Meal of a Lifetime May Be
Cure for Orange-Alert Blues
Fling your paper down in disgust: The world is falling apart and here I am, eating a six-course black truffle dinner at Alain Ducasse! I was invited by a friend who felt that we needed cheering up.
The smell of truffles, which come into season in Périgord in the winter, is as pervasive in Alain Ducasse’s dining room as Gauloises in a French bistro. When we sat down, our waiter brought over a tray of misshapen black balls for our perusal and then whisked it back to the kitchen. Who could resist? Later they reappeared in various forms, such as a “marmalade” made with artichokes, tomato and Parmesan. They were also chopped into a terrine of duck foie gras laced with shredded chicken; they were slathered over a pile of sea scallops on cauliflower purée (with tiny bits of raw cauliflower adding a crunch); they coated veal sweetbreads; and, finally, they showed up on the salad-a mound of tiny greens and herbs tossed in a light vinaigrette and topped with a pyramid of truffles that lay over the salad like a damp cloak. The last dish was served with thin, black, silver-and-red-tipped chopsticks.
“Mr. Ducasse prefers to eat his salad with chopsticks,” said the waiter. “He doesn’t like the taste of metal from the fork.” We wound up with cheese, desserts, candies and chocolates, and even lollipops. It was the meal of a lifetime.
But when he first opened his restaurant in New York two and a half years ago, Mr. Ducasse got the sort of reception Dominique de Villepin could expect if he paid a visit to the White House. Mr. Ducasse may have had more Michelin stars than any chef in the world, but New Yorkers roiled at the idea that an arrogant Frenchman thought he could sail into town and show them a thing or two about food before heading back to his other restaurants. Not only that, he was ostentatious: There were the expensive fountain pens presented in a display case when you signed the bill, a selection of weird, scary knives for carving your squab (which he required to be strangled), and even brocaded footstools for the ladies’ handbags. “Dinner for two: $500!” shrieked the front page of the Daily News . Indeed, the food was not worth the price.
Now it’s no trouble to get a reservation, and the dining room is no longer packed. But the food, under chef de cuisine Didier Elena, has hit its stride. With just a few exceptions, it is outstanding-and so is the service. This may be a four-star restaurant, but it has none of the snootiness associated with similar places in France. The staff at Alain Ducasse is relaxed and genuinely friendly, as well as being super-vigilant (when you return to the table, a fresh linen napkin is waiting for you in its silver ring). The efficiency did get to the point of being a little unsettling, however, when I told my companion that I preferred chilled butter instead of the softened ones we’d been served. Moments later, a plate of chilled butter replaced the plate of the soft ones. Did they have a mike under the table? After all, Gordon Ramsay has hidden cameras trained on his tables in Claridge’s so he knows when to fire up the next course.
There are three wine lists: a sommelier’s selected list that includes international bottles, a mostly French reserve list and a list of wines by the glass. They’re great lists, but the wines are all, as you’d expect, extremely expensive, and there are some losers at the lower end. At the beginning of the evening, the young waitress-who was wearing a tie tucked into the waistband of her skirt like an English schoolgirl-held out a silver bucket filled with crushed ice and bottles of champagne. “Tonight we have Paul Drouet and André Clouet and, in addition, something very, very special: a Veuve Clicquot ’95 Grande Dame.”
“Sounds interesting,” said my companion.
“It’s very, very special,” the waitress reminded us. We each had a glass. The champagne was sharp, tangy, brisk and delicious. With it came a small, exquisite cheese puff presented on a 1920′s Lalique plate that was made from white-pressed glass with a band of silver around the edge. Later, we discovered the champagne was $46 a glass.
Mr. Ducasse has personally overseen every aspect of the restaurant, which he designed himself-from the red, yellow and mauve silks on the banquettes to the initials ADNY embossed on the blades of the heavy silver knives. The small dining room has a domed gold-leaf ceiling, immense black marble pillars and, in the windows, which change their displays seasonally, white porcelain fruits and small bronze tree sculptures by Louis Cané. A giant golden bowl packed with white roses dominates the center of the room, and behind it I could see the open kitchen and the chefs in tall toques, a funny juxtaposition. The gilded and paint-drizzled musical instruments on one wall are by the dreaded sculptor Arman. “All great French restaurants have terrible art,” commented my companion. “It’s a mark of authenticity.”
The room seats only 65, and there’s one member of staff for each customer. Apart from the woman swathed in striped taffeta and gold jewelry who looked like an African princess, the crowd is not wildly glamorous or even louche .
If you don’t go for the truffle menu (the season will be ending soon), there are other wonderful dishes to choose from. The airy duck foie gras ravioli floating in the delicate froth of a “cappuccino” sauce are outstanding, as is the flaky feuilletté of asparagus with shrimp and a mousseline sauce that’s painted on the plate like an inside-out fried egg. Rich, too, is the sauce on the roasted spiny lobster, which comes with soft pillows of gnocchi topped with slivers of black truffle. Chopped sea scallops are served under a mound of Iranian golden osetra caviar on a watercress sauce. Seared bison loin has a strong beefy flavor and is meltingly tender. Suckling pig (or piglet) is truly great, made with tiny chops and tender, crunchy cracking, and it’s accompanied by a crisp pork belly, a mini boudin noir, apple and truffled jus. The cheese board, which has about four cheeses from each category, is not as good as Picholine’s. You may as well press on to Frédéric Robert’s splendid desserts. They include a lovely vanilla mille feuille, an exotic fruit soufflé with passion-fruit sorbet, and a refreshing compote of grapefruit and orange segments with lemon custard that gets a crunch from an orange tuile.
Afterwards, there’s more: a palate-cleansing sorbet, pastries, chocolates, homemade nougats, caramels, orange and lemon lollipops.
And now to the bill. For the price of a dinner for two, I could have had four of the best seats at the Metropolitan Opera, or I could have bought a new dress or flown to Paris and back. Was it worth it? Well, it was the meal of a lifetime.