Around about the time that it became known that Alain Ducasse was opening his New York restaurant; friends of mine began asking me how I was going to wangle a reservation. It didnt take me long to figure out how to do it. Within a few days of being challenged, I found the answer was no further away than my mailbox. For it was there on a Monday in July that I went to get my mail and much to my surprise, Alain Ducasse had sent me a letter inviting me to make a reservation. Ah, he and I were going to be on good terms. I immediately booked a table for my wifes birthday that September.
But then after they actually opened we started hearing not such good things. We heard tales of mediocre food as well as stories of frightening cost. And so it came to be that we gave our table for six away and we did our celebrating at Daniel instead.
But I had not written it off completely. I was certain that our paths would cross again. It was just a matter of time before I got an invite, or an out of town guest wanted to go. Well it finally happened. And it was neither of the above that did the trick. What finally moved us was another clever mailing from Mr. Ducasse. This one listed two menus they were serving for the spring. A special Asparagus and Morel menu and a Shellfish menu. Both looked awfully tasty and since my wife is a big fan of asparagus, we decided to take the plunge.
We arrived at 8:00 and were seated immediately. There is only one seating each evening (at least that is what we were told) and until parties are complete, diners can wait in a small but comfortable sitting room or they can choose to go directly to their table which is what we did. Within moments a sommelier appeared (it couldnt have been more than 30 seconds) and asked us what type of water we wanted. I asked if he had Badoit and he said no. When I told him I have it at home he asked me if it was glass or plastic bottles and upon hearing plastic he said that the water tastes different and they didnt carry it for that reason. Upon further inquiry of what type they did have, he proceeded to tell me there were thirteen different choices available. As he rattled them off to me including their country of origin, I was amazed at how many I had already had. Finally a new one came along, Alpenrose from Switzerland. They had only begun importing it into the states a month ago. How could I not?
A few minutes later he returned with our water and a wine list. The wine list is separated into two different lists. There is a list; it is more like a carte, of only young wines. There is an additional list of older wines. I can easily describe the list as staggering but the prices? Ouch, someone just stick a dagger in my heart. There were pages of wines so I realized I would have to dig in to find the bargains. When one is confronted with a list of this dimension, a bargain can mean something that costs $500 because it is selling at auction for $1200. At first I looked at the Rhone wines and there wasnt a bargain to be had. I flipped over to Burgundy and there was 1990 Henri Jayer Vosne Romanee Cros Parentoux for, about half the cost at auction. There was also some 1990 Jayer Echezaux at about 70% of the auction price. What was unusual was that they had the 88 and 89 vintages of both wines for nearly twice the price. I called the sommelier over and expressed my confusion as to why that might be (after all, isnt 90 supposed to be better), and he launched into a dissertation of the magical qualities of the 1988 vintage. Monsieur, if you come back thirty years from now zee wine will still be drinking well, zee 90 I dont know. He left and I tucked my skepticism away and continued to pour over the list.
Our dining companions arrived and we discussed the wines with them and then I summoned him back. We will start with the 1996 Coche-Dury Meursault Perrieres and then we will have the Jayer Cros Parentoux. The 88 he asked? No, the 90, merci. By now we had two types of Alpenrose water flying around our table, still and sparkling. Shortly thereafter he came over, no bottle in hand and said Monsieur I am sorry but we have run out of the Coche-Dury. I immediately switched to my number two choice, which was 1996 Niellon Chassagne-Montrachet Vergers. Sorry monsieur, it is closed right now and it is not attractive. After a pitch on his part for a bottle of 1996 Meursault Goutte dOr from Domaine dAuvenay which I rejected out of hand, I asked for the list again. I quickly zeroed in on a bottle of 1996 Guy Roulot Meursault Perrieres, which was half the price of the Coche. A few minutes later he arrived to show me the bottle as well as a sticker on the back of the bottle that said it came from the Cave Privee of Alain Ducasse. Hoohah. He decanted the bottle, gave me a tiny sip and put it on ice. He returned shortly thereafter with the Jayer which had a tattered label. It eez my last bottle monsieur and eet comes directly from zee cellar of monsieur Jayer.
Shortly thereafter they were placing a small soup dish in front of us, which turned out to our Amuse Bouche. It was frothy but you could see small bits of morels sticking out of the center. It turned out to be a Brouillade de Morels which is basically morels and cream. When you put your spoon into the broth you found the entire bottom of the dish was coated with a layer of pureed morels. Sort of like how they would coat a dish with hummus before putting falafel on top. It had the most intense morel flavor which was complimented by the morel infused broth and the spongy crunchiness of the mushrooms themselves. A big bowl of this along with some crusty bread and a bottle of good Chablis would make a great Sunday lunch.
They began setting the table for our first course. My wife and I were having the asparagus to start and they put the strangest device at our place settings. It had two silver rectangles about the width of a cigarette and they were connected by a hinge so it could open and close. Then there were silver bands attached to the top and bottom, one with two rings and one with one. Everyone was looking at them and playing with them until I grabbed them and placed them on my hands and started playing them like castanets. The captain saw he and me ran over. We asked him if it was for the asparagus and he said but of course, and monsieur (meaning me) you are holding them exactly zee right way. You pick up zee asparagus, dip zee point in zee sauce and take zee bite. Then it came to me. This was how Moe, Larry and Curly ate asparagus.
1996 Guy Roulot Meursault Perrieres- Im a fan of this Domaine. He is an underrated producer. But you get what you pay for. This started out very nice, a little fat with a good dose of sweetness. Surprisingly open for a 96. That decanting must have done it some good. With time it started getting brighter and a little bit cloying. Is this the teeniest bit overripe? But while nice and enjoyable it was ultimately a B effort. Just not enough clarity and delineation of flavors for me. A bit sloppy on the finish and follow through. Good enough to keep the case I have in my cellar but a disappointment especially after I had calibrated my palate for the amazing precision of Coche-Dory 90 points
The asparagus arrived and it was 5 spears with the bottoms cut off and they were sitting in a pool of what appeared to be hollandaise and morel sauce. I took my special asparagus apparatus and dipped a point in the sauce. Just then the captain ran over with a little saucepan and said, ah monsieur, you must have more sauce and proceeded to cover the tips in the brown and yellow sauce. The sauce was extremely tasty but the asparagus was a bit of a letdown. When we sat down they had explained that this was the first of the season asparagus, which was hand, picked in California blah, blah. Well Ill take the stuff that comes from Germany any day. Our next course was an asparagus veloute with morels, Parmesan crisps, some julienne vegetables and an egg (broiled?) atop. First of all the soup was green. You dont get good green soup often. But it was also an amazing combination of tastes and textures. It seemed like it was getting thicker with every spoonful. This was the best dish of the night.
1990 Henri Jayer Vosne-Romanee Cros Parenthood- Well, what can I say. I had never had this wine before but Ive seen people chase it at auctions paying prices into the stratosphere. It was amazingly young for a 90. Still working on primary fruit, lots of it. There seems to be some sauvage lying underneath that fruit though. Some cinammony bramble. It was just an immense wine for a pinot noir, maybe the biggest Ive ever had save for Ponsot Clos de la Roche and Leroy Beaumonts from the same vintage. And opulent? Sheesh, one of the other diners made rhapsodic noises after each sip. This was drinking perfectly (if you dont mind primary flavors) but it needs at least another 5 years and could probably last another 10. The sommelier and I had a discussion about it and he wasnt so sure as he finds that some 90s are starting to turn. 96+ points and those of you who own this wine at the release price should give yourselves a big round of applause.
Up next was a nice sized cube of codfish sitting atop some asparagus spears sitting in an intense sauce of coquillages and topped with what else, some chopped morels. Beautiful lobstery flavor to the sauce and the fish cooked to the point where it was slightly flaky.
This was followed by a veal picatta in the shape of a small platter (like CD size) atop more asparagus and morels. I must admit that we were having trouble getting the food down at this point. The portions were huge for a tasting menu and the food was incredibly rich. I was so stuffed that I had to get up and walk around 56th street to get my second wind.
I came back a few minutes later to find the cheese cart positioned in front of my table. Why bother sitting down? I could just hang with the cheese guy and talk about the choices. They offer a nice selection of mostly French cheeses with some domestic cheeses mixed in. After making my selection (of which the St. Felicien was my favorite), the sommelier came over and offered us a surprise wine to go with our cheese. He returned with a bottle that was draped in metal mesh. He poured this deep blood red colored wine into our glasses and we unsuccessfully tried to guess its origin. I have to say my wife was more interested in the mesh covering which looked like the curtains at the Four Seasons restaurant. After she asked him about it he actually offered her one and I am now the proud owner of the most posh brown bag that will ever be used at a blind tasting.
1997 Arano Recioto Della Valpolicella- Lovely body to this extremely young wine. I love a good recioto because of the taste of the earth. This one was still mostly puppy fat and he predicted that in time it would pick up that earthy quality and a bit of animale. Like jambon he said. I never saw this producer before (Luca, Jean Fisch, Helms?) but he said it was extremely difficult to find and that he brought two cases into the U.S (which is all he could get) on a direct import basis. I need to find me some because this will last for eons 93 points and there is a dearth of good red dessert wines.
My dessert was this fantastic concoction of caramel spice cake with caramel ice cream. Just super. It came with an entire box of miniature vanilla and chocolate macaroons and an assortment of homemade chocolates. Then they appeared with a tray of pear, pineapple and strawberry confits de fruits and as if that wasnt enough, a cart with four different flavored caramels. Pistachio, mango, passion fruit and my favorite, salted butter along with homemade lollipops in two different flavors. A person could bust a gut.
All in all it was quite good, much better than I expected although I have to say Im not rushing back. It was really serious, more of a 3 star dining experience than I can ever recall having in this country. Though that aspect of it made it seem somewhat out of place. It was more an experience one would have in Paris or London than New York where even the most formal place has been toned down to reflect the more casual mood of the city. And the cost, ugh, out of control. But I cant say they aren't trying to offer value for the money. The portions are copious and there is no expense spared in ingredients or preparation. The waitstaff was the best, most professional, friendliest and helpful staff I have come across anywhere. On par with the Connaught Hotel and Taillevent. True pros who are at your beck and call.
What I could never get past is the lack of Ducasses presence in the room. I havent heard of a single story from anyone about his actually being there . Even a nice painting of the maestro himself hanging in the dining room would help. Maybe if he hadnt called it by his own name I would feel differently. But without his direct presence felt, it is sort of the same as the places that the top chefs have opened in Vegas and other cities. Kudos to Ducasse if he knows how to box up the formula for a 3 star restaurant and assemble it elsewhere. But it will always be weird to me and Im not sure I can fully get over it.