Note: This is a review of Gilt under chef Christopher Lee, who left the restaurant at the end of 2008 to take over at Aureole. Gilt closed in late 2012. A new restaurant from French chef Michel Richard is expected to replace it, sometime in 2013.
Gilt was one of the most hotly anticipated restaurant openings of the 2005 season. The chef, enfant-terrible Paul Liebrandt, delivered a menu that lived on danger’s edge. It was at times dazzling, and probably exceeded the legal limit for ingredients per square inch. In the Times, Frank Bruni wasn’t wowed, awarding two stars.
I was a little more enthusiastic than Bruni, and awarded three stars. Yet, I can see why Gilt v1.0 ran into problems. Much as I appreciated what Liebrandt was doing, I wasn’t dying to try it again. I suspect others felt the same. And no restaurant can survive solely on first-time visitors. I also suspect that in that neighborhood, and in the same space that once hosted Le Cirque, a more conservative style was called for.
In late 2006, Chris Lee replaced Paul Liebrandt. Prices, though still expensive, were reduced somewhat. The three-course prix fixe that was $92 under Liebrandt now sells for $78. A seven-course tasting menu that was once $160 is now $135, and there is also a five-course tasting menu for $105. Bruni was more impressed with Gilt v2.0, though it received only a “Dining Brief,” not a full re-review.
Last week, I took a friend to Gilt for her birthday dinner. Truth be told, I was planning to order the standard three-course menu so that I could try Lee’s best known dish, the Tuna Wellington. But my friend rather liked the five-course tasting menu line-up ($105), and as it was her evening, that’s what we ordered, along with the sommelier’s wine pairing ($65).
This was the menu:
Wild Japanese Hamachi Sashimi
Watermelon “Margarita”, Cucumber, Jicama, Anise Hyssop Dressing
Soft Shell Blue Crab
Sweet Yellow Corn, Avocado, Lime Crème Fraîche, Spicy Tomato Broth
Crispy Black Bass
Piperade with Chorizo, Red Bliss Potatoes, Garlic Aioli, Saffron Mussel Broth
Smoked Prime Beef Tenderloin
Creamed Corn, Pickled Vegetables, Pancetta, Bourbon Sweet Potatoes
Chocolate Ice Cream Cones
Peanut Butter Chocolate, Mint Chocolate, Banana Brownie
There was a consistent quality level that could almost be called dull. I liked everything we tried, without loving any of it. There wasn’t any “wow,” but there were no duds either. Most tasting menus I’ve tried have a wider variety of extremes, both good and bad. This was a menu that could have offended no one. The smoked tenderloin was particularly good, and that is somewhat unusual at this type of restaurant. The wines, too, seemed to be chosen for their ability to blend with just about any diner’s sensibilities.
The early courses came out a bit too quickly. My friend and I are both fast drinkers, but when the third glass (of six) arrived, we hadn’t yet finished the first or the second. To their credit, when we asked them to slow down, they did. That point aside, the service was as professional and seamless as you’d expect for a restaurant in Gilt’s price range.
While I would have preferred a bit more sense of adventure in Lee’s choices, clearly he was hired as the conservative antidote to Paul Liebrandt, and he appears to have given Gilt’s owners what they wanted.
Gilt (455 Madison Avenue at 50th Street in the Palace Hotel, East Midtown)