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Gagnaire pays homage to Korea

Since the opening of Pierre Gagnaire’s eponymous restaurant in Seoul in October 2008, the name has become synonymous with the finest French dining experience that can be had here.

Indeed, the famed French chef’s twice-annual trips here with his latest menu are a much anticipated affair for serious foodies.

Three-star Michelin chef Pierre Gagnaire poses in the kitchen of his eponymous restaurant at Lotte Hotel, Seoul, on Feb. 29. Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald
Three-star Michelin chef Pierre Gagnaire poses in the kitchen of his eponymous restaurant at Lotte Hotel, Seoul, on Feb. 29. Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald

In Seoul last week on a visit to discuss and taste the latest menu at his Seoul restaurant, Gagnaire spoke enthusiastically about being inspired by local ingredients.

“‘Hommage Seoul’ is a tribute to Korea that is inspired by the country,” Gagnaire told The Korea Herald last Wednesday at his restaurant on the 35th floor of the Lotte Hotel in downtown Seoul.

“We stay away from using produce that cannot be obtained locally,” said Gagnaire, continuing to list a number of local fish and produce in Korean ― red tilefish, sea bream, webfoot octopus, yellowtail, gizzard snad, mussels and kimchi ― with the help of Juliene Boscus, chef de cuisine at Pierre Gagnaire in Seoul.

“The predominance of seafood is due to the fact that Korea is a peninsula surrounded on three sides by the sea. It is easy to get high quality local seafood,” said Gagnaire. “I prefer to maximize the use of Korean produce and ingredients.”

Other Korean ingredients that the three-star Michelin chef is intrigued by include ginseng and omija.

“They are new and interesting. Also, they cannot be found in France,” Gagnaire explained. 

Omija is a berry of five flavors ― sweet, salty, bitter, sour and spicy. Gagnaire combines it with beer for sherbet and also uses it with foie gras. It is also made into a jam and an infusion. Imagination is the only limit for Gagnaire, who also uses omija and fish in that hearty staple of French dining tables, port-au-feau.

The latest Hommage Seoul menu ― the menu is changed every three months ― is a splendid showcase of the celebrated chef’s creativity and expertise. After a delightful serving of Champagne and feuillete, the meal proper starts off with thinly sliced raw yellowtail with pate of sesame, rich and fatty on the tongue and just enough texture to make it chewy. The moist grilled sea bream served with a wedge of avocado that is ever so lightly breaded and fried for a crispy bite followed by the soft, buttery texture of a well-ripened avocado, is unexpected perfection.

By the next dish ― lobster in noisette butter, celery, cauliflower cream with apple cider, and carrot in maple syrup ― one has full appreciation for Gagnaire as a composer of intricate chamber music.

The combination of ingredients in complex renderings is so finely executed that the unexpected harmony of the ingredients at first surprises and then, after a few slow, mindful bites, delights as the particular characteristics of each individual ingredient come to the fore, in fact, each taste heightened by the other.

The beef tenderloin topped with escargot and served over a pool of cream of pea is a happy marriage of the finest hanwoo and escargot, a quintessentially French ingredient.

The nearly four-hour dinner slowly progresses toward the finale with three kinds of cheese ― gruyere cube and white chocolate pearls over coconut milk yoghurt; camembert mousse with omija sable, a soft cloud under a sweet airy crunch; and sharp blue d’Auvergne cheese terrine topped with finely sliced lychee lying in sweet tangerine syrup.

The delectable desserts and the daintiest petits fours are highlights of Gagnaire’s visual magic, looking too beautiful, too prim and proper to be eaten, but leaving one longing for more than the tiny bite allowed.

“I try to develop cuisine that is suitable for each country’s culture with respect for the local culture,” said Gagnaire. His homage to Seoul fully reflects that philosophy.

There should be sincerity and pleasure in dining, much like watching a movie or buying a new dress, according to Gagnaire.

“It should lead to a sense of satisfaction, happiness,” he said.

What makes for a dining experience par excellence?

“Good company, good spirit, a bit of hunger and quiet,” Gagnaire declared, quickly adding “and not overeating.”

By Kim Hoo-ran (