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. Because, unlike Shakespeare’s rose, le Comptoir de Pierre Gagnaire just wouldn’t smell as sweet if it were called by any other name.
Shanghai is all a-twitter about ‘Michelin chefs’ and Gagnaire’s restaurants around the world collectively hold 17 Michelin stars, but stars received elsewhere lend no guarantees. There’s the service, to start, which, unless particularly horrid or particularly fabulous, I tend to leave aside. But premium prices deserve premium attention – a 15-minute wait before managing to relay a plea for water puts a bad taste in the mouth before the meal even begins, and many more missteps follow.
But on to the food: the English-style afternoon tea set for two offers three tiers of lovable little somethings, like mini Croque Monsieurs with thin shavings of ham, gooey Comte cheese and truffled Mornay sauce and smoked fish toasts with dill. The raisin scones have the just the right texture that very few truly accomplish, and the sweet bites – soft lemon cakes, rich chocolate and caramel entremet, a velvety pistachio puff choux and so on – are beautiful.
Dinner offers modern French fare that occasionally recognises its Asian surroundings with regional fruits, spices and so on, like the Lilysing salad with Thai grapefruit, mango, mixed leaves and fermented tofu paste, but the bold bursts you expect don’t break through. Likewise, the strange galette of beef and red tuna advertises lemongrass on its ticket, but what should be a zippy, pungent twist goes unnoticed. Those that stay firmly grounded in French cuisine are safer: the first test of any French restaurant, le Comptoir’s foie gras terrine with dark onion jus drizzle and a jellied cube of Sauternes wine is excellent, and you shouldn’t apologise for using sweet brioche to gluttonously absorb every last fatty smear from the plate.
Aside from the terrine, there’s little to call exceptional. 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. But a murky dish of snails ‘a la Bordelaise’ doesn’t quite showcase a slug’s potential sumptuousness. Even dessert draws uninspired sighs, as the promising signature Chocolat Comptoir #0001 with light tufts of smoked chocolate ice cream, disks of chocolate ganache and pool of passion fruit cream arrives like a work of art, but leaves without revealing what all the fuss is about.
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.