The $500 Question: Is Ducasse Really Worth It?

It’s been just over six months since Alain Ducasse opened his restaurant in the Essex House, setting off a furor in the New York press that continued well into winter. It wasn’t just the excesses that drew ire–the selection of knives presented for carving the squab (which Mr. Ducasse, it has been noted, requires to be strangled), the little stool for the lady’s handbag, the silver caddy of bottled waters that looks like a Tiffany version of the one the milkman used to leave by your door–it was the fact that the chef wasn’t even in the kitchen. When the $500 check arrived, it demanded an expression the better sort of aristocrat would have worn on his way to the guillotine. It soon became the thing to boast that you’d not only managed to get into Ducasse, but you hadn’t been the slightest bit impressed.

Nevertheless, when I set off for dinner there recently–after obtaining a reservation on the night I wanted with no trouble at all, by the way–it was with an open mind. (Why ever not, since I wasn’t paying.) I’d had an unforgettable meal at Mr. Ducasse’s namesake three-star restaurant in Paris just last spring, and another a few years before that at his other three-star establishment, Louis XV in Monaco (where I sat at the table next to Frank Sinatra and his companions, who, to the dismay of the kitchen, ate only mashed potatoes and drank Scotch throughout the meal). How much of the criticism, I wondered, was just the press having a go at a snooty Frenchman who thought he could come over here and teach us about food?

Mr. Ducasse is a stickler for detail. He oversaw every aspect of the restaurant– which he designed himself–from the red, yellow and mauve silks on the banquettes to the initials “A-D-N-Y” embossed on the blade of the heavy silver knives. The small, wonderful room seats only 65. It has dark wood paneling, a domed ceiling covered in gold leaf, immense black marble pillars and, in the windows, which change seasonally, a riotous display of amaryllis. To my taste, though, Mr. Ducasse has curious lapses. The gilded and paint-drizzled violins on the walls by the dreaded sculptor Arman would be right at home in the lobby of a Miami hotel; the photographs in the vestibule, framed in the same silk upholstery as the banquettes, reminded me of those men’s matching tie-and-hankie combinations; and the pinpoint overhead lighting was “so unflattering to women,” as my companion tactfully put it (and not exactly great to men, either). The room was also quiet to the point of being unsettling, as hushed as an English country hotel. Of course, quiet is the last, nearly unattainable luxury–in New York restaurants, anyway–but in the main dining room, we felt that if we laughed out loud, everyone would put down their forks and stare. The service, however, was impeccable, friendly but unobtrusive and alert. When I left the table, a fresh linen napkin was in its silver ring by the time I came back. The waiter must have been watching me like a store detective.

One evening, the tables in the front dining room were filled not with the sort of louche international set you get over at Daniel or Le Cirque but with business people–not exactly my idea of a fun crowd. There were only two couples dining together, both of whom looked straight out of a George Grosz cartoon–and neither of them, as far as I could see, exchanged a single word all evening. On another night, in the smaller back room, I overheard one of the men at the next table say he’d just bought a house that came with a fully stocked wine cellar.

So he probably didn’t get the same feeling in the pit of his stomach that I had when I saw the wine lists. There are two: a short, international one that changes monthly and a mostly French reserve list. Both were interesting, but there were only about six bottles listed that cost under three figures. I asked the sommelier what he recommended in the 60 range (the lowest). “You mean the Parker 60 or $60?” he replied, referring to the rating system of the wine expert Robert Parker, and we both laughed. He was, in fact, extremely helpful and suggested a Muddy Water-Waipara pinot noir from New Zealand that was worth it for the name alone.

Even though a farmer who supplies vegetables is credited on the menu, the chef de cuisine, Didier Elena, is not. Mr. Ducasse is telling you that it’s his food, even if he’s a thousand miles away. (He now has 12 restaurants, and is rumored to be opening another model of his Spoon concept in the Royalton Hotel.) Wild mushroom essence deepened the flavor of his shellfish velouté, which was complemented by a small cup of thick sea-urchin mousse. A terrine of wild game and foie gras came with a glimmering amber jelly that provided a counterpoint to the richness of the meat, and was garnished with crunchy green grapes and tiny onions. Sea scallops, slightly warmed, were served with a golden mound of Iranian osetra caviar and lightly coated with a gossamer lemon cream sauce. (I didn’t realize until I got the bill that it carried a $40 supplement. Women dining with men get a menu without prices.)

Mr. Ducasse makes much of American ingredients, going so far as to publish a coffee-table book on the subject, Harvesting Excellence . But the timbale of vegetables au gratin was nothing to rave about. It was dull, mushy and needed seasoning. Perhaps it’s because I’ve become much more used to the natural flavors of the food that chefs like Alice Waters turn out that I’m no longer so keen on reduced sauces and dressed-up ingredients. Maine lobster, fresh and briny, was roasted in its shell and came with crushed potatoes with black truffle and lobster coral and a rich jus. Rich, too, was the sauce on the roasted spiny lobster supported by tiny pillows of gnocchi topped with triangles of tasteless black truffle. The pheasant hen velouté was a rich, creamy soup, complex and earthy, laced with bits of chestnut. “Luxury comfort food,” said my companion.

Into the “meal of a lifetime” category fell the spit-roasted venison loin, which was as perfect, gamey and juicy a piece of meat as I’ve eaten. The squab was remarkable, so tender you could have cut it with a spoon. (You’re only offered one knife now.) The small bowl of stew that arrived with the bison was outstanding, more interesting than the medallions, which were rare and beefy but underseasoned, topped with diced truffles and leathery slices of potato.

Mr. Ducasse could do a lot more with the cheese trolley. Though it offered some interesting artisanal American cheeses, it didn’t compare with Picholine’s. Desserts were another story. The rum baba arrived in a silver caviar server; I got to choose which rare aged rum to pour on top from a tiny silver pitcher. It was fun. But the red-grapefruit soufflé was extraordinary, an airy froth paired with a nicely acidic grapefruit sorbet. The “caramel variation” was even more remarkable, taking you through the spectrum of crunchy, soft, salted, sweet, buttery, cool; it was like having an edible fireworks display in your mouth.

After dinner, a trolley came around with homemade nougat, caramels and orange and lemon lollipops. It was a lighthearted note. At Ducasse in Paris, they gave us American candies–spun sugar and toffee apples. The meal there was better–and less stiff. adny has the makings of a great restaurant, but at these prices, at least, you expect the meal of a lifetime.

Alain Ducasse

* * *

Essex House, 155 West 58th Street

265-5535

Dress: Business

Noise level: Very low

Wine list: Very expensive; monthly list of more than 150 wines, plus a 700-bottle reserve list

Credit cards: All major

Lunch: Wednesday and Thursday noon to 1:30 p.m.

Dinner: Monday to Friday 7 to 9 p.m.

Price range: Three-course prix fixe $145, four courses $160, truffle-tasting menu $250

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor