The Gilt Complex: Adieu to the Michelin-Starred Temple of Fine Dining

GILT exterior

Gilt.

It’s been only a few weeks since our country stood at a precipice of history and peed into the wind. Already the glee and the gloating, the anguish and the sorrow have mostly dried up. The pundits who danced in ceremonial headdresses around the corpse of the GOP have gone home to wash up. And the legion of Romney advisers have given up their chastened hand-wringing, returning to sully their palms in fresh partisan scrum.

But when I visited Gilt, the two-Michelin-starred restaurant at the New York Palace Hotel, on election night, Mr. Romney was just as much president as Obama was. The wave function of a Romney administration had yet to collapse. And despite Karl Rove’s best efforts to mouth-to-mouth it back to life, that particular Schrödinger’s cat would soon meet its end.

And next week, as an oak bows its branches to a passing casket, knowing its time has come, Gilt will serve its last meal. The restaurant was preceded in death by Adour Alain Ducasse, another well-liked white-tablecloth institution, which packed up its porcelain, threw its linen on naphthalene, and expired quietly on November 17.

It may be purely coincidental that two fine-dining restaurants, both well-trafficked and, if not in the bloom of their youth, nevertheless still enjoying the glow of good health, ceased operations just at the moment when a majority of Americans rejected a Weltanschauung in which wealth is virtue, need is shame and every man is an island.

But I would not be me if I didn’t draw some broad tenuous conclusion based on paltry evidence to support a tawdry theory and then cloak the entire thing in plausible restaurant criticism like a conceptual ballotine. And I’m gon’ do me. So no: I do not think these things just happened.

To enter Gilt, one must first suit up like an astronaut entering deep space. The dress code “recommends” jackets like the Met “recommends” a $25 admission fee.Architecturally, there is a series of locks through which one must pass to gradually acclimate to the increasing formality and to keep the street-level reality at bay. The grand courtyard of the Villard Mansion in which Gilt resides, for instance, is the outer ring. The marble steps that lead into the building, dotted with silver glass baubles like oversize drops of dew, are another. Then there are the antechambers, stairwells and fireplaces with which to contend. By the time one enters the elegantly appointed English oak-paneled dining room with two Saint-Gaudens paintings on either end and an elaborate cornice frieze, one is either bedazzled, bewitched and bewildered, or, if one is accustomed to such opulence, lulled into the safety of one’s green zone.

As the approach might suggest, there is absolutely no effort made to plebe up the dining experience. Your banter will not be met with comfortable informality by the waitstaff. The middle-aged gentlemen with either heavy New York accents or hard-to-place foreign ones, as in the case of the maitre d’, aren’t there to bro down. They’re members of the New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council, AFL-CIO, and they are there to plate in unison, discretely whisk crumbs away and make bare the hierarchy in which both you and they operate.

When I visited, the room was three-quarters full and four-fifths male. A handsome gentleman dined alone at a table near the kitchen, his suit so perfect and his visage so stern he seemed lifted from the pages of J.K. Huysmans’s À rebours. But the rest of the crowd looked like regular businessmen inking deals, Romney dopplegangers with hairy hands grasping the slender stems of wine glasses and thinking nasty things about each other. The patriarchy, after all, has to eat somewhere.

And they eat well. The ghost of Paul Liebrandt, who started at the restaurant, haunts the kitchen at Gilt, but the chef who will preside over the restaurant’s final meal, Justin Bogle, is an underrated star, though not an unstarred one. At 28, Mr. Bogle became the youngest chef to earn two Michelin stars in 2009. He’s as quiet as Mr. Liebrandt was boisterous, but just as talented.

A recent Grand Tasting Menu—a seven-course onslaught that ran $150—managed to surprise and thrill even as the ingredients read like a well-thumbed Book of Common Prayer for the 1 percent. Early on, Mr. Bogle served a thin wavy wall of foie gras that stood on a plate like a beige Andy Goldsworthy, accompanied by preserved green strawberries, juniper and sweet herbs, which carried just enough acidity to cut the richness. Scottish langoustines—big fuckers—might have felt out of place among uni, lardo, fermented pepper and sea samphire in the hands of a less accomplished chef. But in Mr. Bogle’s, the buttery richness of the langoustines was comfortably and perfectly counter-ballasted by slightly spicy fermented pepper.

Just as important as Mr. Bogle is Patrick Cappiello, the erudite sommelier who buzzes about the dining room like a hopped-up Ira Glass. Under Mr. Cappiello’s watch, the wine program at Gilt has become one of the city’s best. The 3,000-bottle wine list—though “list” fails to do justice to its gravity—is inventive and traipses into far-flung vineyards in Macedonia and tiny ones in Burgundy that seemingly only Mr. Cappiello has visited. Some bottles are on consignment from collectors; many, like those dark foreboding bottles of port, are to be found only at Gilt.

But in a few weeks, it will all be gone. The cellar will likely be dismantled and Messrs. Cappiello and Bogle will be out of work. “We might go into something together,” said Mr. Cappiello. “But it would be downtown,” said Mr. Bogle, “for sure. I’ve had enough of Midtown.” Instead, the room will become one-third of a sprawling restaurant by Michel Richard, the jolly Frenchman with a spotty record.

As Gilt closes and Adour is shuttered, there’s an urge to pull from the wardrobe a cilice of sackcloth, daub one’s brow with ashes and call the priest to administer Fine Dining’s last rites. But fine dining hasn’t died in New York, and it probably never will. A meal at Blanca, Chef Carlo Mirarchi’s tasting room in Bushwick, costs more than even the grandest tasting menu at Gilt. Dinner for two at M. Wells’s Dinette at MoMa PS1 can easily run into the mid-to-high three figures. Defined by expenditure, fine dining is doing fine.

It’s just gone underground. Or, like cockroaches scattering at first light, into the outer boroughs. But if one thinks that monied Manhattanites spelunking into Brooklyn and Queens constitutes any sort of democratization of anything, nah trick nah. It’s not that income equality has gotten any better. In fact, it’s worse now than at nearly any other time in American history. But the trappings of wealth have become shameful. Places like Gilt, with its paneled walls, somber service and celebration of opulence, and Adour, with its unapologetic formality, have become abhorrent. They are, perhaps, reminders that much of our wealth is Mammon, or if not ill-gotten, earned at a cost. (Contrast this with France, where income inequality and poverty has declined in the last 20 years, François Hollande just instituted a 75 percent tax on millionaires, and fine dining is still alive and well.)

Much better, I suppose, to leave your jacket at home and call a car service to take you where the streets aren’t numbered and the servers say “dude.” Anyway, after next week, we won’t have Gilt to kick around anymore.