There’s plenty of great cooking in New York, but I am not often floored. I was floored on Friday by the quality of our meal at Millesime, the new French seafood restaurant in the Carlton Hotel, where Country used to be.
I don’t know if Millesime is the new restaurant of the year, but it certainly is the best restaurant that no one is talking about.
It is hard to over-state the obstacles that Millesime must overcome. I mentioned some of them in my review of the downstairs lounge, Salon Millesime, but they bear repeating:
- A name most people can’t pronounce (roughly: MEEL-eh ZEEM-eh)
- A location dead to foot traffic, and poorly served by transit
- A cuisine that is not currently fashionable
- A genre not favored by the city’s major critics
- A chef without name recognition in New York
That Laurent Manrique isn’t better known is a product of poor memories and east coast bias. He was named chef at Peacock Alley in 1992, at the age of 26. After five years, he moved onto Gertrude’s, where he was named Bon Appetit Rising Star Chef of 1998. A year later, he left New York for San Francisco, eventually winning two Michelin stars at Aqua for three consecutive years, 2007–2009. (He later left the restaurant in a dispute with management.)
If he’d done all that in New York, he’d be a household name in this town—at least among those who follow the restaurant business. But as he hasn’t worked here since the end of the last century, most of the city’s diners have no knowledge of him.
At Millesime (French for vintage), he’s clearly aiming for a vibe more casual than Aqua, and far more casual than the previous occupant, Country. The space has been brightened up, in the brasserie style. It remains one of the city’s most theatrically grand spaces, thanks to the overhead Tiffany skylight.
Most of the entrées are in the $20s, most of the appetizers in the low teens. Still, it pains me to suggest that the menu might intimidate diners not familiar with “Pike Quenelles Jean Louis Dumonet Style,” or the three preparations of potato on offer (all $5): Mousseline, Salardaises, or Paillasson.
Most of the menu choices are translated, but I fear that diners will associate French with old-school formality, even if that’s neither valid nor fair. Somehow, I don’t think an all-Italian menu would have that effect.
There are no amuses bouches or petits fours here, but everything we tasted was executed flawlessly. If the rest of the menu is as good, this is three-star food, though slightly undermined by service that is eager but not yet quite polished. Warm bread straight from the oven was so captivating that even the chefs couldn’t help snacking on it. It’s too bad they didn’t notice that the butter on our table had come out of the fridge, and was hard as a rock.
I haven’t encountered this dish in any French restaurant: Harengs Pommes A L’Huile ($15; above left & center). That’s a spray of warm fingerling potatoes, with a salad of smoked herring, which you combine at the table. It’s a lovely dish, but one I associate with Scandinavia, not France.
Those Pike Quenelles Jean Louis Dumonet Style ($14; above right) were perfect, putting to shame the chalky ones I was served at La Grenouille a few years ago. The Dumonet style, I am assuming, refers to the rich lobster broth in which they’re served.
The market fish for two changes daily—here Monkfish ($41; above), presented to the table and returned to the kitchen for plating. If you’re going to offer just one market special, it takes some courage to choose monkfish, which is better known as the poor man’s alternative to lobster. But as presented here, monkfish needed no apologies: it had a rich flavor of its own.
The side dishes, too, were faultless: the Potatoes Salardaises ($5; above left) and the Creamy Spinach ($6; above center). An Apple Crumble ($9; above right) was just fine, but perhaps the least memorable dish of the evening.
The food bill was $90 for two. By a wide margin, this is the best food I’ve had at under $50 per head, bearing favorable comparisons to restaurants that charge twice that.
The bargain is undermined by the wine list, which had no bottles (even of white wine) below $55. A restaurant in Millesime’s price range needs drinkable whites in the $40–45 range. Moreover, when I ordered the 2006 Stag’s Leap Karia Chardonnay, it was the 2007 vintage that came out (at the same price, $80), which they realized only when I pointed it out.
Wine lists have a way of sorting themselves out: when the management sees what is not being ordered, they adjust. Still, it is a blunder at a restaurant that can ill afford that kind of mistake.
As now configured, the space has more tables than Country did, and on a Friday evening it was no better than 20 percent full. The restaurant had the usual media splash in the major blogs, but as we noted above, diners don’t fight for reservations to a French seafood restaurant on Madison Avenue, from a chef who won Michelin stars in California.
Millesime (90 Madison Avenue at 29th Street, Gramercy/Flatiron)