When we visited Pierre Gagnaire’s restaurant inside the Hotel Balzac in Paris recently, there was quite the commotion. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of our favourite French chef winning his third Michelin star, a small army of former chefs arrived for lunch and a family portrait outside 6 Rue Balzac in the 8th arrondissement. Each of them had recently added a “homage to Gagnaire” to the menu of their respective restaurants around France, featuring a product that they first learnt to work with during their time with him at his restaurants in Saint Etienne, or at Pierre Gagnaire at the Hotel Balzac. Such is the devotion that the man commands.
Pierre Gagnaire earned his first Michelin star in 1976. His Paris restaurant – the eponymous Pierre Gagnaire – currently has three. He has designed egg cups for Alessi and knives for Puiforcat. Gagnaire’s restaurants hold 12 Michelin stars across the world, with kitchens in Tokyo, Dubai and – perhaps our favourite – Sketch in London, the fantastical and fabulous multi-storey restaurant he opened with Mourad Mazouz back in 2002.
While we love Sketch, there’s nothing like a visit to Gagnaire’s Paris base. This is where to come to see waiters on all fours, picking up bits of hay from the floor with huge silver spoons – remnants from some particularly conceptual dish that has shed a few strands of its presentation while sizzling on the way to its table. In Gagnaire’s restaurant, you expect the unexpected.
This is where to come to see waiters on all fours, picking up bits of hay from the floor with huge silver spoons – remnants from some particularly conceptual dish that has shed a few strands of its presentation while sizzling on the way to its table
He bristles at the “molecular” label these days, which is fair enough – there aren’t the peculiar experiments with the dry ice and illusions that you’d find in the food Disneyland of San Sebastian. But there’s no escaping the science of Gagnaire’s food: he experiments with texture, and often temperature, like no one else. He’s a visionary. He can often be found on Skype with his chefs in their kitchens in far flung corners of the globe, his eyes closed, imagining the results of their work via description, and then requesting a little more or less seasoning, or other adaptations.
On our most recent visit to Pierre Gagnaire Paris, we opted for a stripped down three-course lunch menu, which doesn’t really serve as the most extravagant expression of his cooking and its presentation, but features some undeniably classic Gagnaire touches. At other tables in the room – decorated with torn pages from books, attached to walls and painted over, palimpsest-style, by interior designer Carolyn Quartermaine – there were executives having indulgent three hour lunches, and a single table for one (how fabulous! how decadent!).
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The “Market Menu” consisted of luxury brasserie fare, bookended with the quintessential Gagnaire flounce: a table full of “pocket cocktails” included a dish with strawberry, pepper, slow-melted grapefruit and avocado served on a magnetic bowl and saucer. A lovely small bite of bone marrow with “dregs of wine with horseradish” had an appealing bitterness from its green leaves. A main dish of white asparagus with chicken quenelles with tiny wild mushrooms was the nicest M&S en croute in the world, followed by fish with thyme flower and pork loin – all predictably delightful stuff, if lacking somewhat in the visual fireworks that you may expect from the full tasting menu. That said, the afternoon rounded off with “Les Desserts Pierre Gagnaire”, which is enough reason to come to this dining room in the first place: after some colourful, impossibly sugary pre-desserts, the table is filled with small bowls of ornate, brightly coloured puddings, each with its own refined twist. Our favourite was the apple ice cream dish with apple in tandoori. Elsewhere there was a gorgeous square of chocolate cake with raspberry jelly, almond and liquorice; and coffee parfait with caramel and roasted apricot and an explosion of vanilla flavour.
It’s also worth noting that Pierre Gagnaire Paris has a spectacular wine list – we had a non-vintage Pierre Peters champagne that was gently priced, and rare to find in restaurants outside of France.
There are those who will tell you that Pierre Gagnaire’s restaurant is the very best in Paris. We certainly agree that it’s in the top five. What always impresses us about Gagnaire’s cooking is the energy and joy that he clearly finds in the creation of his dishes, and his international outlook. This is fine dining and haute gastronomy, and this is Paris, but it isn’t stuffy – it is exuberant. On his way to the door after the lunch service, Gagnaire said goodbye to an Hermès-clad Japanese couple and told them how excited he was to be returning to Tokyo shortly. He clearly meant it – for Gagnaire, food is clearly a real adventure, and no amount of Michelin stars could make it any more exciting. C
Pierre Gagnaire, 6 Rue Balzac, 75008 Paris, France
pierre-gagnaire.com; +33 1 58 36 12 50