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Alain Ducasse

Note: Alain Ducasse at the Essex House closed in late 2006. Ducasse transferred the kitchen team to a new but less formal restaurant, Adour, at the St. Regis Hotel, which opened in early 2008.

I had been looking for a special occasion to visit Alain Ducasse at the Essex House Hotel, a/k/a “ADNY”. That occasion presented itself yesterday, and my friend and I had a grand time. The experience was, if not perfect, certainly extraordinary—the definition of four stars, if ever there was.

I’ve seen many photographs of the room, but they fail to do it justice. It is creative, comfortable and luxurious, without being over-the-top. The exposed kitchen surprised me. Obviously there are plenty of open kitchens at fine restaurants in New York, but here it seemed slightly out-of-place.

ADNY virtually defines extraordinary service. One could give a thousand examples, but what especially impressed me is that our coats were taken when we arrived without a check ticket, and were ready for us when we left. Somehow, the staff is able to keep track of every coat and has telepathic insight when you are ready to leave.

Your options at ADNY are a three-course meal at $150, four courses at $175, the seven-course tasting menu at $225, or the six-course tuber melanosporum (black truffle) tasting at $290. We chose the four-course meal ($175 plus supplements), which offers an appetizer, a fish course, a meat course, and dessert.

ADNY tries mightily to tempt you with the truffle menu. Before we ordered, a member of staff brought around a box of several enormous black truffles in a bed of rice. I was encouraged to pick one up and take a whiff, which I did. We had already decided on the four-course, but we were still going to see truffles later on.

The water service might be seen as an attempt at upselling. Almost every starred restaurant tries to entice you to purchase bottled water, but at ADNY a water sommelier comes along with six waters for you to choose from. However, our request for tap water was heeded graciously.

I was beginning to wonder if attempts to pad the bill were going to take over. I asked the wine sommelier either to recommend a single bottle in the $150-200 range, or wines by the glass paired with each course. He was happy to do either, and when he didn’t state a price, I wondered what was coming. I was happy to find that the paired wines came in at only $140, below the bottom end of my stipulated range.

Our service began with two wonderful gougères and an amuse of seared tuna with pureed celery root. There was a choice selection of warm bread, of which an olive roll was especially memorable, along with two fresh butters (one salted, one not).

For the appetizer, I chose the butternut squash ravioli, celery “moustarda di cremona”, and sage emulsion, a complex dish that is difficult to explain. More straightforward, but no less superb, was my friend’s foie gras terrine, with mango chutney sandwiched by layers of foie.

I had no firm idea about the fish course, but I chose the Chatham cod, which includes “fennel—some braised, others raw—Taggiasca tapenade, and clear essence.” I reasoned that as this dish is part of the tasting menu, the chef must be rather pleased with it. It was, of course, impeccably prepared, but utterly unadventurous, and in the end unacceptably dull. My friend made the happier choice: poached Maine lobster with truffles ($35 supp.), which she pronounced superb. She must be getting to know me pretty well, as she said, “I took one look at that cod, and could tell you weren’t going to love it.”

(Update: Over on eGullet.com, Steven A. Shaw (the “Fat Guy”)—who is a professional food writer and has been to ADNY more than just about anybody else who writes about it—read my review and said, “I agree that the fish dish oakapple described is unremarkable as were two other fish dishes I tried on our most recent visit, when we also had the four-course menu with all the same choices oakapple described. On the whole, the fish course was weak. Maybe as part of a longer tasting menu I’d have seen it in a different context: a beautiful little piece of fish with a technically correct sauce. But as an entree-type course the fish dishes fell flat.”)

I’d heard rave reviews of the blue foot chicken ($35 supp.), which we both had. This dish is a truffle orgy, with truffles both under the skin and all over the plate. The raves are entirely justified; it was outstanding.

Another dish everyone raves about is “Monsieur Ducasse’s favorite dessert,” Baba Monte-Carlo style, with rum of your choice. A server comes around with a tray of five rums. You choose one, and it is poured into a small copper cup. You also receive a bit of the rum in a snifter. The Baba comes out in a sterling silver bowl that must have been custom-made for Ducasse, as I’ve never seen anything like it. Your server slices the cake in half, pours the rum over its innards, then ladles on heapings of cream. If there’s a better dessert in New York, I can’t imagine it.

We were not finished yet, as the kitchen sent out a small serving of sorbet as a palate cleanser. Then, a cart comes out with more sweets, of which you may choose as many as you please. (I had the vanilla panna cotta and a marshmallow coated with almonds.) The selection of coffees ($8) was impressive, including even M. Ducasse’s custom espresso, which I enjoyed.

The meal was not perfect: the Chatham cod didn’t live up to the surroundings, and none of the vegetable accompaniments wowed me. But at its best, ADNY operates at a level few restaurants can touch.

Alain Ducasse at the Essex House (155 West 58th Street between Sixth & Seventh Avenues, West Midtown)

Food: ***½
Service: ****
Ambiance: ****
Overall: ****

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