Ducasse kept the feel of Brasserie La Cote Basque, adding a sexy little bar. Photo: Gael Greene
I was hungry to eat French. Not modernist French. I was thinking classic, not tricked-up classic. It would be a vacation from dazzling pan-Asian, fiercely creative American, Italian on a bender, yet another pizza joint. Alain Ducasse’s Benoit New York struck me as the obvious choice.
Some people rescue stray cats. Others adopt vulnerable recently-divorced husbands. Visionaries take on ravaged countries. Alain Ducasse, in his evolution from Michelin three-star wunderkind at Louis XV in Monte Carlo, to a Gallic iteration of a global Let-Us-Entertain-You emperor, has a weakness for aging bistros. Inside this jet-streaming calculator lives a kind of Mother Teresa, intent on saving the souls of this threatened species.
He launched his collection with Aux Lyonnais in Paris, respectfully spiffing it up, preserving the artery-defying sausagerie of Lyons. A year later he bought the limping 93-year-old Benoit, in the fourth arrondissement, preserving the doilies, retrofitting the staff. Then, in 2007, when Jean Jacques Rachou abandoned his Brasserie LCB on 55th Street in a fit of rage over health inspectors invading his kitchen one day during lunch, Ducasse, the preservationist, rode to the rescue.
Rachou stripped the space of the evocative St. Jean de Luz murals commissioned by the late Henri Soulé. Ducasse inserted an outpost of Benoit, kept the cartoon ovals in the frieze and art deco sconces, creating a sexy little bar with cherubs in the ceiling from an old bakery, adding his own stunning collection of antique molds. With so many French institutions vanishing, I thought Benoit could be Ducasse’s way to New York’s heart. He’s nursed the place along through its ups and downs. I recall the Paris-Brest pastry at the end of a wonderful dinner just months before Philippe Bertineau moved in. “We need this Frenchness,” I thought. It hasn’t been often that Ducasse and I agree.
The room has been opened up since my last visit, I notice, and it’s full on a Saturday night, bright enough to read the menu and not uncomfortably noisy. Granted, the staff is not as French as I would like. (Discrimination laws have battered that fantasy.) But there are the same puffy Ducasse gougères and good bread in a red cotton cozy. Dare I order pig’s feet and cassoulet too? I wonder, studying the new menu. A salad seems more prudent. My favorite country-style frisée arrives, bathed in bacon fat, with a thunderstorm of crisp bacon lardons under its perfect poached egg. Inspired choice for a woman in denial.
The Road Food Warrior is having his third onion soup in a week. This one could be the prototype - flawlessly correct - an oniony broth, a measured sog of country bread, the gruyère crusty on the edges, submissive in the middle. Bertineau has added neat crouton chapeaux atop garlicky escargots, perfect for dunking in buttery green puddles.
Our friend Harriet is indignant, not happy at all with her hors d’oeuvres (what happened to the French spelling here Alain?). Not that the price is rude: three small portions for $12, or five for $16. It works with the marvelous melting leeks vinaigrette, and I’m sure it would be fine for lentils, maybe even the rillettes, but an inch and a half of short rib parmentier is silly, and pig’s feet served in small poker chip-size discs, a cruel joke. Where is the crumb-crusted fist size patty of gelatinous bones and melting flesh we envisioned and lusted after? “Maybe I’ll do it as a classic of the month,” the chef muses when I complain later.
He serves his meticulously seared day-boat scallops with Manila clams and broccoli rabe. I love broccoli rabe, but its bitterness fights the sweet seafood. Skate is everywhere these days, often in a puddle of brown butter. Tonight's is special, its lemony smashed potatoes instantly transporting. “Taste,” I urge Harriet. “We could be in France.”
Knowing that Bertineau has been crowned New York’s ‘Ambassador of Cassoulet’ by his confreres in Southwest France, I must taste his version. It comes in an orange enamelware pot. “Watch out, it’s hot,” the waiter warns when I opt to serve myself a chunk of duck confit, a pork sausage, a bit of fatty bacon, giant tarbais beans. It’s very good, but alas, the miraculous cassoulet of Christian Delouvrier at La Mangeoire is clouding my memory.
Bertineau is either an outright obsessive compulsive or just plain obsessed. Was it something Ducasse said? The new chef struck the larder like a whirling dervish, changed the butter (“It comes from Vermont now”), and found a new source for bread, finishing the half-baked loaves before service so it will be fresh at dinner. The walnut oil wasn’t good enough for him. He changed the vinegar, and the source for chicken. He gets his cheese from Saxelby. “All the charcuterie is done in house. I went to the kitchen at Daniel for a brush-up course in pâté en croute. It’s not simple, you know.” He brought his popular twice-baked upside-down Comté cheese soufflé and warm chicken salad from Payard for the Benoit menu. Quenelle and the cassoulet are featured as “Essentials,” available all year. He introduced the “Classic of the Month,” choucroute in January, veal blanquette in February, aioli in July. It was green asparagus with creamy morels and classic poached eggs last spring.
The Ducasse gougères require a great Comté cheese. “Ducasse tastes them whenever he comes to be sure they are right. Of course Ducasse tastes everything,” Bertineau adds. “I think you’re getting there,” Ducasse told him recently. “We’re on the right road.”
Sommelier Andre Compeyre’s inspiration to serve great wines by the ounce may appeal to some. An ounce of Chateau Petrus is $48, the same teeny slurp of d’Yquem, just $30. One ounce of La Doucette is a mere $9.
The kitchen sends us a baba soaked in Armagnac with the desserts we have ordered. I can’t decide if I’m more taken by the meltingly caramelized tarte tatin or the oval of crème fraîche that I’m mixing into it. The Benoit profiteroles with vanilla ice cream in a separate bowl are too conceptual for me. All I ask is ice cream in a classic puff with seriously dark chocolate. These mingy little pâte á choux balls filled with crème patissier require do-it-yourself dipping, therapy perhaps, for a psyche looser than mine.
Still, I agree it’s definitely on the right road. Just a few little potholes to fix.
To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Benoit Paris, our local off-shoot plans a May 3 dinner of bistro classics interpreted by Chefs Michael Anthony (Gramercy Tavern), April Bloomfield (The Spotted Pig, The John Dory Oyster Bar, The Breslin Bar & Dining Room) and Michael White (Marea, Ai Fiori, Osteria Morini), who will be joining Bertineau and Pastry Chef Jerome Husson, “along with Alain Ducasse,” the press release adds reverently. The Michelin-starred conglomateur has vowed he’ll never touch another pot. Guess we’ll have to settle for his spirit.
60 West 55th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. 646 943 7373. Lunch Monday through Saturday 11:45 am to 5:30 pm. Dinner Monday through Sunday 5:30 to 11 pm. Brunch Sunday 11:30 am to 3:30 pm.