Glenn Bernbaum must be rolling over in his grave. The snobbish, curmudgeonly owner of Mortimer’s on the Upper East Side refused to allow his restaurant to pass into his employees’ hands after his death two years ago, or even to let them use the name. So the premises have been taken over by Orsay, a wildly successful French brasserie that’s packed with the sort of people Bernbaum wouldn’t have allowed through the front door, let alone banished to that dreary room in the back.
The new owner, Jean Denoyer, creator of La Goulue, Le Colonial and L’Absinthe, has knocked down the old bar and the wall behind it to make one huge, airy dining room. He says he sees each of his restaurants as a stage, with the patrons as performers. His latest venture, opened with partners François Latapie and Regis Marignier, is a stage set as an Art Nouveau brasserie. The sight lines are perfect (though the lighting could be a little less bright), and every design detail has been meticulously researched, from the sculpted plaster ceiling and fan-tiled mosaic floor (similar to the one at Pastis) to the mahogany panels, polished brass railings, leather banquettes and blown-glass sconces (inspired by the artist Majorelle). If Bernbaum were standing here now, the only thing he would recognize would be the uniform worn by the customer air-kissing the maître d’: Chanel suit, Hermés Birkin bag, pale stockings, Manolo Blahnik pumps. The woman teetering behind her in python pants and a faux fur vest would, of course, have been shown the door.
Four of us arrived for dinner one night and were shown to the bar. We waited there for an hour, striking up a conversation with two women from Boston who were wearing artfully arranged scarves and drinking vodka Gimlets. If I hadn’t been recognized, I would probably still be standing there now. Orsay is a mob scene, an uptown Bal-thazar (and every bit as noisy). The job of maître d’-trying to mollify the people piling through the door and jostling for a table-must be one of the most stressful in town. But the staff here is so friendly that it’s hard to be annoyed for long.
Then there’s the food. It’s very good. It’s not the typical brasserie cuisine you’d expect in this setting, although there are some stalwarts, such as hanger steak and T-bone, on the menu. Executive chef Philippe Schmit has worked at La Goulue, Park Bistro and Le Bernardin. His cooking is modern and international, full of surprises and wit. His version of marinated herring, for example, was a revelation to one of my friends, whose childhood Sundays were marred by gray slabs of this fish. In Mr. Schmit’s hands, it has the leading role in a playful dish of unexpected ingredients and complementary tastes: a timbale layered with onion confit, mushrooms and pine nuts, with diced herring and potato salad, topped with cream and goat cheese.
Mr. Schmit’s riff on apple tart à la mode is another triumph. It’s not a dessert but a first course, made with slices of apple and blood sausage on a thin pastry shell, a scoop of sharp goat-cheese ice cream on the side. Plump, juicy snails, served with confits of tomato and garlic, were topped with a thin layer of roasted goat cheese and bread crumbs and given a jolt with a sauce made with soy, lemon, mint and verbena. To put all these flavors together, you have to know what you’re doing. Medium-rare tuna wrapped in brik leaves arrived on a bed of lentils, surrounded by a beurre blanc seasoned with green verjus and criss-crossed with reduced balsamic to cut the richness.
There are seven kinds of tartare on the menu. Chunks of raw tuna appeared in a margarita glass rimmed with salt, tossed with cilantro and tequila. The tortilla chips on the side were a bit greasy, but the dish was fun. There was a Scandinavian tartare of haddock and gravlax, and a British version made with salmon, Stilton and walnuts-with, of all things, Yorkshire pudding. The classic beef tartare was masterful. Get it with a side of perfect fries.
The potage du jour-“carrot soup with just a touch, touch, touch of cream!” as our cheerful waiter put it (he looked like Fernandel’s younger brother and had a heavy, heavy, heavy French accent)-was remarkable, subtly flavored with cumin and ginger. Marinated and lightly seared venison carpaccio was also subtle, drizzled with a vinaigrette made with claret jelly and juniper berries and garnished with potato tuiles. The dressing for a salad of baby arugula with pears and bleu d’Auvergne cheese used argan oil, which sounds like something you’d put in your car but tastes somewhere between toasted almonds and hazelnuts. This welcome newcomer is made from the pit of an olive-like fruit harvested by Berbers in the Souss valley in Morocco. (If you drive around this region, you’ll behold the surreal sight of goats perched high in the branches of the trees, munching away on the leaves and fruit.)
Porcini-crusted snapper was a little dry, but thinly sliced seared sea scallops set atop flat lasagne with watercress and veal vinaigrette was stellar. And on a cold night, you could not do better than the hare stew: shredded meat perched on pappardelle in a rich, classic red-wine sauce with pearl onions, oyster mushrooms and baby carrots.
Pastry chef Gilles Ballay’s desserts-many of which have antennae-are also done with a sure hand. The chocolate-caramel bombe was a shiny black helmet with mousse beneath, its crispy praline base afloat on a red lacquered carpet of Chambord sauce. Fig tart with tamarillo sorbet (now apricot) and dark chocolate tart with orange sorbet were perfect; so was the flaky warm apple tart with prune and Armagnac ice cream.
At lunch on a recent Friday, Orsay was chock-full of lunching ladies, even though it says bossily on the bottom of the menu: “No changes no shares no substitutes one main course minimum per person.” So take that, Madame in the Chanel suit: Green salad is not a main course. Those hankering for Mortimer’s cheese soufflé can get one here, albeit a seriously rich version made with lobster, a Thermidor sauce served on the side. It’s worth every calorie. The shredded crabmeat with celery remoulade and pomegranate vinaigrette read better than it tasted; the flavors weren’t as focused as in the other dishes. But tiny rare lamb chops, paired with Caesar salad and parmesan toasts, were pink, juicy and impeccable.
Lunch is just as noisy as dinner, and we struggled to make ourselves heard above a table of shrieking women celebrating a birthday. When the charming Mr. Latapie, partner and manager, stopped by our table, one of my guests tried to complain to him about the noise.
“Yes!” he replied with a smile. “Isn’t it great? This place has really taken off!”
It certainly has.
1057 Lexington Avenue
(at 75th Street)
Dress: Chanel, python
Noise level: Extremely high
Wine list: Mostly French, interesting, decently priced
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Main courses lunch $14.50 to $28; dinner $15 to $36; brunch prix fixe $19.95
Lunch: Monday to Thursday noon to 3 p.m.; Friday to Sunday noon to 4 p.m.
Dinner: Monday to Saturday 5:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 5:30 p.m. to midnight; Sunday 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor