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The Payoff: Benoit

Yesterday, Frank Bruni concluded the review cycle for Alain Ducasse’s latest and perhaps final New York restaurant, Benoit. The review says as much about Bruni’s limitations as it does about Ducasse’s, but in the end Bruni lands on the correct rating, one star:

Don’t get me wrong: Benoit isn’t a bad restaurant, nor is it a throwaway restaurant, not even close. It has many enviable, pleasurable virtues…

But Benoit is selling a dining experience so familiar it’s almost a cliché, and that puts a particular premium on seamless execution, lest the production feel phony and cynical.

Invention and surprise are mostly off the table, so consistency and panache matter all the more. With a museum-piece restaurant like this, the difference between timeless and somewhat tired — between utterly delighting and intermittently amusing — is in its fluency and diction.

One star is the correct rating because, by all accounts, Benoit is inconsistent. We agree with Bruni that when “invention and surprise are off the table,” consistency and excellence are all you have to offer. Even fans of the genre concede that Benoit has two many slips to justify anything better than one star.

We also agree with Bruni that the menu should change with the seasons, and if baba au rhum is going to be offered, it ought to be the tour de force Ducasse is so noted for, and not the pallid version of it offered here.

But Bruni also uses words like “fusty,” “frowzy,” “stereotype,” “cliché,” and “museum-piece.” None of these are meant as compliments, and all of them are directed at the concept, not its execution. While the latter may rightly be faulted, the former should not be.

The critical cogniscenti of this town were never going to warm up to Benoit, but Ducasse certainly could have put a better foot forward than he did here. He may very well shake things up, and make Benoit the standout classic French restaurant it was intended to be, but he’ll never again have the critics’ attention.

We and Eater both predicted one star for Benoit. We both win $2 on our hypothetical one-dollar bets.

              Eater          NYJ
Bankroll $94.50   $118.67
Gain/Loss +2.00   +2.00
Total $96.50   $120.67
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 44–20   47–17

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