Le Comptoir de Pierre Gagnaire
480 West Jianguo Road, Xuhui District,
Shanghai, 200031 China
Tel. +86 21 5466 9928
Much like in winery life, gastronomic realities are shaped by an international web of friendships, family relationships and mentorships. Though certainly not in each and every case, but more often than not, you go work a harvest, in a cellar, or in a kitchen where you know someone well, where you have friends, where you have a relative.
Life has a way of coming full circle: the end of one story is more often than not the beginning of a new one. In 2017, Pierre Gagnaire, at the head of an international restaurant empire and one of the world’s most famous and talented chefs whose eponymous three Michelin star Parisian eatery remains to this day one of the ten best restaurants I have ever eaten in (and I have eaten in more than you can even begin to imagine, in a lifetime devoted to wine and food), chose his long-time protégé, Romain Chapel, to man his first restaurant in China, Le Comptoir de Pierre Gagnaire.
Romain Chapel is the son of legendary French chef Alain Chapel, who was at one point mentor to a younger Pierre Gagnaire who trained with him; and so there’s the circle of life alluded to earlier. Alain Chapel passed away from a stroke in 1990, at only fifty-three years of age while visiting friends and attending the annual summer theatre festival in Avignon. And though this is an article on a restaurant owned by another truly legendary and great chef as is Pierre Gagnaire, and where the Executive chef is the ultra-talented Romain Chapel, it behooves me to mention Alain Chapel, one of history’s greatest chefs who turned his three Michelin star eatery in Mionnay just about ten kilometers or so from Lyon into a temple of high gastronomy like few others. Initially called La Mère and that he renamed after himself in 1970), serious foodies and sybarites pilgrimaged to the restaurant regularly in its heyday, because Chapel dishes such as the truffle-stuffed chicken wrapped in a pork bladder and cooked in a rich chicken broth, the gateau de foies blonds, or the stuffed calves’ ears with fried parsley were, and are, indelible hallmarks of fine French cuisine. At Le Comptoir de Pierre Gagnaire in Shangahi, Romain Chapel’s cooking (after shuttering his family’s restaurant in 2012, he was at the two Michelin starred Lecture room and Library, one of a trio of dining venues in the 18th century townhouse of the Sketch Restaurants and Bars empire) is just as good as his father’s, but while it traces its roots in the classics, it offers contemporary twists that lighten the fare and make it more in tune with modern life. Dishes at the restaurant, such as the poached egg and Oscietra caviar, the beef tartare, the frogs legs Poulette and the poularde demi-deuil en vessie (stuffed chicken in bladder, an homage to Romain’s father), were or are memorable in their own way, and Le Comptoir de Pierre Gagnaire won a very deserved one Michelin star in 2019. As at all of Gagnaire’s many fine restaurants all over the world, he gives his various cooking teams the guidelines and keys to his cooking and famous dishes, but they can then take these in any direction they might like; or in the words of Gagnaire himself, “…. It’s like improvising a jazz melody with a band, eating such dishes is like seeing yourself on the plate, it’s not you, but it is still you”.
At Le Comptoir de Pierre Gagnaire, it’s not just the gastronomic experience that is memorable. Located in the southeastern part of the city’s pretty Xuhui District, the restaurant is situated within the absolutely gorgeous Capella hotel complex in Shanghai’s Jian Ye Li estate, featuring some of Shanghai’s last standing shikumen townhouses. The truly gorgeous building complex encompasses a hotel, various residences, and other food and beverage concept spaces, including Gagnaire’s own (excellent) La boulangerie (bakery). And while the outside is elegant and stately, Le Comptoir’s interiors are cleanly cut and contemporary, with an airy atmosphere replicating that of a beautiful and elegant Parisian salon but reworked, inspired and modified in light of the old-world glamour of 1930s Shanghai.
Much like the food, the building’s external and interior design and the décor, the wine list at Le Comptoir de Pierre Gagnaire is outstanding, and even more importantly, exceptionally well-devised. Wine director Shawn Xiao, previously at Joel Robuchon l’Atelier Shanghai and at Le Comptoir since July 2018, has done an amazing job in choosing truly noteworthy wines from some of the world’s best estates: intelligently, the wine list, which is also not excessively priced for a dining establishment of this caliber, does not focus only on French wines, but offers a fine selection of excellent names from many other wine countries as well. Furthermore, the wine list changes regularly, with new bottles appearing from around the world all the time. Xiao likes boutique wineries, preferably bidynamically run, and loves grapes such as Aligoté, Cabernet Franc, and Chenin Blanc, while nurturing a love for Champagne especially but things as diverse as fine Chinese wines too. In short, Le Comptoir de Pierre Gagnaire offers one of the best dining experiences in Shanghai and I have never come away disappointed. It was no different on my latest foray in the world of Le Comptoir. The cocoette of frogs legs remains an absolute classic that rivals that of Gagnaire himself in Paris, as does the lobster fricassee, and the poached egg shows everyone else in the city how this traditional French dish should be done properly. Desserts are also especially worthy of your time and sorry self-imposed dietary restrictions be done with. I’ve had so many great dishes and drinking moments at Le Comptoir I don’t even remember them all, and am sure to get them mixed up from the various times I’ve been there. But this last time, I remember the four liquid beauties that graced my taste buds. The Perrier Jouet NV Champagne Grand Brut was a nice thought on the part of Shawn Xiao, who generously offerd us a glass while we sat down comfortably and perused the menu. Juicy and flavourful, it is always an excellent NV Cuvée that puts many others to shame and provides diners with a fun, bright and bubbly start to any meal. As a nice contrast to the lively texture of the Champagne, the Samuel Billaud 2017 Chablis Premier cru Mont de Milieu showcases the riper, softer side of this premier cru and that some Chablis wines can be, with a buttery, broad-scaled, textured mouthful of pears, apples and hazelnuts. Absolutely outstanding, the Domaine des Baumard 2006 Savennières Clos du Papillon offers a brilliant take on drier-styled Chenin Banc, with a liquid minerality finely etched on your taste buds and lingering long and suave after the last sip. A touch more density and concentration and this would have pole vaulted into the upper echelons of my personal memory lane of 2021’s stellar, unforgettable white wines, but hey, it really was quite good as it was. We finished off a memorable meal with the utterly beautiful A.F. Gros 2012 Savigny-les-Beaune Clos des Guettes, a real panoply of ripe red cherries, violets, minerals and aromatic herbs all woven into a seamless texture. This wine provided a clear-cut example, if any was even needed, of how some undervalued Appellations can deliver moments of sheer pleasure and make a very fine meal even better than it already was.
And at Le Comptoir de Pierre Gagnaire, it is always a very fine meal indeed: there may be better restaurants than this one in the city, but not many.
Cocotte of frogs legs Poulette
Oscietra caviar and poached egg
Perrier Jouet NV Champagne Grand Brut 90
Samuel Billaud 2017 Chablis Premier cru Mont de Milieu 90
Domaine des Baumard 2006 Savennières Clos du Papillon 94
A.F. Gros Savigny-les-Beaune Clos des Guettes 94