Pierre Gagnaire is coming to Shanghai and it was the highlight of the summer of 2017 because he was the last of the superstars of the culinary world to NOT have a restaurant in this bustling and opulent Chinese city.
It could not have been a better time to start le comptoir de Pierre Gagnaire as Shanghai came of age to be the trendiest and most capitalist city of China, Macau and Hong Kong included. When the news was released in 2016 that French cuisine legend Pierre Gagnaire would be opening his first China concept, he promised not fine dining, but a brasserie both accessible and by no means exclusive. Yet you won’t get out of here with anything less than a French fine dining bill, justified not by a memorable meal, but by the famous chef’s mass-printed signature.
The Shanghai iteration was helmed by Chef Roman Chapel (left), a protége of Pierre Gagnaire (middle) at his 3-star Paris restaurant, who in turn was the protége of one of the prodigies of Nouvelle Cuisine and Roman’s papa, Alain Chapel at his 3-star La Mere in Lyon.
Le Comptoir de Pierre Gagnaire, as the name suggested, is “not” a fine dining restaurant, although the starched white tablecloth and polished Christofle silverware seem to suggest otherwise. But the tables are set a little closer than they would be in a fine dining restaurant. And as the night goes on and the restaurant fills up, the vibe becomes lively and buoyant, the room bubbling with voices and energy like a fresh glass of champagne.
The cooking, too, was deliberately more bistro-casual, with pâtés and cocottes and unassuming generosity. With that, you don’t get really fanciful vegetables like heirloom tomatoes or Jerusalem artichokes, only grilled Chinese cabbage.
Brioche with seaweed butter – the bread came from their own bakery le boulangerie de Pierre Gagnaire that is opened on the ground floor. However it seemed to be from the morning batch. It was cold and hard, and the fragrant of fresh bread was all but gone. The saving grace was the seaweed butter. I tasted similar from Pollen in Singapore, and I liked one from Pollen more (more rustic and filled with umami from the sea).
Foie gras terrine with brioche, Sauternes cube, burned onion jus – Foie gras is usually a safe bet at French restaurants, and le comptoir played it straight with their terrine, we loved the rich ‘burnt’ onion jus and crunchy onion rings that accompany.
le Comptoir’s foie gras terrine with dark onion jus drizzle and a jellied cube of Sauternes, a sweet French wine, was excellent. The foie gras was smooth and lighter than the ones I had previously. And you shouldn’t apologise for using sweet brioche to gluttonously absorb every last fatty smear from the plate.
Pan fried Gambero rosso prawns, sweet potato purée and pear – The red prawns were cooked just right. Perfect bouncy texture with lovely flavors coming from the amontillado and black pimento jam. The sweet potato, celery and pear did well to offset the richness of the marinated prawns.
This was the first of the main course that came for the evening. The plating was simple, the portion generous. It was enough to share between two person, which was what we did for the entire evening.
Ginger-flavoured lobster fricassee, cinnamon spiced wheat semolina, apple dice – A lobster fricassée is already wonderful on its own, the glistening flesh holding sweetness and umami in spades. When joined by the couscous underneath, which, though a tad greasy, sings with sweetness from bits of apples and raisins and whispers of cinnamon, the plate becomes magical.
For main courses, the lobster fricassée shone through as the best dish we ate that evening. Cooked to absolute perfection, the light and fragrant ginger sauce and cinnamon-spiced semolina with diced apple only highlighted the freshness of the lobster tails.
Sea salt grilled sea bream, red quinoa, onion petals, Beurre Nantais – A sea salt grilled sea bream is served with red quinoa and a subtly citrusy Beurre Nantais. The quinoa is unremarkable, but the sauce is hearty and moreish, and, together with petals of pickled onion, helps hide the slight fishiness of the sea bream.
Very enjoyable fish course with a nice beurre nantais (white butter sauce) poured table side.
Beef fillet spiced with black pepper, grilled cabbage leaf, Chinese yam, Sketchup – Of the mains, the beef fillet (medium done) was totally out of whack with the standard that we have experienced so far. The really lame piece of cabbage laid on the plate with chopped sweet peas. Even boiled vegetables would fare better. The Sketchup was a mystery – savoury and tangy, the sauce was like the Worcestershire sauce that I used to pour over my canteen pork chop back in my polytechnic school days – definitely not a sauce I would appreciate from a fine dining restaurant.
And the fillet. It was a rather poor specimen of meat that I have tasted. “It’s China” is the usual excuse I would get from people, but I had really good meat from other places in Shanghai. And the meat was a bit over done, yet they did not even offer to redo it.
Fresh herbs lamb crepinette, grilled cabbage and Manchego Tchatchouka – The herbed lamb shows just how good the earthy meat can be, cooked slightly rare and dressed with cabbage leaves, Manchego cheese and a generous pool of savoury jus. Manchego cheese gives depth and a hint of darkness to a lamb loin wrapped in herb crepinette, while a bed of Tchatchouka, a Middle Eastern vegetable stew, adds complexity and dimension. The lamb tastes mellow at first, carrying just a fraction of the meat’s usual potency, but the flavors build with each bite like a strand of steadily thickening pearls.
The lamb crepinette was also among the most rounded and balanced dishes on the menu. Not that it looks like much; its bizarre presentation of decorative salad leaves with sauce poured over them is a recurrent practice at le Comptoir, making them look more bog than bistro.
‘Palet Guimet’ – Pierre Gagnaire is all about his desserts. Come and leave some room for some delectables at the end of the meal, though one is often tempted to eat more when the food was excellent. Plate Guimet is a biscuit joconde with kirsch-flavored parasseuse cream, and marmalade was also worth its calories.
There’s another review by Christopher St Cavish in SmartShanghai back in Jul 2017 (around the time I went to Le Comptoir) that would summed up the service in this restaurant. At the time I went, they were just opened, and they did not hide the fact that they only had half a menu that consisted of Gagnaire’s classics and desserts, and the other consisted of experimental courses to suit the [expensive] Chinese palate like abalone, sea cucumber, etc things that would not usually appear in a French haute cuisine restaurant. But at least, they could train the service staff better. Since then, they had got the nod from the reverend Michelin Shanghai guide with 1 Star, which confirmed that their food was excellent, but not so in terms of ambiance and service.
A restaurant’s hype and value should come from its excellent food, not from merely carrying a star chef’s title. le Comptoir de Pierre Gagnaire is not the first celebrity name to come to China, nor will it be the last, and as more and more chefs set their sights on Shanghai, take heart, and turn your own eyes to places that may not bear flashy titles, but serve experiences that are truly worth gossiping about.
le comptoir de Pierre Gagnaire
480 Jianguo Xi Lu inside Capella Hotel / 建国西路480号(建业里)
Tel : +86 (21) 5466 9928
Date visited : Jul 2017