The not-so-fine art of fine French dining.
60 W. 55th St., between Fifth & Sixth Aves., (646) 943-7373.
Seven days a week. Breakfast, Mon.-Fri., 7:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; lunch, Mon.-Sat., 11:45
a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner, Mon.-Sun., 5:30-11 p.m.
CUISINE French bistro.
VIBE Elegant midtown bistro.
OCCASION Group dining, business lunch.
DON’T-MISS DISH Cassoulet, onion soup gratinee, escargots.
PRICE Appetizers, $9-$19; entrees, $19-$48; dessert, $7-18.
No one expects humble from Alain Ducasse.
But that’s what you get at Benoit. There’s even a dollar menu. It has
one dish: Egg Mayo, a terrific deviled egg with a fluffy, sweet
filling. It makes for a glorious, four-bite lunch.
Ducasse now runs three Benoits – the original Paris bistro (which opened in 1912), another in Tokyo and the newest, at 60 W. 55th St., the address of the old Le Cote Basque.
lot of menus honor the lineage of their ingredients – they tell you
you’re eating Berkshire pork or Satur Farms lettuce. Or they tell you
what the ingredients ate for dinner – milk-fed poularde or grass-fed
beef. But at Benoit, the menu honors the tradition of bistro cooking.
what does tradition taste like? Sometimes it tastes like an iconic
French onion soup – a thick, Gruyere cheese-berg collapsing into a
complex, oxtail-beef broth. Sometimes it tastes like savory escargots,
topped with croutons, in a parsley-flecked garlic butter that’s well
worth sopping up. And sometimes it tastes like a decadent tarte tatin
with dewy chunks of apples.
Perhaps the most traditional dish
on the menu is the cassoulet, borrowed from a J.J. Rachou recipe.
There’s a kind of restorative modesty about this dish – white beans
disintegrating over subtly sweet sausage, pork loin and a hulking duck
Sadly, at Benoit tradition also tastes like cold, lifeless
French fries or poached asparagus in a vapid vinaigrette. Two servers
carry a roasted chicken intact to the table. They whisk it back to the
kitchen to be carved. Out it comes again, disassembled and flaccid.
banquettes are bright red, the mirrors are arched, the ceiling is a
trompe l’oeil sky, and the room is lit with sconces from the old Le
Cote Basque. The menu is poster-sized – a poster with an amusing
picture of a rotund French chef plucking a rooster – and the room is
decorated with whimsical oval caricatures.
But when it comes to
Alain Ducasse, you have to take his intentions seriously. At Benoit,
his intent is to preserve, perhaps curate, authentic bistro food. And
the menu is full of bistro classics, such as duck a l’orange, quenelles
de brochet and a charcuterie selection that could feed a family of
This isn’t food that’s meant to spotlight the chef. This
is food that ought to transcend a chef’s ego, something Ducasse
acknowledges by giving credit to J.J. Rachou’s brasserie and the famous
Parisian bistro L’ami Louis. The trouble is that the food itself simply
isn’t transcendent. You can find excellent bistro food all over New York in a less formal atmosphere.
I think of Ducasse doing bistro, I imagine vivid flavors, complexity,
history. But at Benoit I also found myself imagining something less
exalted. I imagined fries that were hot and crispy when they came to
the table. I imagined steak tartare that was something more than damp.
I imagined I wasn’t eating the world’s most boring salad – the Parisian
version of a chef’s salad.
Here’s my advice: Stick with humble. Have a glass of red wine and the dollar Egg Mayo at the black-and-white bar.