Pierre Gagnaire Seoul

1 Sogong-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul, Korea, South

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This outpost of the far-flung Pierre Gagnaire empire is located on the top floor of the Lotte Hotel. From the 35th floor perch there is an understandably fine view over the city. The restaurant opened in late 2008, and the current chef Fredrich Eyrier has been in place since 2012. Mr Eyrier previously worked with some legendary chefs including Roger Verge, Alain Senderens, Bernard Loiseau and with Pierre Gagnaire at his original property in the French countryside in the mid 1990s.

The dining room has vast, generously spaced tables with impeccably ironed white linen tablecloths, and napkins of beautifully soft linen to match. The room is carpeted, so even with the unnecessary muzak the noise levels were low. The room is not particularly well lit, and for reasons that elude me the lighting was dimmed even lower shortly after we sat down. Lighting levels are partly a matter of personal taste, but in these days of Instagram restaurateurs need to think about whether they really want their food to look bad when photographed. If they do not then they need to operate with good lighting in the dining room, even if that is directed spot illumination on to the tables. Consequently there are few usable photos that I have of the food, so you’ll have to do this the old fashioned way and read my descriptions.

You can choose either a tasting menu at KRW 250,000 (£175) or a la carte, or mix and match the two. The carte dishes follow the trademark Gagnaire style of taking a single ingredient and serving it in several different ways. A typical carte dish was priced around KRW 100,000, the range being KRW 65,000 to KRW 140,000.

The wine list had considerable depth in France, but also had classy growers from other important wine growing regions from around the world. Sample labels were Soho Stella Sauvignon Blanc 2016 at KRW 120,000 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for KRW 18,883, Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 at KRW 170,000 compared to its retail price of KRW 42,917, and Leflaive Chassagne Montrachet 2010 at KRW 330,000 for a wine that will set you back KRW 72,100 in a shop. Prestige wines are available for those with the means, such as Kistler Vine Hill 2011 at KRW 424,000 compared to its retail price of KRW 171,669, and Chateau Latour 2004 at KRW 1,970,000 for a label whose current market value is KRW 619,723. Even relatively unfashionable corners of the list brought no relief for the heavy markup levels, with Donnhoff Riesling Trocken 2014 at an egregious KRW 158,000 compared to its shop price of KRW 25,750, so five and a half times its retail price.

The meal began with a tray of nibbles. An almond crumble sable was delicate, a rocket financier pleasant, a little choux pastry with mushroom cream pleasing, a carrot and pea tart good. Best of all was a ham roll with orange marmalade, the combination unusual but effective, the flavour excellent (17/20 average). This was better than a tray of further nibbles presented in a cloud of dry ice: pear with Sauternes, watermelon with Campari, pineapple with Bacardi and strawberry with rum jelly were not bad in themselves but felt jarring - these might be decent as a pre-dessert, but it felt odd to have fruit flavours at this early stage of the meal (14/20 at best). Bread was made from scratch in the kitchen and was excellent, with rye bread, caramel and apricot loaf, Italian bread and even an English muffin very good, but best of all were a classic baguette and country bread (18/20 bread on average).

The first treatment of an ingredient in multiple ways was langoustine, imported from Brittany. This came raw with tiny croutons, as carpaccio with tomato purée, cooked with rocket purée and micro leaves, deep fried inside a cylinder of filo pastry with a tomato-based chutney dip, and cooked with asparagus and a mushroom duxelle. The langoustines themselves were from Brittany and were high quality, and the cooking was very precise. The version with rocket and mushrooms in particular were excellent (18/20).  

Duck and foie gras was similarly done in several different ways. Cured breast of duck came with red dates, toasted walnuts, pear, blue cheese, figs and ruby wine jelly, a complex set of flavours that somehow hung together. A grilled slice of foie gras came with soy caramel and tuna tartare, which tasted a lot better than it sounds, the liver itself having gorgeous texture, the tuna contrasting with its richness. Terrine of foie gras with alternating layers of smoked scallops arrived in a dome that was lifted when served releasing the smoke, and although this was good the level of smokiness was a little more than I would have wished. Better was rilette with Sauternes jelly and ultra delicate sesame crisps. Overall this was 18/20.

Lobster came in the form of lobster tails warmed in butter with a mash of Swiss chard and Gruyere, lobster knuckle in an open ravioli with coral sauce and herbs, the claws roasted with a mildly curried bisque with fruit including pineapple, and with sultanas soaked in sake. This was all very pleasant, but the Canadian lobster, though tender, does not have the quality of flavour of the very best lobster that can be found in, say, the Mediterranean (16/20).

Prime quality Korean beef (which apparently costs over €100 a kilo retail) came as tartare topped with Aquitaine caviar, as pulled strips of oxtail with truffled polenta cream and a little Gruyere, and as tenderloin with Jerusalem artichoke purée and Brussels sprouts and baked onions. This was an excellent dish, the beef having genuinely good flavour, the oxtail in particular lovely and rich (easily 18/20).

Desserts in a top French restaurant are usually something to look forward to, and these turned out to be no exception. Gran Marnier soufflé with vanilla ice cream was superb, the soufflé cooked evenly and having airy texture, the alcohol level nicely controlled. There was also a pastry disc covering some grapefruit, and a vanilla cream with meringues on the side (19/20). A selection plate of desserts comprised five separate miniature desserts. A chocolate disc came on a base of crunchy iced caramel with Muscavado sugar biscuit and confit pear and was excellent, the caramel very well judged (18/20). Raspberry sorbet with lychee and pink burrata cream was also skillfully made, the fruit balancing the burrata nicely (18/20). Vanilla mousse, berry on a biscuit base with pineapple and rum jelly was gorgeous, the fruit combining beautifully with the vanilla (20/20). Yoghurt sorbet came with strawberry water and fraisier cake (a whisked egg sponge with creme patisserie and strawberries) and was an object lesson in high end French patisserie, the cake superb, the fruit in just the right proportion to balance the richness of the creme patisserie (20/20). Finally there was a chocolate sponge topped with chocolate ganache surrounded by caramel jelly, a very fine chocolate combination (19/20).

Coffee came from a Nespresso machine, accompanied by a handmade hazelnut chocolate, caramelised pistachio, chocolate almond cookie, raspberry and chocolate ganache, banana marshmallow with frozen banana and lime jelly, and finally hibiscus jelly with lemongrass "chiffon". I was less taken by the last of these, but the almond cookie in particular had dazzling texture and flavour, and these were all made with an evidently high level of technical skill (19/20).

The bill came to KRW 681,000 for two, so £239 a head, with pre-dinner drinks and a bottle of Donhoff Riesling to share. Service was classy, led by Loic Henriet, who worked in France and also at Helene Darroze at The Connaught for six years. Topping up was faultless, and the waiters were patient and professional.

Overall this was a classy meal. The pastry section was top of the range, and could comfortably operate in any three star restaurant. The savoury courses showed excellent technique, with the only real limitations brought about by ingredient availability e.g. the Canadian lobster. Korea has some good ingredients such as local beef, but vegetable availability is limited e.g. there is just one variety of potato in Korea, and just one type of apple. This puts constraints on even the most technically adept kitchen. The two Michelin stars here are thoroughly deserved.

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