At its height, with its gilded walls, stunning floral arrangements and hushed elegance, Lespinasse was for me the city’s most beautiful dining room, a quiet, languid retreat away from the buzz that this city tends to generate over shallow flavor-of-the-month French bistro wannabes or "power lunch" midtown spots.
Nancy and I were married in the St. Regis hotel ten years ago this month and we made an annual pilgrimage back to Lespinasse every year for our anniversary dinner, enjoying it first under the flourishes of Gray Kunz’s direction and then in its more formal French incarnation under Christian Delouvrier.
When Lespinasse closed in 2003 I was bummed, both for romantic and gustatory reasons. As the dining room remained closed and its memory slowly drifted into oblivion, I scratched my head as to why no one would take on the space. Then along came Alain Ducasse, for his third attempt at establishing a beachhead in testy New York.
When Ducasse’s initial venture, Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, opened, I was in the distinct minority of those who enjoyed its over-the-top excesses (such as the selection of pens accompanying the bill). The critical furor over those pens (and other things) pushed Ducasse to drop many of the restaurant’s baroque touches by the time I reviewed the restaurant for our Grand Award in 2003. Other excesses however, such as the tableside stool for resting one's purse, wound up quietly working their way into the mainstream of high-end dining. In the end, though he tried to adapt to the New Yawk-styled vitriol aimed at him, the city's diners never fully warmed up to the place despite its brilliant, classic French cooking. Overshadowed by its ostentatious production value, the restaurant slowly, quietly closed.
Ducasse’s second New York venture—Mix—was a similar story with a different cover. Aptly named, Mix offered an awkward front-of-house management, a cafeteria-styled room layout and sometime creepy food presentation (the salad in a small, covered plastic container was right out of an automat) all of which again conspired to run roughshod over the quality of the actual food, which was up to Ducasse’s usually exacting standards. Mix was a clumsy attempt at being hip and modern, made even more so set amidst the suited squareness of midtown. And so once again Ducasse crashed and burned with the city’s hard-edged foodie set.
So it was with a mix of both anticipation and trepidation that I decided to take Nancy to Adour Alain Ducasse for our 10th wedding anniversary, and revisit our old special-occasion haunt. The opening of Adour earlier this year has to have been among the quietest big-name openings in New York restaurant history. Chef Ducasse teamed with the architect David Rockwell in taking over a gilded dining room extraordinaire, yet nary a buzz or blip during its first few months. Perhaps Ducasse, after being flamed by one too many posts on eGullet, decided to take a quieter route on purpose? Perhaps Ducasse simply, finally, decided to let the food do the talking? Or maybe New York was giving Adour a collective yawn after spending so much energy disliking his previous ventures? These questions, and the thought of "what did they do to that room?" danced in my head.
The room has changed significantly, though it retains the feel of a luxury hideout. Set off the hotel lobby and back from the street, it now has a clubbier feel than when it was Lespinasse. Dark wood paneling and glassed display wine cabinets are the main features. A small, four-seat "wine bar" is up front, and with its minimal space it easily feels crowded, but in a good vibe way. The dining room itself is now grey, replacing the old dusty rose color of the previous incarnation, and etched glass panels and floor to ceiling drapes section off the jewel box middle seating area from smaller, semi-private niches around the edges of the room. It’s exclusive and showy, but warm and comfortable at the same time.
Service, as one would expect at a Ducasse restaurant, is flawless, performing the suave trick of being both thoroughly attentive without ever hovering. The kitchen, under the direction of chef Tony Esnault, turns out modern French cuisine that exudes precision in its preparation, while still retaining soul and flavor and, best of all, it begs to be served alongside wine, rather than trying to upstage it.
And that is where this incarnation of Ducasse differs from his previous two, as wine now gets equal, if not top billing at Adour. Up front at the bar, diners are presented with a user friendly list of 600 selections, as well as an interactive touch screen that calls up tasting notes. Diners in the main room can peruse an 1,800-selection list that is deep in French selections (Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhône) but also gives a nod to California and winks to nearly everywhere else in the world, from Chile to Greece. Prices are not as exorbitant as they were at the Essex House either, and savvy diners can snap up wines with nice bottle age on them without a hefty premium: The 1998 Jean-Michel Gerin Côte-Rôtie Champin Le Seigneur is more than inviting for just $125.
A bottle of 2006 Château La Nerthe Châteauneuf-du-Pape White is moderately marked up to $70, and provides a perfect foil for the blazingly pure zucchini-filled ravioli or lightly crisped frogs legs in a vegetable velouté. The highlight of our tasting menu was the sweetbread meunière, served with a plump poached egg purse, sweet morels and toasted brioche. Olive oil-poached cod is delicate and refined, yet has enough intensity to match well with a glass of 2006 Syrah Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes from François Villard, deftly chosen by the engaging sommelier Thomas Combescot.
Due to the historic magnitude of 1998 (historical vis a vis Nancy and I), we honed in on that vintage for a bottle of red. Combescot detailed the different qualities of the several Michel Lafarge offerings and we leapt at the most sauvage of the bunch, the 1998 Volnay Clos du Château des Ducs ($210 on the list). It didn’t disappoint. Its briar, juniper, sage and roasted currant notes cut like a knife through a buttery duck breast served alongside perfectly roasted, cherry-size tomatoes that exploded with flavor in the mouth.
After a cheese course and a round of several desserts (topped by exquisitely moist gianduja and raspberry macaroons that we greedily asked for a few of to take home) came the bill. With it, a simple plastic pen adorned with the St. Regis hotel name and logo. As I twist the top half to open the ballpoint, the pen comes apart into several pieces, with the spring popping out onto the table and the pocket clip falling to the floor. Nancy and I can’t help but burst into laughter. Perhaps that selection of pens was a good idea after all...
Adour Alain Ducasse
The St. Regis Hotel
2 E. 55th St.
New York, N.Y. 10022