Entries in Benoit (9)

Thursday
Nov102011

Benoit

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)

Food: **
Service: **
Ambiance: **
Overall: **

Wednesday
Jun172009

Review Recap: Rye and Benoit

Today, a befuddled Frank Bruni files on Rye, awarding the expected one star:

It’s a somewhat confused and confusing enterprise, starting with the location, just far enough off any main artery to recommend some clear, possibly ostentatious signage….

But the confusion doesn’t stop at the ill-advertised entrance. Maybe because Rye hasn’t quite worked out what it really wants to be, it confronts you with too many riddles, complicating your effort to plot a coherent experience and undercutting its considerable sexiness and charms. Although it’s a restaurant worth knowing about, it’s not as simply and easily navigable as it should be.

Much of its menu promises fine dining of a relatively tame, buttoned-down sort: a beet salad with micro arugula and goat cheese; duck confit with wild mushrooms; pan-roasted halibut with haricots verts and sugar snaps; roasted chicken with spring vegetables.

But a disappointingly succinct list of wines suggests that, alternately, the real point of Rye is its cocktails, some of which come with the currently fashionable allotment of one large cube of ice, all of which can be savored at a long, gorgeous mahogany bar that visually dominates the dining room.

To that end there is, wisely, a menu category for snacks. Only here, too, nothing is quite what it appears to be. The sliders — one made with pork belly, another with short rib — are in fact closer to full-fledged sandwiches. And a meatloaf sandwich listed with them is a snack the way Godzilla is a garden lizard.

We agree with Bruni that restaurants sometimes need to do a better job of indicating what’s a snack and what’s an entrée, but was that really the best meme for this review? The emphasis on cocktails rather than wine is hardly a novelty these days.

Why did he bother to review this place? We assume it’s boredom. In the end, most of the dishes he likes are salad and bar snacks. There are a hundred places like this in Manhattan. Had it been on the other side of the Williamsburg Bridge, we doubt he would have bothered.

* * *

Julia Moskin returns to Benoit, finding it much as we did: improved under new chef Pierre Schaedelin, but still phoning in the service:

Last year, Alain Ducasse brought in the chef Pierre Schaedelin to upgrade this New York branch of his bistro empire. Mr. Schaedelin has sharpened the flavors, improved the desserts, and broadened the menu until it now has many of the true pleasures of Paris — though it’s still shadowed by mindless service à la Midtown….

But there is a hint of airline food in the blandly rich repetition and limp sides of “mixed vegetables,” and more than a hint of highway robbery in $11 cold tomato soup and the aforementioned choucroute.

Benoit gives a warm welcome at the door and cheery wine service, but waiters seem to hope that dinner customers will leave early and stay away forever. A cold entree was reheated and sent back shrunken and overcooked.

Thus ends Alain Ducasse’s last, best chance to get the Times back to Benoit.

Thursday
Apr302009

Benoit

Note: This is a review under Chef Pierre Schaedelin, who left the restaurant in October 2010. Click here for a review under his replacement, the former Payard and Balthazar chef, Philippe Bertineau.

*

We returned to Benoit last Saturday—our third visit (past reviews here, here). The good news is that Benoit is doing well: it was as crowded as I’ve seen it since the opening weeks, this time last year. The bad news is that the service was slow, with long waits even for basic things, such as getting a wine list.

To start, we shared the charcuterie platter with cornichons and Dijon mustard ($42; below). Though nominally a serving for two, our group of three was unable to polish it off. Only at Bar Boulud have we seen a charcuterie assortment this good, this varied. I’m hard pressed to say which is better.

Unfortunately, that left us not very hungry for our main courses (not the restaurant’s fault). My girlfriend had the Steak aux Poivres ($38) and my mother the trio of Colorado Lamb ($36). Both struck us as competently done without being, in any sense, special.

The Braised Pork Shank ($21; above) was a fascinating dish, unlike anything I have ever seen. It was a hefty hunk of smoked ham, braised on the bone and flaked with a spicy mustard sauce. I am not a fan of smoked ham and probably wouldn’t have ordered it if I had realized how it was prepared—the menu just said “pork.” However, the dish was beautifully prepared, and I cannot really fault anything except the description.

Benoit is still uneven, but for its best items, the restaurant is well worth a return visit. The slow service dismayed us, but I am hoping we caught them on a bad night.

Food: **
Service: *
Ambiance: **
Overall: **

Sunday
Jan182009

Benoit

Note: Click here for a more recent review of Benoit.

After mostly horrendous reviews at Benoit, Alain Ducasse demoted executive chef Sebastien Rondier to chef de cuisine late last year. His new boss is Pierre Schaedelin, formerly of Le Cirque, who had been Martha Stewart’s personal chef for the last two years. We liked Benoit (earlier review here), but the negative critical reaction was unmistakable.

A friend and I had dinner at Benoit the other night, my first visit since Schaedelin’s arrival. In a brief interview for TONY last week, Schaedelin spoke about some of the new menu items. One of them is a choucroute garnie ($32), a weekly special served on Thursdays. It’s an enormous plate of sumptuous sausages and cured meats served over sauerkraut. We skipped appetizers, and I still did not finish it. My friend had the Cassoulet ($26), which she graded B+. A cheese plate ($17) was also quite good.

Business was slow. When we left at around 7:40 p.m., there were still tons of empty tables. Service was attentive, and managers came by several times to ask if we were enjoying ourselves—a trend I’ve observed at numerous restaurants lately. If they’re looking to make improvements, transferring bar tabs to the table would help. I asked, but the bartender shrugged: “It’s too late. I already entered it in my system.”

The menu has changed considerably, and it is no longer presented inside a picture frame that takes up half the table. We didn’t have French Fries this time, but I noted that they’re no longer served “L’Ami Louis style.” Given the disaster they were before, it has to be an improvement.

It’s still early in Schaedelin’s tenure, but I like what I see so far. Benoit deserves more attention than it is getting.

Benoit (60 West 55th Street between Fifth & Sixth Avenues, West Midtown)

Food: **
Service: **
Ambiance: **
Overall: **

Thursday
Jul102008

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
Tuesday
Jul082008

Rolling the Dice: Benoit

Every week, we take our turn with Lady Luck on the BruniBetting odds as posted by Eater. Just for kicks, we track Eater’s bet too, and see who is better at guessing what the unpredictable Bruni will do. We track our sins with an imaginary $1 bet every week.

The Line: Tomorrow, Frank Bruni reviews Benoit, Alain Ducasse’s classic French bistro. The Eater oddsmakers have set the action as follows (√√ denotes the Eater bet):

Zero Stars: 4-1
One Star: 2-1 √√
Two Stars:
4-1
Three Stars: 60-1
Four Stars: 10,000-1

The Skinny: The betting calculus is pretty easy this week. The high-water mark for this type of cuisine in New York is generally agreed to be Balthazar, which carries two stars at the Times, courtesy of Amanda Hesser. No one yet has suggested that Benoit is anywhere near as accomplished as Balthazar, which means one star is the best Ducasse could hope for.

Benoit already got the goose-egg from Adam Platt in New York, but Platt has little enthusiasm for French food, and even less understanding, even when it’s done perfectly. Bruni, to be sure, is no Francophile either, but we think he’ll grasp what’s going on better than Platt did. That’s a low bar to clear, but we think he’ll manage it.

Platt admitted that he was grading Ducasse on a tougher curve. There’s some fairness in that. When you visit a Ducasse restaurant, you expect something of the quality and attention to detail that the world’s most lauded chef is known for. By almost all accounts, Benoit is failing to deliver on its promise. Yet, if the restaurant is worth a star—which in BruniLand usually means “mediocre”—it shouldn’t be treated more harshly just because of who owns it.

We liked Benoit more than most of the critics, awarding two stars. But we wrote that review in the restaurant’s early days, before it even had a liquor license. We loved the chicken for two, but based on later reviews it seems the kitchen can’t reproduce it consistently. We hated the fries, but we assumed their sogginess would ultimately be rectified—it has not been.

We would be torn between one star and zero, but for the fact that Bruni boards the zilch train fairly rarely, and he did so just four weeks ago, with Ago. Yet, make no mistake about it, if this is a one-star review, it won’t be the kind Ducasse could be remotely happy about. It has been a doleful review cycle for this restaurant, and it isn’t about to get any better.

The Bet: We agree with Eater that Frank Bruni will most likely award one star to Benoit.

Wednesday
Apr232008

Benoit

benoit_inside.png
[Kreiger via Eater]

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.

benoit_sign.jpgNominally, 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.

benoit_napkin.jpgDucasse 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.

benoit01.jpgA 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.

benoit02.jpg

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.

benoit03.jpgAfter 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)

Food: **
Service: **
Ambiance: **
Overall: **

 

Wednesday
Apr162008

Ducasse‚Äôs Benoit to Open

benoit_outside.jpg

This has been a busy year for Alain Ducasse, with two new restaurants opening in New York, to say nothing of his ever-growing worldwide empire.

First up was Adour, which we weren’t fond of, but was fêted with three stars by both Adam Platt and Frank Bruni. For the verdict Ducasse really cares about — Michelin — we’ll have to wait till October.

benoit_opening.jpgMeanwhile, Benoit opens on April 21 in the former Brasserie LCB space, which before that was La Côte Basque. As usual, Ducasse didn’t stint on the décor. Per the Times:

To furnish Benoit, Mr. Ducasse haunted the Paris flea markets buying stuff, including an 1866 decorative ceiling painted on glass, and fixtures from a former Banque de France. A 19th-century herbal pharmacy from Bordeaux was reassembled on the second floor.

He also kept a few decorative elements from La Côte Basque. “I hoped to transfer the ambience of Benoit, not make an exact reproduction,” Mr. Ducasse said, adding that Benoit in New York cost more to build than his other new Manhattan restaurant, Adour, in the St. Regis a block away.

La Côte Basque’s former chef–owner, Jean-Jacques Rachou, told the Times that he thinks “New York is now regretting the disappearance of the classic food.”

Classics, indeed, are what dominates the menu at Benoit. Ducasse said, “Dishes like these have a history, and I have a list of 100 of them that I hope to put on the menu sooner or later. I call it my mental terroir.” The opening menu, though, runs the risk of putting the audience to sleep, with a $44 chicken for two as the signature item. I’ll be rooting for Ducasse to open up his cookbook sooner, rather than later.

I took an envious look inside last night. The restaurant was clearly open and serving “friends & family.” I am neither, and so I left Benoit for another day.

Wednesday
Apr092008

France Makes a Comeback

barboulud_outside2.jpg brasseriecognac_outside1.jpg

In today’s Times, Florence Fabricant reports that traditional French restaurants are making a comeback (“There’ll Always Be a France, Especially in New York”).

Evidence:

  • Daniel Boulud has just opened Bar Boulud, with a classic French bistro and charcuterie menu.
  • Later this month, Alain Ducasse will open Benoit in the former La Côte Basque space. Ducasse already opened another French restaurant this year, Adour, in the former Lespinasse space.
  • Next Monday, Brasserie Cognac opens in West Midtown. Rita Jammet, who owned La Caravelle, is on hand as a consultant.
  • Keith McNally, who owns perhaps the most successful casual French restaurant in New York, Balthazar, is converting Minetta Tavern (in Greenwich Village) into a French bistro.
  • Later this year, David Bouley will convert his three-star Austrian Danube into a French brasserie, Secession. Bouley is also moving his eponymous flagship French-inspired restaurant to a new space about a block away from its current location.

benoit_opening.jpgWhat’s notable is not merely that these restaurants have a nod to the French tradition, but that many of them are overtly traditional, serving the old standards (lobster thermidor, cassoulet, duck à l’orange) that were considered dinosaurs a short while ago.

Bouley told Fabricant, “I see traditional food coming back. It’s also newly popular in France, and it’s great to see. I have an emotional connection to that food, to my grandmother’s cooking: some of my family comes from Arras and Tours. And I love the tradition — braising rabbits and boning fish tableside, but in a relaxed atmosphere.”

These new restaurants lack the “jacket-and-tie mandatory” atmosphere of their “Le” and “La” predecessors, but in many other ways they’re throwbacks.

I, for one, am delighted. It’s not that these restaurants are uniformly excellent. I love some of them (Le Périgord, Le Veau d’Or) and have been underwhelmed at others (La Grenouille, Adour). It’s just fascinating to see that restauranteurs are giving New Yorkers something different by giving them something traditional.

Frank Bruni, who usually finds French food so dull, is going to have to brush up on Escoffier.