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Pierre Gagnaire, Paris

Mervyn Rothstein
Posted: January 19, 2004

I had been to France 18 times in 20 years and dined at a half-dozen three-star Michelin restaurants in and near Paris. So when it came time to decide where to spend my 60th birthday, I decided that Trip No. 19 was what I really wanted, with a birthday meal at a three-star I had yet to experience.

My choice was Pierre Gagnaire, the eponymous and crisply elegant shrine of a chef whose name is synonymous with adventure in dining. Gagnaire's own difficult journey to success in Paris has often been told: the renowned chef of a three-star eatery in St.-Etienne, France, near Lyons, that suddenly went bankrupt in the mid-1990s, he relocated to a new culinary home in Paris and soon reclaimed his Michelin trophy.

Patricia Wells, the dean of Paris food critics, has said that his experiments in fusion and modern French cuisine are the most daring and challenging to be found, that his focus on contrasts in color, texture and acidity, his vibrant flavors and his often unusual and sometimes surprising ingredients lift dining to new heights.

So the choice seemed right for someone beginning a new and somewhat daunting decade of life, a landmark in my own journey that has led me to search constantly for the different, the unexpected. And that's what I found. A visit to Pierre Gagnaire can be a life experience. Despite the high cost -- when it comes to diminishing the contents of wallets, Pierre Gagnaire is no different from any other three-star -- at the end of the voyage, I immediately thought about returning. I felt, as I left, that as long as I had a memory, I would remember this day.

The adventure begins on the Rue Balzac, in the Hotel Balzac, just off the Champs-Elysées in the Eighth Arrondissement, down the block from the Arc de Triomphe. The restaurant's modern decor, its dove-gray walls with polished, honey-colored wood, convey a quiet, assured sophistication. The first feeling, added to the expected excitement and anticipation, is a sense of calm, of trust, of knowing you are in good hands. The service is refined and professional, but relaxed and friendly. This may be haute cuisine, but there is no French hauteur, no sign of the Gallic arrogance that can diminish an otherwise sublime restaurant visit. A guest of Pierre Gagnaire -- every guest, familiar or not -- is valued and respected.

At the table, M. Gagnaire likes to surprise, even astonish, with intriguing and unexpected combinations of ingredients. He mixes, and experiments, with the sweet, the savory and the salty, the velvety smooth and the crispy crunch, in small, often astounding bites. Some patrons, and some food critics, have complained that his inventions do not always work. He has acknowledged that possibility, saying that he relies on his patrons' eagerness to be part of his exploration. On this day, each expedition had a happy end.

The first tastes, the amuses-bouches, tiny samples to whet the appetite, signaled what was to come: small carrot and celery sushi that melted instantly; thinly sliced black radish in a sweet, cone-shaped crisp cookie, dipped in brown sugar; a minitart of passion fruit and grapefruit ice.

First courses usually consist of five or six miniplates, arrayed before each diner all at once, to be marveled at and tasted in any order that seems right: a salad of thinly sliced raw artichoke with white mushrooms; minuscule rolls of veal stuffed with microscopic bits of veal liver; a jus of cucumber covering pureed essence of cucumber and topped with pine nuts; velvety, perfect foie gras with mussels and sweet, crunchy bean sprouts.

In the center was the prime dish, a pâté of leeks intertwined with Japanese Wagyu beef. Just behind it was a petite cup of onion soup attached to a plate slanted almost vertically, so the inside of the cup faced the diner. Behind the plate, of course, was a firm white-porcelain support, but at first glance the plate seemed to defy gravity. It was appropriately symbolic of M. Gagnaire's magic — gravity defying, but firmly grounded in the essentials of fine cooking. "The food of the gods," my wife, Ruth, said.

Gagnaire follows this display with main courses that are comparatively simple but display the essence of the product he is turning into genius. My entrée was a filet of chicken with a subtle sauce of Chinese pepper, with one immaculately grilled scallop. As a side dish, I had pieces of chicken leg cooked in citrus and topped with a glowing-white perfect hemisphere of scallop mousse.

The wine list has almost any choice imaginable, at prices that start at about $50 and rise to almost any figure imaginable. A 2001 Gigondas Château de Saint Cosme, at about $75, was mildly fruity, with supremely balanced tannins and a long, strong and pleasing finish. It faultlessly complemented every taste.

Desserts were a symphony of fruit and chocolate, with a special chocolate chestnut pastry on a glass plate inscribed bonne anniversaire in chocolate script for my birthday. (I had let slip the news when I made the reservation, a month earlier.)

A consummate way to end a birthday lunch is with a cigar, and Pierre Gagnaire offers only Cubans, including Hoyo de Monterrey, Upmann, Punch, Partagas, Juan Lopez, Bolivar and Cohiba, including the new Siglo VI. The restaurant's spacious, warm and subtly lighted bar area is set aside for cigars. Diners can repair to a table there for a smoke, coffee -- Jamaican blue mountain is a specialty of the house -- and perhaps a Cognac.

The price of it all is indeed high. Lunch for two, including wine and coffee, was about $340, and dinner can be $500 or more. But was it worth the visit? For me, certainly. When a smiling M. Gagnaire stopped by the table to ask how things were going, it was hard not to jump up and give him a hug. But instead, I just smiled and said, "Extraordinaire!"

Mervyn Rothstein is an editor for The New York Times.

Pierre Gagnaire
6 Rue Balzac, 75008 Paris
Phone: (33)-1-58-36-1250

Go to Cigar Bar Central.

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