Is there room for one more cookie-cutter French brasserie in this brasserie-addled town? That’s the question I wearily asked myself as I sat down to dinner at Benoit, the latest addition to the city’s vast, relentlessly expanding herd of escargot-serving, profiterole-peddling ersatz steak-frites joints. With me were a group of leather-stomached brasserie veterans, bilious curmudgeons who’d consumed bargeloads of frisée salad and whole oceans of onion soup during the course of their dining careers, and were as heartily sick of the genre as I was. I’d been able to coax them out of their caves for one reason, and one reason only. Benoit is Alain Ducasse’s latest New York restaurant, and Ducasse is the most decorated French chef in the world. The space, on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 55th Street, once housed Jean-Jacques Rachou’s very good brasserie, LCB, and, before that, Rachou’s fabled monument to haute cuisine, La Côte Basque. So here at last was a brasserie conceived by Parisians for Parisians. Here, at last, was the real thing.
But we hadn’t been in our chairs for more than three minutes before the grumbling commenced. All New York brasseries are, by nature, fakes. But astonishingly, Benoit is faker than most. The old La Côte Basque space has been chopped up to accommodate a dimly lit bar room, the walls of which are plastered in black and white stripes like the bathrooms on a riverboat casino. The cramped dining room is paneled with what looks like blond laminated siding, and the ceiling has been painted with blue sky and clouds in a desperate attempt to create a sense of light and space. The banquettes are covered with crushed red velour, as you would expect, but the tiny chairs look like they’ve been heisted from a second-rate Parisian railway café. There is no wine rack in evidence, no raw bar piled high with overpriced oysters and recently unfrozen shrimp. “I feel like I’m at the casino at Paris, Las Vegas,” said one of the grumps at my table. “I feel like I’m at the Hyatt,” said another.
Do they serve onion-soup gratinée at the Hyatt in the same dun-colored crockery that your grandmother used to admire? I bet they do. Ducasse went to great lengths to adapt his new upscale restaurant, Adour, to the fickle New York palate, but the tedious, connect-the-dots menu at Benoit makes Balthazar seem like a hotbed of culinary invention. The little crock of onion soup tastes, well, like onion soup, and the escargot are shell-less and capped with possibly too much chopped parsley (“nursery-school escargot,” one of the grumps called them). The charcuterie platter contains a few pallid flaps of ham and prosciutto, while the presentable wheel of foie gras confit is served with nothing but a slice of toasted brioche. Foie gras makes only one other appearance (in between layers of veal tongue, as part of an ancient, unappetizing dish called “Lucullus-style langue du veau”), and the only pâté is a classic en croûte recipe (good, coarse country pâté, specked with pistachios and sealed in a bread-and-aspic crust), which, the menu proudly tells us, was invented in 1892.
This kind of archaic cooking can work, provided the technique is sound, but that’s not always the case at Benoit. The shellfish stock in my bowl of tepid lobster bisque tasted lobstery enough, but the “hand-cut” steak tartare was dressed with enough horseradish to choke a cow. An order of quenelles de brochet costs only $19 at Benoit, but they’re covered in a slime of brown Nantua sauce and look like lumps of overworked gefilte fish. At La Côte Basque, the waiters used to serve the famous house cassoulet from a copper pot, and then, with elaborate ceremony, streak a spoonful of mustard across the lip of your plate. The cassoulet at Benoit (“J. J. Rachou’s recipe” says the menu) contains all the proper ingredients (duck leg, veal sausages, etc.) but appears to have been preheated in a microwave. The thin-cut frites are a facsimile of those served at the great Parisian bistro L’Ami Louis. One of the grumps at my table tasted some, then made a sad face. “At L’Ami Louis the fries are hot,” he said.
If you’re searching for a decent lamb chop in midtown, however, you’ll find one here, served with two small though well-cooked additional portions of lamb, medallion and loin. The sirloin isn’t bad either, despite its miniature size, and comes with good, fresh vegetables, and an opulent green-peppercorn sauce (though there’s also another sodden pile of “L’Ami Louis” fries). Among the seafood dishes, the soggy, grayish lobster ravioli is a viscous mess. But a nicely cooked piece of halibut is dressed with a fluffy Champagne-flavored sabayon, and my neighbor’s sea bass was cut in a thin white fillet like Dover sole and plated with lemon butter and a pleasing mash of baby eggplant. French chefs are usually sticklers about their roast chicken, which is why it’s a surprise that the one I sampled (it’s cut for two, for $48) was overcooked. But the kitchen does a serviceable job with that old warhorse duck à l’orange, which consists of crackly skinned slices of duck breast, turnips, and a gentle dose of bigarade sauce.
Is it possible to detect even a hint of Ducasse’s touch in any of this cooking? Of course not. In the context of the chef’s far-flung empire (he has 21 restaurants and counting), Benoit feels like a sad border outpost, a place set up without purpose or passion to fly the flag and maybe earn a buck or two. On the evenings I visited, the crowd was a motley assemblage of tourists, midtown swells, and tottering pensioners who looked as if they’d wandered off the street for a random bowl of onion soup at, yes, the Hyatt. The generally competent desserts (a B-level chocolate soufflé, standard-issue custard-filled profiteroles designed to be dipped into a vat of chocolate sauce, a generous tarte Tatin for two spooned with tangy crème fraîche) do nothing to alleviate the sense of creeping ennui that pervades the room. Does this make Benoit all that different from the other pseudo-brasseries in town? Maybe not. But if the most famous chef in France can’t bother to do better, then maybe French cuisine, as we used to know it, is deader than we think.