The Times’ Florence Fabricant and I may be among the few cheering about the return of classic French cuisine, but perhaps there will soon be restaurants full of us. The other night, I looked in on the newest of these, Brasserie Cognac de Monsieur Ballon, or just Brasserie Cognac for short.
Let’s get this out of the way: Monsieur Ballon doesn’t exist. He’s an invention of the folks who own the Serafina chain, who now envision a bunch of brasseries by Mr. such-and-suches—this being the first. I wasn’t optimistic that the purveyors of formulaic Italian could put out a French restaurant of any distinction, but at first blush they’ve made a very serious attempt.
For starters, they engaged Rita and André Jammet, who had owned three-star La Caravelle, as consultants. The kitchen is in the hands of Florian Hugo, the great-great-grandson of the author Victor Hugo. The décor and menu are in the conventional brasserie style, authentic-looking without going over-the-top.
I would have overlooked a dish called Vol-au-vent, had not the server pointed it out. I don’t recall seeing it on any brasserie menu in New York. The waiter, who was French, assured me that it’s one of the classics, but not often served because it’s difficult to prepare. Wikipedia explains:
A Vol-au-vent (French for “windblown” to describe its lightness) is a small hollow case of puff pastry. A round opening is cut in the top and the pastry cut out for the opening is replaced as a lid after the case is filled. Vol-au-vents can accommodate various fillings, such as mushrooms, prawns, fruit, or cheese, but they are almost always savory.
The Vol-au-vent here was a lovely, light puff pastry that corralled a serving of lobster, foie gras and mushrooms in a lobster sauce. I was astounded that an entrée made with so many luxury ingredients was only $29.
There is some serious talent at the bar, too. I counted 18 house cocktails, and not just rote formula drinks with “-tini” and “-rita” suffixes. Six of them are cognac based, including the terrific one I tried, the Do Ré-my ($12), served in a champagne glass with Rémy Martin, sour mix, St. Germain liqueur, and Charles Heidsieck champagne.
There are 110 cognacs available. The printed list wasn’t yet available (it was only the restaurant’s second night), but the manager recommended an XO (normally $14) and then comped it. Service was slightly helter-skelter, but the staff (mostly Europeans, it appeared) were friendly and apologetic. I assume it will improve after things settle down.
I’ll withhold judgment till I’ve had a chance to sample more, but if the rest of the menu is as good as the Do Ré-my cocktail and the Vol-au-vent, then Brasserie Cognac is very good indeed. At the least, it’s a compelling new option for pre-Carnegie Hall dining.
Brasserie Cognac (1740 Broadway at 55th Street, West Midtown)