plates were forgettable, some were just plain weird. A freaky fruit salad filled with tiny marshmallows, wild strawberries, raspberries and cucumber tasted tart and then sickeningly sweet. That same flavor reappeared at least three times in our various courses. I began to call it Barbie Dream House for lack of a better term. It's the smell and taste of certain foods and products designed for little girls, like cherry chapstick and stinky pink sparkly My Little Ponies and Strawberry Shortcake scratch n sniff. You get the idea.

Then the macaron arrived: a fruity macaron (raspberry or passionfruit?), served with a pool of passionfruit seeds and syrup, and a dollop of intensely bitter coffee paste. It blew my mind. Passionfruit can be sticky sweet (just like Barbie!), but the smouldering smoky coffee flavor tempered it perfectly. When I think of our lunch, I remember the sweet potato cube. I remember the biche. And I remember the macaron, and I feel just a little bit sad that I will probably never taste another one like that. It's too early in life to have experienced the consummate macaron. Why bother with all the rest?

You will invest a substantial portion of your day and your salary at Pierre Gagnaire. It might be worth it. It might freak you out, or it might disappoint you, or it might challenge you or piss you off or leave you bored. It might transport you. Or maybe all of the above?


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Freaky fruit salad!


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The infamous macaron.


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A post-dessert plate. Amazing, huh?


Pierre Gagnaire
Hotel Balzac
6, rue Balzac
Paris 75008
01 58 36 12 50

Categories: Paris
January 11, 2006

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