Gilty Pleasure

Photo: Carina Salvi

Virtuoso talent is a gift, of course, but in a relentless service-oriented profession like cooking, it can also be a curse. Like high-strung opera divas, virtuoso chefs can be rash, prickly, and prone to towering displays of temper. They’re notoriously finicky and have hopelessly expensive tastes. Because they bore easily, they are fond of experimentation, a habit that sometimes alienates patrons who would prefer a simple steak dinner to, say, a bowl of licorice-and-parsley soup. During the course of his short, tumultuous New York restaurant career, the young British chef Paul Liebrandt has exhibited all sorts of virtuoso tendencies. He has served his clientele licorice-and-parsley soup, among other things, and once devised a tasting menu designed to be eaten blindfolded, with one hand cuffed to the chair. He has been praised by critics as a genius, and attacked by them as a poseur. He has worked for several New York restaurants (including Atlas and Papillon, the former of which received three stars from the Times) over the past five years, and lasted only briefly at each. Presumably he threw a tantrum or two along the way.

There is not much doubt, however, that Mr. Liebrandt can cook. Since his last restaurant engagement, he has been in demand as a private chef for fabulous clients like the Rothschilds of London. He has been biding his time, or so the rumor goes, waiting for the right opportunity to return to New York in a blaze of glory. Now, with the opening of Gilt, the unabashedly expensive, almost painfully sleek new restaurant in the New York Palace Hotel on Madison Avenue, that time has arrived. The restaurant is located where Le Cirque 2000 used to be, in the old Villard Mansion dining room, with its carved-wood walls and marble fireplace as big as a garage. Sirio Maccioni’s wacky decorations have been carted away, and the new proprietors have installed a synthetic caramel-colored covering over the old floorboards. Two similarly colored banquettes rise along either wall, like seats on a barge, and between them sit two rows of tables. The kitchen is the old Le Cirque kitchen, and so the food descends, as it did at that famously theatrical establishment, down a grand flight of stairs.

The partners at Gilt are wealthy Londoners, which may be why there’s a forced European extravagance about the place, a sense that luxury isn’t really luxury unless you have to pay through the nose. The restaurant employs a friendly and informative tea expert (“We have 52 teas on the list for now, sir”), and the wine list is loaded with big-ticket trophy items, including a 1999 Screaming Eagle Cabernet for the ludicrous price of $1,000 per glass. The food ($92 for a three-course prix fixe dinner) is a comparative bargain, and once the platoons of carefully articulated amuses begin issuing from the kitchen, it’s difficult to make them stop. My first meal there was lunch, and before I even lifted my fork, our table was inundated with crystallized ribbons of beet jus served on silver trays, tiny oysters obscured in lemon foam, and a cocked cup of vichyssoise with shreds of Swiss chard and smoked haddock at the bottom. There was also a financier, colored green thanks to an infusion of arugula, which seemed to be magically suspended over a silver bowl, until you realized it was held in place by an invisible sheet of cellophane.

Liebrandt has been criticized for this kind of highbrow gimmickry, but in this case, the gimmicks taste pretty good. The financier is filled with tiny deposits of Stilton cheese and a sweet marmalade touched, according to our loquacious waiter, with muscatel. If you want to continue with this kind of intricately constructed, fancy-pants tasting experience, order the Flavors of Winter appetizer, consisting, among other things, of segments of roasted sweetbreads with blood orange, and a chilled thimbleful of sea urchin deliciously flavored with a cucumber gelée. At dinnertime, the black-truffle crumble isn’t worth the $28 supplemental cost, but the inventive preparation of langoustines (they’re served four ways—as a tartare, roasted and glazed with green mango, in a sort of biscuit form, and royale style) just might be. If you order only one dish, however, make it Liebrandt’s foie gras (another $18 supplement), which is encased in a thin membrane of beets, served over a nori tuile, and eaten on segments of brioche toast, which you can spread with truffle butter served in a tiny silver pot.

These luxurious high-wire creations are even more pronounced among the entrées. Order the beef at lunchtime, and you will receive a boneless rib eye and potatoes fondant, ingeniously carved into little building blocks, with a ball of braised oxtail balanced on top. The luminous orange piece of ocean trout my wife enjoyed one evening came with a crust of brioche crumbs darkened with a black-truffle purée. I don’t know what “milk-fed chicken’’ is, exactly, but in Liebrandt’s hands (he serves it with a crunching of grilled hazelnuts and foie gras jus), it tastes very good. Ditto the roasted lobster (set in a puddle of cauliflower crème), the excellent Pekin duck (poached to an absurd level of tenderness and served with crispy beet leaves), and an off-the-menu loup de mer, which was served, on the evening I enjoyed it, with bits of mango and cucumber, steamed in paper with vanilla beans and linden-tree leaves, and poured with a fish reduction flavored with an intense French-Indian spice mixture called vadouvan.

For dessert, Liebrandt’s pastry chef, Oscar Palacios, produces glassy domes of chestnut ice cream encircled with rings of chocolate. The house chocolate tart is flavored with tangerines and patterned on top with ribbons of white chocolate. It comes with a parfait made with ancho chili, which mixes with the chocolate in a spicy, unexpected, and generally excellent way. In a town inundated with bizarre chocolate creations, it’s one of the best things I’ve tasted.

Given treats like this, Gilt should be bustling with all sorts of fine-dining swells by now, but curiously, it’s not. Maybe that’s because there’s so much about the place, starting with the name, that seems faintly precious and stagy. Or maybe it’s that the new décor feels temporary and slapdash, as if the tenants were worried they might be evicted at any time. In the end, however, Liebrandt’s unique talents prevail. Catch the show while you can, before this virtuoso chef heads for the hills again.

Address:455 Madison Ave., at 50th St.; 212-891-8100
Hours: Lunch, Monday to Friday, noon to 2 p.m. Dinner, Monday to Saturday, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Prices: Three-course prix fixe, $92. Ten-course tasting menu, $135.
Ideal meal: Foie gras, Pekin duck, chocolate-chili tart.
Note: The bread basket at Gilt is one of the best in town. It contains chestnut-flour rolls stuffed with candied chestnuts, among other delicious things.

Scratchpad: The pricing and the atmosphere are a little outlandish, but Liebrandt is clearly an elite chef. If his menu were larger and more varied, we’d be tempted to give him a fourth star.

Gilty Pleasure