Dining out with Moira Hodgson

Dumonet’s New French Chef

Keeps It Classicn

The newly refurbished restaurant at the Carlyle is like the set of a George Kaufman play. At lunchtime recently, it seemed that the entire cast had been assembled in the chocolate-brown dining room, which has a marble fireplace, a swirling Art Deco carpet and hunting prints on the walls. In one corner, a young man in polo shirt and khakis, hunched over a magazine, looked just right for the leading man. On the other side of the room, a Jean Harlow blonde, all in pink, sat alone with a glass of white wine and a Cobb salad, her shopping bags at her feet. A stubbornly well-preserved matron with a stiff coif of gold hair kept vigil on the banquette, a small shiny red crocodile Hermès bag on the table in front of her like a portable safe. She was joined by an equally erect, high-breasted woman whose helmet of platinum hair matched her platinum suit. In the center of the room, a John Barrymore character held forth under a crystal chandelier, beneath which was placed a giant bouquet of white lilies. “I have breakfast here every day, so I’d thought we’d have lunch,” he told his companion. “Waiter! Two Dubonnets, please.”

Few among this cast of characters are probably aware that along with its revamped 1930′s décor, the Carlyle has acquired a new French chef, Jean-Louis Dumonet. For instead of shocking his customers with up-to-the-minute, cutting-edge dishes like foie gras with anchovies or eel with candied violets, Mr. Dumonet has kept the classics and pared down to the essentials. He’s mixed in some new dishes with the old hotel ones and added some rustic bistro items to the menu, such as pot au feu and rabbit in mustard sauce.

His intention is to let the ingredients speak for themselves. So a platter of white asparagus is just that: no fronds or swirls or dots of sauce, but five unblemished, recognizable stalks on a plain white rectangular plate. Not even a sprig of parsley! But the asparagus is perfect, juicy and tender, and comes with a lemony vinaigrette served on the side. Days later, you will still remember it. A plain boiled artichoke arrives in all its de Chirico splendor, unembellished, with a small jug containing a powerful mustard vinaigrette. A frothy vichyssoise has a julienne of summer truffle and crème fraîche. If you order the gazpacho, the waiter brings over a bowl with a mound of lobster and vegetable tartare seasoned with basil heaped in the center. Then he pours in a smooth red soup that is rich with the flavor of ripe tomatoes.

The dining room has been done over by Thierry Despont, who recently redid another famous landmark, Claridges in London (where Gordon Ramsay has installed himself), as well as the Carlyle’s lobby and Bemelmans bar. Above the fireplace is an 18th-century painting of a rigid young girl in a red crinoline with a pet bird on her hand. The waiter told us it was by an Italian painter, Sebastiano Ceccarini, and for $200,000 it could be ours.

“Offer him one-ninety,” whispered my companion.

Instead, we turned our attention to lunch. Sweetbreads, sautéed with artichokes and seasoned with cumin, were a little tough, and the forest of micro greens that topped it off added nothing to the dish. But the tuna Niçoise was as good as it gets, and tasted as though it had just been made (not pulled from the refrigerator) with the freshest of ingredients. The chef does it the classic way, using a first-rate canned tuna-not, as is the style of some trendy chefs, with fresh tuna cooked rare (don’t get Julia Child started on this subject). The two white-haired ladies in baggy cashmere sweaters with bobby pins in their hair, undoubtedly residents of the hotel, were clearly enjoying theirs, along with glasses of iced tea.

“It’s a haven, an oasis,” said one of my friends. “And the ladies who lunch here are different from the ‘ladies who lunch.’ It’s as though time stood still.”

The ladies who were lunching stuck to salads, but they should have tried the veal cheeks, one of the best dishes on the menu (and nothing if not trendy since Mario Batali put them on the map; they’re so popular you wonder how there’s enough to go around town). Dumonet’s version consists of round nuggets tender enough to eat with a spoon, served on a purée of red carrots in a sweet but not cloying sauce that’s made with orange jus. The poached skate wing, classic bistro food, with lemon and capers and beurre noir is also beautifully cooked. For dinner one night, the rack of lamb persillade wasn’t quite hot enough when it arrived at the table, but the meat had good flavor and was juicy and pink. And the dry-aged rib-eye au poivre was excellent. Vegetables come on the side, steakhouse style, for $8 each. The spinach was watery but the crusty, thick-cut French fries were terrific.

The wine list is expensive, with a good selection of French wines. The Volnay Clos des Chesne is only fair and costs $90.

For dessert, you can take your pick from the trolley. Rum baba! One of my friends hadn’t had that since his high-school prom. Alas, it was dry and skimpy on the rum. The chocolate mousse, however, was wonderful, spooned out by the captain in twin creamy lumps with raspberry and mango sauces. And the crème caramel was sumptuous under its delicate crust of caramelized sugar.

“Last time I came here, George Feyer was playing,” my friend remarked, dating himself. “We drank martinis and got completely obliterated.”

Now, after dinner, you can stroll across the lobby to the café and hear Bobby Short instead, singing “You’re the Tops” or “Let’s Fall in Love.”