Amazing Combinations, Remarkable Presentations, Flavorful Surprises

Paris -- The best restaurant in Paris today? For my palate it is the home of Pierre Gagnaire, the hyperactive, super creative, sometimes off the wall crazy chef who manages to woo us with amazing combinations, remarkable presentations, and most of all, flavorful surprises that please even the most jaded of palates.

I first ran into Gagnaire in the mid-1980. s, when he was a brash young chef working out of a playful skylit restaurant in the town of Saint Etienne in central France. I remember my first meal as though it was yesterday, especially the astonishingly rich chocolate soufflé, so creamy he called it a soup.

He was like a jumping bean, so full of ideas and challenges that just being within earshot of him you felt the energy, excitement, enthusiasm. Your senses went into instant overload.

Some 15 years later, after some not so happy days in another establishment in Saint Etienne, Gagnaire is still working his magic. Like most of us, maturity has brought a bit of sobriety (but not TOO much) and clearer focus on what he is after.

Many adjectives come to mind after a meal in his tranquil, enveloping grey and white Right Bank dining room: Exciting. Intelligent. Generous. Challenging. Audacious.

A while back I told Gagnaire that I thought he was the most intellectual of chefs, because it is hard to tear into a dish of his without thinking of all the elements there (why and how did he come up with the combination of fresh morels in curry powder, paired with frog. s legs with tarragon, écrevisses with vegetables in a chervil pesto) that just looking at the food makes your head spin and question. His response was . But we have all these incredible ingredients at hand, why not use them all?.

But of course you can look at his food both ways , take it at face value (it tastes great, I. ll have another bite), or plunge into the intellectual realm to try get into the mind of the slightly mad scientist.

While he has always dazzled us with his combination, I feel that today has in fact narrowed the focus of his food down to main ingredients, while that lost list of side bars are just that, side bars to uphold and shine light on the ingredient at hand. Thus a main-dish of Turbot paired with leeks and codfish and a juice of highbush cranberries, set off by tiny mackerel in anchovy sauce, is the end really all about that firm, white-fleshed star of the sea from Brittany.

But go, see and taste for yourself, and along the way sample some of the finest wines of the Languedoc, such as a white 1998 Château Estanilles or a hearty 1997 Saint Chinian, Canet Valette, Le Vin Meghani. And don. t forget to fasten your seat belt. It may well be a bumpy and memorable ride.


Pierre Gagnaire
6 rue Balzac
Paris 75008.
Telephone 01 44 35 18 25
Fax: 01 44 35 18 37.
Closed Saturday, Sunday lunch, holidays, and mid-July to mid-August. Credit cards: American Express, Diners Club, Visa. Menus at 5320 francs (lunch only), 960 and 1500 francs. A la carte, 800 to 1000 francs including service but not wine.