Note: This is a review of Gilt under Chef Paul Liebrandt, who left the restaurant later in 2006. Click here for a review of Gilt under Chef Chris Lee. Those who were as impressed with Liebrandt’s cooking as I was can rejoice: in late 2008, he opened Corton in the former Montrachet space.
My friend and I had dinner at Gilt last night. Located in what was once the Villiard Mansion (and is now the Palace Hotel), in the space that was formerly Le Cirque, it is an opulent restaurant that is clearly trying to shoot for the moon. It doesn’t always get there. Chef Paul Liebrandt’s cuisine is adventurous, colorful, thoughtful, and frequently excellent. But there are too many dishes that fail to live up to their promise.
The menu at Gilt changes frequently, and is still clearly undergoing some refinement. Frank Bruni complained that practically half the dishes carried supplements on top of a $92 prix fixe. On last night’s version, I noted a supplement only on the Dover Sole ($12).
We chose the seven-course tasting menu, which is $160 on the website, but was $145 last night. There were, in fact, something closer to eleven courses, including two flights of amuses bouches, white asparagus, foie gras, skate, lobster, a palate cleanser, Berkshire pork belly, cheese course, another palate cleanser, and a degustation of chocolate. Every plating was a work of art.
I’m not adept at remembering ingredients, and Liebrandt puts more into each dish than any chef in town. We found the foie gras, the pork belly, and the cheese course spectacular. Especially notable was a decadent truffle butter that was brought to the table with the foie gras. But both fish courses disappointed. The skate was only about the size of a silver dollar, and it failed to make any impression at all. And there were just two popcorn-sized lumps of lobster. The white asparagus wasn’t as impressive as what Geoffrey Zakarian’s performance of it at Country. The chocolate degustation was terrific if you’re a choc-a-holic, but I think there should have been other options for dessert.
Gilt is clearly trying to offer four-star service, and at times it succeeds. For instance, Gilt was just the third restaurant I’ve been to (along with Alain Ducasse and Per Se) that has your coat ready when you leave, without the attendant even asking your name. But there were peculiar glitches. The wrong wine glasses were delivered to the table: a captain whispered, “No, the bordeaux glasses,” and the right stemware was quickly substituted. When you leave your table, the staff brings a fresh napkin. Or they’re supposed to. On one occasion, a new napkin wasn’t there immediately; on another, I had to ask for it.
Frank Bruni complained about the $1,000 glass of wine at Gilt. It’s still on the menu (a Screaming Eagle cabernet that’s ridiculously priced everywhere). When he first visited, wines by the glass didn’t come cheaper than $18, but there are now choices as low as $12 (though you’ll more likely pay at least $14). For wines by the bottle, there are plenty of choices under $100, and even a handful under $50. For a restaurant of this calibre, I can’t complain about that. My friend and I chose a Martinelli Reserve Pinot Noir at $122, which was out-of-this-world. It was more than we usually spend, but it was a night to splurge. Gilt does gouge you in other ways. Cocktails are $15 apiece, which is on the high side, and we were charged $9 each for capuccinos.
The room is small, elegant, and comfortable. The door to the kitchen is up a short flight of steps, and open to view, which detracts slightly from the magic of the occasion. The hard polished wood surfaces reflect sound, and when the restaurant fills up it gets a bit noisier than I’d like.
The bill came to just a hair under $500, including tax. We went home happy, and much of the food was as terrific as it should be, but at that price there should be a sustained excellence that was lacking. I can see why Frank Bruni awarded just two stars, but that seems almost punitive for a restaurant that aims as high as Gilt, and often succeeds.
Gilt (455 Madison Avenue at 50th Street, in the Palace Hotel, East Midtown)