…save for the few things that can be strictly qualified objectively it is difficult to define something as “the best” and it is nearly impossible to designate perfection; even in the smallest of things there are simply too many variables involved. With two excellent days (and four excellent meals) in Paris behind us and having spent a lovely day at Versailles it was Sunday evening when my sister decided to turn in early while I met a friend for dinner at Pierre Gagnaire, 6 Rue Balzac. Having admired Chef Gagnaire’s approach from afar even prior to my visit to his “Twist” Las Vegas, le Coeur had been my number one worldwide destination restaurant for nearly two years and with my previous comments noted I can only say that what I’m about to describe was as close to culinary perfection as I have yet to experience.
Having made the reservation myself through the entirely French website, first for one and then augmenting it to include my friend I will first note that Pierre Gagnaire is not an easy reservation – as a matter of fact it functions much like an American restaurant in requiring diners to arrange the reservation one-month-to-the-date in advance and to secure the reservation with a credit card, something that no other reservation in the city requested. With this small detail noted, much like Le Cinq, fromthe first moment of contact with the restaurant I had no doubts of their service – questions were answered, an English menu e-mailed (and re-sent without request a week before my departure to highlight the Early Spring season,) and when it was time to confirm it was they who made the call.
Arriving moments early for our 7:30 reservation just steps off the Champs-Elysées I greeted my friend in the street and moments later we climbed the stairs of the hotel where the doors of the restaurant were opened by a young male host who took my bag and led us to a the black lacquered hostess stand where our reservation was confirmed – as the second pair to arrive we were quickly led to an enormous two top in the upper level of the restaurant and asked if the seat was okay we assented. Within moments our server, by far the most whimsical and personable of any of my servers in
Having discussed the menu prior to our arrival the original plan was for one of us to order the Spring Tasting while the other went a la carte, but with the entirely new menu unveiled to my friend for the first time the decision was made for us both to do the tasting with one alteration – different desserts for each. Entirely agreeable to this option and with wine selections made it was perhaps 7:45 when our orders were placed and we were left to chat while watching the rapidly filling room – a solemn but stylish area with well spaced tables, grey ceilings, lacquered woods, and white linens lent levity by candles, fresh flowers, rambutan centerpieces, and colorful abstract art.
With Chef Gagnaire making his first of three appearances to welcome each guest individually it was perhaps fifteen more minutes before our first course would arrive – a myriad of amuses bouche including Salmon eggs with beef Carpaccio, Pastry stick with Sichuan wasabi, Back fat bacon with hazelnuts, Black rice crackers with oyster sabayon and olive oil, Lettuce with cream of anchovy, Egg white macarons with tuna and blackberry, an almond ginger cookie, and a potato cooked in seaweed. With the eight bites and innumerable tastes and textures clearly intended to arouse all parts of the palate I think the flavors did something more; they rapidly immersed the diner in Gagnaire’s stream of consciousness and set the tone for what was to come.
Slowly working my way through the flavors and particularly enjoying the sweet meets savory Macaron and melt in the mouth Carpaccio the next man to arrive would the bread server – perhaps my favorite man in any restaurant and even more so in Paris. With a pair of butters from Bordier – a square of seaweed butter and a salted sweet butter – already present the nightly bread selection included an impossibly crunchy demi-baguette with a perfect crumb, buttery milk bread, black olive toast, and hearty chestnut bread. To be honest I really have no idea how many times the young man stopped by our table, but let’s just be conservative and say four…or eight.
Beginning the seasonal tasting menu our server brought a smaller copy of the menu so we could “follow along” and almost like a hymnal the menu contained extensive notes of the melody that would follow. Beginning first, “Green Asparagus de Pertuis with thin round slices of squill fish, square of burrata cheese and cucumber seasoned with lemon mousseline sauce / Black olive infusion with old balsamic vinegar, melted sorrel and dominos of Gruyere cheese from Garde / Cardamom velvety soup with asparagus granite” was served as a troika, all unique, all excellent.
Now five for five in receiving asparagus as part of my Parisian dining, this presentation was invariably the most complex of the evening and as we were instructed to “taste each separately and then explore the combinations” that is exactly what we did, each bite a new experience – at times hot and other times chilled, sometimes intense and sometimes a fleeting tone on the palate. As the ingredient list for this and all subsequent dishes was quite thorough I will simply note that while each plate was impressive on its own, the manner in which the mildly acidic olive dish acted to refresh the palate each time I came back to it was astonishing. Serving as the starting point it was this dish that served notice of what Gagnaire would serve us that night – shocking subtlety and superior ingredients in a delicate balance.
With our second course Gagnaire would make his second appearance in the dining room – simply walking around with a smile and observing. Described as a new item on the menu, “Grilled thinly sliced sole with broad beans and leek stems, celery and green pepper. Miso liebig and a veil of squid flavored with ink” was another stunner, but this time all on one plate. With snappy vegetables juxtaposed against melting leeks and savory condensed miso the most impressive aspects of this dish were the fish and the cephalopod – the first perhaps half an inch thick topped with crispy skin and the second as thin as a handkerchief, briny, and delicate as pasta. During 95% of other meals this would have been the best course of the night – at Pierre Gagnaire that evening it was perhaps the third.
With excellent pacing and dishes arriving at approximately twenty minute intervals the next course would be a revelation – the sort of dish that had both of us wiping our plate clean with bread at the end. Titled “Fresh Morel mushrooms flavored with licorice laid on a bed of vegetables and aromatic herbs. Iced turnip and craterellus mushrooms” there were no tricks in this dish – just flawlessly prepared vegetables, a complex stock, and the very essence of the spring embedded in the earthy morel/mushroom amalgam…an essence that dissipated almost immediately on swallowing as the perfume of licorice, not detectable on the tongue, perfumed the palate.
With high praise flowing from our lips and humble thanks from our server the next course would arrive as a duo – on one plate “Thin slices of black grouper seared in brown nut butter, oysters, and capucine leaves with small Palamos King Prawns flavored with amontillado” and on the other “Salt cod ‘brandade’ in a bisque with grated green apple en amertume.” With the dish heavy in protein and having already seen Chef’s careful hand with acid, sweet, and savory this course would focus more on the use of bitter – a technique largely ignored in American cooking. Starting first by layering textures – meaty grouper, creamy oysters, and snappy shrimp it was the bitter drew the lines, working in a manner I’d never expected to add focus – the extra dry amontillado making the shrimp seem sweeter, the peppery nasturtium showing off the smoky tones of the grouper, and the nearly crab-apple tart crisp punctuating the briny cod potage.
As our fifth course arrived the clock struck 9:30 and the table lights dimmed while the wall lighting brightened slightly to add a very intimate glow to the already dramatic room. Clearly showing off the quality of his sourcing with more gifts from the sea, “Dog cockles, clams, and razor clams with chanterelles, spinach and parmesan cheese gnocchi in foie gras soup flavored with maniguette” would be a flash back to the morels – light manipulation of unique ingredients in unique combinations. With the briny mussels at the forefront and the piquant undertone of foie gras laying the backdrop it was the gnocchi that lent levity – vegetal pillows proving ample foil to the otherwise savory tones.
For our final savory course (or courses, as it were) titled “Thinly sliced duckling des Dombes roasted as a whole, medlar, spring onions, carrots seasoned with cumin; unctuous juice flavored with vintage port” I can only summarize the experience with the comment my dining partner made to Chef Gagnaire at the end of the meal: “Monsieur, I’d rather eat your duck than have sex with the prettiest girl in the world.” Rosy and pink, impossibly lean, charcuterie thin, and advantaged in all ways by the sweet port and medlar – it was the best duck I’ve ever had – so good that the vegetables became extraneous – so good that we joked with the server that there was not enough…and the server and chef were so good that a second round was served on the house.
For our cheese course the plate(s) were served composed – four selections on three dishes – one warm, one cold, two room temperature and all with accoutrements. Described at length as “Sorbet of pear, Roquefort cheese, eau-de-vie, segment of Williams Pear with ewe’s yogurt / Shavings of Ossau-Iraty cheese, rougette salad, cordifole and green lentils du Puy / Soft apricot stuffed with goat’s cheese de Ginestarie” I will not purport to be a cheese expert – especially considering the man I was dining with – but I will simply say all were good, particularly the sorbet selection.
Bearing in mind our request for alternative desserts the next course would bring Le Grand Dessert de Pierre Gagnaire – a collection of six plates and thirteen selections – for each of us. A succession of two courses, the first four plates and the second two the flavors and textures were too myriad to count, but amongst the five larger servings the first three to arrive were Fraises des Bois, yogurt, curry / Garden Strawberries, Red Pepper and Saffron / Apple with Tonka Bean and Pollen Cracker. Along with this round we also received 8 petit fours ranging from a marzipan cherry stuffed with black currant to a boozy chocolate tube and flavors including licorice, pistachio, mint, pina colada, and fig in between.
With the first round finished the second set of desserts to arrive would be the Pave du Chocolate Pierre Gagnaire with Toffee and Coffee Sauce and a cocktail glass of Black Currant, Pomegranate, and Sparkling Wine – both excellent but the Pave more so, its nuances so subtle that each bite was like a whole new tasting of the eight chocolates utilized in its construction.
Invariably satisfied at this point our server would return to jokingly ask if there was anything else he could get us – “more duck perhaps?” – prior to informing us “the chef has one last course for you” – in this case the alternative dessert we’d originally requested be served in place of one of the grand desserts. Arriving tall and proud “Bora Vanilla Soufflé, Southern African Golden Raisins / Passion fruit crème and old kirsch / Fraises des bois, shortbread, red pepper confit / white pepper ice cream coated with a Tahaa Vanilla Syrup” was everything I’d hoped – impossibly light, invariably nuanced, golden and sweet – a perfect ending to a perfect meal.
With the hour nearing 11:30pm Chef Gagnaire would return to the dining room, again smiling, and this time taking time to pose for pictures, chat with guests and receive his due kudos. Always humble and entirely agreeable and to sign and date menus the Chef seemed quite tickled by my friend’s comment about the duck and thanked us repeatedly for coming to visit before returning to the kitchen. On his heels our server once again returned, he too deserving of substantial thanks, and presented us with our last taste of the evening – monogrammed Milk and Dark Chocolates from a large lacquered box.
Paying the bill and paying our thanks again to the service team we made our way to the street and with my experience at Twist reinforced in spades all I felt was happy. Considered by some to be obscure, confusing, and too complicated for his own good my experiences with Chef Gagnaire have been quite the opposite – progressive for sure, but rooted in tradition, complex without boundaries, but smart enough to walk you to the edge without stepping off the cliff. More than that, Pierre Gagnaire is a talented and humble man who knows how to make his guests feel special and happy – that “Christmas Day” feeling from childhood – or perhaps that feeling after a night with the prettiest girl in the world. Walking back to the Champs-Elysées everything seemed just a bit brighter and even now Pierre Gagnaire remains my number one worldwide destination restaurant.