Entries in Brasserie Cognac (4)


Brasserie Cognac East

Sometimes, you can just tell that a new restaurant fulfills a neighborhood’s long-felt need. That’s my reaction at Brasserie Cognac East on the Upper East Side French, which was packed to the gills on a random summer Tuesday.

Classic French cuisine has been on the upswing the last few years, as I and many others have noted. Still, the swish of the scythe was so devastating in the 1990s and early aughts that the arrival of another such establishment is welcome.

More, please.

Cognac East is the second of the family. Its older sister opened in West Midtown in 2008, as Brasserie Cognac de Monsieur Ballon. The fictitious M. Ballon, it seems, has been kicked to the curb. The chef, Florian V. Hugo (the Les Misérables author’s descendant), clearly knows his French cuisine. When it’s right, it’s very right.

Both restaurants are built for volume: there are 100 tightly-packed seats at Cognac East, on two levels. The space (formerly the Italian restaurant Lumi) is loud, and not the most charming. Internet reviews suggest the service can be uneven. That was my experience, too, at the original Brasserie Cognac. I had a terrific vol au vent on opening night, but a meal about six months later that I’d rather forget.

This must all, of course, be placed in the context of a mid-priced menu, with most entrées below $30 and most appetizers in the mid-teens — higher than Sel et Poivre, lower than Orsay, both nearby. If I lived in the area, Cognac would be in my regular rotation.


We loved the cheese puffs (above left) that started the meal. A tomato-y lobster bisque (above right) was really good.


The tuna tarte flambé (above left) is an unusual dish, but it works. The version we were served was spiced with wasabi, which is probably not in Escoffier’s cookbook. There is no mention of wasabi on the Internet menu, so perhaps that has been phased out.

The shoestring fries (above right) were crunchy and salty, exactly as they ought to be.


Steak tartare (above left) was disappointing, as an overdose of pepper completely smothered the over-sauced beef. But all was forgiven with a perfect scallop (above right) with mushrooms and a squash purée.


The cheese soufflé (above left), made with emmenthal, gruyère and parmesan, was one of the evening’s highlights, a must for soufflé connoisseurs. The side salad it comes with (above right) doesn’t add much to the dish.


If the desserts we sampled are any guide, your last memories will be good ones. Our favorite was the coconut shell (above left), with bitter chocolate, coconut sorbet, exotic fruit salad, and passion fruit sauce. Or try the rose macaron (above center) with litchies, fresh raspberries, rose cream and berry sauce. The floating island (above right) with poached meringue with caramel and vanilla crème anglaise was okay, but I have had better versions of this dish.

Full disclosure: we dined at the publicist’s invitation, sat in the corner booth, and got Cognac East’s best. The throngs packing the dining room are evidence enough that the neighborhood wants such a place. I hope the chef and his team can give it to them.

Brasserie Cognac East (963 Lexington Ave. at 70th Street, Upper East Side)


Brasserie Cognac


Brasserie Cognac is one of several classic French restaurants that have opened in the last year. I am not quite sure where the idea comes from. I haven’t seen any great demand for the genre, and the city’s major critics routinely remind us that no one wants it. Still, it persists, and I’m one of those who hopes it always will.

I had high hopes for Brasserie Cognac based on a promising early visit six months ago. Last weekend, I went back with the whole family. The restaurant isn’t exactly drawing crowds. It was practically empty at 6:00 p.m. on a Saturday evening—not a great sign for a place that ought to be pulling in pre-theater diners.

Alas, I can’t say the pre-theater folk are missing much. Brasserie Cognac does a few things well, but it’s too inconsistent. Those of us who favor classic French cuisine can do better elsewhere.


A tomato tart with goat cheese (above left) was the best thing we had, with a crisp, thin crust like pizza. My girlfriend and my son both had the French onion soup (above right), which came out not quite warm enough.


For the main course, my son and my girlfriend both had the Blanquette de Veau, or veal stew (above left). Like the onion soup, it came out cold, and had to be sent back. Pot-au-feu, or beef with vegetables, was the daily special (above right). The beef was tender and rare inside, but there was a certain laziness about both this and the Blanquette de Veau. Both dishes seemed dull. The broths and vegetables had a cafeteria quality to them. My mom had the Moules Frittes (mussels with fries), and the kitchen at least got that right.

The bread service was mediocre, with butter so hard it was practically unspreadable.

Brasserie Cognac undermines itself in other ways. The space is gorgeous, clearly the result of a not inconsiderable investment. Why, then, do they play generic pop elevator music out of the loudspeakers? If they’re trying to create the feeling of an authentic French brasserie, why not take it seriously?

There’s a wide range of prices, but there are plenty of appetizers and salads under $15, entrées under $30, and wine bottles under $50—though, of course, you can spend more. If the food were more reliable, Brasserie Cognac could easily be a go-to place for the neigborhood.

My girlfriend had a good summary of the meal: “You know, these dishes may be classics, but it’s still hard to get them right.”

Brasserie Cognac (1740 Broadway at 55th Street, West Midtown)

Food: Uneven
Service: Would be fine, if only the food were warm enough
Ambiance: Nice looking, but no buzz; needs a new soundtrack
Overall: Satisfactory (no stars)


First Look: Brasserie Cognac

brasseriecognac_outside1.jpg brasseriecognac_outside2.jpg

The TimesFlorence Fabricant and I may be among the few cheering about the return of classic French cuisine, but perhaps there will soon be restaurants full of us. The other night, I looked in on the newest of these, Brasserie Cognac de Monsieur Ballon, or just Brasserie Cognac for short.

brasseriecognac_inside.jpgLet’s get this out of the way: Monsieur Ballon doesn’t exist. He’s an invention of the folks who own the Serafina chain, who now envision a bunch of brasseries by Mr. such-and-suches—this being the first. I wasn’t optimistic that the purveyors of formulaic Italian could put out a French restaurant of any distinction, but at first blush they’ve made a very serious attempt.

For starters, they engaged Rita and André Jammet, who had owned three-star La Caravelle, as consultants. The kitchen is in the hands of Florian Hugo, the great-great-grandson of the author Victor Hugo. The décor and menu are in the conventional brasserie style, authentic-looking without going over-the-top.

I would have overlooked a dish called Vol-au-vent, had not the server pointed it out. I don’t recall seeing it on any brasserie menu in New York. The waiter, who was French, assured me that it’s one of the classics, but not often served because it’s difficult to prepare. Wikipedia explains:

A Vol-au-vent (French for “windblown” to describe its lightness) is a small hollow case of puff pastry. A round opening is cut in the top and the pastry cut out for the opening is replaced as a lid after the case is filled. Vol-au-vents can accommodate various fillings, such as mushrooms, prawns, fruit, or cheese, but they are almost always savory.


The Vol-au-vent here was a lovely, light puff pastry that corralled a serving of lobster, foie gras and mushrooms in a lobster sauce. I was astounded that an entrée made with so many luxury ingredients was only $29.

There is some serious talent at the bar, too. I counted 18 house cocktails, and not just rote formula drinks with “-tini” and “-rita” suffixes. Six of them are cognac based, including the terrific one I tried, the Do Ré-my ($12), served in a champagne glass with Rémy Martin, sour mix, St. Germain liqueur, and Charles Heidsieck champagne.

There are 110 cognacs available. The printed list wasn’t yet available (it was only the restaurant’s second night), but the manager recommended an XO (normally $14) and then comped it. Service was slightly helter-skelter, but the staff (mostly Europeans, it appeared) were friendly and apologetic. I assume it will improve after things settle down.

I’ll withhold judgment till I’ve had a chance to sample more, but if the rest of the menu is as good as the Do Ré-my cocktail and the Vol-au-vent, then Brasserie Cognac is very good indeed. At the least, it’s a compelling new option for pre-Carnegie Hall dining.

Brasserie Cognac (1740 Broadway at 55th Street, West Midtown)


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”).


  • 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.