It’s been a tough road for Alain Ducasse in New York. All of his restaurants have been met with withering criticism from various corners, sparing neither his initial upscale venture at the Essex House (since changed to Adour at the St. Regis) nor Mixx nor his casual bistro, Benoit.
Throughout, I’ve been in the distinct minority, having failed to see the faults that others saw so glaringly. Alain Ducasse at the Essex House was opulent and extremely expensive, but offered sublime service, an extraordinary wine list and a luxurious feel. Adour continued that level of sophistication, though in a different way, and I was more than pleased with Benoit (though Mixx was definitely mixed up). It seems I’ve mostly seen the good side of Ducasse while others have seen the bad side.
Last night however, I got a little bit of both. After ducking out early from the Four Seasons anniversary party along with Nancy and another couple, we stopped in at Benoit for a late dinner. We arrived famished—the passed hors d’oeuvres at the Four Seasons party were just a rumor, apparently—and the couple we were with had been wanting to try Benoit. All in all, the ingredients for what should have been an easy, "good experience" on the part of the restaurant.
Yet despite a restaurant that was half-full at most, we found the service wanting. Our waiter arrived at the table, greeting us in rather overdone French before switching to English to tell us his name and that he’d be our server for the night. Huh? Were we suddenly in TGIDucasse's?
After the perfunctory menu introduction, I ordered a bottle of the Château Miraval Côtes de Provence Rosé. Our waiter looked perplexed at the order and, figuring he was just unfamiliar with the name of the wine, I gave him the bin number—not the first time that’s happened—but he still had to lean over to see what I was referring to as I pointed to it on the list.
"You want a whole bottle?" he asked, slightly befuddled.
"Yes, a bottle," I answered—of the only rosé you have on the list, I thought to myself—"for the three of them, and a pastis for me."
The bottle arrived in due haste, but I started to think he'd forgotten my pastis before it finally arrived several minutes after that.
It was a theme that was to echo throughout the meal. The pâté en croûte was served a touch too cold—the bad side of Ducasse (a lesson from the folks at Bar Boulud could be given here). The side of field greens accompanying it were dressed with a sublime vinaigrette and the ceramic jar of cornichons were snappy and invigorating—the good side of Ducasse. But it took the busboy six minutes to bring mustard, and when he arrived, our empty rosé and pastis glasses left no room on the table. He stared, puzzled, wondering where to put the mustard, before a waitress hurried over to clear some space—once again, the bad side of Ducasse.
For the entrées, Nancy and I shared the roast chicken for two. It was delightfully moist and flavored with roasted herbs and came with a basket of perfectly golden-brown frites, another good side of Ducasse. A small copper ladle of au jus was brought as well, but was left on the table (again, after a few awkward minutes of the busser fumbling for a place to put it) without the formality of verbalizing its purpose: bad side. Our companions also got the good and bad. He loved the hearty choucroute, while she rued her decision to go for the flounder, which was simple and uninspired, despite the recommendation of our original waiter, no less.
We ordered a second bottle of wine, a juicy, solid Domaine Delubac Côtes du Rhône 2005, which was properly presented by the busser-saving waitress (the good side of Ducasse) but we wondered why she seemed to be doing more at our table than our self-announced server, who disappeared for long stretches despite a dining room that now only had a handful of customers (the bad side of Ducasse). An opportunity to sell us a second bottle of red wine was wasted by his lack of attention.
After presenting the dessert menu, our waiter announced, rather than asked, that he would be happy to take coffee or drink orders. He then sprinted off, with my order of an espresso falling unheeded to the floor like a deflated balloon. Where was he going? We were the last table left …
Benoit had its faults last night: good to sometimes-superb food presented more awkwardly than professionally; a service staff that seems to be more in-training than actually serving; floor managers spend more time by the front door, socializing with the comely hostesses rather than directing traffic; the wine list has some well-chosen bottles, but with a handful of mistakes sprinkled in (a François Chidaine Chenin Blanc is listed as a Touraine—he produces Montlouis and Vouvray—while the cellar selections of recent-vintage E. Guigal "La La" wines are listed as being made by Etienne Guigal, not Marcel and Philippe).
It’s the good and bad side of Ducasse. Before, I’d mostly seen the good side. Now, I know what others have been talking about for so long.
Benoit Restaurant & Bar
60 W. 55th St.
New York, N.Y. 10019
Telephone: (646) 943-7373
Chris Meeske — June 13, 2009 7:53pm ET
James Molesworth — June 13, 2009 8:03pm ET
R M Kriete — June 16, 2009 11:34am ET
James Molesworth — June 16, 2009 12:10pm ET
Daniel Posner — New York — June 24, 2009 10:51pm ET
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