Ambitious five-star hotels have been showcases for grandiose cooking ever since the great chef Auguste Escoffier took up residence at the Grand Hotel, in Monte Carlo, over a century ago. In the old days, this meant French food of the highest distinction, along with plenty of caviar and Champagne. But as the age of quenelles and Grand Marnier soufflés has given way, with frightening speed, to the era of the artisanal pork chop and the hand-foraged mushroom, the top hoteliers have been left grasping at straws. Last year, the former haute cuisine chef Laurent Tourondel opened a “farm driven” outlet of his BLT chain in the Ritz on Central Park South (BLT Market), and at Alain Ducasse’s new restaurant in the St. Regis (Adour), the chef is peddling a muted, Greenmarket version of his famously baroque French cuisine. In both cases, the hoteliers and chefs are confronted with the same dilemma: How do you convey a sense of pomp and grandeur to a generation that doesn’t own tuxedos? And how does a first-class hotel serve fancy haute cuisine food that’s not supposed to be fancy at all?
All of these contradictions are on display at South Gate, the lavishly appointed, cautiously ambitious new restaurant at the Jumeirah Essex House, on Central Park South. The Jumeirah group, from Dubai, purchased the dignified, slightly frumpy hotel in 2006 (the Essex House housed Ducasse’s original restaurant in New York) and gave it a $90 million face-lift. By the looks of things, most of this cash has been sunk into the restaurant itself. It’s a tall, mosquelike space, replete with a bar made of polished orange travertine, walls covered with glittering angled mirrors, and floor-to-ceiling windows in the front of the room, offering a classic perspective of the park. There’s also a name chef in the kitchen (Kerry Heffernan, who rose to fame running Eleven Madison Park), a Hummer-size Grand Cru–stocked “wine wall” stretching from one side of the room to the other, and waves of energetic, internationalist waitstaff who appear to have been recruited from Jumeirah leisure resorts around the globe.
You’d expect all kinds of elaborate food in a setting like this, but that’s not what Chef Heffernan has in mind. His menu is a curiously clipped document, filled with a mix of classic gourmet and boutique Greenmarket ingredients, many of which look more impressive on the page than they do on the plate. My helping of hamachi crudo tasted faintly of eucalyptus oil, like the menu said, but it didn’t really matter because the shreds of fish were barely large enough to feed a cat. Ditto the “hot smoked” char (with microscopic segments of grapefruit and niçoise olives), and the miniature seared foie gras, which was muffled in “tarragon preserved” kumquats and an oversweet coulis made, bizarrely, of rhubarb. These slight appetizers are mingled with refreshingly simple ones (cool shrimp with leeks, pencil asparagus sprinkled with crème fraîche and shaved eggs) and strange, showy Haute Barnyard preparations like a too-thick flan made of peas, and a vividly brown purée of wild mushrooms, which tastes okay but looks less than appetizing served in a tall martini glass.
These Greenmarket pretensions show up in the entrées, too, with equally mixed results. My favorite of the seafood dishes was the red snapper, which tasted fresh and well cooked, despite the presence of an odd grass-colored substance that the menu identified as “green celery fondue.” The “spice roasted” cod didn’t seem quite spicy enough (it’s served in a weak broth with Spanish sausages and Manila clams) and the “salmon pavé” is the same kind of pricey ($31), slightly wan-looking salmon fillet served in grand, disinterested hotel kitchens around the world. If you have the cash, the poached lobster ($39) is more lively, thanks to the presence in the broth of fresh ramps and a hint of spicy Korean kimchee. The lone pastalike item on the menu is a pair of greenish, bloated cannelloni, stuffed with ricotta and sprinkled, in accordance with the fashions of the day, with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and edamame. An intrepid taster at my table took one bite of this curiously bland dish, then put down his fork. “It tastes like Martian bar mitzvah food,” he said.
The “Meat and Fowl” section of the menu is a safer bet, although not many of the dishes rise above the general level of competency you’d expect from an expensive big-city hotel restaurant. I enjoyed a block of nicely cooked boutique pork belly one evening (from Snake River Farms in Idaho, in case you’re interested), and decently charred slices of hanger steak the next, served with fresh-made ravioli filled with chopped short ribs. My marginally overcooked chicken dish was rescued by its rich sauce (made with porcinis), and a soggy though nourishing potato tart seasoned with salty bits of speck. A competent version of duck breast appears on the menu, too, smoked to within an inch of its life and sliced in pink, delicately crispy slivers, the way fancy French chefs used to do. The lamb loin is also cut in uniformly thin slices, although the portions seem meager for such a meaty dish, despite the presence, on the side, of a pointless little stew made with Chinese leeks, tiny chunks of lamb shoulder, and more edamame.
The clientele at South Gate are the same kind that you’d find at any expensive tourist establishment on the Bund in Shanghai, say, or the Champs-Élysées in Paris. The tables are filled with jet-lagged businessmen, prosperous Euro couples with their children, and Japanese ladies carrying bulging designer shopping bags. There are lots of enticing wines on display for the delectation of expense-account diners, and a serviceable bar menu designed for the legions of tourists who jam the cocktail area in the evenings. The menu also features surprisingly accomplished desserts, like tarts filled with passion fruit, and a slim, gourmet chocolate mille-feuille flecked, on its top, with gold leaf. If you have to choose one of these items, try the blood-orange parfait. It contains bits of meringue and shortbread hidden in clouds of orange sorbet, and ice cream flavored with mascarpone. Take a bite, and you’re not in a run-of-the-mill midtown restaurant anymore. You’re in a grand hotel, enjoying a glass of Champagne, admiring the timeless view, out the window, of Central Park.