Sensuous Food at Montrachet Muffles Tiresome Money Talk

It was a hot night and the dining room of Montrachet was a sea of pinstriped shirts. Every table but one was occupied by moist businessmen who, despite the air-conditioning, had taken off their jackets and slung them over the backs of their chairs. “The way this fund works …” began one of the men, but he failed to hold the attention of his companions, all of whom wore wedding rings. They were riveted by the goings-on at the next table, where two pretty young women were having rather a different kind of evening. They looked cool in black slip dresses, and their backs and shoulders were tanned and covered with tattoos. Oblivious of their audience, they nuzzled each other’s hair, draped their arms around each other’s shoulders, spaghetti straps dangling, and spooned food into each other’s mouths.

And what food! I can’t imagine how anyone could concentrate on funds while eating Montrachet’s foie gras terrine or the blinis with smoked trout, sour cream and caviar. You can’t help having respect for the sort of man who can negotiate deals over such a dinner (clearly a titan of industry in the making).

I’ve always had a soft spot for Montrachet. I like its unpretentiousness, its friendly, knowledgeable staff and its laid-back atmosphere. It was Drew Nieporent’s first restaurant, which he opened in TriBeCa in 1985 with David Bouley as chef. No one had seen a fancy French restaurant quite like this one. Instead of a paneled dining room with boudoir lamps on the tables, the setting was a remodeled industrial space in a funky little building downtown, on a remote block of West Broadway. The waiters were not formally dressed in black tie but all in black, as if they were on their way to the Mudd Club. Yet the food, the wine–and the prices–were on a par with the city’s top restaurants. Since then, Mr. Nieporent has established quite an empire (Nobu here and in London; TriBeCa Grill, Layla and Tribakery in New York; Rubicon and Freestyle in California; with another Nobu downtown and Heartbeat in the East 50’s due to open soon). Mr. Bouley eventually left to set up shop around the corner, and at least half a dozen other chefs have come and gone. But the food at Montrachet has always been good, even wonderful. So when I heard that Remi Lauvand, who was a sous-chef here at the beginning (and has since worked at Tropica, Gerard Pangaud and Le Cirque), is now in charge of the kitchen, it gave me a reason to go back.

My favorite of Montrachet’s three dining rooms is the front room with its long mahogany bar and racks of wine. The restaurant is rightly famous for its wines and it pays not to be put off by the triple-figure burgundies that greet you when you open the list, but to put yourself instead in the hands of the sommelier, Daniel Johnnes. One evening, to my surprise, he recommended a Puligny-Montrachet “Les Combettes” Louis Carillon from 1982, which I thought seemed rather old for a white wine. I wondered if we were in for an experience like the one I had at the house of a friend who brought out bottle after bottle of extraordinary wines that for all sorts of reasons hadn’t weathered well. At the first sip, they seemed great. Then they would disappear, becoming, as he put it, “like a voice from another room.” But the voice of this wine, bought from a private owner’s cellar on one of Mr. Johnnes’ frequent trips to France, was definitely well within range of hearing (if a little more, as we discovered, than we had quite planned to spend).

Montrachet is not a cheap restaurant, and prices have climbed since it first opened with $18 as its lowest prix fixe menu. Now, a prix fixe of $34 will get you arugula salad with Parmesan cheese followed by a plate of delicious gnocchi tossed with wild mushrooms and sprinkled with sliced summer truffles and scallions, with crème brûlée for dessert. Not bad. The $42 menu consists of a vegetable terrine layered with goat cheese, crisp pan-seared duckling with spinach and pancetta, and peach tarte Tatin.

Dinner one night began with an offering from the chef, warm pieces of lobster on socca (the pizza crust from Nice) with a reduced balsamic vinegar sauce. In a giddy moment, I ordered the foie gras terrine, but I wasn’t sorry. When I put my fork in, it separated into rich buttery chunks. It came with pickled pearl onions and tiny peeled fava beans. (Our eagle-eyed waitress, the moment I ran out of brioche toast, was there with more.) I also loved the rabbit salad on frisée in a dressing made with verjuice, mustard and walnut oil.

Mr. Lauvand’s food is streamlined and elegant. Crispy sautéed black bass was served on an emerald green sauce made with nettles, and garnished with artichokes. I ordered turbot, which arrived on the bone in a thick, juicy slice under which were nestling small, preserved porcini mushrooms from France. When my companion tasted the mushrooms and began to marvel over them, the waiter, unsolicited, fetched him a plate on the house.

So of course we couldn’t resist when our waitress suggested a cheese course–a creamy chevre with fresh figs–and Mr. Johnnes said he thought a glass of demi-sec champagne, Montlouis “Les Batisses” Domaine Deletang 1997, would go nicely with it. Nor could we say no to pastry chef Linda Acevedo’s desserts, the best of which is a napoleon in a feather-light crust filled with mascarpone in a port wine sauce. I’ve never had anything quite like it. Also remarkable was a gratinée of plums with Beaujolais and a passion-fruit Bavarian cream with warm berries. These were followed by a plate of chocolate petits fours that tasted as though they had been made just minutes before.

“I was reading somewhere that success in life can be measured by enthusiasm,” said my friend, who certainly had not wanted for enthusiasm during this meal; nor had anyone else at Montrachet, which is why it is such a success.

Montrachet

* * *

239 West Broadway, between Walker and White Streets

219-2777

Dress: Wall Street

Noise level: Fine

Wine list: Exceptional, with good choices at all prices

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Main courses lunch $18 to $23, dinner $24 to $32, prix fixe $34 or $42, or tasting menu for $75

Lunch: Friday noon to 2:15 P.M.

Dinner: Monday to Thursday 5:30 P.M. to 10 P.M., Saturday to 10:45 P.M.

* Good

* * Very good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

Sensuous Food at Montrachet Muffles Tiresome Money Talk