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Simply Extraordinary

Review of Alain Ducasse at the Essex House by Maurice Graham Henry

Chef Alain DucassePaul Bocuse, Joël Robuchon, and Roger Vergé.  When I began working for Reuters just out of college in the summer of 1987, these were the only Chefs in France whose names I recognized.  If you had asked me for specifics about why they were so famous, I would have been lost for words.  All I knew was that I had heard of them.  But a decade later -- and well before my present-day interest in the cuisine of France began to blossom – there would be one more Chef whose name I would know: Alain Ducasse.  And unlike the others, I could tell you exactly why I'd heard of him.  He had been awarded six Michelin stars for his two flagship restaurants, the first Chef in nearly 60 years to be so honored (Eugenie Brazier, a Chef with two restaurants in the Lyon area, held three stars each from 1933 to 1938).  Yes, Alain Ducasse had, in the eyes of many, accomplished the impossible by taking both Restaurant Alain Ducasse in Paris and Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo to three Michelin star status.  The result?  Alain Ducasse became in the eyes of many not just a famous French Chef, but the great Chef of France.

Here in New York, I still remember the buzz in 1997 when the announcement came that Laurent Gras, who had worked for Ducasse in Paris, would become the Chef at Peacock Alley in the Waldorf Astoria.  Would New Yorkers finally be able to get a taste of the master's cooking, from his former Chef de cuisine at the Paris restaurant?  As it turned out, the best was yet to come...or so we thought.  For in the spring of 2000 New Yorkers learned that Alain Ducasse would open a gastronomic restaurant at the Essex House on Central Park South, in the space formerly occupied by Les Célébrités.  The restaurant would have just 65 seats, and there would be no turning of tables.  If you were fortunate enough to secure a table, it would be yours for the evening—something unheard of in New York.  Also, most ingredients were going to be sourced from within the United States; lobsters from Maine would be served, not Brittany blue lobsters from France.  And since Chef Ducasse would be putting his own name on the door (the last time he would ever do this, he said), New Yorkers fully expected a restaurant equal to his Paris and Monte Carlo restaurants.  With such expectations, the reservations flooded in.  Apparently there were over 2700 reservations before the restaurant opened.

Alain Ducasse at the Essex House dining roomBut once Alain Ducasse at the Essex House opened its doors a few months later, to say that things didn't work out as planned would be a great understatement.  Yet Alain Ducasse and Chef de cuisine Didier Elena did not throw in the towel.  Together they turned things completely around in the kitchen.  And in December 2001, just 18 months after the less-than-stellar opening, Alain Ducasse at the Essex House was rightly awarded four stars by The New York Times. William Grimes, the Times restaurant critic, noted "Mr. Ducasse, a Chef in the classic French tradition, promised New York a great restaurant.  Now he has delivered it.  He came, he stumbled and he stayed. And now he has conquered."

But sadly, the restaurant appeared to stumble again.  And in early 2005, the Times took the restaurant down from four stars to three.  What happened?  I believe that first and foremost, Per Se happened.  Thomas Keller's triumph at the Time Warner Center in New York set a new high water mark for excellence in French-influenced cooking, making the ongoing inconsistencies in the cooking and the service at Alain Ducasse at the Essex House that much more glaring and tougher to overlook.

Another thing that went wrong was the appointment of Christian Delouvrier to be the new head Chef in 2004.  While there is no doubting Chef Delouvrier's exceptional talents as a Chef (he was, after all, the Chef in charge when the Michelin inspectors were visiting the restaurant), this Chef at this restaurant was in retrospect a mismatch if there ever was one.  Praised as as a New York Chef in touch with "New York sensibilities" (whatever those are), he generated a menu hailed by one critic as "Manhattan-modern".  Mmmm...isn't this the kind of cooking that New Yorkers were already getting their fill of at restaurants like Daniel and Chanterelle?  There's the rub. People go to Alain Ducasse at the Essex House (and willingly pay Alain Ducasse prices) not for "New York" French cooking, but for Alain Ducasse French cooking.  A great Alain Ducasse Chef working in New York does not necessarily have to be in touch with the sensibilities of New Yorkers. He need only be in thorough and complete touch with the sensibilities of just one man, his boss Alain Ducasse.

Fortunately, the Times downgrade served as the needed wake up call.  Christian Delouvrier was shown the door.  As Alain Ducasse explained, "'I am at the top in Paris, in Monte Carlo and in Tokyo, and I cannot remain with three stars in New York.  I knew we could not regain four stars with Christian Delouvrier at the helm, and I had to make important changes in the dynamic of the kitchen.  I needed someone who has worked longer with me.  And once I make up my mind I move fast.  The life of this enterprise depends on it.''

Now the right man is in the kitchen, and his name is Tony Esnault.  Born in the small town of Saumur in France’s Loire Valley, he worked at Carré des Feuillants in Paris and then at the famed Auberge de L’Ill in Alsace before going to Monte Carlo in 1996 to join Alain Ducasse at Le Louis XV, where he stayed for three years.  In addition to his duties in this three-Michelin-star kitchen, Esnault traveled with and assisted Chef Ducasse at gala dinners around the world, from Japan to Brazil.  Just prior to taking the helm in New York this past May, he was the executive Chef at The Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton in Boston, where the excellence of his cooking led Food & Wine Magazine to name Chef Esnault "Best Hotel Chef of America" in 2004.

After the first-ever New York Michelin Guide awarded the restaurant three stars in  last fall, I was curious to return and find out for myself if these stars were in fact merited.  What I found made me happy indeed.  Although Christian Delouvrier was gone, the cooking under Tony Esnault had a harmony and a level of excellence that, in my opinion, surpassed even the cooking of Didier Elena.  (My main fear about returning to Ducasse was that no matter how good the cooking would be, it would never reach the level eventually achieved by Chef Elena.).  A dish I sampled from the fall menu particularly worth mentioning was the foie gras terrine with mission fig jam.  Rich and intense, it is one of the best foie gras preparations I ever had.

© Ellen R. Shapiro.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

Another dish was an exceptional rack of lamb ‘au sautoir’, accompanied by a condiment of dried fruit and piquillos, served with creamy quinoa on the side.  The rack of lamb, extraordinarily tender and perfectly cooked, was the best lamb I have ever eaten.  The fruits and piquillos highlighted the lamb while not overwhelming it.

© Ellen R. Shapiro.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.  © Ellen R. Shapiro.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

As for the service, while much improved from earlier visits, it continued to lack the seamless consistency that the cooking under Tony Esnault had achieved.  There were still too many small service mistakes.  Water glasses were not promptly refilled, napkins were often (but not always) replaced during a restroom break, and a partially used helping of unsalted butter was removed, but not replaced until about 20 minutes later.  That said, I left the evening convinced that yes, on the basis of the cooking, this restaurant does indeed merit three Michelin stars.

So I was eager to return once the winter menu came out in mid December.  Now, after several subsequent visits since that fall dinner; I have the confidence to report that Alain Ducasse at the Essex House has finally become what it set out to be: the great New York French restaurant.  Only Thomas Keller's Per Se at the Time Warner Center plays in the same space. And the service has greatly improved to the point where, yes, it is consistently seamless, fully complementing the extraordinary cooking instead of distracting from it.

What makes Alain Ducasse at the Essex House the best French restaurant in New York?  One must begin with the reservation.  The initial policy that the table you book is yours for the evening has -- thank goodness -- not changed.  As Alain Ducasse explained to The New York Times the year the restaurant opened, "'Time is a luxury, and a restaurant is a place of luxury,' Mr. Ducasse said on the phone from Paris, emphasizing the importance of 'hospitalite' and 'convivialite' as if they were constitutional rights inseparable from a three- or four-hour meal. 'We should not impose time limits.' Otherwise the restaurant will not be a place where New Yorkers can find sanctuary from their mortal enemy: 'le stress.'"

When entering the restaurant, one is immediately struck by the elegance of this intimate dining room and its well-spaced tables.  Once seated, you are soon offered a glass of champagne.  (In my opinion, a truly great French meal should always begin with a glass of champagne.) And what an array of choices, brought before you on a trolley.  My advice is that if a "grower champagne" from a small producer is available, try that.  My favorites to date are the 1996 Pierre Moncuit Blanc de Blancs and the nonvintage Bruno Paillard rosé.  (A word of caution: don't hesitate to ask about the cost of a particular offering; you may be surprised at the cost of some of them!)

Next, you are brought two small Gougères filled with a silky Béchamel sauce.  Eat them whole, or you will soon be requesting some soda water for your tie or dress.  Then there are the waters.  A most impressive choice is offered, both sparkling and flat. For flat waters, there is Voss from Norway, Evian from France, and a bottled water from Saratoga Springs, to name a few.  And if you are not comfortable with these offerings, there are additional selections your waiter can retrieve if so requested.

© Ellen R. Shapiro.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.Two butters are then placed on the table, salted and unsalted, both from France.  These are for what is probably about the best bread service in the United States.  There is a choice of epi, baguette, salted brioche, and my personal favorite, the black olive brioche.  Only the bread service at Joël Robuchon at The Mansion in Las Vegas is comparable.  If bread does indeed set the tone tone for the evening at a restaurant, you know from tasting these breads -- the handiwork of Sandro Micheli, the restaurant's superb pastry and dessert Chef -- that you are in for quite some evening!

For your dinner, there are three different menus offered.  The à la carte menu is available with three courses (appetizer, one meat or fish course, and dessert) or four (appetizer, a fish and meat course, and dessert) at $150 and $175 respectively.  There is also a seven course tasting menu for $225 which includes cheese (available for an additional $21 when ordering à la carte), and, for winter, a six course tuber melanosporum black truffle menu at $290 which includes a truffled brie de Meaux composed cheese course and concludes with a "chocolate declination" of ganache/mousse/nougatine and black truffle ice cream.

But even if you do not have the black truffle menu, do indeed order one or two of the black truffle dishes when ordering à la carte, which is what I have often done when ordering the four course menu.  For an appetizer, my very favorite is the warm mosaic of selected vegetables with black truffle condiment.  This is one of the finest vegetable dishes I have ever tasted, and the black truffle condiment lifts the flavors to a higher dimension.  As for the meat course, the blue foot chicken with rainbow Swiss chard and black truffles is excellent.

© James Bratek.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

And the lobster, poached with salsifis, spinach and black truffles, is just extraordinary.  (The best lobster dishes I have ever had have been at this restaurant:  the current lobster dish and the lobster medallions served atop a butter tart with citrus marmalade when Didier Elena was the Chef.)

  © James Bratek.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

Before describing more of the dishes, I need to briefly explain the Alain Ducasse "60% ingredients / 40% technique" style of cooking.  Several descriptions I have seen of the Alain Ducasse have either been oversimplifications (ex. "for Ducasse the focus is the ingredients") or descriptions like "Baroque" that sound impressive, but don't tell you very much.  That said, I will now do my best to provide an overview of the Ducasse style in laymen's terms.

Generally speaking, the cooking of Alain Ducasse is more robust and full flavored than, say, the mild and delicately flavored cooking found at Guy Savoy in Paris or Robuchon in Las Vegas.  And unlike other famous Chefs, Alain Ducasse is not really associated with classic recipes he created.  In fact, with the exception of the Baba with rum (a dessert served at all the Ducasse gastronomic restaurants), there is not a single dish that one immediately associates with this Chef.  How different from Chefs such as Thomas Keller, who is known for masterpieces like "Oysters and Pearls" or "Peas and Carrots", or Alain Senderens and his classic lobster with vanilla sauce.

So if Alain Ducasse is not associated with recipes, what exactly is his culinary contribution?  The best answer I have comes from the Epicurious website: "Ducasse revolutionized classical French haute cuisine by incorporating less hallowed, robustly flavored provincial foods from southern France and Italy and by placing more emphasis on ingredients as the alpha and omega of good cooking.  His food is focused and innovative without being conceptual; it's refined and exquisitely restrained."  Yes, for Alain Ducasse, the overriding principle is that the ingredients are indeed paramount.  But how does this principle work out practically in the dishes served at the Essex House?  His dishes (desserts being an exception) almost always feature one ingredient as king, with additional ingredients subservient to that one ingredient.  These dishes come together in basically one of three ways.

The first way is to feature an ingredient with other ingredients very much in the background, with the purpose of the other ingredients being to further heighten the main ingredient.  In other words, additional ingredients are there primarily to lift up the main ingredient, much like servants lifting up their master on a sedan chair, calling little or no attention to themselves.  Examples of such dishes include the warm mosaic of selected vegetables and fruits with "navette" oil and the Cobia served in peppermint broth (pictured).  Is the Cobia exceptional?  Absolutely.  And you say you can't taste the peppermint?  Possibly not.  The peppermint is present not to call attention to itself, but to further heighten the taste of the Cobia.

© Ellen R. Shapiro.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved. 

The second way the Ducasse principle works itself out is by having a main ingredient placed with other ingredients that are far more pronounced than the first way.  The most notable examples here are the black truffle dishes and the Australian barramundi with chocolate dolce forte.  For the barramundi, the sauce has a richer, more intense flavor.  It is not the nearly-invisible player as with the navette oil or the peppermint broth, but instead takes a place like a fine supporting player with a magnificent actor, where the performance of the supporting player heightens the performance of the lead actor.

The third way an Alain Ducasse dish comes together is to place the main ingredient alongside several different ingredients, where the ingredients again are not in the background, but form an ensemble designed to heighten and broaden the full range of the main ingredient.

The best example of such a dish is the wild Scottish partridge "sur canapé".  It is served with a chicken liver mousse, foie gras and cognac "pie", chestnut purée,  and roasted winter fruits.  To truly enjoy this dish, one should first cut a small piece of some of the most delectable poultry breast you will ever eat, to taste the rich, buttery texture of the partridge apart from the accompaniments.  Next, place a bit of the "pie" on your fork along with a piece of partridge.  Then, working clockwise, the results will astound you.  Each accompaniment serves to show off the impeccable partridge in a unique way, much like different opera soloists would show off a remarkable lead tenor through the singing of different duets and trios.  At Alain Ducasse, the results of assembling dishes in such a manner are nearly always magnificent.

For appetizers, they are all worth having.  However, while I continue to recommend the foie gras terrine, the fall menu preparation with mission fig jam is tastier than the current accompaniments of crunchy watermelon radish and mango chutney.  As for the meat and fish dishes, you may have guessed that my favorites are the lobster and the wild Scottish partridge.  Also, if you have heard of the blue leg chicken and have been wanting to try it, you can do no better than Chef Esnault's current preparation for one served with rainbow Swiss chard, black truffles, and cooking jus. Of all the main course entrees, only the Millbrook venison served with beets, sweet potatoes and shaved pear was not as special as it could have been.  For venison, the very best is the white fallow venison, which I don't think this was.  In any event, very fine venison is I believe best enjoyed in whole servings, not as smaller medallions as with this preparation.

Of course, such magnificent cooking must certainly be accompanied by fine wines.  And so they are!  If Tony Esnault is the star of the restaurant, then there is no more critical co-star in the front of the house than André Compeyre, one of the most knowledgeable and talented sommeliers around.  Ably assisted by Jennifer Malone and Jura de Almeida, he consistently comes up with original, superb pairings for each dish you order. André's passion is to see to it that the right wine is paired with a given dish, regardless of the wine's origin.  Thus, in the course of a single dinner you may be taken on a far-reaching wine tour, drinking wines from France as well as far-off places like Israel, Greece or Slovenia.  As an example, here is the most recent menu I enjoyed with the terrific wine pairings selected by André:

Champagne: Nv Bruno Paillard – Rosé

Amuse Bouche

Foie Gras / tapioca ravioli, celery, sunchoke broth, black truffles

Wine pairing: 2002 Marcel Deiss – Engelgarten (Alsace)

Chatham Cod, fennel (some braised, others raw), Taggiasca tapenade,
clear essence

Wine pairing: 2004 Jonathan Tihsbi – Special Reserve Chardonnay
(Galilée, Israel)

Steamed Dover Sole, periwinkles, sautéed mizuna, confit potato pearls,
sauce "Vin jaune"

Wine Pairing: 2004 Vin de Vienne – La Chambée (Condrieu, France)

Wild Scottish partridge "sur canapé", roasted winter fruits

Wine Pairing: 2000 Château Clarke (Moulis en Médoc, France)

White box, roasted pineapple, soft vanilla biscuit, coconut / lime sorbet

Warm apple, quince gelée, Earl Grey ice cream, crispy layers

Wine Pairing: 2002 Sigalas – Vinsanto (Santorini, Greece)

Friandises and Gourmandises

After dinner, you will certainly want some cheese.  And cheese at an Alain Ducasse restaurant is not to be missed.  On the menu, you will see "cheese, perfectly matured" and I assure you that "perfectly matured" is no idle boast.  The cheese cart (pictured) is impressive and diverse.  If there is one offering not to miss, it is the Stilton cheese, the best Stilton you have ever tasted. (Also, ask for an extra slice of that extraordinary country bread that accompanies the cheese.)

© Ellen R. Shapiro.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

For dessert, my very favorite is the gorgeous pear soufflé with Bartlett compote, 'beurre salé' and caramel ice cream, a dessert in the grand French tradition if there ever was one. 

© James Bratek.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

But having tried all the desserts, there isn't a single one I wouldn't recommend.  Other notable desserts are (from left to right, below) the bitter chocolate hedgehog with caramelized almonds, the Gianduja 'sablé' with chocolate and orange granité, the warm apple balls between crispy layers with quince gelée and Earl Grey ice cream, and the Baba "Monte Carlo style" with a rum of your choice—the classic Alain Ducasse dessert.  And after dessert comes the candy and dessert cart.  If you only have room for one single thing at this point, do not miss out on a delicious Cannele cake, based on a classic recipe from Bordeaux.  Also, feel free to take a lollipop home.

© James Bratek.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.  © James Bratek.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.  © James Bratek.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.  © James Bratek.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

An evening at Alain Ducasse at the Essex House offers one of the very few truly extraordinary dining experiences available in North America.  The pacing of a meal here is flawless.  One is neither rushed nor placed in a position of having your dinner unnecessarily dragged out.  For restaurants in the United States that Alain Ducasse might himself describe as "resolutely French", only Joël Robuchon at The Mansion offers a comparably exceptional experience.  I congratulate Yannis Stanisiere, the restaurant manager who has brought the level of service to such a consistently high level.  Among his able assistants, I want to especially commend Patrice Lenouvel, whose level of service equals the best to be found anywhere.  Morale throughout the restaurant is again very high.  Why should it not be?

Maurice Graham Henry

February 27, 2006

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