A waiter placed a shallow white bowl before me. On the bottom, making the corners of a square, lay four pastel-colored florets: yellow, ivory, pink and green. He poured in cauliflower soup and set down a bagel. “The topping on the bagel is ‘Dubarry’: chopped cauliflower and Comté cheese,” he explained. “In Escoffier, dishes made with cauliflower are called Dubarry, after Louis XV’s mistress.”
Bagel “Dubarry”? Alain Ducasse may have a sly sense of humor, but up until now New York hasn’t given him much to smile about. Mr. Ducasse has more Michelin stars than any chef in the world, but his first restaurant here, which opened eight years ago in the Essex House, was not particularly well received. The price (a $235 prix fixe) was met by outrage, as were such excesses as the selection of scary knives for carving your squab, the embroidered footstools provided for the ladies’ handbags and the choice of Mont Blanc fountain pens proffered for signing the bill. The Michelin Guide awarded Ducasse three stars, but nevertheless, it closed a year ago.
Now the chef has returned with a thoroughly modern and less expensive restaurant in the St. Regis Hotel. Designer David Rockwell has swept away the fusty décor of the previous tenant, Lespinasse, covering the walls with silver leaf and backlit glass etched with grapevines, decking the room with glass bubbles and installing burgundy-colored corduroy banquettes. The space is broken up with nooks and alcoves; instead of stools for your handbags there are pull-out wooden shelves under the seat. (How long before the shelves crack under the weight of today’s elephant-sized purses?) The overhead lighting is too bright, the piped-in music negligible and tables for two are too long, but at least it’s quiet enough to hear your companion.
Adour, named for a river in the southwest of France near where Mr. Ducasse grew up, is as much about wine as food. Wine bottles are displayed around the dining room in illuminated mahogany cases, and there are over 1,800 listed in the “Cellar Book”; you can access the details electronically on top of the tiny interactive wine bar, a game that amuses the guests. Private wine vaults can be rented by the year (hurry, because there are only 50 places). For the rest of us, the regular list has around 600 bottles, 70 of which cost under $50. And less expensive vintages are given their due respect. One evening a friend asked if the Givry we’d ordered could be chilled a little. “That’s not necessary,” replied the sommelier. “We have two cellars, one we keep at 55 degrees, the other at 60.”
Mr. Ducasse and executive chef Tony Esnault created the menu with sommeliers, crafting each dish to complement the wine, not compete with it. But the meal starts with a throwback from the 50’s: puff pastry bites filled with béchamel and Comté, sprinkled with paprika. You get two each, along with wonderful olive bread and olive butter. The butter is served, appropriately, at room temperature—a perplexingly rare touch in this city of $30-plus entrees.
The plates are picture-perfect, and they don’t taste too bad, either. Hamachi is lined up like petals, with slivered radishes and geoduck clams in a green apple mustard sauce. I would come back for this dish alone. Or for the creamy diver scallops, flecked with black truffle, that arrive on a bed of salsify and spinach with an intense shellfish jus. Ethereal ricotta gnocchi are matched with sautéed lettuce, dried prosciutto and sherry vinegar. These ingredients had powerful individual flavors (even the lettuce) that were a perfect foil for the gnocchi.
Sometimes, though, the food can be bland, despite Mr. Ducasse’s masterly way with sauce. “Multicolor vegetable composition,” a decorative lineup of poached root vegetables, needed contrast of texture; everything was soft. But the sauce, a simple, deep reduction of their cooking juices, perked them up. Duck, two thick, medium-rare pieces you could slice like butter, also made for a soft dish, since it came with polenta, but the lemony olive-strewn sauce was outstanding. In contrast, the splendid pork tournedos, garnished with candied pork belly and a crumble of boudin noir, matched nicely with a lively juniper-infused jus.
Mr. Ducasse’s version of lobster Thermidor—the dish built for a coronary—is lighter than the original. He knows New Yorkers don’t want to leave the table feeling stuffed. Briny pieces of lobster meat arrived on a bed of swiss chard fondue with a subtle armagnac sauce.
New Yorkers do like their dessert, however. Pastry chef Sandro Micheli’s remarkable concoctions include a raspberry “composition,” made with huge berries (whose size, for once, did not indicate they would be tasteless), with layers of crème brulée and yuzu sorbet, served in a basket with gold leaf on the handle. Gold leaf also fluttered like a sail in the breeze over the chocolate topping on a rectangle of layered praline mousse, paired with orange-ginger sorbet.
But the all-out winner was the chocolate sorbet, which arrived not in scoops, but in a white pudding bowl under a layer of cocoa powder. As molten chocolate is poured in, it all melts, and is at the same moment showered with caramelized croutons. When you dip your spoon inside, you find a coffee granité. It was witty, unexpected, and the chocolate was pure heaven.
The atmosphere at Adour is less stiff and formal than it was at Ducasse. There’s even a bar menu. The friendly and vigilant waitstaff (and there are many of them) wear brown suits instead of tuxedos.
“I’m in a suit and tie, and I feel overdressed,” said a friend, looking around the room one evening. “In a Ducasse restaurant; now that’s something!”
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