Pierre Gagnaire started his culinary career at the age of fourteen. In 1968 he had a summer internship with Paul Bocuse and, amongst other roles, in 1974 worked for Alain Senderens at Lucas Carton in Paris. In 1976 he took over the head chef role at his family’s restaurant, Le Clos Fleury in St Etienne, retaining its existing Michelin star. In 1981 his father retired and the family restaurant closed. Pierre Gagnaire opened his own restaurant in the same town, gaining two Michelin stars by 1986. He moved to a restored art-deco house in the same town in 1992 and gained the ultimate 3rd Michelin star for his inventive cooking in 1993.
Running a high-end restaurant in a small industrial city in the Massif Central, some 40 miles south west of Lyon, was a financial challenge, and in 1996 the business folded, Gagnaire declaring bankruptcy. This caused shockwaves in the food world: three star restaurants were not supposed to close in the face of financial pressure. Undeterred, Gagnaire returned to Paris and opened a new restaurant there, gaining back his three stars within two years. Since then the financial road has been smoother, and he now has a small empire of restaurants in Tokyo, Dubai, Seoul, Hong Kong, Moscow and Las Vegas, as well as a part ownership of Sketch in London.
The flagship restaurant is situated in the Balzac hotel just off the Champs Elysee. It is on the ground floor of the hotel and has its own dedicated entrance. You walk past a bar into the main dining room, which is carpeted and eschews music, so has low noise levels. Tables are large and generously spaced, with high quality white linen tablecloths and napkins; lighting is quite subdued, even during the daytime, though there is a window onto the street letting in some natural light. Mr Gagnaire is of course not here all the time given the scale of his global restaurant empire. The day-to-day running of the kitchen is left to his long time associates Thierry Mechinaud and Michel Nave.
A tasting menu was priced at €290, along with a cheap lunch menu at €85 and an intermediate set menu at €150. We chose a la carte, and the prices here were nothing if not ambitious, even by Paris fine dining standards. Starters were around the €140 mark, main courses even more, a dessert plate €40. Given the pricing of the food, the mainly but not exclusively French wine list was cheaper than might be expected. At the low end of the list one basic Corsican wine was available at €32, Artaza Santa Cruz 2002 was €59 for a wine that you can find in a shop for €23, and Chateau de Revelette Grand Rouge 2003 at €61 for a wine that retails at around €29. Higher up the list, Chianti Classico Giorgio Primo La Massa 2008 was €152 compared to a retail price of around €72, and there were some relative bargains too: Lafon Les Perrieres Mersault 2004 was priced at €250, yet you would struggle to buy it in a shop for under €275. Prieur 2008 Le Montrachet 2008 was €938 for a wine that would set you back around €480 in a wine shop. We drank Trimbach Pinot Gris Reserve Personelle 2005 at €58 compared to a retail price of around €22.
An initial nibble comprised a little roll of potato and yuzu, along with a hazelnut flavoured with foie gras. This was followed by little shrimps in tomato jelly, a piece of tuna with squid ink and pike mousse on a lemon tuile. These were very good rather than dazzling, though easily the best was the tuna with squid ink, which had lovely flavour (on average around 18/20 nibbles, more for the tuna).
Three breads were offered: a milk roll with lovely soft texture, a seaweed roll that I was less fond of, and a really superb classical baguette (19/20 average). Yet more amuse-bouches appeared. A salad with lemon, nuts, grapefruit and celery was wrapped in a delicate edible potato net. Pear and Gorgonzola ice cream came with vodka granita, and there was a tiny haddock soufflé paired cleverly with white cabbage, the contrast of flavor and textures working very well. There was a pretty dish of new season Luberon asparagus with redcurrant and horseradish, the flavor of the asparagus strikingly good, but best of all was a spicy mussel with squid and radish, the shellfish having superb texture (average 19/20).
The first “proper” starter was lobster. As is the Gagnaire style, this arrived in an array of little dishes with several variations on the main ingredient element. In one form the lobster was roasted and flavoured with lemon, ginger and baby bak choi. There was a mousseline of lobster placed on top of lobster claw and a base of superb cauliflower. Lobster bisque had remarkably intense flavour, served with salsify and seaweed bread. Accompaniments were a little dish of lemon, olive oil, ginger and honey, and a cardamom and banana ice cream. The lobster itself was absolutely superb, perfectly cooked and having beautiful sweet flavour, the pairing with the lemon and ginger particularly effective. All these elements sound potentially confusing, but there was no doubting the sheer quality of the shellfish and its preparation, with the bisque on its own truly memorable (20/20).
Scallops also came in several forms. Slices of Brittany scallop were served with carrot, slow melted sorrel, coral and carob molasses. A roast scallop came with lovage and a little artichoke soup with a hint of spice. A further variant was scallop with apple juice, rhubarb and cider. An accompaniment was superbly sweet crab with basmati rice spiced with jasmine, yuzu broth and clementine; another little side dish was sea urchin royale. The scallops were of impeccable quality, flawlessly cooked (19/20). The crab dish was remarkable in its own right (20/20).
Langoustine came roasted on a bed of tender puy lentils and a garnish of broccoli. There was a consommé of langoustine, seaweed and plankton. Grilled langoustine was flavoured with sage and came with enoki mushrooms and stollen. It also came seared and seasoned with barberry, an ingredient more often seen in Persian cooking than French. Langoustine tartare came with hollyberry brandy, berries and turnip. On the side were remarkably delicate pommes soufflés flavoured with a little sumac (a north African spice). Throughout all these variations the quality of the shellfish itself shone through, the pairings unusual and effective, and the pommes soufflés alone were dazzling (20/20).
Wild sea bass came with black truffle from Perigord, pea puree and a delicate, ultra-thin disc of potato. On the side was further black truffle paired with grapefruit, which worked surprisingly well. The star for me was the incredibly delicate potato disc, though of course the sea bass was beautifully cooked (between 19/20 and 20/20).
For dessert, pistachio soufflé was superb, the flavour of the Sicilian pistachios lovely, served with green apple ice cream and gingerbread. There was a lemon jelly, iced bombe flavoured with kirsch and kumquats, and even a soup of coconut milk with grated green mango and a little coriander. A pistachio macaroon had dazzling texture, alongside a delicate dacquoise cake with apple (20/20).
I had the dessert selection, a vast array of miniature delights. There was a lovely jelly of kumquat, mango and frozen grapes, a date jelly, caramelized hazelnuts with papaya, milk chocolate with caramel and a paste of Armagnac, orange and quince. There was a jelly of orange, grapefruit, bergamot, limoncello and coriander, along with a chestnut Chantilly with rum and chocolate parfait. Coconut milk came with red pepper, cucumber and saffron. There was a variant on the Christmas dish Buche de Noel, this time with vanilla and a little black truffle. One of two stars of this galaxy of little desserts were tender butter beans with passion fruit, pear and liquorice ice cream, an odd sounding flavour combination that worked brilliantly. The other was a lovely pastry with caramelised pistachios, pistachio ice cream and Venezuelan chocolate (20/20).
By now you will have gathered that the Gagnaire cooking style is complex and innovative, with each primary ingredient treated in several ways and with assorted accompaniments. What in lesser hands could be an over elaborate mess here actually works. Of course the ingredients are impeccable and the technical side of the cooking was flawless, but time and again I was surprised at well seemingly unlikely combinations of flavours worked well together, sometimes to striking effect. Very few chefs in the world can pull off dishes of this complexity and innovation and yet produce hugely enjoyable dishes.
Service was faultless, the waiters friendly, knowledgeable, patient and charming. I would like to say that such a dining experience is priceless, but of course it has a very real and substantial price. With a modest bottle of wine and a few additional glasses of wine between two, the bill came to €509 (£419) per person, a hefty sum indeed. At least in the case the dining experience was as memorable as the bill. This is without doubt world-class cooking.
Further reviews: 01st Jun 2004