Sunday, 17 April 2016

Paris - Pierre Gagnaire

When I was planning my trip to Paris, I had many possible restaurants that I could have visited.  Paris is one of those destinations that every foodie dreams about, where nouveau and haute cuisine mix willingly with the most traditional of dining.  

While my trip to the French capital was centred around my trip to Guy Savoy (see post here), I was also equally excited to be visiting fellow Three Michelin star and #16 on the La Liste (the top 1,000 restaurants globally).  I was so excited about the visit, that as soon as I'd confirmed my reservation at the well known restaurant at 6 rue Balzac, just of the Champs Elysees, I made a beeline to check out the Two Michelin starred Pierre Hong Kong (see post here).

Known as an innovator, Pierre Gagnaire has been known to 'tear at the conventions of French cooking by introducing jarring juxtapositions of flavours, tastes, textures and ingredients'.  As a food blogger, I love the concept of pushing the boundaries of flavour, I love that there are chef's that are willing to test themselves and innovate and dare to dream of a different culinary landscape.

Unfortunately, dining at Pierre Gagnaire in Paris turned out to be much more of a nightmare than a dream!

Let me start by saying that like the famous French chef's predilection for juxtaposition of food, our dining experience was indeed a juxtaposition, but just not in the way that the chef intended.

We arrived a little early for our reservation, and spent some time warming our bones in the lobby of the Hotel Balzac that houses Pierre Gagnaire.  It had been a particularly freezing day and the warmth was very much appreciated.  Once we made our way to the fancy entrance of the dining room, we were asked to take a seat while the staff finished their daily team meeting.  Not a problem of course.

It was slightly jarring though when a brash family entered after us and quite rudely jumped in front of us when it was time to be seated.  Once again, it was a minor slight, but one that I'd not normally expect in a Three Michelin Starred establishment.  Thankfully, it was the only misstep of our wait staff for the entire evening - in fact, we were very impressed with the wait staff throughout the meal, all the more impressive as they had to deal with a foodie that was decidedly not enjoying his meal.

We were given our menus that outlined two options, a la carte and tasting menu.  Having just survived a compelling 18 course degustation the night before at Guy Savoy, we decided that another tasting menu might not be the best idea.  We chose from a la carte, which with hindsight was a huge mistake.  Let me explain.

Pierre Gagnaire is different from most restaurants in that 'carte' menu is really a tasting menu, each course is composed of around five dishes that all come to the table at the same time, and I assume are designed to provide a narrative around a core ingredient.  All fine in theory, but for me was a major pitfall.

Our amuse bouche started the evening off on the right foot, and although the approach was the same ; lots of small plates presented at the same time, there was a congruency with the small bites that worked quite well.  A vast array of small plates completely took over our small round corner table, which included some crusty bread and a sphere of delicious hand churned butter.


Normally when I write about a restaurant, I spend a great amount of time explaining the details of the food and flavours.  I'm going to deviate a little here and talk about how I felt about the flavours of each course.

My entry was called Jardin Marin and consisted of around six plates of food; 
  • large prawns from Palamos macerated in berry brandy; pistes, cuttlefish and baby octopus; 
  • a buckwheat crepe with sea urchin tongues, served with a uni bisque and a cup; 
  • cod ice-cream and parsley with murex aromatic broth perfumed with cava wine; 
  • roasted duck foie gras with semi-salted anchovy; 
  • physalis and daikon turnip flavoured with mango vinegar; and
  • redu tuna tartare and omit with tuna belly lacquered with argouse

The list of ingredients and components of the course certainly met the philosophical view of Pierre, there was a huge juxtaposition between the ingredients.  Unfortunately, there was little congruency with the dishes and while there were elements that tasted OK, others actually made me physically sick.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that the buckwheat crepe with sea urchin tongues was the worst thing I've ever eaten - I struggled to swallow and the vile tasting uni had such a physical impact on me, I broke into a cold sweat for around ten minutes.  Since living in Asia, I've had uni many dozens of time and there was none of the sweet salty flavour, in it's place, the uni tasted as if it had spoiled.

For my palate, almost none of the ingredients worked together well, nor was there any synergy between the plates that made up the Jardin Marin.

I was literally deflated by the time our wait staff cleared the table.  There was an inquisitively raised eyebrow with the unasked question 'was everything ok?'.  I managed to stammer that some of the flavours weren't to my liking..

Main was a little better, only a little.  

My choice for main was the turbot, and consisted of around four plates, including
  • seared petite bateau of turbot steak, braised in a foamy butter with citronella, melissa and ajowan; decorated with gambreo rosso shrimps flavoured with Ponddichery pepper  and mousse line ranavalo
  • white borlotti beans and roasted chicken jus and a pig's trotter caillette
  • bouillon of mousseron mushrooms, and
  • gruyere these from Garde with pink radish and blond raisins

As with my entree, there was huge variance of flavours and textures that shouldn't have been allowed to be paired.  I particularly disliked the pig's tortter caillette, which had no place being on a plate with borlotti beans, which were quite bland compared to the intensely flavoured pigs trotter.  It was the texture that really did my head in, soft and mushy, the combination of flavours and textures made me feel queasy to my stomach, although I didn't have the same reaction as the sea urchin.

One thing you don't expect at a Three Michelin Starred restaurant is a 'poo shoot' with a prawn, but was exactly what I found with my gambrel rosso shrimps that accompanied the turbot.  I also found the shrimps to be undercooked, and a little slimy as a consequence.  Admittedly the foamy butter sauce was delightful, but was the only flavour I could pick up - the turbot being completely tasteless.

The girl also struggled with her entree and main and while I won't get into the details, her view was that by bringing out five or six courses at a time, many of her dishes went cold.  As a consequence, any flavours that started out OK, quickly became inedible as the meal wore on.

Ordinarily when I go to a restaurant, I can find many positives, even when I haven't enjoyed the meal.  I cannot say that about my visit to Pierre Gagnaire.  I actually felt a little violated by the meal, given that it cost just over 750 euro and that we were sitting in a three star restaurant that was rated as one of the best in the world.  There may have been a modicum of redemption if we'd stayed for dessert, but I couldn't face another major disappointment and didn't take the risk. We just wanted to leave and forget.

As we requested our bill and paid, our friendly wait staff, who were clearly feeling a little uncomfortable after taking back numerous plates of food that had hardly been touched, did their best to end the 'experience' on a high.  We were invited to the kitchen to see where the 'magic' happened and it was nice to see the kitchen.....  I had to 'bite my tongue' as I really wanted to ask how they could butcher food as badly as they had.

If you've made it all the way to this point in my blog, then you will be left with the certainty that I didn't enjoy my Pierre Gagnaire experience.

You are right.

Once I finish this post I am promptly going to eradicate the experience from my mind.  All things considered, for me, this was the worst meal of my life.

The food at Pierre Gagnaire

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