We have been extremely lucky during our visit to Paris. Not only have our dining experiences been exemplary, we've managed to dodge the iffy weather. The outlook before we'd left the States had been a patchwork of sun, clouds and potential thunderstorms. But whenever we head out, it is nice, and if rain is predicted, it somehow holds off until we pop into a bar or restaurant for a moment of respite. Tonight is no different; the short rainfall ceases and the streets are slightly damp but the skies are clear. We enjoy our short stroll to Le Gaigne, which appears to be squeezed between two other businesses. Indeed, I wonder momentarily if this is the back window because there doesn’t even appear to be a door! Upon closer inspection we find the knob and enter.
Inside, "cozy" doesn't even begin to describe the dining area. I suddenly feel like the typical gigantic American...Godzilla stomping around Tokyo. I will myself to appear smaller. We are shown to our table (one of about 5). Modern, sensuous artwork adorns the wall. Long bamboo reeds serve as a partition for the spiral staircase in one corner, which must presumably lead to the wine cellar or other storage. The front counter is tiny, with a shiny espresso machine sitting next to the laptop that runs the restaurant's software. On the walls are bottles of wine, settling upon shelves for display (but also for serving, as we later discover).
The wife, Aurelie, manages the front. She is young and beautiful, quietly friendly and efficient, smiling patiently at our bad attempts at French. She also offers us a nice dry Prosecco aperitif and a small plate of almond cookie-like spheres. We sip and munch slowly, perusing the English menu, with no desire to rush this meal. To my mind, there is no better invention in the world of eating than the Prix Fixe menu, especially if it's a tasting menu. That means you get a smaller portion of all the different dishes the chef has to offer. Sure, you might encounter some you would never order on their own but if you pass by this smaller offering, it's not like you plunked down a fortune on a dish you end up not liking. Instead, you may actually encounter something new and expand your likings. And if a Prix Fixe tasting menu is accompanied by wine pairings, I am immediately in for the experience. Happy and excited, I await the first course.
A slightly sweet 2008 Coteaux du Languedoc Blanc (Chateau de Karantes) accompanies a small black bowl of Pencil Squid marinated in dill and dark squares of Cuttlefish ink aspic, over which is poured a chilled veloute of Paimpol white kideny beans. The presentation is playful, but the ingredients are somewhere intimidating. Trepidatiously, I dip my spoon in and take a sip. The veloute is buttery, silky and slightly earthen with the dill spiking it with freshness. On the next bite, I make sure to include the squid and aspic, both of which are mild and meaty. A sip of the white wine completes the symphony. My mouth is singing inside!
Another glass of the same vintage is poured for the next two courses: Confit thigh and chilled supreme of Vosgian Quail, Belgian endive in two sauces, with a fried egg. The entire plate is composed as if it were a Picasso painting of what that quail might have looked like in life. It is almost too beautiful to eat, but I somehow manage to break the illusion. Now, as you know, my past experiences with fowl (namely, squab) haven't been too illuminating. This delicate quail, however, is a revelation...almost a mini tasting menu of everything this bird has to offer. The walnuts and endive add some depth and contrast to the meat, rounding out the experience.
Following the quail is a sauteed Sea Bass steak and a faux ravioli comprised of thin beet slices encasing sticky rice. The fish is mild, with a nice snap to the skin, and maybe a bit drier than I'd like (thought it must be tough to get just the right moisture in a piece of fish this small). There is an airy foam topping that tastes vaguely of the sea. Mixed into the sticky rice are bits of seafood (tiny oysters, we think) and mushrooms; the smoky salty taste is offset by the deep sweetness of the beet. This is my least favorite of the dishes, but it's still a success. Ordinarily I wouldn't be caught dead eating any of these things!
Our final main dish course is lamb two ways: roast saddle with rosemary and sauteed epigram with forest mushrooms, accompanied by an heirloom tomato tartin. It is difficult to pick out which slices are the mushrooms and which are the lamb, in the sauteed portion, but I somehow manage. The mushrooms are not very palatable to me (too strong) but they do impart some sweetness to the lamb. The saddle is just past rare, and cuts easily, sheathed in crispy layers of fat. Again, I would probably avoid this dish in the USA, but here the expert preparation and high quality of meat makes for a delicious piece of meat. The rosemary-topped tart somehow reminds me of spring fields. A glass of 2008 Costieres de Nimes (Chateau de la Tuilerie) pairs very well.
At this point Aurelie asks if we are interested in the supplemental cheese course. "Yes!" I almost shout, without even conferring with my dining companions. "Oui!" Together we glance at the menu. Evidently the cheese course is creamed farm-fresh Munster from the Ferme de Breitzhousen, a nearby farm. It must be good, right? Shortly thereafter a small white bowl of what looks like whipped cream arrives, some leafy greens dipping into the mixture alongside. Tentatively, I take a spoonful...
Irises contract. Mouth waters. Brain explodes. For a mere 3 euro, I have just tasted the best thing in Paris! Who knew creamed cheese could be so good? Before I know it, the bowl is empty and I am left with only the happy memory. In fact, the cheese eclipses the dessert, a savory-scented Fecocourt Mirabelle plum dish with marmalade and macaroons served with a short glass of plum liqueur to end our evening.
As we settle the damages and relax in the afterglow of a truly wonderful and enlightening culinary adventure, the realization that our trip to Paris is nearly over descends on the table. We've had great food, seen wonderful sights, and met friendly people everywhere we went. Hell, we even braved the Metro! And during our long walks we saw many, many places like this, just waiting for us to pop in and explore their enticing menus. We'll be back to Paris at some point, and next time I will honestly have a difficult time not coming back to Le Gaigne.
I am really hankering for another casual dinner of rustic French classics, but this is our last night in Paris and Jeremy wants to make it special. We throw caution to the wind and opt for the multi-course tasting menu with wine pairings.
We start with the chilled veloute of white kidney beans with pencil squid and cuttlefish ink aspic. A deep bowl arrives with three pieces of squid tightly rolled up, which reminds me of wrapping curling ribbon around a pencil as a kid to make bows on my holiday packages. Alongside the pencil squid, sits the black shiny rectangle of aspic. There are also several fronds of dill which add nice touches of green. Our waitress returns to pour the veloute into our bowls; the squid pencils and dill fronds rise, but the aspic stays at the bottom of my bowl. The soup is a slightly unattractive grey color, but tastes much better than it looks. It's rich, creamy and comforting, despite being cold. (I usually find hot soups comforting and cold soups refreshing.) It is so luxe and velvety, we check the menu to see white kidney beans as the main ingredient and not heavy cream. While I'm usually a fan of squid and octopus, this dish is just not for me. The squid is cold and extremely tough. It feels like I'm chewing on a cold eraser. The aspic is hard to cut, tastes like salty grit and adds nothing to this dish. I finish the veloute but leave the remaining squid and aspic at the bottom of my bowl.
The second course is a "confit of thigh and chilled supreme of quail with Belgian endive, two sauces and a fried egg." Confit is the method of cooking meat in its own fat, so I know I'm going to love this one! The thigh is moist and not at all gamey. It has been deboned and is served on a thick bed of sauce that takes me a few tastes to realize is puree of the quail. It's just a little too baby food-like for my tastes. The supremed breast and wing portion of the quail is layered on two spears of Belgian endive with a few small greens scattered about. The endive is bitter and makes my entire mouth pucker up while the supreme is rich and buttery. In the center of the plate is a schmear of blue cheese puree with some walnut halves surrounding it. And I haven't even gotten to the tiny fried quail egg yet. I begin to see this plate as an exercise in contrasts...warmed confit of thigh with chilled supreme of breast, bitter greens with a rich runny egg yolk, creamy pureed quail confit with astringent blue cheese puree. So while the quail puree isn't my fave, I appreciate the thought and effort that went into this dish.
I am looking forward to our third course: a sauteed sea bass steak with red beet and sticky rice ravioli and shellfish sauce. The ravioli has me very interested and I can't wait to see how they pull this off. The plate arrives and like the first two, it is beautifully composed. A generous slab (looks like a large filet and not a steak cut) of sea bass is topped with some sort of bubbly foam. Under the fish is a line of bright maroon syrup leading to the free form ravioli on the other side of the plate. The ravioli is actually two paper thin slices of red beet with sticky rice sandwiched in between. I can't wait and dig in to the ravioli with gusto. The beet and the red syrup are slightly sweet and the sticky rice is perfectly cooked. But there's a surprise in my second bite, a mussel. Indeed the sticky rice is full of them, which is a major turn-off for me. I move on to the sea bass which is light, clean and buttery. The foam on top is the seafood sauce, so I get a bite of sea bass, briny seafood foam and a daub of the beet syrup. I forget about those rubbery mussels and concentrate on this side of the plate.
The smell of rosemary arrives almost before the plates from the fourth course are set on the table. A large portion of lamb saddle (loin) accompanied by a saute of wild mushrooms and lamb loin strips are sitting before me. Lamb on lamb action! I almost don't know where to start, but I decide to go with the mushrooms. For a few bites I can't tell the lamb from the veggies because the mushrooms are so meaty. I can't imagine anything as good as this saute, until I cut into my lamb saddle. It's cooked perfectly to medium rare, as ordered and is tender, juicy and deeply scented with the aforementioned rosemary. As someone who enjoys lamb, this is a real treat and one of the best dishes I'll experience here in Paris. There is a little tomato tart on the plate which is lovely, but honestly as I munch on it I'm trying to figure out how to score more lamb.
Despite the fact that we've eaten more than we should, we opt for the cheese supplement. It's described as a creamed farm-fresh munster and I'm dying to try this as the only munster cheese I've ever seen is in the deli. Our waitress brings us bowls with mixed greens and a generous dollop of creamy goodness. The cheese is like nothing I have ever experienced. I expected it to be creamy and luscious, but am surprised by how light and fresh it is. I liken it to trying fresh ricotta for the first time—eye opening, almost life changing. I don't know how munster got translated into the tasteless slices of yellow cheese I see in my market, but fresh creamed munster is worth the price of an airline ticket to Paris! I know at this moment nothing back home will measure up to this and I begin to get a little sad knowing this is our last night in Paris.
Our final course is dessert. I try a few bites of the savory-scented Mirabelle plums with marmalade and macaroons and it's an exquisite dish, but one I won't be able to finish. I am overloaded with all the fabulous food tonight. While not every dish was a favorite for me, each one was an experience. And each one was impeccably presented; there is an artist in the kitchen. The attention to detail has been unprecedented, from the actual dishes each course was served on to the wine pairings accompanying each...both were carefully selected to elevate each course for maximum enjoyment.
I think this impeccable eye for detail embodies Paris and its people. This is easily the most beautiful city I have ever seen and the people are incredibly well-mannered. (It is my newfound belief the French are mistakenly labelled rude and ill-mannered, when in fact they are simply excruciatingly mindful of etiquette and are just not as outgoing as other nationalities.) This short week here has been my own little "tasting menu" Of Parisian life. Not everything was as described or as anticipated and there were more than a few unexpected delights and discoveries along the way. I am confident I will return, both to Paris and Le Gaigne, hungry for new adventures.
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