Does anyone young enough to have no memory of Dyan Cannon before she became Judge Whipper on Ally McBeal ever wonder why the misty, bloodshot stories of the old Brasserie told by long-in-the-bonded-tooth folk are always set after 3 a.m.? Well, make room for one more -- but only because it spotlights the one feature that made the place memorable.
We called them the Six Stairs Into Hell. The moment you slammed through the revolving door, there they were, waiting to take you from the Evita-high balcony down to those now leering up at your arrival. Ten minutes before, when you strutted out of Studio 54, you swore you were fabulous. Now, at the moment of descent, you realized you looked as if you'd been hand-dipped in the Gowanus Canal. It became horribly clear that by the time you got halfway down these short steep steps, you were going to be gang-fanged for breakfast.
How daunting was this group ravagement? One night, one of 54's glamorous raven-tressed regulars walked in with her equally infamous husband, and you could tell as soon as she'd stopped revolving (about ten seconds after the door) that she had forgotten about the Stairs. He, feeling no pain, led the way. She, sensing no gain, tried to follow, but after negotiating two of them, it was all too much. "Darling, I can't! I just can't!!" she cried. And, revolving yet again, she fled into the night. He stayed and had a mushroom omelette.
Why go on about these steps? Because this is the sole source of the old Brasserie's mystique. At any other time, it was a cold, meat-locker-lit, inconsiderately furnished wretch of a room, with service that defined insolence and cooking steeped in indolence. And no, it was not this way by the time it reached the end of its run. It was only in the wee small hours that the old Brasserie didn't suck (unlike the werewolves it sheltered).
Therefore, as one who can bear witness, I must immediately declare the new Brasserie an absolute fraud, a New Age plastic -- excuse me, resin -- impostor. Restaurant Associates can appropriate the name but not hide the obvious, which is that the new Brasserie is a sleek, retro-free GM Futurama spectacular, a triumphant alloy of innovation and warmth that one hopes will be readily embraced for reasons at complete odds with its inferior past.
Like any favorite World's Fair pavilion, it is splashed with cheeky, playful wit: the Rockettes lineup of TV monitors over the bar surreptitiously broadcasting every arrival; the men's and women's rooms' shared sink, with its peekaboo-though-I-can't-see-you watering "hole" at hand-washing level; the tilted, tufted celadon panels that allow booths total privacy; a frosted wall of floating wine and liquor bottles. And like that of the best Fair pavilions, the design created by Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio manages to be startling yet familiar, as wondrous as it is intelligent. Now beribboned by sensual waves of tawny, perforated pear wood, the main room has acoustics that let you rediscover how refreshing it is to sit in a busy dining room and not speak as if Latrell Sprewell had just dunked in overtime. Easy, glowing light comes from barely definable sources. And the pistachio-tinted resin tables really are terrific.
At three in the morning, the old Brasserie's mealy burgers with poker chips of petrified herbed butter could taste redemptively good. But chef Luc Dimnet needs no excuses. Even when his fair-priced bistro choices misfire, it is never from halfheartedness (the oddly gutless onion soup being the only unwanted remembrance of hazy nights past). Super tuna tartare alternates between blasts of cilantro and lemon. Mignonette bathing the oysters has a sneaky smack of pepper. Sole goujonettes are just fish sticks, so big thanks for the heady dose of mustard rémoulade. Fish soup with melting dollops of Gruyère is more mundanely satisfying, and a cassolette of sweetbreads pleased everyone else at the table (still, you'd better like vermouth). Foie gras is Dimnet's only first-course bow to trendiness, and his reduction with quince compote is plate-stealing.
But it's the young chef's entrées that excite as notably as the décor. Mussels piccante are brash and great, with slashes of fiery tomato empowered by garlic and onion. Filet mignon is an unlikely cut to pick for au poivre -- tender but so lustless as to hardly be worth arousing. It is a sly hint of shallots that sweetly seduces the filet into a passionate partner. Rib eye turns up surprisingly pallid, but braised veal shank has the bravado one expects, and roast duck bracketed by spunky citrus fruits has bravado one didn't. Roast chicken is lovingly romanced by natural juices with thyme.
The strong, almost gamy flavor of short ribs is enhanced by surrounding root vegetables, even if they take getting used to as the centerpiece of a pot-au-feu, since this ubiquitous dish is served barbecue-style almost everywhere else. Salt pork sabotages an otherwise ingenious, zestily crusted duck cassoulet (though at an appreciative table of six, my objections rendered me a minority of one). Salmon achieves a welcome taming thanks to salsify added to meunière. Char overpowers its delicate Grenobloise, but both roasted monkfish with fennel and figs and bass in lemongrass and lime are lustrously light, perfect focal points for a room so effortlessly different.
All of executive pastry chef Nancy Kershner's desserts have bold, tantalizing presences for being so un-American. Neither her pineapple-and-galangal granita nor her explosive lemon profiteroles are likely to take a backseat to any short ribs. And mango-and-banana tarte Tatin with fromage blanc sorbet deserves a page in a cookbook. But the last act that bears a repeat performance is her amazing chocolate beignets. Too often rendered as chewy little dough balls, here they are such ethereal discs of rapture that caramel ice cream adds an almost unbearable wickedness.
Speaking of the dark side, what happened to the Stairs Into Hell, you might ask? They've been transformed into an elongated glass staircase with a graceful descent into the center of the room, absolutely elegant and -- here's the fun part -- completely stupefying to navigate. Too long for one step at a time, too short to take two by two. You know, considering all the remarkable changes, it's not exactly right that the place now shuts up tastefully at one. For continuity's sake, wouldn't it be dandy to have this new décor and all this swell food plus the chance to watch the next generation of club cuties face the newly improved Ten Stairs Into Hell? Isn't that what tradition is all about? Vive la Brasserie!
Brasserie, 100 East 53rd Street (751-4840). Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. till 11 p.m., Sunday till 10 p.m. Appetizers, $7 to $14; entrées, $15 to $28. A.E., C.B., D.C., M.C., V.