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Arabelle: First contact

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Arabelle: First contact

Caseophile | Feb 10, 2004 10:19 AM

I’ve been surveying the hotel restaurants in what are hopefully perceived as stuffy, expensive old hotels. My hope is that the connotations of dining in such a restaurant might ward off some of the noisy revelers that tend to ruin most Friday and Saturday night dinners in better New York restaurants. With that in mind, I finally visited Arabelle, in the Hotel Plaza Athenee.

At about eight o’clock on a Saturday night, the dining room was less than half full, and the noise level was quite acceptable. So far, so good. It seemed to me that most of the diners probably hotel guests. The dining room has a classic French décor that looks nice on the website, though it’s not as effective in person. I was particularly struck by the faux-antique chairs. They’re made of wood, which has been spray painted a yellow-brown color in hopes of suggesting aging gold or brass. My chair was fairly wobbly. The thin seat cushion was uncomfortable, and the faux-metal back had no cushioning whatsoever. I also noted that I sat significantly higher than my companion on her banquette, so that I was looking down at her during the meal. As we entered, speakers played cool downtown House music, which was oddly incongruent with the classic French décor. After a while, this was changed to Sinatra’s greatest hits, which was somewhat more in keeping with the intended ambience. The dining room became a bit too warm as the room filled up, but not excrutiatingly so.

The wine list is anemic for a restaurant of this type. There are a few examples of most regions and varietals you could want, for example, there are probably three or four American Chardonnays, and two or three German Rieslings (although I could be remembering incorrectly). The list was strongest in red Burgundy and especially red Bordeaux, but even here there wasn’t all that much to choose from. I do remember that there were about eight or ten vintages of one particular well-known Bordeaux, I think Ch. Lafite-Rothschild, for the diner wishing to splurge.

Service was courteous and well-intentioned, but not very knowledgeable or experienced. I had the impression that these were not long-term foodservice workers, and they didn’t seem to know the menu very well. Dishes sometimes arrived very promptly, sometimes not.

The bread was fresh and good. An amuse was unsophisticated but satisfying enough: a surprisingly tasty scallop in a thin, simple, butter-based sauce. It was accompanied by a few little shards of what I think were bacon, with the consistency of hard beef jerky. They required some extra chewing, but the taste went quite well with the scallop.

A puree of roasted chestnut soup was devoid of any discernible taste, as was the little pile of duck confit in its center. In its defense I can only say that it was served piping hot.

I ordered my lamb cooked medium, but it arrived medium rare. It was chewy, and again without any discernible taste. It was served atop a soggy stack of cooked onions. A few halved olives circled the edge of the plate, as though vainlny trying to figure out how they might try to integrate themselves into the dish.

For dessert I selected a warm apple galette that I’m pretty sure had done some hard time in a freezer at some point in its life. Its multilayered pasty base was mushy and sad, and the apple wedges on top were undercooked and bland. The accompanying scoop of vanilla ice cream was definitely store-brand, not Breyers. Its texture seemed artificially stabilized (what does one use to achieve this effect? Guar gum, maybe?), and I had trouble picking out any vanilla flavor. Sara Lee puts this dish to shame in the reheatable frozen dessert department. I left most of the galette, and bought myself some Ben and Jerry’s on the trip home.

So, on the positive side, Arabelle does seem weekend-proof. Even on a Friday or Saturday, one could drop in, be seated promptly, and be served by a courteous dining room staff in an environment where conversation can be achieved without shouting. At $49 prix fixe, the meal compares vary favorably in cost to those at other restaurants of the intended genre. Those of us who take frequent airline trips, or who have happy memories of a high school prom in a Holiday Inn ballroom somewhere out on the interstate, may find the cuisine fondly reminiscent of those occasions. But I think the rest of us would be happier ordering in a pizza.

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