Ten years ago an Englishman, Keith McNally, opened a fake French bistro in Soho. Every detail had been carefully researched, from the red leather for the banquettes to the Gauloise-smoke patina on the ceilings and the shellfish display, where names of the oysters du jour were scrawled in soap on distressed mirrors. From opening day, the place looked as though it had been around for a hundred years. When you walked into Balthazar, you entered another world.
So there was much anticipation when Alain Ducasse announced he was going to open a New York branch of Benoit, one of the last authentic bistros in Paris, dating from 1912, and which he took over two years ago. What’s more, he was going to establish it in the premises that were once La Côte Basque, one of the city’s most beautiful restaurants.
The first tremor of displacement begins as you wait for your table at the bar, where the thumping beat of techno music helps to obliterate the last traces of that venerable institution (and even of the brasserie its owner and chef, Jean-Jacques Rachou, replaced it with when he sadly decided haute cuisine had had its day and he wanted to attract a younger audience). The room is hideous, done up with thick black and white stripes on the walls and islands of waist-high round black tables and black bar stools. It feels like a T.G.I. Fridays: the perfect setting for green-apple martinis and loaded potato skins. Look up, however, and you will see a beautiful antique blue and yellow glass ceiling from an old Paris bakery.
And look up at the ceiling in the dining room: a trompe l’oeil sky. It’s one of the few design elements that doesn’t feel as though it had been assembled from a bistro kit. The walls are covered with bright blond wood paneling and hung with shiny new mirrors and scenes of Paris. There are the de rigueur red banquettes, but the chairs look as though they’ve come out of a 1950s cafeteria. Mr. Rachou’s majolica statue of a heron, dating back to La Côte Basque, still presides over the room, and the medallions of 1890s cartoons, brass lamps and sconces from his brasserie have been retained. But the lighting is flat, and the frosted-glass separators installed as an attempt to break up the space make it feel claustrophobic. This world of Benoit is Disney World’s.
MR. DUCASSE MUST be riding high on the success of Adour, which he opened last winter in the St. Regis, one block away. At Benoit, he’s offering the Ducasse experience off the peg, so to speak. That’s fine, but because of his name, you come with high hopes, even to a bistro. And you don’t expect the sort of wine service I received one evening when I asked for a second glass of rosé. Our waitress brought over a bottle containing little more than an inch of wine and cheerfully emptied the dregs, along with the sediment, into my glass.
The menu offers traditional bistro fare such as steak tartare and canard à l’orange, and some dishes you won’t want to miss on a hot summer night, such as onion soup and Mr. Rachou’s famous cassoulet. (To be fair, those were on his brasserie menu, too.) Benoit’s chef, Sebastién Rondier, has no lack of credentials, and he’s worked with Ducasse since 2000. But most of the food I tasted was mediocre.
A charcuterie platter for two ($42) includes prosciutto, pâté en croûte and dry sausage, but it had none of the sparkle of the dish that’s served at Bar Boulud. It was lifted from total doldrums by a sort of mille-feuille arrangement of veal and tongue layered with foie gras mousse. This was wonderful. So was another dish, the buttery duck foie gras confit with brioche. But a tartare of coarsely chopped daurade with olive oil was lackluster.
I had read that Mr. Rachou—who is not affiliated with Benoit, but is a friend of Ducasse—had contributed his recipe for quenelles de brochet to Benoit’s menu. I have glorious memories of these silken zeppelins, floating in a delicate pink sauce Nantua. I wonder what he would have made of the dish that was served to me one night. A casserole of melted sludge arrived, two unevenly shaped browned lumps on a watery brown sauce rimmed with a white froth. The quenelles themselves were quite nice under their tough skin, their texture a bit chunkier than the ones I remember, but they looked as though they had been washed up on the shores of Love Canal.
“Are you still working on that?” asked a busboy.
Work was needed for the halibut, which tasted like hospital food. The underseasoned fish had the texture of wet Kleenex and lay on a pool of brown sauce garnished with three asparagus spears. It came with a silver sauceboat filled with a frothy Champagne sabayon that had a strange metallic taste.
I HAVEN’T BEEN to the original Benoit, but I have been to L’Ami Louis, another venerated Paris bistro, after which the roast chicken here is named. I can still almost taste their chicken, one of the best I’ve ever eaten, with a miraculously crisp golden skin. Here, the chicken for two with thin french fries ($48) was tender and juicy, but the skin was limp.
Desserts included a slab of lemon meringue pie that could have come from a diner, and a dry chocolate soufflé sprinkled with sugar, served with vanilla ice cream. One of the desserts was described on the menu as a “mystère.” “Enjoy!” said the server as he set it down. The mystery in this pleasant hazelnut ice cream was melted chocolate in the middle.
Given that it’s Ducasse, the prices are not exorbitant. But you can’t help feeling that Benoit, which also has a branch in Tokyo, is little more than a cynical moneymaker, packing in the tourists and suburbanites eager for the Ducasse experience without paying through the roof.
If you go downstairs to the bathrooms, you will see black-and-white photographs of glamorous women taken in the ’60s, the sort of people who flocked to La Côte Basque in the era when Jackie Kennedy was barred for wearing a pantsuit. Those were the days!