Alain Ducasse never gets an opening right in New York. His troubles at the Essex House and at Mix are well enough known that I needn’t repeat them. (Let google be your friend, if they’re unfamiliar to you.) Anyhow, those restaurants are long gone.
Adour at the St. Regis and Benoit are both on their third executive chefs in roughly four years. I hear great things about chef Didier Elena’s tenure at Adour, but haven’t been back yet. The other night was my first visit to Benoit since Philippe Bertineau took over last year.
When Ducasse opened Benoit, he told The Times that he had a list of 100 recipes he’d like “to put on the menu sooner or later.” I can believe that, as the menu looks new almost every time I go. I won’t miss the fries “Louis l’Ami style,” stacked in an impressive-looking tower but cold and greasy on the inside, nor a bizarre pork shank I had in 2009.
Other items, like the egg mayo, escargots, onion soup, quenelles, roast chicken for two, and steak aux poivres, have been more or less constant since the place opened. Cassoulet is offered in season, as in right now. It’s all classic French bistro food, made well.
Prices have edged upward, as they have almost everywhere. In 2008, there were no items above $29; now, half the entrées exceed that price, with the high end at $39. Onion soup that was $9 in 2008 is $12 now. Cassoulet that was $26 in 2009 is $29 now.
You can also dine more economically. At each place setting is a printed card with a pencil, where you can check off three appetizers for $12 or five for $16. If you’re there before 6:30 p.m., as I was the other night, the pre-theatre prix fixe is $29 for two courses or $39 for three. (There is also a less expensive bar menu.)
The carb spread (above left) is pretty good, with four light gougères and sliced French bread in a cloth basket.
The $29 prix fixe offered three choices apiece for the appetizer and entrée. The twice-baked Comté cheese soufflé (above left) was rich and luscious, with a creamy sauce poured tableside. My apologies for the poor photo.
Skate Wing Grenobloise (above right) was the best fish entrée I’ve had in a few months, with crisp crust, tangy on the inside. (The term “Grenobloise” refers to a sauce with browned butter, capers, parsley, and lemon.) Skate isn’t a luxury fish, but the kitchen couldn’t have made it shine any more brightly.
The ambiance straddles the divide between fancy and casual. Once upon a time, there was a four-star restaurant here. The iconic room (formerly La Côte Basque) could stand to be a bit brighter. There are crisp white tablecloths, sauces and flambées at tableside, French-speaking waiters, and a deep wine list where many bottles reach three figures. But roasted peanuts (above right) replace the usual petits fours, the menu is presented in a plastic sleeve, and the wine glasses are “one size fits all.” There’s a good list of classic cocktails, like the French 75 ($15), but the list of wines by the glass is over-priced and underwhelming.
On some prior visits (this was my fourth or fifth), I’ve noted scatter-brained service as the restaurant fills up. I couldn’t test if that problem has been fixed, as it was only about one-quarter full at 6:15 p.m., and still under half full when I left for Carnegie Hall at 7:15. The server was attentive, and the food came out fairly quickly.
Ducasse keeps fiddling with the place, but despite occasional flubs on past visits, Benoit still feels like a two-star restaurant to me, and a vital one at that.
Benoit (60 W. 55th Street between Fifth & Sixth Avenues, West Midtown)