Conventional wisdom dictates that if Pierre Gagnaire’s not in the kitchen, don’t go.
I violated this rule, and I paid the price.
But I did so in the company of a veteran and devotee of Gagnaire’s restaurants – he’s been to every one of them: Paris, Bangkok, Hong Kong, London, and Tokyo (which just closed), and has met the man in all of them.
It was comforting to know that Yong shared my disappointment in our meal at Pierre – Gagnaire’s one Michelin-starred restaurant atop the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong.
I have always been skeptical of Pierre Gagnaire.
His wacky and oft shock-inducing food combinations haven’t been the turn off. (If anything, his brand of creativity has attracted me.) His fractured style of service, however – a collection of five or six dishes rotating around a single thought, whim, or theme for each course – has.
I need more focus.
My friend Yong and I concluded as much when our first courses arrived.
Yong’s “La Charcuterie Fine” featured five dishes, as did mine, “La France vue par Pierre Gagnaire” – a total of ten plates crowded on our very cozy deucetop (in addition to our bread plates, wine glasses, water glasses, utensils, butter stand, and assorted ornaments), none of which so much as elicited a smile or savory pause from me.
I have always been skeptical of Pierre Gagnaire.
“Crispy Toast, Soubressade Veloute and Pineapple Marmalade” was a failed attempt to marry ham and pineapples in an awfully strange and failed form: the soubressade sorbet just really didn’t work for me.
Temperature was an issue. Everything was too cold – including some that were meant to be, like my “crab cocktail” – officially named “Vegetable Broth Yabbies” (with celery and Bavaroise Nantua) – which was a poster child for boring shellfish salads. Creamy, jellied, over-chilled, and lifeless, it had very little personality – the yabbies could have been either low-end crayfish, crab, or shrimp; it wouldn’t have mattered.
My “Reblochon Fondue” was a loveless, grey lump of artichoke capped with a thick, rubberized (plasticized?) layer of Reblochon that had been heated and bruléed in the kitchen 30 minutes too early. It was served lukewarm. It really should have been hotter. So should have been my “Snail Beignets” with sauce Meurette, which were not beignets at all. The tempura shell on these tiny batter-fried snails had gone limp from sitting around too much.
Perhaps, we concluded, these dishes would be better received in a progression, which was an instructive realization in case I ever return to a Gagnaire property. It might make for a longer meal and a more tedious job for the kitchen, but at HK$640 per course, I think Gagnaire and/or his chefs should be able to manage it.
The strongest components of our first courses included Yong’s “European Ham Assortment” (Parma, Bellotta, Saint Yriex, colonatta fat and black bacon), which I found quite wonderful, though it didn’t seem to impress him nearly as much. The Bellotta, in particular, was a stand-out, displaying all of the wonderful mustiness of a thoughtfully air-cured ham. It was certainly better than the deli-counter-tasting ham in his “Small Cubes of Cooked Ham,” a packet of salty, watery, pink meat wrapped around a ham salad dressed with a creamy curry sauce and topped with a julienne of celeriac.
The “Foie Gras Soup” (with amontillado, citrus and chili sorbet, black boudin; small grilled sausage) was another decent dish. Or, at least the soup part of it was – a daringly sweet foie gras froth spooned over tiny, silky morsels of black pudding. Th e skewered sausage coins on the side, however, reminded me of canned franks; they were shockingly ordinary.
The only “vue” of France that remotely interested me was the one of a “63-degree Eggs” (croquant spring onion with vodka, buckwheat pancake and noisette butter with Aquitaine caviar.) The overly-chilled cold egg (n.b. singular) and utterly tasteless farmed caviar notwithstanding, I did enjoy the brunoise of summer squashes, which exhibited excellent natural flavor and texture. I didn’t understand the purpose of the buckwheat pancake that essentially turned into a wet nap beneath all of the creamy ingredients.
Given the number of dishes we had, let me pause a moment to map out our menu. CLICK HERE to see the entire set of photos from this meal, or on the hyperlinked course titles for the individual photos.
“La Charcuterie Fine” (HK$480)
Foie Gras Soup
Amontillado, citrus and chili sorbet, black boudin; small grilled sausage.
Small Cubes of Cooked Ham
Creamed curry, celeriac julienne.
Bresse Chicken Pojarsky
European Ham Assortment
Parma, Bellotta, Saint Yriex, colonatta fat and black bacon.
“La France vue par Pierre Gagnaire” (HK$640)
Croquant spring onion with vodka, buckwheat pancake and
noisette butter with Aquitaine caviar.
Vegetable Broth Yabbies
Celery and Bavaroise Nantua.
Grenaille potato salad with savagnin, globe artichoke with walnut oil.
“Onion Gratin” (HK$?)
Served on a rice cream.
Summer truffle “à la croque au sel”
“Girolles and Apricots” (HK$?)
Fresh almonds; juice with tamarind.
“Le Bar de Ligne” (HK$480)
Wild seabass fillet poached and roasted with butter.
1. Brown beer Guinness
2. Smoked tomato jam
3. Lin chi with Coleman’s mustard
Foie Gras Custard
Spelt and chilli from Guernica.
“Le Cochon” (HK$660)
Basque pork from Vallee des Aldudes: roasted with sage; butter and homemade fruit vinegar.
Onion cream with raisins and pistachio.
Candied hazelnuts, grapes, and onion chutney.
Passion fruit sauce and assorted petits fours.
We supplemented the only two two dishes from the tasting menu that appealed to us. They turned out to be the best savory dishes of the evening, which made us wonder if choosing the tasting menu might have been the smarter route to take.*
We both liked the sound of the “Onion Gratin.” It was quite good, a puree of caramelized onions topped with a clear, agar agar-thickened sheet of onion draped with a slice of black truffle and sauced with rice cream.
While I appreciated the thought and theory behind the “Girolles and Apricots” – synergizing the natural apricot aroma in the chanterelles with wedges of sweet, softened apricots – the tamarind in the sauce ran roughshod over everything with its tartness. Pity, the mushrooms and stone fruit were wonderfully cooked, and the fresh almonds were a treat.
Main courses seemed to be much more approachable than our first courses. I conjectured that it had everything to do with the restaurant’s location atop a high-end hotel, which our server seemed to confirm. They needed the “meat” of their menu to appeal to the suits and expense accounts that dominate their dining room.
I did not care for Yong’s “Le Bar de Ligne” at all. I found the fish flavorless and a touch over-poached. It was sauced with a carrot-coloured liquid of unidentifiable origin. I would have been very cranky had that landed in front of me; Yong was a lot kinder to it than I. This course came with “Three Seasonings” (more like condiments), only one of which piqued any interest: a jellied strip of Guinness that was the distilled essence of stout.
His accompanying “Foie Gras Custard” was disappointingly eggy. But the spelt “risotto” underneath it was quite good – the spelt having retained much of its texture.
I enjoyed “Le Cochon” much more – a generous plate of “Basque pork from Vallee des Aldudes,” roasted with sage butter and drizzled with a rich, sweet-tart fruit vinegar (HK$680). The slices were tender and rosy – almost dark enough to be beef – and adequately layered with fat (skirting that upper limit).
The accompanying “Pommes Dauphines” were satisfyingly airy and fluffy. They needed no condiment, the least of which was a tired and overexposed “smoky tomato compote,” making its third appearance at our table (it was also one of the three condiments for Le Bar de Ligne).
The other side dish, a mini “Market Garden Clafoutis,” was, perhaps, my favorite bite of the whole evening. The small, fluffy quiche custard was infused with the earthy flavor of dark greens and harbored a magenta-stained core of cherry (I’m insisting it’s cherry even though the server said rhubarb; it tasted much more like griotte than anything rhubarb could possibly taste like, and the color was certainly darker and richer than shade rhubarb could produce).
The cheese cart rolled around. I wasn’t terribly impressed by their limited selection (the St. Marcellin was embarrassingly under-ripe), but our gluttony got the better of us. Of the five or six cheese we chose to share, the Beaufort and an extremely ripe Valencay (from the Savoie) were my favorite. There was also a buttery Brie layered with black truffles that was decent. The accompaniments were fine – some effervescing grapes, some caramelized onion chutney (suspiciously similar to the onion gratin puree), and candied hazelnuts (by far, my favorite).
Our paths diverged with the desserts. I chose rather conservatively, sticking with roasted apricots, which came beneath a canopy of what appeared to be three shockingly crisp (dehydrated?), tissue-thin rings of cantaloupe (or some such peachy hued melon – hence, the name “Petales de Melon Confit“). A brilliant Albert syrup was poured table-side over the lot. To the side, a generous turn of vanilla ice cream. This was a fantastic dessert. Despite the flat flavor of the ice cream, I thoroughly enjoyed the tart-sweet and hot-cold coupling in this fruit dessert.
“9 Conduit Street” – a curious reference to Gagnaire’s Sketch in London – was a study in green. Yong said he’d had the prototype. Now, more evolved, it appeared as a foamy, pistachio mousse parfait layered with various incarnations of melons (sorbet and soup), green mangoes, and a ballsy injection of parsley, coriander, and arugula. Grassy, fruity, melon-like, this most closely approximated my idea of Gagnaire at his best. If the rest of our meal could have struck that same balance between challenging and delicious, I’d have walked away charmed.
The accompanying half moon-shaped “Green Biscuit” was confounding. It looked like a horribly over-dyed green piece of plastic (I believe it was made out of pistachio). Whatever flavor it might have had was overshadowed by the passion fruit sauce with it.
could should have been much better. It was a bit rocky at the start, with dishes being removed right after we had told another server we needed more time with them (this during the influx of pre-meal snacks – an assorted mix of crisps, flatbreads, dips, and mustardy condiments – the only one of note being fleshy shiitakes in a vinegary mustard dressing served – oddly – with two squares of excellent seaweed butter on the side). Most of the staff was surprisingly ill-informed about the menu.
Interestingly, we were offered a larger table after our first courses had been cleared. Neither of us could figure out the impetus for this offer, as our new table – though three times the size of our deuce – was not particularly any different from the former. It didn’t occupy better real estate, but it was a bit more private. Subtle hint that we weren’t welcomed by fellow diners (hard to believe, as the parties that had surrounded us seemed quite consumed in their own worlds), or a generous promotion?
What we did notice, however, is that service improved after our move. We were assigned one particular server, whom I found both knowledgeable and attentive.
The bread here is decent – especially for being baked in house by the general hotel kitchen. Among them, a soft, moist pain au lait was the most memorable. All diners are brought the same three breads, and so there really was no need for refills. However, we each received a fresh round of breads after our table change.
There aren’t any post-meal petits fours here. They were apparently served along with our pre-dessert, an excellent beer sorbet with passion fruit sauce. Like the tamarind in the girolle dish, and the passion fruit sauce with the “green biscuit,” I found the use of acid overwhelming in this dish. The beer sorbet was excellent, and I would have enjoyed more of its flavor.
Perched on the side of that bowl were four little sweets, the best ones being an orange blossom pate de fruit and a pistachio marzipan coated with a sticky cherry glaze.
This dinner fulfilled and confirmed my worst expectations of Gagnaire. At its best, the food was gutsy, bold, creative, colourful, and delicious. At its worst, it was fractured, frustratingly uneven, sour (the over-enthusiastic use of acid), repetitive ( multiple appearance of the same sauces and condiments), and sloppy (over-poached fish, luke-warm food, etc.).
I’ll just have to work up the nerve (and the budget) to try Gagnaire again, somewhere, some time – when he’s in the kitchen.
Executive Chef Pierre Gagnaire
Mandarin Oriental Hotel
5 Connaught Road
Central, Hong Kong
+852 2522 0111
* Interestingly, the tasting menu was entirely vegetarian.
A note on libations: we shared a half bottle of Gosset Grand Reserve Brut.