After splurging at Adour Alain Ducasse last week, Nancy and I dialed it down this week, but we kept the Ducasse connection. The plan was to try Benoit Restaurant & Bar, the casual-style French bistro in the former La Côte Basque space that is now part of the Ducasse group. I was also aiming to see if we could have dinner, with wine, and get out for under $200.
There hasn’t been much audible buzz about Benoit (as with Adour) and as I sat alone at the bar for 15 minutes nursing a pastis, the restaurant remained eerily empty. A coterie of black dress-clad eye candy was dutifully lined up at the hostess station and R&B tunes were piped in softly over the audio system, so despite the bistro decor (white tile, red banquette, chrome railing) Benoit didn’t seem like the place where I could let my Gallic freak flag fly. But by 6:45 p.m. the dining room was suddenly packed to the gills and humming.
At Benoit, Ducasse’s culinary precision is on display as he hones in on the classic casual French bistro, offering a minimalist menu of items such as quenelles de brochet, pâté en croûte, herb roasted chicken for two avec frites, and more (the kitchen is under the guidance of executive chef Sébastien Rondier). All dishes are simply presented – a slab of pâté is adorned with a side of greens, lightly dressed with a mustard vinaigrette. The quenelles arrive lathered in Nantua sauce that’s been lightly browned on top. The roasted chicken is spiked with a bundle of herbs and accompanied by a side of jus that begs to be ladled over the perfectly golden-browned shoestring fries (I liberally partook).
On the surface, it might seem easy to prepare comfort food, but too often, simple dishes wind up being treated by chefs with discernable ennui. Half-hearted comfort food is far more disappointing to me than an ambitious dish that isn’t quite executed to its fullest. At Benoit, one gets the sense that the kitchen is taking serious pride in putting out soulfully prepared food. Half-way through the meal, I wondered if Anton Ego, the jaded, wiry critic from the animated feature Ratatouille, would have dropped his pen as he was flooded with memories of his mom’s roast chicken.
Service at Benoit is slightly rushed, but when you can catch a server’s attention, he or she is friendly and knowledgeable. When I ask if the quenelles can be done as an appetizer, our waitress looks at me with a puzzled smile, pausing before saying light-heartedly "of course." When I test the wine waiter to see if he knows the varieties in the Vins de Vienne Vin de Table Français Reméage White NV ($30 on the list), he doesn’t off hand. But, rather than leave it at that, he returns a few minutes later with the info (Chardonnay and Viognier). The fresh kaffir lime and green melon notes in the Reméage White provided a mouthwatering start to the meal, while a bottle of Tardieu-Laurent Côtes du Rhône Guy Louis 2004 ($50) has slowly melded into itself, offering smoky sage, tobacco and licorice notes that cry out for a second chicken (Nancy said she was full).
After a vanilla mille-feuille that Nancy found room for, steadily taking it apart with a wry grin, and my double espresso, the bill came to a pretax/tip total of $186—not bad for Manhattan these days. And as we left around 8:30, the dining room was engaged in a fully-throated din. The previously quiet bar area, which opens up on the street, was full of those waiting for their reservation. That Gallic freak flag was at full mast.
Benoit Restaurant & Bar
60 W. 55th St.
New York, N.Y. 10019
Telephone: (646) 943-7373
Zachary Ross — Brooklyn, NY — June 13, 2008 4:37pm ET
James Molesworth — June 13, 2008 5:52pm ET
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