Why is New York so frosty to Alain Ducasse? Can this be the warm and bumptious city that has welcomed millions of immigrants -- the hungry, the persecuted, outcasts and dreamers, saints and rapscallions -- to our streets paved with gold? We embrace Cuban baseball players and Italian tenors and Indian novelists-on-the-run so warmly yet offer France's emperor of haute cuisine the cold shoulder and a poke in the eye with his own fourchette.
Buoyed by . . . what is it now? . . . eight Michelin stars that carry him like wings from one restaurant debut to another, Ducasse didn't mean to sound arrogant when he agreed to create the thrill of three-star dining in the freshly gussied-up cocoon that was once Les Célébrités in the Art Deco nostalgia of the Essex House. There would be only one sitting per night and a server for every customer. Veterans of the chef's growing army would drill local recruits in the Ducassian gospel: perfect products, precise cooking, proper service, and, after dessert, lollipops and at least three different flavors of caramels. (He is the Baskin-Robbins of caramels.) He never mentioned price. But rumors ricocheted. It hit the Daily News: dinner for two, $500. Type as big as V-J Day or Martians hovering over Times Square.
Well, we have always had this little problem with the French. Remember that first trip to Paris? How they made us feel like boobs. So no surprise: On opening day, the alligators slithered into Ducasse's gaudy rose-gold-black brocade banquettes. The porcupines tensed their quills as they nibbled the $160 prix fixe.
Opening week, a seasoned advance team is still wading through 2,700 reservation requests. With his usual just-descended- from-Mt. Sinai portentousness, Ducasse announces, "There will be no special treatment for the press. Only for les clients of Alain Ducasse/Paris and Louis XV in Monte Carlo." There are 1,750 in New York, he claims. "If they come only once a year, that's 600 tables." Aha, I am one of them. True, I had been conflicted about floating a second mortgage to finance my first dinner at the outrageously rococo-on-rococo Louis XV, $250 for two in 1988. But I loved the Marie Antoinette insouciance of his Provençal ditties and Italian borrowings in all that pomp. Loved the pigs' feet and leeks, the Pecorino ravioli in his coconut soup, the herb-flecked risotto with frogs' legs; loved the spit-roasted lamb served with a ragout of its innards.
I'd also paid my respects when Ducasse moved into the gloriously overwrought maisonette at the Hotel Le Parc vacated by the shocking retirement at 51 of Joel Robuchon. "Half-baked," I wrote of those five meals at Alain Ducasse/Paris in 1996. As for the jet-setting on his wearying eight-hour biweekly commute between Paris and Monaco, I wrote, "We've gone from Robuchon to Robo-Chef." Even so, you might say I am a loyal client. I get my table on the second night.
I see a faint light at the end of this tunnel. I sense the kitchen finding its edge. I'm eager to return.
We are tucked into our grand, circular VIP booth -- there are only four, back to back -- under a gold-leafed dome that broadcasts whispers from faraway tables. Instead of prudently hanging one's handbag on one's knee or nesting the precious Judith Leiber on one's lap as a reasonably paranoid New Yorker must, women are urged to recklessly leave their purses on a low upholstered stool, as we did without fear in Monaco. I ask for ice water, New York water, tap water. Eyes fly wide. This may be a first. But without a sneer, water is poured from a silver pitcher. (I've saved $20 or $30 already.)
The attempt to evoke Louis XV luxe (and justify Louis XV prices) feels a bit claustrophobic in such close quarters. A clash of colors and cushions, with a riotous mosaic of trumpets and saxophones by the clearly music-loathing sculptor Arman. So many captains and waiters and majors. So many cadets, ramrod-stiff, toting long rectangles of silver on one shoulder. So many classic uniforms. Yet the staff is surprisingly loose and engaging, not at all forbidding. And hooray, no one once utters the word "Enjoy." Voluptuous bouquets of roses stand at the entrance and above our heads, a few already wilting, but none on the table. And the plates created just for New York are somber stoneware. For a moment I read ADNY etched on the knife as anno Domini. With an exaggerated flourish, two small cone-covered dishes are placed on the table. The cones, cup size A from a fifties Maidenform bra, are set at an angle so the waiter can identify the butters. "This is sweet," he says, pointing. "And this is salt." Getting it backwards. And the butter is so warm, we send it back.
A cadet halts at our table, swivels, presents arms. The waiter removes the single dish from the long silver tray. "The chef sends you an amuse-bouche to tease your taste." We stare at a plate of small brown wafers. "Rye tuiles to set the theme. Sweet, salt, citric, and bitter -- sun-dried tomato, Parmesan, lemon zest, and cracked pepper." I taste. I let one melt in my mouth. I taste another just to be sure. It's not even a big nothing. It's a small embarrassing nothing. "Maybe it's supposed to be the host," suggests one of my guests. "The body of our Lord Ducasse."
No serious critic would judge a kitchen's cooking the second night. But even we, four obsessed foodniks confounded by Michelin's obeisance to Ducasse, are shocked. Chicken wings and frogs' legs "in green and white," a joke. Santa Barbara prawns muffled in thick mucilage on muddy citrus purée. The simperingly bland salmon and overcooked halibut. Our Stepford servers are so relentlessly programmed, they tremble in fear of the master's wrath because my mate, the Road Food Warrior, won't let them slice his steak. Pièce de boeuf de l'Arizona grillée is hardly the feisty prime we take for granted. You're talking New York, buster. Don't try to fool a steak man.
Still, a luscious scallop with a topknot of Iranian caviar in a pool of slightly bitter greens impresses. A teacup of haunting sea-urchin royale is jealously shared. I'm enchanted by a wondrously melting globe of sweetbreads. The sommelier's chivalrous selection of a delicious $82 Concha y Toro Cabernet from Chile (as the red-wax-sealed wine card lists it). The caramels. "Take more," says the waiter. "We have to eat everything you leave." We chuckle over the choice of twenty pens presented on leather to sign the check. "Choose your weapons," the waiter cries. I total it $860 for four with my sleek Cartier ballpoint, a respectable discount on the rumored $1,000. Each couple is given a farewell goody bag with a yeasty almond-crusted brioche Riviera wrapped in tissue, perfect for breakfast. Two meals for the price of one.
I never believed Ducasse would really come to New York. Not even Robo-Chef could juggle three ambitious houses so far apart. He was already spending half his time aloft on the tedious commute between Monaco and Paris, with an occasional helicopter spin to check out his inn at Moustiers. And several critics blasted him for his chutzpa (French for audacity). He is more fax machine than poet, wrote one.
But the starched and stuffy Michelin gave Ducasse his double three-star epaulets anyway. One year later, at the age of 41, Ducasse crowed, "Michelin has accepted that it's possible for a chef to do something besides get fat behind his stove." No wonder he thinks he is the chosen one. Critics all over the world now hail his celebration of a lettuce leaf as the mark of a second coming (or first if that's your position). "We are like a machine," Ducasse likes to boast. The machine is ambidextrous. Between authoring (more or less) a parade of cookbooks, Ducasse opened a surf-and-turf joint called Bar & Boeuf in Monte Carlo, and three months later it had Michelin's "macaroon." As the consultant at Il Cortile, an Italian spot in Paris, he can claim yet another star.