Review: Le Gabriel, Bordeaux

Look, this is just getting ridiculous. Here’s a general request to all the fine dining restaurants I’ve tried in France over the last couple of years: pop out, buy one of the delicious little gateaux from any of the fine patisseries within a few yards of your restaurant, pop it on plate and present it to me for dessert. Seriously, in the last four Michelin-starred restaurants I’ve been to in France I haven’t had one dessert to match a nice bit of patisserie. Le Gabriel turns out to be no different.

Le Gabriel is the “old standard” of Bordelaise fine dining; it’s been there for years on one side of the grandiose La Bourse square, bistro beneath and bastion of white linen above. Old guard it may be, but the menu boasts that innovation is one of their hallmarks, so is the food still relevant?

We didn’t really love our dining room; it was a side room with only two tables, the other being occupied by an octet of septegenarian American cruise ship passengers. Except for the vividly twee chandelier the decor was starched and uninteresting, and the service was pretty starched too. Not cold, just exceedingly professional. If the Americans were here to “experience French haute cuisine” then they must have been delighted.

Pre-starter of asparagus foam on a pea puree was seasonal and tasty, though it was rich rather than bright and fresh. This set us up nicely for the obligatory foie gras dish (it’s so ubiquitous on French fine dining menus that they might as well formalise it as “The Foie Gras Course” in the same way you’d have “The Fish Course”). This was a flippin’ excellent specimen, though. The shard of smoked black tea caramel on top was super, so was the smoked duck mousse beneath and the base of wild mushroom duxelles. Nice foie gras in the middle. Final starter was extremely dramatic: a sea urchin, hollowed out, filled with a sea urchin risotto and topped with vanilla foam.

Two fish courses followed. A pungent piece of red mullet paired with asparagus, would have been better balanced with more of the sharp sorrel pesto that came as a single pathetic dot. The langoustine tail was underdone for my taste; I like it cooked almost opaque and meaty rather than gelatinous in the middle. Vivacious and colourful accompaniment of grapefruit, carrot and peas though.

The main course was an absolute star. Veal sweetbread, beautifully cooked, and accompanied by a bitter coffee sauce. The bitterness was balanced by a variety of sweetcorn things; a rich veloute, a polenta chip, popcorn, fried polenta cubes and some fine dice of baby corn. Definitely one of those never-had-this-combination-before dishes, and a great one at that.

We squeezed in some well kept cheese, and then a bright and zippy pre-dessert. But dessert itself was a disaster. Chocolate and carrot sounds like a brave combination. The carrot and cumin sorbet on top was great, and the thin tempered chocolate cylinder was beautiful and crisp. But inside there was essentially some barf. Some kind of mild milk chocolate mousse with some carrot creme and a fine dice of raw carrot. Essentially, barf. It’s not often that all four diners leave some pudding on the plate. Which is a shame as the rest of the meal was delicious.

So: some truly great cooking, one terrible dish, some innovative combinations that worked very well, somewhat starchy surroundings. The menu was E120 per person, and really that’s a bit too much for the food we enjoyed. But then again, maybe I’m just bitter about the pudding?

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