Note: Click here for a more recent review of Benoit.
My girlfriend was waiting when I arrived at Benoit last night. “I’ve decided I want the whole menu,” she said. It’s an understandable reaction. If you like French classics, Benoit is the place for you.
Nominally, the proprietor here is the reknowned Michelin star-studded chef, Alain Ducasse. But at Benoit, what you’re getting is not so much Ducasse, but the French tradition that Ducasse has purchased and repackaged. The original Benoit, in Paris, dates from 1912. Ducasse bought the restaurant three years ago and duplicated it, first in Tokyo, and now in New York.
Ducasse didn’t stint here, spending more on the décor than he did at his other new restaurant, Adour. It abounds with wonderful little stylistic touches, such as the cute little paper wrappers around the napkins, the hefty wooden frames in which menus are delivered, and the fire-engine red trivets that hold the copper serving pots. That same red matches the banquettes and the coffee cups.
The menu will bring a smile to anyone who gets weak-kneed at the sight of escargots ($16/doz.), onion soup gratinée ($9), or duck à l’orange ($24). Prices, for now, are bargains by today’s standards, with the most expensive entrée at $29: a lamb chop, medallion & filet, with gratin Dauphinois. If Ducasse were doing market research, he’d have branded it “Lamb Three Ways” and charged at least five bucks more.
A Pâté en Croûte ($17) was wonderful. The menu advises that it’s the “Lucien Tendret recipe since 1892.” Around the pâté itself is a luscious rim of gelatin, and around that a thin, soft coating of pastry. It’s better than any individual pâté at Bar Boulud, though the latter restaurant has a much wider variety of them. If you’re in a charcuterie mood, Benoit offers a $39 platter for two, featuring various hams, sausages, veal tongue, and so forth.
That pâté isn’t the only recipe credit on the menu. The cassoulet ($26) is the J. J. Rachou recipe. Rachou was the chef and owner at LCB Brasserie Rachou, and before that La Côte Basque, which had occupied this space before Ducasse acquired it. The cassoulet sorely tempted us, but we had another order in mind.
The menu’s most expensive item is a Roasted Chicken for two ($48). Ducasse is either crazy or a genius for making such a humble item the centerpiece of the restaurant. He could have served a 40 oz. côte de bœuf at an extravagant price, and no one would have blanched. It’s what we expected of him. Instead, he is serving humble poultry—not a Bluefoot Chicken with truffles under the skin, as he did at the Essex House, but its humble, more rustic cousin.
Benoit has only been open two days, but so far the strategy is working: chickens were flying out of the kitchen. It’s a self-sustaining market. A wonderful aroma of garlic and rosemary fills the dining room as the waiters bring a sizzling chicken out of the kitchen. Those who haven’t ordered yet ask their server, “What is that?” The server tells them, and they say, “We’ll have that too.” Soon, another chicken comes out of the kitchen, to beguile another set of patrons. Lather, rinse, repeat.
After the chicken is presented, the server whisks it back into the kitchen for carving. There’s no magic about it, either. It is simply the traditional dish, expertly prepared. It is a bargain at $24 a person, considering that it is probably more chicken than you can finish. As good as it is, you’ll want to try.
Side dishes weren’t as impressive. The chicken comes with french fries “L’ami Louis style,” which would be $8 if ordered separately. They’re stacked and woven together in a cylindrical tower, which is striking to look at, but fries on the “inside” of the tower needed more time in the fryer, and weren’t warm enough. Those on the outside were too greasy. A side of creamed spinach ($7) was nothing special and arrived too late.
Except for the spinach snafu, the service routine was in very good shape for the second night. Bread rolls were fresh and soft, as was the butter. The restaurant’s liquor license wasn’t approved yet, but the restaurant had warned us in advance, and I’d brought a bottle with me. “La Crema,” our server noted. “That will pair well with our food.”
The city’s French “old guard” has been in decline for many years. Does that mean the old classics have lost their allure? We think they never do, especially when they’re prepared as well as at Benoit. Some formality has been lost in the transition from La Côte Basque to Benoit. There’s no “voila!” as each plate is delivered. A suit and tie are no longer de rigeur. But the food is right out of the old school—or so it seemed to us.
As the Times noted a couple of weeks ago, this type of food, minus the jacket-and-tie policy, seems to be making a comeback. We’re as fond of it as anyone, so we’ll be hoping for many years of success at Benoit.
Benoit (60 W. 55th Street between Fifth & Sixth Avenues, West Midtown)