Not that I have ever been asked, but if I was ever asked to name three grey bearded wizards, I’d probably say Dumbledore, Gandalf and Gagnaire.
The word “wizard” gets bandied about a lot these days when talking about chefs, especially the likes of Heston Blumenthal, Grant Achatz, Ferran Adrià and, of course, Pierre Gagnaire. The creations of these virtuoso chefs are typically influenced by ‘molecular gastronomy’ - a term that was coined by Gagnaire’s long time associate, the inspirational French chemist Hervé This.
‘Foods To Try Before You Die’ came up with an interesting mathematical method for ‘How to choose a three-star Michelin restaurant in Paris’ (see here) – whilst I find this an informative and interesting read, for me, there was only ever one choice.
Of course, I had heard the name before but from seeing him on series two of Great British Menu at the ‘Ambassadors Dinner’ in the British Embassy in Paris and again, in series three, at London's Gherkin for ‘The Banquet’ hosted by Heston to celebrate the best of British, it appeared to me that even amongst the world’s culinary elite that there was a magical aura around Gagnaire that the other chefs seemed to respect – a true legend.
It was these ‘GBM’ appearances that prompted our visit(s) to Gagnaire’s London outpost Sketch last year (see here), which in turn made our desire to visit his eponymous three-Michelin-starred Parisian flagship restaurant even stronger – despite recently slipping to number sixteen, the fact that Gagnaire has ranked amongst the top three in the world on the Restaurant Magazine’s 50 Best restaurants list and appears in Les Grandes Tables du Monde also helped cement the deal.
When telling people that I planned to eat at Gagnaire there were two main responses: one being, that when 'on form' the food could be peerless but to expect some dishes to be 'a bit strange' (strange has never bothered me). The most common response however was usually, 'Do you know how much that is gonna cost?'
The cost was certainly an issue and being able to justify possibly spending close to £600 on a meal for two (before drinks) was not a decision I took lightly. To date, my number one restaurant experience remains Heston's The Fat Duck - for the money we would spend at Gagnaire we could have gone back there twice!
People advised us to forget the three star biggies and check out a number of two or one star places instead (and even some un-starred trendy spots around town) – this is very good advice and at one point I gave in and crossed Gagnaire off the list.
Not for long though, as those 'You only live once' 'Life is for living' 'I could be hit by a bus tomorrow' moments helped it to creep back on. Too much “umming” and “ahhing”? What the heck… booked! (As if there was ever any doubt.)
So the simple question: 'Was it worth it? Simple answer… 'Oh, yes!'
We arrived to be confronted with a grand set of doors emblazoned with the Gagnaire ‘table’ logo. I’ve read a few reviews that have criticised the décor – personally I loved the modern styling in warm brown graduations with big bold art works and flower arrangements.
Extraordinarily innovative and progressive food would perhaps not seem as right in a typically French 3-star dining room based on Louis the ‘whatever’ old school Parisian grandeur.
As a blogger, thinking thoughts about how the lighting will affect the photographs is a downside - the ‘City of Love and Lights’ however, came up trumps with lamps providing just enough light for decent enough pictures (in most cases) without detracting from the atmospheric candle-lit glow befitting a romantic meal.
Gagnaire's restaurants, including Sketch and Gaya have a tendency to present several small tasters together, especially evident with the amuse bouche and desserts. As an eater this is exciting as every course makes you feel like a kid in a sweet shop, not knowing what to try first. As a blogger it's a nightmare trying to remember all the explanations from the waiter - especially when there is likely to be some unusual sourcing or pairing of ingredients.
According to fellow three-star chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, "The amuse-bouche is the best way for a great chef to express his big ideas in small bites." Obviously someone with lots of big ideas, in my mind, Gagnaire is the amuse bouche master:
One consisted of a fresh tropical tasting salad featuring a small dice of heart of palm and grape. Another saw a squid ink biscuit sat atop a thimble sized pot containing a tapenade-like concoction of black olive, carrot and tandoori spices. There was also blackberry set between white meringue; a ginger and almond biscuit adorned with a beetroot wafer; and anchovy cream with rocket and a tiny toadstool made from a nut.
The bread offering consisted of: the same delightful little brioche that we had enjoyed earlier in the day at Gaya (see here); a crispy 'traditional bread' that had exceptional flavour and chestnut breads – these were tasty but strangely they appeared to be a little burnt around the edges (obviously by design).
Accompanying the usual 'salted butter' we were also presented with a 'citrus butter' that contained lemon, lime, orange and grapefruit – I was not convinced by the citrus offering, you had to be selective as to what courses it would complement.
Crémeux d’araignée de mer, consommé d’omiza au ginseng; tourteau, petits coquillages et cristes marines – consisting of a cocktail of crab meats, including spider crab and two different sizes of clam set over a ginseng infused jelly made with omiza (see Korean omija tea) and a samphire like plant. My wife loved this dish; it was her favourite of the evening.
Lac Léman: mousseline de brochet au savagnin, grenouilles façon Poulette; flan d’ortie aux herbes fraîches. Tranche d’omble-chevalier voilée de lard de Colonnata, légumes racines de printemps au macvin – this dish came in three parts, one, accompanied by root vegetables, starred the Lac Léman (Lake Geneva) Pike; a great tasting sustainable freshwater fish, it’s a shame you don’t see it more often on UK menus.
One thing also rarely seen on UK menu are frog’s legs as many British diners, including my wife, are squeamish when it comes to amputated amphibians – as a result I got to eat two portions of these delicious ‘chickeny’ bites. The leg meat was served off the bone with rich creamy savoury custard. There was also a grassy, herb and nettle salad and mousse.
Carabineros au curry doux Madras, pointe de citron caviar et piquillos; fondue de pamplemousse rosé, avocat et radis croquants; velouté de brebis - Carabinero prawns are famed for their deep red hue and more robust flavour; which thankfully came through with a marriage of Madras spices, avocado, piquillo pepper, dinky slices of radish and the citrusy tang of pink grapefruits and bursts of lemon ‘caviar’. A luscious creamy ewe’s milk velouté was spooned over at the table.
Foie gras de canard Dundee-Pinky, huîtres spéciales au gingembre frais; sorbet tamarillo et bouquet de champignons de Paris aux pousses d’épinard. Marmelade de betterave rouge – another dish with lots of flavours, all seemingly balanced with a wave of Gagnaire’s wand: duck foie gras, oysters, fresh ginger, tamarillo sorbet, spinach, sesame, red cabbage and beetroot marmalade, topped with discs of white Paris mushroom. The tamarillo sorbet was a revelation.
Poulpe, sériole, tripes de morue et piments de Guernica à la manzanilla; cœur de thon de Méditerranée (issu de la pêche raisonnée), artichauts poivrades, aubergine et anchois demi sel – this one of my favourite dishes, featuring: artichoke, aubergine, sweet sherry soaked Guernica pepper, fish (cod and amberjack) with octopus and a sashimi slither of what translates as ‘heart of tuna’ (which I think refers to the cut of the ‘bonito’ fillet as opposed to the actual heart.
Crème d’asperge à la cardamome, raviole de cresson; asperges vertes et blanches, chou cœur de bœuf, mange-tout et mangue thaï – white asparagus is one of my all time favourite vegetables and these were the best I have had. The pasta for the watercress ravioli was also exceptional. (I was less convinced by the presence of the Thai mango purée.)
Also on the plate: green asparagus, ‘chou cœur de bœuf’ (or beef heart cabbage) and mangetout. Finishing the dish, a cardamom infused asparagus cream sauce was theatrically spooned on at the table.
La Corse: Fricassée de cabri poivre vert/vadouvan/miel du désert des Agriates; galette de châtaigne: tricandille, olives noires et cornes d' abondance – this dish featured a number of ingredients that are not often seen on British plates: ‘cornes d' abondance’ are black chanterelle mushrooms that are also known as black trumpet or trumpet of death; ‘tricandille’ or chitterlings are intestines and ‘vadouvan’ is French variant on a masala like spice mix, popularised in their colonial territories in India.
Along with the above ingredients, the main component of goat had also been stewed with green pepper, honey and black olives; topped with leaf shaped chestnut biscuits and surrounded by vibrant peaks of a radicchio emulsion – the dish tasted great but did seem quite autumnal, considering we were tasting the brand new spring menu.
The cheese course was an interesting one, Trois fromages fermiers au lait de vache: Vieux gruyère de Garde - Coup de corne - Morbier. Pâte de coing à l’alisier, pousses de soja au vinaigre de riz. Gelée de gentiane aux perles de chocolat blanc – the three cheeses: an aged gruyère, a morbier and, a new one on me, ‘coup de corne’ were all delightful.
The white chocolate and bean sprouts added a pleasing, yet different dimension. However, the gentian jelly was incredibly bitter and tasted very medicinal, even when tempered by the fresh yoghurt - it just didn't work for me.
Les desserts Pierre Gagnaire – a feast of flavours and techniques to tantalise the taste buds. The miniature works of art included such delights as: a ‘macaron’ with orange and orange gelée; coffee jelly with coffee meringues and lime sorbet; a disc of sponge topped with pear, caramelised almonds and ice cream drizzled with a balsamic caramel and strawberries with coconut textures and ‘bubblegum’ ice-cream.
My favourite of the desserts consisted of a clever dark chocolate concoction with cherries, dates and hazelnut - creatively prepared and beautifully presented. In a playful twist, what looked like one of the discs of white mushroom from earlier turned out to be a sweet sugary marzipan type creation.
To finish the meal, a well prepared green tea presented in fine Limoges porcelain by JL Coquet. Service throughout was faultless.
At the beginning of this post I referred to Monsieur Gagnaire as a culinary wizard – unlike Dumbledore and Gandalf, his enchanting food proves that magic does exist.