As I’ve written recently in this space, downsizing is all the rage among members of the city’s restaurant glitterati. Casual spin-off is the hot-button term for this new kind of venture, although, so far, the master chefs’ different interpretations of it have had an amusing, Rorschach kind of quality. Daniel Boulud’s idea of “casual” is the famous DB burger, which, as all the world knows, costs $29 and is suffused with dizzying amounts of foie gras. Meanwhile, the expansive Mario Batali has immersed himself in a Rabelaisian blizzard of gourmet pizzas and gelati (at Otto), while Danny Meyer is happily peddling the comforting barbecue ribs of his youth (at Blue Smoke). Now comes Alain Ducasse, a chef famous for presenting his patrons with hyperstylized pens and lollipops and charging them $250 per meal. But the flat economic times have taken a toll on this extravagant vision, and his newest restaurant, Mix in New York, seems intended as a corrective, the chef’s quirky, highly personal homage to the pleasures of a good old-fashioned meal.
Of course, Monsieur Ducasse’s version of a good-old fashioned meal is different from yours and mine. Mix may be a spin-off, but being a Ducasse restaurant, it has nothing casual about it. The tone of the place (which opened on 58th Street near Fifth Avenue and is being run in tandem with Tuscan Steak and Rocco’s impresario Jeffrey Chodorow) is elaborately, even purposely confused. It’s a mad jumble of transatlantic styles and intentions, an entire restaurant lost in translation. The garage-style façade (it’s made of brushed concrete, with a chain-mail curtain drawn over the window) appears to have been lifted from one of the more dreary precincts of modernist Frankfurt. Inside, there is a dark lounge area, where you can sip shimmering ($16) martinis tinged with truffle essence (though mine tasted nothing like truffles) before entering the main room, which is high-ceilinged, with white brick walls sheathed in glass. The tables are covered with homespun Formica. The plates are patterned with jaunty orange blobs, and the menu is presented in a slip of red plastic, like a first-class plane ticket to some exotic Euro destination like Reykjavík or Monte Carlo.
Chef Ducasse’s idea is to replicate favorite down-home dishes from the United States and Europe and shuffle them together in artfully amusing ways. So the bilingual menu (the three-course prix fixe dinner costs $72) is divided into cheeky subheadings like “The First of Mix” (appetizers), “The Must of Mix” (crowd-pleasing sharable items like macaroni and cheese and a gourmet BLT), and “The Third of Mix” (desserts). Before anything arrives, however, each table is presented with little pots of butter, peanut butter (it’s more butter than peanuts), and grape jelly, which I hesitantly enjoyed with the dregs of my truffle martini (“The Ultimate Mix”) and a slice of whole-grain toast. After that came two soups (a decent bouillabaisse, and a smooth, smoky clam chowder served in a Japanese pot), followed by two dueling macaroni-and-cheese dishes, one laid out in a simple, quite delicious square (with melted cheddar and a flavoring of tomato compote), the other made with an overly busy, Eurocentric mixture of ham, butter, and black truffles.
“The tone is elaborately, even purposefully confused. It’s a mad jumble of transatlantic styles, an entire restaurant lost in translation.”
Of course, busyness on a grand Euro-centric scale is chef Ducasse’s trademark. As is his habit, however, he’s not directly in the kitchen at Mix (the chef de cuisine is Douglas Psaltis, formerly of Cello and Bouley), which may be why some of the dishes have a stilted, off-key quality. After the macaroni, a series of appetizers arrived at our table encased in what appeared to be giant glass petri dishes. One container was filled with a helping of simple steamed vegetables that looked (and tasted) like something from the kitchens of a health spa. It was followed by a kind of salade niçoise, containing slices of raw tuna sitting on the lettuce and braised tuna mashed in the American style (in a tasty olive-and-citrus dressing) layered, like sediment, on the bottom of the dish. A helping of glazed shrimp with a puréed mix of sweet-and-sour eggplant made for an odd pairing, as did Ducasse’s interpretation of New York pastrami, which sat atop a delicately pulverized (though very edible) combination of potatoes, mustard, and rosemary vinaigrette but was, unaccountably, lukewarm.
The entrée portion of the menu at Mix skitters wildly all over the map. There’s a lavish though ultimately unremarkable dish of lobster medallions smothered in ominous amounts of butter and bread crumbs ($39 à la carte at lunch), a nice piece of bison tenderloin costing about $9 per bite ($36), and, for the casual (though well-heeled) eater, a satisfying chicken potpie made with haricots verts and cream tinged with lemon ($26). My favorite fish dish was the swordfish, which is capped with crispy rich bread crumbs and served over a creamy, peppery wisp of spinach. My least favorite was the tuna, which the kitchen cuts into standard, semi-seared strips, piled over a few vegetables and a tepid béarnaise reduction, and peddles for the absurd price of $37 (again, à la carte at lunch). If you want to blow that kind of cash, try the L-bone steak, which is spit-roasted and served with Ducasse’s signature gratin potatoes ($37), or, better yet, the veal, which is cooked two equally proficient ways (the loin is roasted and the breast is braised) and dressed in a savory blanquette sauce.
Predictably, there’s nothing casual about the wine list at Mix, which is thorough, various, and not cheap (my dinners for four plus tip, with drinks and a single bottle of wine, routinely hovered above $500). There’s nothing casual about the crowd, either, which is a typically Ducassean mixture of dewy-eyed tourists, prim Euro food snobs, and second-tier business titans dressed in their starchy charcoal suits. How these patrons are enjoying the curious world of Mix is hard to say. The signature dessert at Mix is a not entirely successful invention called “chocolate pizza” (which costs, if I remember correctly, $12 per slice). There’s also a bizarrely insubstantial floating island (which seems to have been spattered with bits of candy cane), and another petri dish, filled with rose-flavored ice cream smelling like fancy bath cream. The best of this not very inspiring group is the fruit compote, a warm stew of raisins and cherries, topped with tangy cheesecake ice cream. The dish tastes like a gourmet version of apple crumble, and it’s served, in accordance with chef Ducasse’s muddled lowbrow motif, in a screw-top preserve jar, like a dose of hillbilly moonshine.