Food & Travel

An American in Paris - Part II

Paris is in the middle of a culinary revolution. These are words not to be thrown around gratuitously, especially given France's tumultuous history. Yet, in the thriving landscape of bistros and brasseries, longstanding casual favorites that have been heralded as the culinary soul of this nation, a new type of restaurant is emerging displaying a wild culinary aesthetic. Part I of this series described several late-night escapades through some of Paris' renowned and most beloved bistro institutions. Pot-au-feu and cassoulet not withstanding, this segment portrays the new profile of Parisian dining: unusual combinations of foreign ingredients and techniques served up in sleek and modern settings. Pierre Gagnaire is one restaurant in particular exemplifying the most extraordinary of this new breed.

It may be a sign of the times; a global coming together, if you will. But as the French business arena develops an increasingly international backdrop, the parade of foreign ingredients mingling with traditional French techniques (and common ingredients being combined in unusual combinations) is inevitable. Culturally speaking, France's standoffishness and strong-willed resistance to change, particularly with respect to cooking, stems from an almost infamous national pride. It is common knowledge that France's culinary heritage has dominated the western dining scene for centuries. Some of the excitement from the emerging culinary battlefield seems to be a backlash in response to this staunch French opposition toward change. Another element clearly signifies the restaurateurs and chefs readiness to elevate food to a certain level of entertainment and the dining public's willingness to embrace it.

Traditional and familiar dining haunts remain much in demand. The classic bistros are thriving, and the last decade, in particular, has seen a resurgence in openings of this style of restaurant. Yet, no one can deny that something different andexciting is happening in Paris. Call it pan-Asian fusion. Call it Afro-Thai. Call it whatever ethnic cocktail blend you can think of, but definitely call it the new face of Paris! This crop of ultrahip, ultradesigned, and boldly experimental eateries is sending a shock to the rigid sensibility of French diners, while captivating an eager audience craving the bold flavors of the New World. Titillating, briny fruits de mer seafood platters peacefully share the spotlight with a sushi smorgasbord. One table displaying steak au poivre might easily lend some space to Vietnamese spring rolls, miso-glazed turbot, even a Korean kimchi festival. Sweet prawns that once might have surfaced in a typical bouillabaisse can now be easily found steamed with star anise and basil. French chefs seem as comfortable stocking ginger, coconut milk, and sesame oil in their pantries today as they were stocking thyme, leeks, and butter yesterday.

Unleashed from rigidly-defined tradition and freed from noble restrain; this new breed of restaurant is fast becoming a theatrical stage from which creative chefs can audaciously ply their trade. The drama unfolding in the dining room nightly can only begin to match the drama of the décor, the lighting, and the electricity in the air. All this provides a powerfully addictive incentive for diners to flock to these establishments in search of wild eating sprees.

Frequently, beginnings can be rocky and inconsistent. Some of these exquisitely sounding combinations are not as thrilling on the palate as they are to read. Some chefs have an incredibly skilled hand at adopting the foreign ingredients as their own; others are still learning to maneuver their way through the expanding culinary encyclopedia. Amidst this hodge-podge of varying degrees of enthusiasm and talent, one man stands alone, a paragon of perfection: Pierre Gagnaire.

You would be hard-pressed to label his cooking "fusion", however. Gagnaire pulls ingredients virtually out of the air, in a dizzying array of combinations that changes hourly, sometimes it seems, but he is still cooking within the French paradigm. Gagnaire drew attention to his self-named restaurant in working class St. Etienne, near Lyons, both for receiving the coveted Michelin Guide three stars and for the resulting, well-publicized bankruptcy that called into question the validity of the entire Michelin rating system. It must be a tribute to Gagnaire's power of determination, optimism, and perseverance to pursue his dream despite the obviously devastating circumstances. Gagnaire packed his knives and relocated the restaurant to the boutique, belle epoque Hotel Balzac in Paris, a few fashionable blocks from the Champs Elysee. A much-anticipated culinary event, the restaurant regained its stars in a matter of months. As outlandish and gorgeous as the original Pierre Gagnaire had been, the current sleek and sophisticated décor of steely blues, grays, blond woods, and dark metals is a suitable compliment to the striking chef and his brilliant cuisine. As sumptuous as the dining room feels, it cannot possibly detract the diner's attention from the performance about to unfold between the chef and his audience.

And quite a performance it is. An unusual and surprising combination of intricately layered components defines Gagnaire's genius. A function of Gagnaire's culinary presentation is not the aesthetic look of the dish, but rather, all the complexities of the flavors, textures, and hidden treasures sprinkled throughout each creation. Sometimes the concept of his dishes seems bizarre. But always the effect is breathtaking. Gagnaire's cooking is completely intellectual and improvisational. And it is also sensationally delicious. He would probably feel scandalized if he were called an artist rather than a cook. However, those around him seem unabashed in their volunteered raves.

Dinner at Pierre Gagnaire is an intense journey of culinary discovery. It begins with a multitude of tiny amuse-bouches, brought to the table four at a time. It might be a drop of sublime carrot soup or a chilled crab and cucumber cream. It might be a few gougeyres, those aristocratic kin of the cheese puff, or a sliver of Scottish salmon dabbed with cherry chutney. Whatever treat the chef bestows upon you, it will always be an array of seasonal splendors that signal the palate, "You are about to feast on something unique."

Over the course of several visits, the menu was different on each occasion. One menu in particular commenced with a chaud-froid (a combination of chilled and warm ingredients) of plump and superbly fresh langoustines, served with an almond caramel and fresh corn kernels. Already questions were popping into mind. The sweet and savory combination seemed to work despite my cerebral complaint. It is a well-documented fact that the French never eat corn. To find it in such an exemplary setting was amusing and unexpected.

The following course was even more unusual: a gelée de thon, or a chaud-froid of tuna aspic topped with tiny pieces of rouget, black olives, chair de pompadour potatoes and tiny morsels of foie gras! The gelée, an intensely flavored and deeply colored cross between an aspic and a consommé, was served in a stunning bowl with a oversized rim of raised ceramic leaves and concentric circles. The effect was unparalleled. Another evening the gelée course was gelée of chicken studded with poached chicken liver mousse, crab salad and crab roe, fava beans, verveine leaves and dried pumpkin.

The following course, described as biscuit de brochet de pays, was an odd futuristic looking quenelle of pureed pike served with a chilled white asparagus broth, baby garlic and tiny frogs legs. As wild as the dish looked, it was sublime and somehow perfect. On another occasion, the biscuit course was replaced by thin scallop medallions playfully arranged around two different types of squid dabbed with anchovy butter and sancho peppercorns. Appropriate words somehow lack to describe the impression.

The meal was almost interrupted at this point by the arrival of a salad. It certainly could be construed as charlatan. Whoever heard of a salad in the middle of dinner?! But there it was. And it could not have been more suitable. A designer romaine lettuce tossed inunctuous squash dressing, with hidden stashes of spinach puree and roasted tomatoes. The salade course is not always a salad. It could be something as unexpected as delicate beans creamed with a touch of butter and stock, and topped with freshly shaved black truffles and a truffled vinaigrette.

The salad was followed by a sea bass filet topped with thin slices of cured pork fat and drizzled with a frothy oyster emulsion. Another time it was followed by rouget served with rouget mousseline, langoustines, and artichoke cream, all drizzled with a bisque bechamel. Gagnaire's cooking is noticeably punctuated with froths and emulsions that seem to lift the main ingredients closer to the heavens.

The main course of milkfed baby veal with sauteed citrus, sweet onions, apples, cabbage, and grilled jowel fat arrived just in time to dispel any myths about life not getting any better than this. The exemplary cheese course would have been an ample ending to a perfect meal. Perhaps followed by one of Gagnaire's outstanding and unusual cigar choices. But no one could have anticipated the stream of desserts that would assault our table. Beginning with incredible petits fours, notably the cool lime curd tart, the desserts arrived in courses, several at a time, like a procession of beauty pageant contestants, one more seductive than the next: fresh fruit tossed with flowers in a honey aspic; blood orange mousse with candied orange rind; an intriguing trio of sorbets-tamarind, green apple, and saffron yogurt; a severely startling red dessert composed of mixed wild strawberries, coconut and white chocolate cake; seasonally dated chocolates; and a cashew and chocolate something or other to die for.

Realizing that I might have started a stampede for the airline ticket counter with the above descriptions, rightfully so in any case, I must add that Gagnaire's cooking is much sought after. Just as French chefs and restaurateurs covet their Michelin stars, so do French diners their Pierre Gagnaire reservations. But any effort you might make in acquiring a table will be handsomely rewarded. And the next time you find yourself in Paris, stray from the beaten path of tradition and opt for a funky meal in one of those "new" French restaurants helping to usher Paris into the postmodern era.

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