St. Etienne has the feeling of an industrial town on its way down. But although it's bleak and gray with '60s- and '70s-style concrete blocks piercing the skyline, within this urban wasteland is a gastronomic oasis--Pierre Gagnaire.
The restaurant, named for its 43-year-old chef/proprietor, was the only new entry in the 1993 Michelin Guide--France's restaurant bible--to receive three stars. Since the guide bestowed the award, gourmets have been flocking to the kitchen of Gagnaire, who turns out some of the most complex, innovative dishes in French cuisine.
About 40 miles southwest of Lyon, the restaurant is located in an imposing white-stone building originally built for a wealthy pharmacist in the 1930s. The Art Deco palace has been called a white elephant by some design critics, and although it does stand out from the rest of the city's environment, it has a cool, sophisticated look. Inside, a stone staircase takes you up to the main dining room, decorated in minimalist style with ivory walls, pale-colored panels and glass partitions. A reported $1.1 million went into the interior design, which has the look and feel of an art gallery, although there are few paintings on the walls. Gagnaire obviously wants his customers to focus on his food.
It certainly takes a lot of concentration. His food is so multidimensional that it is difficult to figure out what's on the plate. Despite the mystery, the tastes and textures are sublime. No fewer than six different amuse-gueule arrived a few minutes after I finished ordering from the menu. They included such delicacies as tiny sautéed fillets of perch covered with green beans and accentuated with herbs and spices, a small spring roll made of pasta and filled with herbs, vegetables and Indian spices, a gelatin of potently flavored tomato confit and small pieces of toast with tomato and chives. There all had intense, contrasting flavors: sweet and sour, spicy and cool. Plus, they had a mixture of textures: crispy and soft, viscous and light.
The tiny appetizers were followed by a course of sautéed frogs' legs and tiny squid served with a seared, pan-fried tuna steak and seasoned with herbs, which gave a kaleidoscope of flavors and textures. A saddle of roasted lamb was simple enough, but it had been smothered with sage, thyme and lemon during the roasting, which infused those flavors into the meat.
The cheese course was fantastic; most cheese shops in France do not have such a large selection. For instance, there were no fewer than two dozen different goat cheeses. But save room for dessert. Gagnaire is a master with fruit, making light yet intense desserts. Peach ice cream with rhubarb, and grapefruit jelly with yogurt ice cream flavored with green tea were delicate yet vivid on the palate and refreshing after a multicourse meal.
Gagnaire has a good wine list with all the classics from Bordeaux and Burgundy, although he could use more mature vintages. It might be wiser to stick with his Rhône selection such as the white Hermitages from Chave or E. Guigal or the reds of the northern Rhône from Jaboulet or Chapoutier. For about $60, you can find an excellent bottle. However, be warned: Gagnaire's food is not easy to marry with wine. I tried both a young premier cru Chablis from Raveneau and a fresh red Bourgeuil from Druet, and neither wine seemed to go with what I ate. There's just too much going on in the plate to find the perfect match with wine--a fact that Gagnaire admits.
Complexity ran throughout his dishes. While some chefs in France are preparing more simple, straightforward cuisine with an emphasis on ingredients, Gagnaire is moving toward the other extreme. His food is a montage of ingredients and cultures. Not only does he challenge himself and his cooks in his restaurant, he equally arouses the palates and minds of his customers.
After your meal, it's almost a relief to walk downstairs to the bar and enjoy a fine Havana. A dozen or so boxes of cigars arrive from the cellar on a silver platter including all the Cohibas, plenty of Romeo y Julietas (Churchills are the best), 898 Partagas and the rarely seen Sancho Panza Non Plus. It's slightly a shame that Gagnaire prefers his guests to smoke in the bar rather than in the dining room, but maybe it's better that way. It's good to get away from your table and take a break to reflect upon your meal over coffee and a fine Havana.