You’re not really sure if you should whisper or step lightly, consider each wall before moving on, or if you should document every step- or if you’re ever going to look at the photos you’ve taken.
There’s no doubt about it- Versailles is incredible. If only you could magically remove everyone with a fanny pack, following a green frog held aloft on a stick and holding a camcorder next to their ear as they stumble through the grand apartments.
But if you block out the accents and weave past the protruding elbows you can almost begin to imagine how life would be for those who lived there- not just those like you who’ve paid to have a peek on the other side.
I got a similar feeling when we stepped into Pierre Gagnaire.
We stumbled in from the wind outside and we came from the Metro, clutching a map. It was so cold and we had to walk, so I was wearing flat, long boots- sure I had makeup on, big glamorous earrings and was wearing black. The Hungry One was standing tall, wearing his wedding suit, but I think it was a still obvious we were imposters, peeking in for a glimpse.
There are two doors before you reach the inner sanctum. First you have to come through the doors of the hotel. Then up to the right and through the curtains. Once you’re inside it’s warm and quiet.
You’re seated at chairs that mean you’re not looking across to each other, but out at the room. It’s obvious now that this, like royal court is theatre, to see and be seen.
A candle is lit, just for you. Now the light is on, the performance starts.
The Menu Hiver no.2 has nine courses, plus amuse bouche and petit fours with coffee. There are descriptions on mine, but there are no prices.
The players are all very serious and the space is filled with pomp. The white room with pale wood paneling remains hushed. We instinctively whisper too. There’s a silver haired couple behind us earnestly inspecting every mouthful and then writing down in a little notebook what they think of each course. There’s a man in his early thirties across from us, shifting nervously in his seat across from his date. We wonder if he’s going to propose.
There seems to be a ratio of at least a waiter to every table. From them, everyone is Monsieur and Madame. ‘But of course’ and ‘anything you wish’ are said often.
There’s a line in the Peter Gabriel song, ‘The book of love’ which we had played during our wedding ceremony which goes ‘I love it when you bring me things.’ We elect not to make any alterations to the menu and for the next three hours they do- constantly.
The food is rich beyond belief. The starter of a terrine of foie gras with an apple cider foam and jelly comes with fingers of brioche like the cats tongue biscuits you make tiramisu out of. They’re still warm from the oven. I guess this is what it’s like to be royalty.
There are three more breads that come on offer. I can only take a corner from each. I can’t finish the foie gras. It’s the size of a our camera.
I’ll be honest now that I’m back at a computer and say I didn’t love every course- there was a sea urchin and asparagus concoction with a black foamy piece of toast that reminded me of a mouldy sponge. But I couldn’t bring myself to say anything of the sort when I was asked, I just hid the piece I didn’t like at the bottom of the bowl. But I loved the way in which every dish was presented. Lids are lifted dramatically at the table, sauces slowly poured around the edge. The cabbage soup that follows the foie gras comes with a scallop dumpling that looks like it’s been gift wrapped for Christmas- pillowy and white, with a texture somewhere between a steam pork bun and gnocchi, it had a ribbon of perfect cabbage tied around it.
The sea bass to follow came with langoustines nestled beneath and grapefruit spindles threading across. Ladled across the fish at the table with a flourish is a sweet avocado puree. On the menu it sounds like a car crash- like the worst of new age California cuisine. I’m half expecting a slither of kiwi fruit on the plate. It’s sweet but with a little punch of tang from the grapefruit. In the middle of a huge, simple white plate it’s as pretty as a picture- greens and whites which match perfectly with the two tulips which are opening more as the candle burns down.
One of the signatures is simply called ‘Le rouge’. It’s assembled at the table in front of you. It’s gaudy in its pink and red hues. There’s caramelized onions with beetroot, hiding under a thin sheet of beetroot jelly. On top is a pink disk of puff pastry and a matching cookie of roasted turnip.
To cap off the savoury is Le Boeuf. You know it’s serious when they bring out on the little table with wheels a carving set and a carving knife. One of the waiters is caught by our table with a hot platter of roasted meat on his shoulder , waiting for one of his compatriots to roll one of the serving tables over to him so he can set it down. It’s almost like a scene from Monty Python. Everyone’s very serious and he knows he can’t make a noise. His eyes get wider with panic as he just has to stand there and hope that someone on his side of the fence sees his predicament and returns the rolling table to him before it burns his shoulder. I don’t know if it’s the sadist in me but I can’t help but stifle a giggle. It’s just too absurd.
The beef is then carved and served with a spinach puree and a nugget of braised wagyu. An elaborate swirl of red wine jus finishes it just in front of you.
Everything I’d read had said that ‘Pierre Gagnaire cheese is different’. They come as little expositions- plays on the flavours, separating them from textures and shapes you might expect. There’s camembert mousse with little icebergs of brioche floating in it. Even the Hungry One can only manage a couple of mouthfuls of that. There’s a blue cheese mince wrapped in braised lettuce. Then there’s a goat cheese parfait- this one I adore- there’s just a faint twinkle of flavor- it’s a relief.
I’ve started to count things now. We’ve been there for three and a bit hours and we’ve had eight courses. I’ve had three glasses of wine- a glass of champagne as an aperitif, a white from the Loire and a red from Bordeaux. At no point in time has my glass of wine or sparkling water been empty for more than 30 seconds- and that was only when I’d finished my white wine and they had to find the Sommelier to consult on my choice of red. There have been 12 changes of cutlery and I’ve been assisted to the bathroom twice. We’re seven eighths of the way through the menu.
After they’ve brushed down your table- given you fresh napkins, and had another visit from the charming Sommelier, it simply lists the final course as ‘Le desserts de Pierre Gagniare.’
It’s now the comedy truly starts. There’s a plate of lemon and vanilla bean parfait with a piece of candied red capsicum, stuffed with dried fruits and spices. There’s a small saucer rimmed with a lemon curd cookie, marzipan chocolate cherry, a chocolate trifle a vanilla macaroon and a silly putty string of rose marshmallow.
Then out comes a parfait glass of green apple sorbet, with a mint sauce swirl and sprigs of fresh rocket. There’s another bowl of segmented citrus, with lemon cream and a piece of dehydrated orange. There’s another bowl with coconut and pistachio fluff and bubble, with shards of fresh and toasted coconut on top.
Then there’s a long platter with three malteser sized balls of chocolate ganache, layered with chocolate tuille to three storeys high, like a jenga tower of chocolate. There are swirls of chocolate sauce poured over it on the table and a chocolate cigar, propped to the side.
Then there’s a little cup with citrus and pineapple dice, covered by a thin pineapple skin that melts when a light sauce is poured over the top.
I have never been so grateful for the medical mystery of the dessert stomach in my life. I’ve never seen the Hungry One stopped in his tracks.
The staff are so polite that by the last dessert, one whispers an apology and says “this is the last one, I promise.”
The politeness doesn’t end. We mention when sampling their ristretto that the Hungry One is very partial to coffee. Could they possibly suggest where in Paris we should go? Some answers arrive promptly written on stiff Pierre Gagnaire card.
When the bill comes, there’s the courtesy of not adding an extra line for a tip. You don’t have to equivocate over how much extra will this cost. The price is the price- they will not impose and ask for more.
On the way out, feeling just as rotund as all the portraits showed at Versailles a small cup of green tea is poured for you while you wait for your coat. It’s a gentle way of coaxing you back to reality.
‘Would you like us to organize a car for you Madame?’ is the last question asked.
Queens may travel by coach. Modern day princesses by organized cars.
Gleeful impostors like us know how to find our way back to the Metro.
6 Rue Balzac, 8th.
Metro George V.