It’s happened to all of us. You go to a restaurant, the maitre d’ or hostess, after derisively perusing your attire reluctantly grants you a table, the diners pause mid fork to check out what kind of unrefined hick has entered their presence, and the menu is completely unfamiliar. And don’t get me started on the sommelier. Now, I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve gotten older, or because I’ve gotten more food/restaurant savvy, or it’s simply because I’ve grown a thicker hide, but I’ve learned not to let *them* bother me. Though I haven’t quite mastered the wine list, I’d thought I had a pretty secure grasp on getting the kind of service (or at least deluding myself into feeling like I was getting) I appreciated. Until Pierre Gagnaire..
After a tireless campaign by my BFF Justin, I went to visit him in Paris (I was convinced it would be impossible, but he knew how badly I wanted to go, so he convinced me to make it possible) Lots of people say that Paris is overrated. If you’re reading this blog at all, it won’t be for you. Parisians really love food, and not just French food. Korean, Vietnemese, Chinese, Thai, Italian, Spanish, Morrocon, Indian, Russian… they’re all highly popular. (They make a heartfelt attempt at Mexican, but fail miserably). So if you like food at all, you’ll like Paris. Just don’t go during July or August – everyone goes on vacation while the tourists descend so the people who are left over have to deal with them and they wind up hating everyone. Anyways, enough about that. Since Justin was doing me a huge favor and saving me a bundle on hotel and lodging fees, I proposed to take him to a 3 star Michelin rated restaurant. Legendary restaurants like Guy Savoy, Taillevant, Alain Ducasse, Joel Robuchon and Le Cinq were on the list. We even pondered taking the pilgrimage to Barcelona to visit El Bulli, but my visit was during the wrong six months of the year. Besides, I’d booked my trip only one month only one month ahead, and the waitlist is one year long. We wound up at Pierre Gagnaire.
We’d made reservations towards the end of my weeklong trip. By then, my very rudimentary grasp of the French language had strengthened to the point where I could make basic transactions with salespeople, waiters, ticket takers, etc. Justin’s form of French tutoring involved ditching me (but keeping close watch) whenever we walked into any kind of establishment that would require interacting with other people. And the first item that I mastered was the menu. It was pretty easy – I sure as hell knew most of the foods listed in bistro menus. The only tricky thing I’d found so far was that “entrees” on a French menu is actually an appetizer, or first course. Nevertheless, I was still a little anxious when we walked up to the restaurant. It didn’t help that the neighborhood (1st arrondisement/Madeleine – Champs Elysee near the Arc de Triomphe) was rather hectic, and that we couldn’t find the restaurant at first. But as soon as we walked in, it was dead silent and we were easily the youngest people in the room, by at least 20 years. The people here were very, very serious about food. It made French Laundry seem like a wacky sitcom. As soon as were were seated, we received our menus with an amuse buche. I began reading the menu, and I was thoroughly confused. The dishes were grouped together in paragraphs, with flowery descriptions that made it unclear where one dish ended and the next began. There were multi-dish supplemental tasting menus to be ordered in conjunction with the prix fixe menus. And there was supposed to be a 90 Euro 4 course lunch prix fixe special, and it wasn’t readily apparant which one it was (everything everything else appeared to be 3, 5, 7 and 9 course menus). And finally, I couldn’t find a single number or price listed anywhere on the menu, other than vintages (1989, 1997, 1953…) for the wine pairings. I only knew it was expensive – the themes to the supplemental menus were white truffle, caviar, goose foie gras, and languostine. I freaked out – my heart was racing, I was pale and shaky, and I all I could think was, “I hope I don’t max out my credit card!” When the waiter offered a glass of Krug champagne, I snatched it and downed half of it before making myself stop to enjoy the best champagne I’d ever tasted. Justin, sensing my distress, shot me a sympathetic look and discreetly said “I’ll just order the prix fixe. It seems to be the best value,” as he pointed to the entry. I glanced at it and was all “??!!???” Written in pencil was “230E” It wasn’t the amount, but “Hey! I don’t have that written on my menu! I don’t have any prices written on my menu!” He showed me his, and to my surprise, all the prices were listed. Mine had none. We switched, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. “Wait, they just assumed you were paying? How sexist! And where’s the lunch special?” Justin pulled out the card that our waiter had propped up against the vase. “Oh! Here it is.” We had assumed it was the description of our amuse bouche and champagne. It did, but it also listed the lunch special. And it listed the price. Now that was a nervewracking experience, but once we got started on our bottle of wine, it was all good. We ordered the languoustine tasting and the lunch prix fixe.
How was it? It was very good, but much more avant garde than the comforting bistro dishes I’d been enjoying. If Taillevent is Chanel, then French Laundry is Marc Jacobs and Gagnaire is Alexander McQueen (Which makes El Bulli… Imitation of Christ?). I can’t exactly describe the dishes, because with one or two exceptions, they were unlike anything I’d ever tasted. It made me rethink flavor combinations. And despite the traumatic first fifteen minutes, the service was actually very gracious and smooth.