In a post yesterday about Alain Ducasse’s new restaurant Adour, food journalist Ed Levine asked, “Does the World Need More Fancy-Pants French Restaurants?”
It’s the hallmark of argumentative writing to ask a question, while at the same time leaving no doubt as to the answer. No one uses the phrase “fancy-pants” about something they like. (Frank Bruni’s obsession with the word “fussy” is very much the same.) In the comments section, Levine said he was really looking for a word like “stuffy,” which isn’t much of an improvement.
It’s no surprise that Levine isn’t really comfortable with luxurious French restaurants. He made his name writing about humbler fare. When Levine dined at Per Se, Thomas Keller (in jest) served him a hot dog. But in phrasing the question as he did, Levine is asking, not merely whether Ducasse is offering what Ed Levine needs, but what the “world” needs. Those are two completely different things.
It’s lazy thinking to presume that one’s own tastes are the same as everyone else’s. Levine says, “In New York people love the energized informality of Babbo or the Union Square Cafe or Craft. We love places that serve serious food in a way that makes us feel comfortable, relaxed, and well taken care of.” Well, there are almost 18 million residents of the New York metro area, and they don’t all love the same thing. I’ll bet the vast majority of them haven’t even heard of those restaurants.
If you add the approximately 44 million tourists who visit New York City annually, that makes at least 62 million people who will eat dinner in New York at least one night this year. Do you think there might be enough of them who, unlike Levine, actually appreciate what Alain Ducasse has to offer?
Levine thinks “we need more restaurants with heart and soul,” apparently having concluded that a Ducasse restaurant cannot qualify. Now, I’m sure Mario Batali (Babbo), Danny Meyer (Union Square Cafe) and Tom Colicchio (Craft) feel passionately about what they’re doing, as does Ducasse. But all three of them are running huge restaurant conglomerates for profit, as does Ducasse.
Ironically, New York has more of Levine’s heart-and-soul restaurants than ever before, while not a single three or four-star restaurant opened last year. Yet, the demand for luxury restaurants remains intense. Just try booking a last-minute prime-time table at any of the city’s high-end dining palaces. They are usually full. Obviously these places aren’t for everybody, but with 20,000 other restaurants in New York, they don’t need to be.
And it’s not as if we have glut of four-star restaurants. There are just five of them (per the Times), and the two most recent (Per Se and Masa) opened four years ago. All candidates since then have been found wanting, at least according to Frank Bruni. I don’t know how much of a chance Adour will have, when a Francophobic critic like Bruni is doing the judging. But should restauranteurs stop trying?
Places like Adour don’t come along very often. Do you want a restaurant with rustic pleasures and menus sourced daily from the greenmarket and local farmers? There’s practically a new one every month. But how many luxury French restaurants are there in New York? They can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
I don’t know whether Adour will be a great restaurant. No one can know that until the place opens. Based on my experience at its predecessor, Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, I am optimistic. From a critic of Levine’s stature one expects a new venture, especially one that comes along this rarely, to be judged on its merits.