Like many New Yorkers, my wife tends to make up her mind quickly about things, and so her views on Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, which opened in 2000, were settled long ago. “This place is so serious,” she whispered as we sat down for dinner recently. The rooms were hushed in that reverent, vaguely sepulchral, uniquely French sort of way, with gently glowing, slightly cheesy pieces of modish Euro artwork on the walls and squadrons of darkly groomed, faultlessly polite waitstaff ghosting to and fro. Already, we’d been offered six varieties of bottled spring water (the restaurant stocks twelve), five types of champagne (the least expensive at $20 per glass), and a red cushioned footstool for my wife’s purse. I decided against a $58 shot of Belgian whiskey and opted for a slightly more economical vodka martini made with a new artisanal brand of vodka that tasted faintly of grapes. My wife chose the $20 glass of champagne. She opened her menu, took careful sips of her drink, and glanced around the room again. “I feel oppressed,” she said.
We had enjoyed this peculiarly ornate brand of treatment before, of course. Always, it was followed by Ducasse’s intricately baroque menus (poached-egg-and-white-truffle casseroles, torchons of foie gras on lentils, gently poached langoustines smothered in caviar), although this time, I’d assured my wife, things would be different. A few months ago, Ducasse had handed operational control of his kitchen to Christian Delouvrier, formerly of Lespinasse, one of the city’s many suddenly defunct fancy French restaurants. The reasons for this change are obscure. Perhaps Ducasse couldn’t devote enough time to his New York operation. Perhaps he thought a respected veteran like Delouvrier had a better grasp of the mercurial tastes of fine-dining New York. Or perhaps, more ominously, Ducasse sensed that the demise of venerable establishments like Lespinasse, La Caravelle, La Côte Basque, and, soon, Le Cirque meant that classic European dining was doomed in the city, and wished to pave the way for his own eventual exit in a diplomatic way.
My wife listened to these theories, then politely pointed out that even without Ducasse in the kitchen, the prices at his restaurant were still insane. In fact, they’d been raised even before Delouvrier’s arrival. A three-course meal used to cost $145; now it costs $150. The price of a four-course meal has risen from $160 to $175, and $225 will buy you Delouvrier’s superior seven-course tasting menu, compared with a mere $165 for Ducasse’s five-course seasonal menu (although his famous fall truffle extravaganzas cost $300). This kind of gouging is common in Europe (by contrast, Thomas Keller charges $150 for the most extravagant tasting menu at Per Se), but to get away with it on foreign ground, it helps to convince your audience, as Ducasse seemed to do, that what they’re getting is unique. But Delouvrier is a master chef of a more familiar kind. His repertoire is elegantly straightforward in the classic French style, and gourmet New York has seen much of it before. So the question becomes: If it’s not so outrageously new, why pay outrageous money for it?
“If it’s not so outrageously new, why pay outrageous money for it?”
The answer, we haltingly concluded as one course succeeded another, is maybe you shouldn’t. The first thing I tasted was an appetizer of “layered seasonal vegetables” that turned out to be a pile of fresh though unremarkable summer roughage (asparagus, tomatoes, zucchini flowers) sitting on a tasty though unremarkable pesto of crushed herbs. My wife picked hesitantly at thin slices of bluefin tuna bracketed with asparagus and muffled in a swampy green aïoli tinged with balsamic vinegar and ginger. Other appetizers included a professionally seared lobe of foie gras (with citrus and an oversweet marmalade made of dates), a mild, coolly gelatinous cocktail of fresh scallops topped with a confit of tomatoes and extra-virgin olive oil, and a superb little candy bar of barely cooked wild salmon with pearls of Osetra caviar spread on top. Best of all, though, was the lobster gazpacho (offered, alas, only on the tasting menu), made with bits of lobster, minutely diced vegetables, and more pearls of Osetra caviar, all set in a tall martini glass of tangy, gently dissolving aspic.
This kind of elegance doesn’t show up as often on the regular menu, which has been severely whittled down from the go-go Ducasse years. Among the four seafood selections, the biggest crowd-pleaser was the lobster, which is spread on a crisp of puff pastry and covered in a pinkish bubble bath of curry, coconut milk, and emulsified lobster jus. The meat section includes a plump, crackly skinned ball of squab stuffed pleasingly with foie gras, a strangely candied version of Ducasse’s famous truffled chicken (only the breast is served, with a very sweet onion marmalade), and a saddle of lamb that tasted so bland I thought it might be pork. Delouvrier is a well-known pork fiend, and so there is suckling pig, too, although it’s been neutered into a mild, summery pork loin, dusted with a powdering of mustard and herbs and served over sweet carrots. The veal (also on the tasting menu) undergoes a more vibrant summer transformation (it’s folded into a stewed-tomato gratin), and so do the langoustines, which are roasted, then sunk in a bowl of smoothly melting cauliflower mousseline.
All of this food is perfectly good, and it’s sure to get livelier in the fall (the menu changes seasonally), when the two chefs begin throwing shaved truffles around like confetti. The wine selection is impressive, as always, though out of the grasp of anyone but the most well-heeled nineties-era tech barons and Arabian sheikhs. The desserts, which are generally exemplary and comfortingly French, include a crunchy praline soufflé, a big glass bowl of strawberry sorbet and vanilla ice cream with coconut meringue in the style of a Vacherin, laced with strawberry coulis, and a spongy almond tart containing a sweet clafouti of apricots and a disk of the most delectable amaretto-tinged ice cream. These dainties are consumed by groups of polished Europeans and well-heeled, slightly cowed-looking tourists, who eat in prim little bites and whisper among themselves like they’re sitting in church. Or perhaps they’re attending a theatrical production, one that’s long-running and famously august but has possibly outlived its time. So catch it while you can, if you wish, but don’t expect much in the way of dramatic culinary pyrotechnics. And whatever you do, don’t look at the check.
Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, 155 West 58th Street (212-265-7300). Dinner, 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Three-course prix fixe, $150; four-course, $175; seven-course tasting menu, $225. All major credit cards.