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October 30, 2008

Alain Ducasse in New York

During the last three months or so I had meals in some of the temples of Haute Cuisine in the US.  Notably Michel Richard’s CITRONELLE and MAESTRO (at the Ritz Carlton in Tyson’s Corner) in Washington DC,  DUCASSE, JEAN GEORGES, and PETER LUGER steakhouse in New York,  MANRESA, CHEZ PANISSE, OLIVETO, FRENCH LAUNDRY in Northern California and URASAWA and CHINOIS ON MAIN in Los Angeles. All but one of these meals had their merits. That is, apart from CITRONELLE  where the chef is serving almost a caricatural form of ersatz haute cuisine for the unsuspecting, lack luster clientele (although the staff is cordial and the wine steward one of the best in the States), all of these restaurants strike high points and I would recommend them for different reasons. I hope to review at least some of them in the coming weeks, and I now start with the Alain Ducasse at the Essex House in New York.

I was there as the guest of Maurice Graham Henry of dininginfrance.com fame, who lauded the restaurant in his website. I don’t think he has exaggerated. One indeed eats extremely well under the careful gaze of chef Tony Esnault. I will actually go out on a limb and claim that my early May meal there was the best French meals I have had in the States, on par with Ducasse in Paris under C. Moret and only a notch below what ex-Ducasse Jean Francois Piege is capable of executing at Les Ambassadeurs and Cerrutti at the Louis XV, but only when he feels like it.

Great chefs have a few qualities in common irrespective of differing techniques and philosophies. First, they have an innate and unfailing understanding of raw material and ingredient quality. Second, they know how to extract maximum taste from the ingredients. They know to make clear and pure statements with their cooking without over complicating the dishes. They cook without muddying the flavors and/or being too fussy. Third, they tailor cooking techniques to the properties and characteristics of the ingredients they are working with instead of giving priority to fads. Fourth, they know how to combine complimentary or contrasting tastes and how to make different tastes coexist in a dish without one of them dominating the show. It is harmony and team play at the highest level. It is like Sir Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine co-acting at Sleuth.  One feels a creative tension between the two, but the consequence is such that, to use a cliché, the sum is greater than the parts. Last but not least, great chefs sometimes create dishes which have a transcendental nature. They have to be tasted to be believed and defy words to describe them.

I will not claim that Esnault’s cooking is at the highest level, but at least two of the dishes I tasted flirted with perfection. The other three were very good. The bread selection was the best I have seen in Northern America and perhaps almost as good as the world’s best, such as at Can Roca and Marc Veyrat.  The wine/food pairings under the direction of the new sommelier, Thomas Combuscot, were at least two notches higher than anything else I have seen in this side of the Atlantic. Desserts (prepared by the same chef who bakes the breads) were fabulous. Our captain, David Sere, was on par with the captains in other Ducasse establishments. Last but not least, the cheese selection was the level of what I find in a two star French restaurant in Paris, that is, the best I have seen in Northern America too.

The two amuses that we were served were perhaps the most generous I have seen anywhere: “Sea Urchin a la Royale” and “baby eel sautéed with garlic and pepper flakes”.  The former was very rich and impeccably fresh, with the optimum use of celery foam, and a celery chip added a soothing accent. I still prefer the version at the French Laundry where chef Keller presented fat Santa Barbara sea urchin tongue in a chilled apple soup (extraordinary), but Esnault’s version was unctuous and deeply satisfying. It went extremely well with the last sips of my Rose Billecart and 2003 Chablis Montmains from William Fevre with its underlying fresh acidity.

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What a nice surprise to eat baby eels or angulas or anguille in the States and in early May. I learned from our captain that they are coming from Maine and the season is different there than in Europe regarding the availability of  the baby eel.  At Ducasse the baby eels were not presented with wooden forks, and unfortunately they were a tad overcooked and too compromised with red pepper flakes. The angulas in the Basque country is usually better than this, and I still cannot forget the version at Etxebarri where this planet’s best grill chef Victor offers them with no seasoning. Still, one cannot complain about having them as an amuse bouche. Better still, we had them paired with a 2004 Pouilly-Vinzelles La Souffrandiere-Les Longais which was the surprise of the night with its intriguing minerality and light bodied roundness.

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I followed this with one of the two best dishes of the night: “warm composition of the five seas, wild arugula, lemon vinegar emulsion”.  The five elements turned out to be Scottish langoustines, razor clams (couteaux), supion (cuttlefish), clams (palourdes) and octopus—the last four from the cold waters of Maine. Besides the freshness of the five barely steamed ingredients which were in perfect harmony, what elevated this dish to an ethereal plane was the way in which they were bound together by intelligent saucing and the use of herbs. The infusion was so delicate and intense at the same time that only a few chefs can pull off such a difficult job of making a complicated process look so simple and almost instinctual. You need perfect quality lemon and shellfish stock and arugula but beyond these ingredients, you need restraint and an impeccable sense of balance to prepare this dish. The only other place in Northern America where I have seen similar qualities is Chez Panisse when David Tanis is at the helm.  It also looked like one needs a wine to highlight rather than suppress the freshness of the ingredients in this shellfish salad, and our sommelier again hit high scores by serving a 2003 Montagny Stephane Aladame-les Coeres which had just the right acidity and steely backbone.

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I moved on to the “Dover Sole, periwinkles, sautéed mizuna, sauce vin jaune d’Arbois” following the shellfish salad. The fish was carefully steamed and retained its flavor. Because Sole fish remains fresh for five to seven days after it is caught, I thought it may not have suffered from shipping. The chef served a small slice from the middle, and what I can say from the thickness is that this was a medium sized Dover Sole. The vin jaune sauce was superb; it imparted a nutty dimension to the rather delicate fish. Small new potatoes and caramelized onions and espelette peppers added some zap without taking the center stage. The two periwinkles (bigourneaux) decorating some nondistinct mushrooms were aesthetically pleasing but perhaps too shy to make their presence felt. Overall this was a good dish, but compared to the superb turbot and sea bass and capon (a Mediterranean fish) dishes I had in Paris or Monaco at the Ducasse establishments, it did not make a strong statement. This may be partly due to the small size of the sole that was cut or due to its quality or both. At the same time I was again impressed by the choice of wine: 2000 Puligny Montrachet Les Pucelles from Jean-Marc Boillot. The wine was silky and rich and it did not contradict the rich, buttery, nutty sauce.

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The second masterpiece of the day was the “Colorado rack of lamb, dried fruits/piquillo Tajine, aromatic jus”.  The lamb turned out to be laiton, meaning a 20-24 weeks old lamb which is no longer suckling and has started to graze. Its quality was one of the two best I have had in Northern America, the other being a Dal Porto Ranch spring lamb that I had tasted at Chez Panisse five years ago.  (Strangely the Dal Porto spring lamb I had at Chez Panisse last year was less good. This is a very small ranch which does not supply any other restaurant to the best of my knowledge.) The lamb at Ducasse was exceptionally tender yet flavorful, and its accompaniments, which were dried apricots, dates, prunes, candied lemon and espelette peppers, have all added different and complimentary dimensions and struck a welcome balance between sweetness and acidity. It was delicious. Furthermore the dish was served with two glasses of wine, and especially the 2000 Hubert Lignier Morey Saint Denis Vieilles Vignes, with its characteristic earthy spicy backbone buffered by red berries, matched extremely well with the Northern Africa inspired lamb. The other well chosen Bordeaux, 2000 Chateau Clarke, was also good with the lamb, and its tobacco/prune aromatics and rather austere palette highlighted and counteracted the savory skin of the lamb with optimum fat structure beneath it.

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It is hard to come up with a great cheese course given the import restrictions in America. French imports were good, especially the Roquefort. The Charolais was fine. I was told that the so called Langres is like Epoisse, but the version I tried cannot hold candle to an artisanal Epoisse. On the other hand, I was impressed by the sheepmilk Berkswell and thought quite highly of a Wisconsin cheese which reminded me of a successful Comte (well, don’t compare it with Bernard Anthony from the best vintages).

Desserts were simply the best I have had on this side of the Atlantic, both the rhum baba (as good as in Monaco) and the soufflé. The latter consisted of a combination of passion fruit and mango, and it was called “Exotic fruit soufflé”.  It was neither heavy and nor eggy and let the fruit flavours shine. Its Tahitian vanilla/coconut ice cream companion also was very high in quality and married well with the soufflé. We enjoyed an excellent Slovenian Yellow Muscat with the soufflé (2002 Tilia-Adelajda), and I did not mind a Sauternes (2001 Castelnau de Suduiraut) with my rhum baba, although I would have preferred an aged rhum with it!

When we visited the kitchen I spoke briefly with the chef.  I asked him why he is serving the green and quasi-farmed Maine lobster, instead of the superior wild blue lobster from Brittany. Instead of giving me the usual politically correct line that “Oh but you have great lobster here,” he told me that he agrees with me and when he makes a stock from lobster or a Bisque, he is amazed to see how flavorless Maine lobster is, compared to the blue lobster. He added that there are some cost constraints imposed by the management. I believe this 37 year old chef is a great asset, and if I were Monsieur Ducasse I would try to give him a more free rein to import fish and shellfish.

I should add that I am not particularly interested in New York Times ratings whose standards are rather lax. On the other hand, in the morning, when I visited the restaurant to look at the menu, I ran into the chef (he did not know me at the time, nor did he suspect that I may understand French) who was speaking with a young and beautiful woman, probably a PR person. They were talking about getting a NYT critic to the restaurant. My gracious host Maurice later explained that Mr. Bruni had awarded the restaurant 3 stars under the previous chef.  Well, I tried the next day Jean Georges, which is apparently awarded with the highest 4 star rating from the NYT and the 3 star Michelin rating. Jean Georges had its merits but did, by no means, perform at the three star Michelin level, whose criteria may be more liberal for Northern America. At any rate, I am sure the Times would and should correct the anomaly soon.

Gastroville ranking: 18/20 (VM)
May 27, 2006

 

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I'm a little confused by the date. ADNY has been closed for a couple of years now and your review, dated 2006, is under the October, 2008 archives.

Great review. I'm sorry I missed Monsieur Esnault's cooking at the Essex House, although I've experienced a bit of it at Adour this year.

ADNY may have been the best restaurant in NY in years the first 4 years they were open. A successful restaurant, they closed when they lost their lease.
Shame the NY press did not embrace it. In numerous visits it was always full and a real joy. Though this style of cuisine isn't usually my thing, i liked it better than both ADPA and all but one in Monaco.

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