Pierre Gagnaire began his professional culinary career when he was fourteen years old. After a summer internship with Paul Bocuse in 1968, he went on to work for Alain Senderens at Lucas Carton in Paris, where he held a number of additional positions. In 1976, he took over as head chef at his family’s restaurant, Le Clos Fleury, in St Etienne, where he was able to keep the restaurant’s Michelin star status. His father retired in 1981, and the family eatery was forced to shut. Pierre Gagnaire built his own restaurant in the same town in 1986, which was awarded two Michelin stars at the time it debuted. It was in the same town in 1992 that he relocated to a renovated art-deco home, and it was there that he earned the ultimate third Michelin star for his imaginative cuisine in 1993.
Running a high-end restaurant in a tiny industrial city in the Massif Central, around 40 miles south-west of Lyon, proved to be a financial hardship, and the company eventually failed in 1996, with Gagnaire declaring bankruptcy on the same day. In the food industry, this sent shockwaves through the industry, since three-star restaurants were not intended to shut as a result of financial difficulties. Gagnaire was not discouraged, and he returned to Paris and created a new restaurant, which earned him back his three Michelin stars within two years. Since then, the financial route has been less bumpy, and he now owns a tiny empire of restaurants in Tokyo, Dubai, Seoul, Hong Kong, Moscow, and Las Vegas, as well as a minority stake in Sketch, a London-based design firm.
The restaurant’s main location is the Balzac Hotel, which is located just off the Champs Elysees. It is located on the ground level of the hotel and has a separate entrance from the rest of the building. You enter the main dining area after passing through a bar, which is carpeted and devoid of music, resulting in low noise levels. Tables are spacious and well spaced, with high-quality white linen tablecloths and napkins; lighting is low, even during the afternoon, but there is a window looking out into the street that lets in some natural light; and there is a window facing the street that lets in some natural light. The fact that Mr Gagnaire is not always present is understandable considering the scope of his worldwide restaurant business. The day-to-day management of the kitchen is in the hands of Thierry Mechinaud and Michel Nave, who have been working with him for many years.
In addition to a tasting meal for €290, there was a low-cost lunch menu for €85 and an intermediate set menu for €150 available. We went for the a la carte menu, and the prices here were nothing if not ambitious, even by the standards of a fine dining establishment in Paris. Starters were around the €140 range, main dishes were much more expensive, and a dessert plate was about the €40 mark. Given the cost of the cuisine, the wine list, which was mostly but not entirely French, was more affordable than one would assume. For example, one basic Corsican wine was available for €32, Artaza Santa Cruz 2002 was available for €59 for a wine that can be purchased in a store for €23, and Chateau de Revelette Grand Rouge 2003 was available for €61 for a wine that can be purchased in a shop for roughly €29. In the top ten, Chianti Classico Giorgio Primo La Massa 2008 was €152, which is significantly less than its retail price of around €72. There were some relative bargains, too, such as Lafon Les Perrieres Mersault 2004, which was priced at €250 but would be difficult to find for less than €275 in a shop. The Prieur 2008 Le Montrachet 2008 cost €938 for a bottle of wine that would have cost roughly €480 in a wine store otherwise. Trimbach Pinot Gris Reserve Personelle 2005 was served to us at a cost of €58, compared to a retail price of around €22.
First, a little potato roll with citrus juice and a foie gras-flavored hazelnut were served as an amuse-bouche to get the party started. Little shrimps in tomato jelly were served next, followed by tuna tartare with squid ink and pike mousse served on a lemon tuile as an entree. These were really nice rather than spectacular, however the tuna with squid ink was by far the best (on average, roughly 18/20 nibbles, with the tuna getting the most attention due to its delicious flavor).Guests may choose from three different breads: a milk roll with a nice soft texture, a seaweed roll that I found to be less appealing, and a very outstanding traditional baguette (19/20 average). There were even more amuse-bouches to be found. A salad of lemon, almonds, grapefruit, and celery was wrapped in a delicate edible potato net. The dish was served cold. Pear and Gorgonzola ice cream was served with vodka granita, and a miniature haddock soufflé was served with white cabbage, with the combination of flavors and textures combining really well. The menu also included a variety of desserts. There was a lovely dish of new season Luberon asparagus with redcurrant and horseradish, with the taste of the asparagus being particularly impressive, but the greatest meal of the night was a spicy mussel with squid and radish, with the shellfish having outstanding texture (average 19/20).
Lobster was served as the first “real” starter. According to the Gagnaire manner, this was served in a variety of little plates, each of which had many variants on the core constituent part. In one preparation, the lobster was roasted and seasoned with lemon, ginger, and baby bok choi, among other ingredients. There was a mousseline of lobster on top of a lobster claw, and a foundation of wonderful cauliflower served on top of the lobster claw. The lobster soup, which was served with salsify and seaweed toast, had a wonderfully powerful flavor. A little dish of lemon, olive oil, ginger, and honey, as well as a cardamom and banana ice cream, were served as accompaniments. The lobster itself was very delicious, precisely cooked and with a wonderful sweet flavor, which was enhanced by the combination of lemon and ginger, which was especially effective. Despite the fact that all of these aspects seem to be perplexing, there was no dispute about the sheer quality of the shellfish and its preparation, with the bisque itself being a genuinely memorable dish (20/20).
Scallops were also available in a variety of shapes and sizes. Brittany scallops presented with carrot, slow-melted sorrel, coral, and carob molasses were a delicious accompaniment to the scallops. A roasted scallop was served with lovage and a little bowl of artichoke soup with a dash of spice on the side. Another variation used scallops marinated in apple juice, rhubarb, and cider. One of the little side dishes was sea urchin royale, which was served with a delightfully delicious crab and basmati rice seasoned with jasmine, yuzu broth, and citrus as an accompaniment. The scallops were of excellent quality and were perfectly cooked (19/20), and the sauce was delicious. The crab dish, on the other hand, was outstanding in its own right (20/20).
The langoustine was served roasted over a bed of soft puy lentils with a garnish of broccoli on top of the dish. There was a consommé of langoustines, seaweed, and plankton on the menu as well. Ggrilled langoustine with sage was served with enoki mushrooms and stollen, which were both delicious accompaniments. It was also grilled and seasoned with barberry, an ingredient that is more often seen in Persian cuisine than in French cuisine. There was also hollyberry brandy, berries, and turnip with the langoustine tartare. On the side, there were really delicate pommes soufflés with a hint of sumac flavoring them (a north African spice). Even with so many variants, the quality of the shellfish itself stood out, the combinations were novel and successful, and the pommes soufflés alone were spectacular (20/20).
In addition to wild sea bass, the dish included Perigord black truffle, pea puree, and a tiny, ultra-thin disc of potato. There was also more black truffle served on the side, this time with grapefruit, which was surprisingly good. However, the star of the show for me was the wonderfully delicate potato disc, albeit the sea bass (which was between 19/20 and 20/20 in color) was also excellent.
Dessert was a pistachio soufflé that was just delicious, with the flavor of the Sicilian pistachios coming through beautifully. It was served with green apple ice cream and gingerbread. There was a lemon jelly, an iced bombe flavored with kirsch and kumquats, and even a soup made with coconut milk, shredded green mango, and a pinch of coriander to round things off. The texture of a pistachio macaroon was exquisite, and it was served beside a lovely dacquoise cake with apple (20/20).
I choose from the dessert option, which consisted of a plethora of little pleasures. Among the desserts were a wonderful jelly of kumquat, mango, and frozen grapes, a date jelly, caramelized hazelnuts with papaya, milk chocolate with caramel, and an Armagnac, orange, and quince paste, among other things. There was a jelly of orange, grapefruit, bergamot, limoncello, and coriander, as well as a chestnut Chantilly with rum and chocolate parfait, among other things…. Red pepper, cucumber, and saffron were served with the coconut milk. There was a variation on the traditional Christmas meal Buche de Noel, this time made with vanilla and a dash of black truffle. It was delicious. Among this galaxy of little sweets were soft butter beans served with passion fruit, pear, and liquorice ice cream, an unusual-sounding mix of flavors that worked well together. It was a wonderful pastry filled with caramelised pistachios, pistachio ice cream, and Venezuelan chocolate (20/20), and it was delicious.
By now, you’ve probably figured out that Gagnaire’s cooking technique is sophisticated and imaginative, with each basic item being prepared in a variety of ways and served with a variety of accompaniments. What should have been an overly complicated jumble in worse hands really works here. Of course, the ingredients were of the highest quality, and the technical aspects of the cooking were immaculate, but I was always amazed by how beautifully apparently impossible combinations of flavors worked together, sometimes to dramatic results. There are just a few of chefs in the world who can pull off meals of this intricacy and inventiveness while still producing dishes that are really delicious.
The service was perfect, and the servers were pleasant, knowledgable, patient, and charming in their interactions with customers. Such a dining experience, I believe, is priceless, but it comes with a very real and considerable price tag attached to it. Even with a small bottle of wine and a couple of more glasses of wine shared between the two of us, the bill came to €509 (£419) per person, which was quite a substantial price. At the very least, the dinner experience was as memorable as the bill in this instance. This is, without a doubt, culinary excellence at its finest.
Cuisine Type: Creative
Parfums de terre
Côte de veau du Limousin à l’absinthe
Le grand dessert
Address: 6 rue Balzac, Paris, 75008, France
Phone: +33 1 58 36 12 50
Website: Pierre Gagnaire Official Site
Hours: Closed: 7-31 August, Saturday, Sunday
Michelin Stars: 3