In most of the world, chefs are nameless figures who labor in the shadows and move, like golf pros or knife salesmen, from job to job and place to place. This is as true in New York City as anywhere else, although in the fickle upper realms of haute cuisine, chefs don’t so much leave their jobs as get pushed out. Some restaurants manage this transition in sedate, diplomatic ways, and some do not. Take the ambitious Upper West Side establishment Compass, which opened three years ago and has since changed chefs, in a very public, even clamorous way, once every eight months on average. Or Alain Ducasse’s star-crossed venture, Mix, which the French chef runs in partnership with the well-known restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow. Mix, which has a sister establishment in Las Vegas, began life as a muddled fusing of French and American comfort cuisines. After a series of harsh reviews (including by me), the original chef was dispatched and replaced with a guy who cooked nouvelle versions of duck à l’orange and blanquette de veau before he, in due course, was dispatched as well.
Both Compass and Mix have now brought in new high-profile chefs, and I recently spent a week dining in both places, observing, with a certain ghoulish curiosity, how they were handling the challenge. Compass still looks sleek, in a slightly dated, genteel, Upper West Side way (“like the stateroom of a first-class Slovenian cruise ship” was one guest’s wicked description), but the menu is now a long, frenetic document, freighted with nine appetizers (oven-roasted octopus tentacles, American Kobe-beef carpaccio), eleven entrées (called “Compositions”), and a pretheater menu. The new chef, John Fraser (who has worked at Taillevent in Paris, the French Laundry, and the fine Greek restaurant Snack Taverna), also serves a “Simply Roasted” section on the menu, as well as numerous side dishes (presented, according to the current fashion, in little cast-iron pots), many ornately conceived desserts (crème brûlée wrapped in crêpes, for example), and painstakingly considered selections of artisanal cheese and after-dinner teas.
Some of the food in this great blizzard of concepts and flavors is very good, and some of it, not surprisingly, seems a little confused. Fraser is finding his way, but it also feels like he’s bent on packing as much of his considerable culinary repertoire into the menu as possible before the ax comes down again. At least that was my malicious thought as the first appetizers appeared, laden with showy slices of truffle, caviar, and tufts of neatly arranged mâche. The mâche belonged to the octopus tentacle, which was expertly charred but monstrously large, like the lost appendage of a giant squid. The truffled risotto (with summer peas and a hint of mint) was excellent, however, and so was the American Kobe-beef carpaccio, which had a smooth, tartarelike texture. On an early visit, I sampled a mushroom velouté that had the toothpaste consistency of faintly diluted Campbell’s soup; it was later replaced by a nice, steamy consommé afloat with coriander, scallions, and slices of shiitake.
Of the chef’s studied entrée “Compositions,” five are seafood dishes, the best of which is the monkfish (spiced with dried pomegranate and Madras curry) and the worst is the lobster, drowned in a cheesy-tasting greenish chowder. The rack of lamb, however, is good (although I’m not sure it benefits from the scattering of cocoa nibs), and so is the duck breast, which comes with a tiny phyllo pastry stuffed with braised duck. All of the roasted meats seem fine, and so do the fashionable side dishes, like eggplant and zucchini flecked with bottarga, and sautéed radishes and sunchokes dripped with brown butter. The desserts include an oversweet pain perdu bombed with too much maple butter, a very nice caramel gâteau (with coconut sorbet), and curious little gummy confections filled with melted chocolate spiked with Earl Grey tea.
Considering Alain Ducasse’s elaborate style, you would expect similar embellishments to attend the latest regime change at Mix, but, mercifully, the opposite is true. The new chef is Francesco Berardinelli, an Italian who runs a noted restaurant in Tuscany. Next to beefsteak, Italian cooking is the closest thing there is in New York to a rock-solid dining formula, and Chodorow and Ducasse seem so desperate for their new chef to succeed that they’ve officially renamed the restaurant “Francesco at Mix.” To his credit, Berardinelli resists the temptation to give New Yorkers what he thinks they want, and presents instead a carefully edited menu filled with the kind of straightforward specialties he’s known for at home. There are asparagus spears with scoops of Parmesan ice cream and bowls of puréed Tuscan white-bean soup hiding lumps of creamy ricotta. The steak tartare is roughly cut and sprinkled with couscous, and a series of pasta dishes are notable not for overbearing sauces but for a kind of gratifying simplicity.
The restaurant’s quarters look as arid as ever (white, windowless walls, with a bunker entrance out front), although the ambient club music that once seeped from the speakers has been replaced by bouncy salsa tunes. Still, it’s not unpleasant to sit in the (often empty) room at lunchtime, or in the air-conditioned cool of the evening, and contemplate bowls of tiny, Chiclet-size gnocchi soaked with basil, or helpings of a simple, well-made risotto folded with baby squid. My four sautéed shrimp were not really worth their $29 price tag, but the baked cod is very good (it comes on top of a kind of soupy caponata of capers and olives), and so is the soft, almost sweet Black Angus filet, sliced sideways in the Florentine style, and coated with an extravagant Barolo sauce. The desserts are satisfying and professional, particularly the orange tart, a decorative, summery creation made of spongy cake, rich ricotta sorbet, and spikes of candied orange peel. Hurry in for a taste while you can. It’s an inconstant world, after all, and nothing lasts forever.