Nearly four years after the failure of his Essex House restaurant, where a meal for two could easily exceed $1,000, chef Alain Ducasse still knows (or cares) little about New York dining habits.
What he does know a lot about is making great food.
Since the last Lehman days of mid-2008, Adour Alain Ducasse at the St. Regis Hotel has defied New York’s haute-casual trend with fancy French frivolity. The luxuriantly appointed space once occupied by Lespinasse Adour can feel like any hotel restaurant, anywhere in the world, especially when it’s empty, which it sometimes is.
On other nights, Adour fills with diners who know that the new resident chef, Didier Elena, cooks vegetables as well as Blue Hill and cote de boeuf as expertly as Minetta Tavern.
In a clever rebuke to Americans who like plain-Jane steak on a plate, Elena slices the 38 ounces of meat (charred and rare) and douses it with a rich bordelaise. The result is a clean, beefy flavor with none of the dry-aged mineral tang we expect. Throw in truffled macaroni and cheese (dense and toothsome), some hen of the woods mushrooms and mustard-spiked marrow bones and I’m buying. It’s $140.
Such prices won’t shock patrons of Ducasse’s spots in Las Vegas, Paris and Monaco, where starters often exceed $50 and mains rise above $100.
Nevertheless, Adour is one of the city’s more expensive a la carte restaurants, with no first courses under $21 and no entrees under $42. That’s less pricey than Daniel and Per Se, but Adour was never quite as good as them. Elena is changing that.
He fortifies the richness of a slice of oily white tuna with bearnaise sauce, a decadent surf that’s been tricked out as turf. He separates grapefruit segments into tiny pearls and uses them to cut the sweetness of crab. He clarifies shrimp stock into a cold consomme, spices it up with chili and pumps up the high-tide taste with little knobs of sea urchin.
Need more uni? House-made fettucine soaks up the orange roe in a foamy Mediterranean variation on spaghetti with clam sauce -- the perfect midday snack (if only Adour did lunch).
And contrary to the culinary zeitgeist, there are no food-friendly cocktail lists, no small plates and no suggested “middle courses,” unless one counts the caviar section of the menu. It’s not the awful, sustainable American stuff; it’s the excellent, endangered Caspian kind. Those eggs will set you back $400-$600.
The menu’s mantra is “cuisine designed with wine in mind,” as if other New York chefs pair their foie gras with bathtub gin. Adour’s supposed raison d’etre is its wine technology, which reaches its apex with an iPhone-like wine list projected onto the bar top. The electronic sommelier is brilliantly comprehensive so I’m distinctly confounded why the geniuses behind it can’t put the expensive list on Adour’s website. And while other restaurants waive corkage fees on “bring your own wine nights,” Adour rents private wine vaults for $6,000 a year.
I’ll take a sublime $25 champagne cocktail instead. And I’ll nurse it in case I have to wait an hour for my table again (a medical emergency in the dining room -- fair enough). Adour made up for the inconvenience with a free bottle of bubbly and scallops with white truffles. The French apologize well.
The tasting menus are the most affordable choices, at $115 for seven courses or $85 for a vegetarian option. A simple carpaccio of radish, apples, pears, mushrooms and zucchini achieves greatness, maybe because of a chef’s love, though probably because of the black truffle vinaigrette. I can think of few better ways to spend $21 than a casserole of potatoes, celery root and hearts of palm. It sits over an egg and parmesan-spiked butternut squash marmalade. Amazing.
That’s dessert to me, but pastry chef Sandro Micheli’s creations are reason enough to soldier on. A waiter pours hot chocolate sauce over a chocolate disk, chocolate sorbet and coffee granite. The sounds of spoons clanking against an empty dish follow. Just leave the silly gold leaf behind. No, Adour isn’t completely New York. And I bet Ducasse is fine with that. Rating: ***
The Bloomberg Questions
Prices: At least $100 per person.
Sound Level: Moderate, around 70 or so decibels.
Date Place: Yes.
Inside tip: Don’t fill up on the great brioche or bacon-bread rolls.
Special Feature: The $48 lamb loin is great, but the olive oil roasted turnips that pop like caviar are even better.
Will I be back: For the tasting menus.
Adour Alain Ducasse is at 2 E. 55th St. Information: +1-212-710-2277; http://www.adour-stregis.com
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels):
51 to 55: Church on a weekday. 56 to 60: The vegetable aisle at the Food Emporium. 61 to 65: Keyboards clacking at the office. 66 to 70: My alarm clock when it goes off inches from my ear. 71 to 75: Corner deli at lunchtime. 76 to 80: Back of a taxi with advertisements at full volume. 81 to 85: Loud, crowded subway with announcements.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)