Sunday, July 6, 2008
Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire
Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire
Intercontinental Hotel, Festival City
Front Desk: +971-4-7011111
I came to an important conclusion over the weekend. I love food that makes me laugh. And I laughed my way through one of the best fine dining experiences to be had in Dubai right now – a meal at Reflets by Pierre Gagnaire, the fine dining restaurant at the uber-funky new Intercontinental Festival City.
We were an interesting group: one grumpy diner who’s had a million more bad service experiences than he wanted and wasn’t going to put up with any messing around. One very loud and entertaining ‘couldn’t give a toss’ redhead. One exceedingly strong-minded and crusty (but lovely!) wine buff. One ‘this is how I like it and I’m not putting up with anything you choose to foist on me in the name of theatre’ Diner With Attitude, two perfectly normal people and a slightly pretentious foodie. (sounds like ‘Tubular Bells’, doesn’t it? “Two Slightly Pretentious Foodies”) In case you’re wondering, I’m the latter. Argue with the ‘slightly’ if you will.
The evening started with cocktails at the Intercon’s Champagne Bar on the 26th floor as we waited for stragglers. This is a truly fantastic place with one of the best views in Dubai, a James Bond sliding door secret entrance and beyond funky furnishings (the cocktail table chairs feel dangerously unbalanced and aren’t terribly comfortable, however). The champagne list here is extensive and pricey: you’re not going to get much below Dhs 155 a glass, but the cocktails are more reasonably priced. Service could be smarter, but the hand-around hot canapés are a lovely touch.
And so down to dinner. Pierre Gagnaire holds three stars for his Paris restaurant, is head chef at London’s Sketch (just the one star, but a top 20 placing by Restaurant Magazine, a top 50 from Time Out and so on) and has recently opened up in Tokyo and Hong Kong. His Dubai venture is so new, it doesn't even get a plug on his website. The decor is definitely individual: a definite taste of Sketch but perhaps a little too close to a room layout in ‘The One’ to be a defining interior design moment. Sure, it’s funky, but it’s also a little, well, last year’s funky.
Time to talk toilets.
Oh, you came here to read about food and drink, did you? Don’t forget where it all ends up, buddy.
The toilets in Reflets are mirrored. The ladies are offered, as a consequence, a view of their derrieres. The men are forced to stand up against a mirrored black wall while water runs down it in front of them. You’re not sure whether to lean closer or step back. Nice piece of visual design, but I do rather prefer interior design that remembers that we humans, inconvenient, erratic carbon-based life-forms that we are, have to manage living with it.
So we sat down to dinner, a merry group led by a loudly guffawing redhead. Now, given that this is fine dining and the rest of the relatively small restaurant contains groups of quiet and well-behaved diners sitting at their well spaced out tables, you’d expect a little nervousness from the staff. Not a bit of it: the team, mainly French from what I could see, have obviously dealt with a great deal worse than us before getting up for breakfast. In what seemed little more than a trice, they’d managed Miss ‘I’m not playing’, not only disarmed Mr. Grumpy (who had actually announced to them that he was grumpy) but had done so to his approval and delight and had gone on to share the joke with our chattering redhead and make it quite clear that if she wanted to bellow at the top of her voice, she was more than welcome to do so! Subsequently the sommelier gracefully dealt with strong minded wine buff and pretentious foodie with such charm that we were both left speechless and, to be honest, really quite pleased.
This is service beyond the ordinary. This is empowered service by smart people who know just when a joke is something to share, just when to intervene and just when to let the flow of the evening take its course. This is service that waits for someone to finish talking before speaking to the table, that knows when to suggest and guide and when to leave you to it, when to smile indulgently and when to simply back off. And I’m not talking patsies here: one guest declaimed she didn’t like chardonnay wines but would appreciate a nicely cooled Chablis. “Chablis is chardonnay, madam” said the sommelier, pleasantly enough but there was steel there, in the velvet glove.
We had a ball.
We started with champagne, because this was a celebration. I'm not telling you what we ordered or what we paid for it. The wine list is extensive, very French-oriented (it’s a French restaurant, so fair enough) and damned expensive. You’ll be hard put to find much worth drinking for under Dhs550 a bottle. We started with a Pouilly Sur Loire, but some found the petrol (“Yes, petrol, but after pineapple”: sommelier. Some agreed, some didn’t) taste too much, so we went on to a Pouilly Fuissé. Our red was that greatest of treats: Gaston Hochar’s amazing Chateau Musar. I love introducing people to Musar: once they’ve tasted it and gone ‘WOW’, you can let ‘em into the big secret: this huge, camphorous, hint-of-the-smell-of-an-old-grand-piano, complex and fundamentally gorgeous wine is Lebanese. We had the 1999 and it was, of course, great. Interestingly, it was decanted for us by the sommelier, who also went to great lengths to let everyone know that 'white wine with white meat' was something that he didn't personally have great time for so they should feel free to order what they fancied without getting caught up in old fashioned thinking. Which is a nice change from the 'deep breath then repeat order in outraged, strangulated voice' school of sommelier, no?
As we sat sipping our celebratory pop, tiny morsels of food started appearing. These were laid out and then introduced by the maitre d’. This was interesting: everyone was slightly wary of trying out the many delights before them. The general feeling around the table regarding this array of little things was clear: this was going to be defining. If they were amazing, the meal was obviously going to be a smash. If they were just puff and pretension, then it was going to be awful.
Amazing took the day.
A shot glass containing a Greek onion marmalade and a slice of anchovy was a tiny amazement, a miniscule salted ginger biscuit was a surprise, a titchy steak tartare with a soft biscuit didn’t really have the volume to compete on taste, the truffle butter with a sliver of nutty bread delicious, cones of soft, barely-holding-it-together-rich crumbly biscuit filled with houmous (a clear nod to Thomas Keller here, surely) grin-inducing, a cheese dip with tiny slivers of toast pleased, a little savoury dip of squid piqued, tiny slivers of dark-sauced smoked eel on sticks exploded... there was more, but I can’t remember it all. A succession of delights, of tiny tastes, textures, flavours and colours that provoked surprise and a childish sense of adventure. I was grinning like an idiot already. We got down to the serious business of choosing from a quite dazzling range of foods – and, for Dubai, some quite dazzling prices. My starter came in at Dhs 210, the main at Dhs 410.
I started with the foie gras de canard marbré: three slices of a foie gras terrine served on the side of a bowl containing a Tarbais bean cream topped with a black olive jelly. Served alongside this is a cocktail glass containing a melba toast sandwich of speck ham and Morbier cheese above a green salad with warm chicken gizzards masking a layer of mango and other fruit below. This was hard to manage: a challenging counterpart to the foie gras and particularly the creamy beans and rich jelly: also relatively hard to eat elegantly. But damn, was it good.
Others had the pascaline de poularde fermiere, a mixture of achingly tender chicken breast, cheese and spinach served alongside a bowl containing a creamy base, which was topped with a rich truffled bouillon by the waiter. One of us had the truffled gnocchi, served over a rocket mash and alongside a crisp salad: the tiny, delicate gnocchi again topped with a sauce at table.
An alternative was a range of soups and cereals: from almond soup with white beans and redcurrant cubes to pressed basmati and black rice with whipped horseradish and a bisque of blue velvet crab. Hard to pass by, really. But we managed.
By now I’m giggling like a schoolgirl that’s just broken into the chemistry lab and taken a major hit of nitrous oxide before meeting the Physics master she's got a crush on. The food is overwhelmingly good, demanding attention and focus – and getting it.
Some had sole as a main, served in its cooking butter and accompanied by a dish of morels in white Port and with a cube of citrus and passion fruit granite (a solid granita, really) on the side. The fish was enjoyed hugely, the creamy morels were amazing, soft and quite, quite delicious.
I had the boeuf ‘Master Kobe’. This was advertised, variously, as: a heart of entrecote ‘Master Kobe’ roasted, sliced on a bed of melted sorrel with a wagyu fondant treated like a condiment, ‘Club Dubai’ and braised turnip with Banyuls wine.
It turned up on one plate and a further three separate dishes. Gagnaire's food is frequently a multi-plattered experience and, while this lets him play to his heart's content, it can sometimes be a challenge to work out quite what to do with everything.
The wagyu came on the plate with its fondant condiment, served on the sorrel. There was a whizz of decorative deep red on the plate. Cooked to absolute perfection (I wasn’t asked how I’d like it and I didn’t tell), the luscious, tender wagyu was red inside, but just the right side of rare not to be bleeding. The steak was, incidentally, very small and had a lump of gristle in it, which was sloppy butchery at this level of dining. The sorrel and fondant were, respectively, excellent. Served in a separate dish, the braised turnip in wine was insanely rich. There was also a small chafing dish of wagyu, a ‘cheaper cut’, the waiter informed me, which had been braised in wine and was delicious, but fibrous in a braising steak kind of way. I’m not sure why you’d serve this, to be honest. It was as good a braised piece of beef as you’ll find, but it didn’t stand up as distinctively wagyu or necessarily complement the main dish in any way. The ‘Club Dubai’, on another dish, was a cube trencher built up from red-stained (beetroot?) bread and topped with a floppy, transparent red pepper jelly sheet that featured the restaurant’s logo on it. Below this, in the cube itself, green vegetables.
This one item, in the whole meal, scared me. I don’t buy ‘Dubai slings’ or ‘Dubai special’ anything. And I didn’t buy this. It wasn’t reflective of Dubai (God help us if someone finds a food that is) in any way that I could see, it didn’t really work for me at any level and the green vegetables inside were, to my mind, over-done. I likes a bit of crunch, see. I would have much preferred something honestly, greenly, crisp and buttery with a challenging flavour along the lemon or creamy scale of things to offset the rich wagyu, deep winey turnip and dark brown, intensity of the braised beef.
But then I’m not swinging four Michelin stars around as my culinary pudenda, am I?
By now the Musar’s flowing and it’s perfect with the rich flavours and sumptuous textures: I’m in transports and everyone around the table is nothing less than delighted, surprised and charmed. We’re also starting to work out that we’re not going to get away with this one on the cheap!
Desserts included ‘Le Latour’ a stack of praline, chocolate and coconut milk cake (“Nice, but ordinary”) and the ‘Feuillitage croustillant’, a puff pastry baton halved at table by the waiter in a neat piece of theatre and served with mascarpone and apples on a bowl of apple and calvados ice cream and apple sauce. I passed and went for the cheese course.
Again, like Keller, Gagnaire doesn’t do a ‘cheese platter’, but actually cooks with his cheese: a ‘composed cheese’ course. This didn’t suit one member of the party, who just wanted ‘some cheese’, but not enough to test the waiters and ask for it.
My ‘Nord de la France’ consisted of a ramekin of salad and beer cream with shavings of carroty Mimolette, a sharp, ammoniac mousse of Camembert with two studs of creamy Pont L’Eveque and a slice of soft, melting Neuchatel with a rich drizzling of lovage and pear cider reduction.
It was nothing less than spectacular and I was deeply glad that I had rubbed my glass to conjure up that genie of the bottle, the sommelier, to bring me a tot of truly excellent dessert wine to go with it.
If this isn’t the longest review I’ve ever written, it’s certainly the longest I’ve written for The Fat Expat. This was a truly, awesomely, great meal cooked by a great chef working for a world class chef and supported by a team of utter professionals. You can't just skim over it..
My fear is that the French team are in for a six month stint, training some local hires before they jet off back to London, Paris or Tokyo. My fear is that the kitchen will go all wayward, the worst danger of the licenses and franchises that are peppering Dubai’s yaya hotels.
But for now, this is as good as you’re going to get. We paid a touch over Dhs 1,000 per head: pretty much the price that had The Guardian wringing its napkin in angst when it reviewed Sketch.
Would I pay it again? Yes I would. This is the restaurant that I would recommend anyone in Dubai visits for a stunning experience: ambience, service, delight and sheer experimentalism combine at Reflets to create a truly sublime experience. The food is not only brilliant, but challenging, silly, funny, charming and entertaining in itself. The service is impeccable. The experience is brilliant.