I’ve written before about the instructive, even allegorical career of Laurent Tourondel. The young, classically trained chef came to New York in the nineties seeking fame and fortune, the way ambitious French chefs used to do. In due course, he ran his own restaurant, Cello, where he produced impeccably mannered seafood creations for an adoring Upper East Side clientele. But the restaurant was expensive to run, and too small to make much money. When the Internet bubble burst, its financial backer pulled the plug, and it closed. Tourondel proceeded to join forces with two business-minded partners, the way ambitious chefs these days are prone to do. He then abandoned his culinary pretensions and opened a lucrative steakhouse, BLT Steak. The venture prospered and quickly gave rise to other BLT franchises, including BLT Prime, BLT Fish, and even a burger joint (the hamburger being to the superstar chefs of today what cassoulet was to the great French chefs of old) called BLT Burger.
Given their talent for replicating dining trends, it was only a matter of time before Tourondel and his team set their sights on the most prevalent trend of all. Their newest restaurant, called BLT Market, is an homage to the cult of the artisanal, the farm-raised, and the locally grown. Its venue is the Ritz-Carlton, on 59th Street, a name long associated with what the French once called “haute cuisine.” But that style has passed from the scene, and at Tourondel’s new restaurant, you will find all of the totems of the new orthodoxy on display. The walls are hung with photos of the restaurant’s purveyors cuddling dirty truffles and barnyard ducks. An old plow stands by the entrance, and jars of local products (honey, lemon curd, pickled dilly beans) can be purchased at the front desk. Water is served not in carafes but in milk bottles, waiters are dressed not in tuxedos but in kitchen aprons, and on a hot day, the invigorating barnyard smell of horse dung even wafts through the room from the carriages lining Central Park, across the street.
In accordance with the doctrine established by seminal Slow Food establishments like Blue Hill and Craft, Tourondel’s menu is stripped-down and seasonal, with the focus not on flowery recipes but on ingredients. To help the uninitiated navigate this newly posh Greenmarket world, “peak season” items are listed on one side of the menu. A few of these even find their way into comical specialty cocktails, like the weirdly bracing Jackrabbit (a carrot-ginger Tom Collins) and the basil-cucumber mojito. Traditionalists will be happy to know that the timeless appetizer-entrée-dessert structure of the old haute cuisine meal remains intact at BLT Market. But instead of carefully wrought foie gras canapés, diners receive a bowl of pickled vegetables before their dinner, along with an ornate version of pigs in a blanket (sprinkled with what I’m guessing is artisanal sauerkraut) and a baguette of fresh garlic bread in a paper bag, delivered to the table with a flourish by a waiter wielding silver tongs.
Because I’ve poked fun at the whole Haute Barnyard phenomenon before, it would give me a certain dark pleasure to report that these gimmicks are the prelude to a lousy meal. But alas, they’re not. Having labored mightily to establish their Slow Food credentials, Tourondel and his chef de cuisine, David Malbequi, wisely don’t overplay their hand. The worst dish I had was the first one: a few meager figs wrapped in prosciutto and then grilled that tasted more like charcoal than ham. After that, however, came lightly crisp soft-shell crabs served with corn salad and a few pickled ramps, which cut the richness of the crab but also set off its sweetness. Among the seven appetizers, there were fat, golden zucchini blossoms (filled with three cheeses and garnished with white anchovies), servings of exceedingly fresh hamachi set over a smooth avocado purée, and bowls of nicely cooked rigatoni and Arborio-rice risotto tossed, respectively, with spicy Esposito sausage and langoustines.
The best of the main courses tend to be the subtler ones, which highlight Tourondel’s talents as a seafood chef. Order the Chatham cod, and it arrives steamed in a curried, faintly spicy bisque, with wheels of soft eggplant and a crispy basmati-rice cake that you can crumble into the dish as you eat it. The halibut is painted with a fresh layer of pesto, and set in a pool of broth made with heirloom tomatoes so sweet they taste like plums. My platter of “Amish” chicken could have been served in any number of decent bistros around town, but the lamb loin was cut in tender rosy segments and plated with artichoke hearts, tiny gnocchi, and a smooth purée of fava beans and mint. For heartier eaters, Tourondel lays on peach-size meatballs made with pork, veal, and ricotta, and a plank of grass-fed New York strip, the tough, minerally texture of which is complemented by sautéed chanterelles and a refreshingly old-fashioned vin de paille sauce that’s thick as oil and rich as butter.
On the evenings I visited, BLT Market seemed to be packed with the kinds of people who once patronized the city’s grand French establishments of long ago. There were snooty-looking hotel guests in the crowd, well-heeled tourists, and gentlemen gourmets from uptown, drinking chilled martinis in their pin-striped suits. They picked at politically correct cheese from our local “food shed” (out on Long Island), and a semi-decent chocolate feuilletine (which looks and tastes not unlike an haute cuisine Twix bar) dotted with sugared “New York Street” pralines foraged from Bangladeshi nut vendors along Sixth Avenue. There’s also an indistinct peach tarte Tatin available for dessert, and a cobbler filled with so many seasonally correct ingredients (rhubarb, blueberries, raspberries) that it doesn’t taste like much of anything at all. Stick to the fresh strawberries, which are served with a spoonful of lemon-verbena sorbet. It isn’t exactly a revelatory dish. But in these simple times, we fashionable gourmets will take what we can get.