Would monsieur care for five desserts or eight, the waiter asked more than two hours into dinner at Pierre Gagnaire in Paris, a meal that had featured five amuses-bouche in addition to some dozen plates of food.
Eight please, I said, assuming that we were talking about miniature distillations of powerful flavors, the culinary equivalent of a world in a grain of sand. The reality was more substantial: Four plates arrived, and they weren’t tiny. One contained two jellies (tomato, verbena) and prune sorbet.
I must have looked shocked. The waiter, noting my baffled expression, attempted reassurance: “I’m bringing the other four desserts after these,” he said, with a smile.
Gagnaire isn’t for the fainthearted. It’s not so much the quantity of food. While the servings are plentiful, the portions aren’t large, and the dishes aren’t especially rich. The starter on the tasting menu -- skate wing in a lovage jelly with citrus fruit and coriander and diced peppers -- was as clean and fresh as a bright autumnal morning.
The second course, prawns and cockles with seasonal vegetables in a champagne sauce, was perfectly balanced, the sweetness of the sauce drawing together the elements from earth and sea with the finesse of a “Strictly Come Dancing” pro. (That’s “Dancing With the Stars” if you’re in the U.S.)
Gagnaire’s cuisine challenges by the intensity of the experience and the boldness of the combinations. Even before starting on the menu, there are waves of plates: clams; souffle buckwheat pancake with sorrel leaf of white cabbage; whiting with bone marrow; crab with fennel marmalade and lemon verbena; stewed oxtail with slow-simmered leeks and a dash of sesame oil.
You probably won’t like everything. I won’t rush back for a kidney, avocado, rhubarb, parsley and sage combination that was, for me, a flavor too far. (The menu is entirely in French and those of us whose mastery of that language doesn’t go beyond knowing if your aunt’s pen is on your uncle’s desk may struggle.) Service is charming, attentive and not snooty.
I would cross the Channel any time for Gagnaire’s riff on mushrooms. The skill and mastery of technique he demonstrates is impressive. What matters, though, is flavor: how he manages to draw out the essence of the ingredients while employing different temperatures and textures.
What arrives on your plate is the product of considerable experimentation yet you’re not the guinea pig so much as the cat that gets the cream, or, in this case, the ice cream in vanilla, peach, toffee and licorice varieties; and the sorbets, flavored with lime, blackcurrant, red fruits, yogurt, raspberry and green apple. I haven’t mentioned the paste of apple spiced with cinnamon wrapped in rosemary jelly with black-olive powder and roasted-flour shortbread, nor the multicolored almond paste, candied angelica macerated in Chartreuse herbal liqueur.
The room, with its dark woods and subdued lighting, is as restrained as the food is exuberant. Gagnaire combines a serious approach to cooking with an appreciation that food is about enjoyment if you aren’t among the hungry and dispossessed. The Menu Pierre Gagnaire is priced at 265 euros ($378) before tax, service and matching wines.
(I ran into the chef in London at the Frieze Art Fair venue of Sketch, the London restaurant that he partly owns. Gagnaire talked with the staff and greeted diners, though when it came to trying the food, he ate alone.)
There’s a debate in the food business -- well, it’s a popular topic in London and New York -- about whether French gastronomy is in terminal decline. I would like to contribute two words to help balance any negativity: Pierre Gagnaire.
Pierre Gagnaire, 6 Rue Balzac, Hotel Balzac, Paris 75008. Information: http://www.pierre-gagnaire.com/index-fr.htm or +33-1-5836-1250.
The Bloomberg Questions
Cost? The tasting menu is 265 euros ($378).
Sound level? Hushed. Below 70 decibels.
Inside tip? Skip lunch.
Special feature? It’s all about the food.
Will I be back? I wish.
Date place? Yes, for oligarchs.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)