Friday, December 23, 2005

Classic New York City Entry #44

I was startled when dining at Alain Ducasse at the Essex House. My wife and I were enjoying a distinguished meal which I commented had just barely missed the heights of culinary brilliance that I experience rarely (this year at a special dinner at Craft, and one at Alinea, and a third at Moto). She explained that I preferred molecular cuisine to classic dishes. To be more precise, she claimed I liked "weird food," but her point was taken.

What unsettled me was her claim that Alain Ducasse reflects classic cuisine. Of course the adjective "classic" is a moving target. But as someone who began dining at a moment in which classic French cuisine in New York City - La Caravelle, La Cote Basque, and the survivor La Grenouille - was haute cuisine, it is odd to think of Chef Ducasse and his Chef de Cuisine Tony Esnault as cribbing from Le Pavillon. Alain Ducasse is very much a man trained in the ferment of French cuisine in the last third of the twentieth century, a child of nouvelle cuisine and the other bastardy theories subsequently spawned, so well summarized by Rudolph Chelminski in The Perfectionist.

Ducasse is a purist. In Cuisine and Culture Jean-Francois Revel distinguishes between culinary traditions that rely on exploiting the essence of a few ingredients simplified in their perfection, and those artists who go for elaboration, decoration, ornamentation, and complexity. Often diners (and I often find myself among them) believe that the more complexity, the more creativity. Perhaps so, but the same can not be said of quality. Ducasse asserts that ingredients are more important than technique by a freakily precise 60/40 ratio (where does this come from?). Is the chef less important than the butcher, farmer or fisher? If so, let us head to their table.

Ducasse is a synthesizer, not an analyzer. He brings traditions together, leaving others to rip them apart. He searching for the center that will hold, refusing the lure of the edgy. This was not a night of deconstructed recipes. As Ducasse notes on his website, "Inventive cooking is an art which requires a complete knowledge of traditional methods." Knowledge, yes, but how should a chef display that knowledge. His dishes rarely provoke, they satisfy. To collect his stars Ducasse carefully modulates what the uptown establishment can appreciate. Yet, this is not the classic French cuisine of the Jackie Kennedy culinary moment. Ducasse has a lighter touch, he does judiciously combine flavors, and in his food served in "plein air," he is hardly a saucier's apprentice. Spa cuisine this is not, but neither is there much call for a defibrillator.

Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, or ADNY as it is known, is a space of bountiful grandeur, exquisitely decorated (His webpage reads like a guidebook to a French chateau). Of all the weighty New York restaurants (with the exception of Daniel), it is ADNY that depicts a temple of haute cuisine. It is grand cuisine for an informal age (Blazers required, but no ties). But when the bill appears one knows that it is not cuisine for an impoverished age. Ducasse claims Haute Cuisine must be "simple, approachable, and understood by everyone." SAU-E for the masses. And we are assured that "a restaurant is first and foremost a place to eat." Silly me, once the check arrived I could have sworn that it was a place to spend. (By perusing the wacky wine markups I was comforted to learn that I can retire on my cellar, if Alain is buying).

Our service was both precise and gracious. It was formal without being stuffy. If during the transit strike, ADNY rounded up servers off the street (my personal fantasy), they demonstrated that a suit makes the man. My only complaint - a curious one - was that when I asked for a copy of the menu for tasting notes, I was graciously presented one from some other week. The current menu (with minor exceptions) is on the website.

For those who seek cuisine in extremis, something is missing at ADNY. By being a restaurant that attempts perfection, the quirks of love's labor can be lost. This is a restaurant of violins, not the clash of cymbals. I was impressed with most dishes, even when I wouldn't have called for a second helping. The overall quality was far higher than my experience at Le Bernardin, even if the most sublime dishes of the meals were two inspirations of Chef Ripert. Recalling Le Bernardin, in contrast to the pathetic bread service I suffered through, the breads at ADNY are sublime: baguette, plain and crunchy, and a blissful olive brioche that demonstrate that bread, properly made, is heaven-sent.

Rather than ordering seven course tasting menus, my wife and I selected two four course dinners, permitting us to taste eight dishes to skip some dishes - venison, for instance - that didn't appeal (the dinner was $50 less than the tasting menu. Smart us.) At ADNY most of the tasting menu dishes are available on the main menu; with a partner that one can bully into sharing, life is complete.

Our amuse was a splendid truffle construction. ADNY pushes a white truffle tasting menu, and they are advertising their wares (earlier the waiter had brought over a dish of white truffles, marketing the ineffable). Over a small square of exquisitely raw tuna was celeriac salad and finely chopped white truffles with a small tail of black truffle. So aromatic was the bite that I understood why swine wake to tuber dreams. Forget the tuna, a Ritz cracker would have sufficed.

As appetizer I ordered "Roasted Langoustine with ‘Cepe' mushroom garnish with Riviera Ligure olive oil." I asked about the quotation marks surrounding the "cepe," chuckling that I spotted Wylie Dufresne's WD-50 grade irony, but the server insisted that no drollery was intended. I was half right: the boletes were served three ways, dried, as a chopped mash, and whole. The dish, simple yet elegant, contained superb fungi, shellfish and olive oil. Let us call this classic nouvelle. Perhaps it was too austere, but one could hardly find grounds for complaint.

My wife selected "Marinated Nantucket bay scallops, cucumber vinegar young potatoes "moutarde pomme verte," and hearts of romaine. And to seduce Alain's bookkeepers, she supplemented the dish with a ring of Caspian Golden Osetra Caviar. Perhaps the bay scallops were touched by heat, perhaps they were French ceviche, but whichever they stood at the zenith of sushi. The same might be said of the demure underage potatoes, they were as cool as scallops. This was another simple, pure plate, avoiding clashing flavors or clashing colors. Mild in conception and presentation. If one cares about perfect flavors, about balance, about freshness, this was the dish. Gosh, it was perfect. Served without a hint of Bolivian, Slovenian, or Cambodian spice or a whiff of nitrous oxide.

My fish course was Chatham cod with braised and raw fennel, Taggiasca olive tapenade and clear essence (perhaps a tribute to Bernard Loiseau's watery cuisine). I love fennel and this pair was the high point of a dish that was muffled and lacked pungency. The fish was overcooked (I am coming to insist that if my fish is not swimming, it has been cooked too long). The dish was soggy in conception and execution. Perhaps it was not a failure, but the dish was not so transcendent that its lack of zest seemed like profundity. Good fish with lovely fennel; call it a day.

Our second "fish" dish was Lobster with matchsticks of butternut squash, salsify, mango, and "jus de presse." The last I take to refer to grape "juice" runoff from the wine-making process. Of the evening's presentations this was the one that is most dramatic and astounding, and the lobster was stunning. Ducasse takes foodstuff's seriously. The flavors were complex and pungent, although in contrast to the other dishes dripping with essence, this plate felt forced. I relished the contrasting tastes - and this was no Alinea on the Seine - but it seemed beyond Alain's range.

My meat course returned to the core of the Ducasse style, "Dry Aged Prime "Cote de Boeuf," Glazed Short Ribs, and a contrast of carrots" (balled and chopped). The Cote de Boeuf (ribeye) is beef squared. It is either to its credit or disadvantage that, with the exception of a dusting of pepper, it lies nude. This is not beef so tender that one can carve with a butter knife, neither does it have the charred remains of great steakhouse cuts. Chefs Ducasse and Esnault are testing us - are we really carnivores, or is beef a delivery system for A-1. At present short ribs seem as popular as foie gras, a chef's delight. I expected to be shocked, teased, and challenged, instead I was pleased. I admire the commitment to quality, but when my plate was cleared I had been eating beef and carrots. A trip to Lobel's (the red meat Tiffany where my mother shopped) could have provisioned meat of Alain's quality, and if I didn't screw up at the stove, I could replicate the plate in my jammies.

My wife lusts after rack of lamb, and so Lamb Rack "Au Sautoir" (sauteed) with a condiment of dried fruits and piquillos (sweet red peppers from the Pyrenees) with creamy quinoa was the inevitable selection. I second her choice. The lamb was pure, distinctive without being gamy, and the peppers and fruits added an interest less evident in my beef. One could eat the rack naked or in an exotic autumnal clothing. Quinoa is today's faro, or is it the reverse? Placing quinoa on the plate was, well, a bit nutty. Not terribly misguided, but I wished for ravishing Franco-spuds.

Ah, dessert. One stunner: the Pear soufflé with Bartlett compote, "beurre salé"/caramel ice cream. I admire chefs who include bitter tastes in their culinary palette, and a burnt caramel ice cream (the way that beurre salé is typically prepared) has evokes a sweet bitterness. My wife was not so charmed by the custard as I, but it added a complexity to a soufflé that demonstrated the chef's finesse, but was not haunting. The burnt caramel demanded notice. I choose different arrangements of pear and caramel to explore the splendor of this post-classic composition.

The second dessert, a white chocolate box with roasted pineapple, soft vanilla biscuit, and coconut/lime sorbet reveals what happens when a restaurant that strives for simplicity attempts elaboration. I'm not sure if Pierre Gatel is still the pastry chef (he is not mentioned on the webpage - but was in a 2004 press release), but this experiment in contrast didn't work. The mix of tastes was a bit of mess, and the dish, pretty as presented, was not comfortable to consume. Few desserts are really horrid - add enough sugar and everything goes down smoothly - but this box was too precious for a restaurant that hides its cunning.

On completion of these final courses, we were plied with more dessert: sour cream ice cream with mango and passion fruit juice (an odd mix of dairy and fruit). Were that not sufficient we accepted homemade marshmallows, a rare and divine pavlova, and a passion fruit panna cotta. Finally we groaned, "no more, no more." A parting brioche lagniappe recalled ADNY the next morning.

Diners should dismiss ADNY only at their peril. This is my first visit to a restaurant that may have had rough moments, but the restaurant is purring. While some dishes were too simple and others strained too hard to capture the new culinary zaniness, Alain Ducasse is a consummate professional. Perhaps he can only find his way to the Essex House with a map, but his Chef de Cuisine Tony Esnault knows his way around a stove and knows the Ducasse metier.

Maybe it is an insecure thirst for novelty that makes me a downtown eater - more Union Square than Central Park West. In league with many American colleagues, I search for a tickling of my passions through techniques outside the book of classical love. And it is this that dampens my respect with the hidden desire for culinary explosions: memories for a palate that I pretend has been jaded, but has only been untested. I want, need, demand astonishment, even knowing how foolish this sounds. Perfection is so yesterday.

And so I visualize Chef Ducasse perusing my thoughts. His imagined response, a properly Gallic "Feh!"

Alain Ducasse
155 West 58th Street (at 7th Avenue)
Manhattan (Midtown)

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