Dining out with Moria Hodgson

Putting the High In Low,

Ducasse Mixes It UpThe smartly dressed man and woman at the next table had just finished a business lunch at Mix when their waitress appeared with a giant bottle of Nutella, the chocolate-hazelnut spread. Using a shallow silver utensil that was rounded at both ends, she spooned some of the contents into a ramekin and set it down on the table. (If there’s a special spoon for caviar, why not one for Nutella?) She then brought over a baking tray of madeleines. “You are going to love these,” she said.

“Once in a blue moon, it’s fine,” said the man reassuringly to his companion as he spread a madeleine with a thick layer of the dark brown paste. She didn’t look very convinced; he had the girth of Falstaff.

He popped the madeleine into his mouth and an expression of bliss broke over his face. “Delicious!” He leaned across the table towards his companion. “Now, have you ever had a hot Krispy Kreme?” he asked her.

Alain Ducasse knows what Americans like. He only has to read the statistics on their weight. And, moreover, as he has shown in his chain of Spoon restaurants, he loves to deconstruct the icons of American food with his tongue in his cheek. Imagine bubble-gum ice cream, which he served in Paris.

At Mix, you begin your meal not with a baguette (that comes later), but with peanut butter and jelly on toast. You feel you should be getting a glass of milk, too-French, of course, preferably unpasteurized. The peanut butter is wonderful; it has a crunch of both sugar and sea salt and tastes as though some regular butter has been whipped in, too. But you can’t eat much of this if you plan on finishing the rest of your meal, which may continue on with a salad (served in a glass container reminiscent of the Automat, complete with lid) and finish up with a chocolate pizza.

Mix is clever and it’s fun. Mr. Ducasse has joined forces with Jeffrey Chodorow (of China Grill and Asia de Cuba, among many others) for his latest New York venture. It’s expensive but not exorbitant, like the $150 prix fixe at his eponymous Essex House restaurant. Prix fixe dinners range from $36 to $72, depending on how many courses you pick. The chef de cuisine is the talented Douglas Psaltis, an American who has worked with David Bouley and Wayne Nish and was part of the original team at Alain Ducasse at the Essex House.

The restaurant is designed by Patrick Jouin, a protégé of Philippe Starck. If you’re not looking for it, it’s easy to walk right past the concrete façade and the undulating gray metal curtain in the window, because there’s no large sign outside the door. If you pause at the entranceway, an inset wall monitor gives you a glimpse of the kitchen at work (the Ducasse brand of reality TV). You step into a narrow tunnel with a long glass bar that slowly changes color over the course of the evening. The passage leads into a large square dining room with huge rose-colored glass panels hanging from the high ceiling, above the whitewashed brick walls and beige banquettes. The lighting is warm and glowing, and the tables are set with white plates with a splash of orange in the middle. The room has a buzz, yet it’s not too noisy to have a conversation.

One afternoon I passed the “chef’s table” on the way to the dazzling, all-white bathrooms, and I was treated to an odd sight. Six women were so engrossed in conversation that they paid no attention to the centerpiece of their table: a projection of a disembodied hand in a plastic glove slowly arranging pieces of raw tuna on a plate.

The menu is written in French and English and divided into sections you can choose from depending on which prix fixe you’ve opted for. “Our food is a culinary bridge from France to the United States, from the East Coast of North American to the European Atlantic coast,” announced our waitress, a no-nonsense actress who could have been a contender for the role of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest , but for her beautiful voice and friendly manner. When she set down the little glass containers of first courses, one of my friends whispered, “You will taste this medicine and enjoy it!”

And we did enjoy it. Thin silken slices of duck ham lay on a bed of fresh corn, chorizo and a marmalade of cepes and walnuts. A confit of tuna (the French for this on the menu is thon fondant ) cooked in olive oil came with slivers of cucumber and a tangy citrus-olive sauce. A dish of glazed shrimp with eggplant and a mustard-coral vinaigrette was a clever juxtaposition of sweet and sour.

The New England clam chowder at Mix has a texture of velvet and is the best I’ve ever had. It’s served with tiny ravioli filled with béchamel that you drop into the soup like oyster crackers. The bouillabaisse is also wonderful: at your table, your waiter pours the rich, heady broth onto slivers of squid and shrimp and rouille croutons nestled at the bottom of a large white soup bowl.

The elbow pasta, however, with ham, butter and truffle juice (translated as jus roti de notre enfance ) was surprisingly bland. And the chicken pot pie, served in a shallow black casserole with a glass beaker of finely chopped string beans on the side, needs to be reworked. The lemon cream that coats the chicken is very good, but the crust is gummy. The kitchen has better luck with its riff on Southern pork, which comes in a cast-iron casserole with creamed corn, barbecue, braised greens and corn bread.

The tuna, which is roasted rare, piled with radishes and served with a vinegary béarnaise reduction, was not of the best quality. The cod, on the other hand, marinated in yogurt and lemon and steamed “Atlantic style,” was wonderful, paired with puréed chickpeas.

Desserts also cater to the American craving for comfort food. Floating island comes in a glass that’s too small for it to float in-the meringue is landlocked by pink praline, but it’s delicious nonetheless. As for the chocolate pizza, made with chocolate and caramel sauce, served on a brioche crust and accompanied by a “religieuse” (a profiterole with orange-colored caramel glaze), it’s fun to try just once. But the dark chocolate cake, a circle filled with melted chocolate in the center, is phenomenal.

“You can’t really eat the Nutella after tasting that chocolate cake,” said my lunch companion.

I’m not so sure. I once served two different chocolate cakes at a dinner party: one made from a recipe using the finest ingredients, the other from a mix. You can probably guess which one got the raves and requests for the recipe. Perhaps on my next visit to Mix, they’ll have Duncan Hines on the menu.

Dining out with Moria Hodgson