It can be terrifying when someone decides to tinker with a place you know and love. Such was the case several years back in Paris when the Alain Ducasse group took over Benoit, a beloved institution in the local dining scene, and injected it with new blood in the kitchen and a face lift in the dining room. Purists in Paris quibble that it's a little too slick and international now, but at least it's still alive and serving excellent food, unlike so many other traditional bistros there.
So what would happen when the Ducasse group decided to airlift the Benoit concept over to the United States? It seemed like there was no way they couldn't mess it up in this town, which, due to the McNallification of the dining scene, equates "bistro" with loud music, subway tiles, and unisex bathrooms--several things that would never fly at a traditional bistro in Paris.
What a relief, then, to walk into Benoit in New York and find a little slice of authentic French food and dining culture. There is no music; there are no candles on the table. The lighting is not quite as bright as it is in Benoit Paris, but it's dully uniform, just as it is in bistros there. It's the idea of restaurant-as-stage-set, where your only choice is to pay attention to the food on your plate or the scene, and what a scene it is. Former patrons of La Côte Basque, mainly well-to-do Upper East Siders, have returned to the old location. On a recent night, an elderly lady done up in an exquisite black and white dress (Chanel?) and her elderly husband both sat on the banquette, facing the crowd. A large party of young, glamorous couples stopped in for a late dinner at 9:30; one woman walked down the aisle in a pencil skirt done up with bows above the high-cut slit in the back. Trés chic. As Florent Morellet has said, arrange your seating just so and you'll create a veritable catwalk, just like they do it in Paris.
The staff, which was polite and attentive, started us off with a round of gougeres that arrived at the table straight from the oven. These seemed to have the maximum cheese-to-non-cheese-ingredients ratio and were some of the best in the city. Marie Fromage, JP Morgan, and I started with the escargots, since there are very few places where you know you'll get them fresh, not out of a can, and Benoit is one of them. Have them fresh and it's like tasting real French fries after eating frozen Ore-Ida's - what a huge difference in quality. Benoit's escargots were just as buttery and garlicky as anyone could desire, and crusted on top with a thin crispy layer of breadcrumbs.
The lobster bisque was beautifully presented--a dollop of buttery, tender lobster meat and creme fraiche in the middle, which the waiter then surrounded with the bisque, poured from a pewter boat. The soup itself was a little too salty--the saltiness would be our main critique of the food here--but traditional French cuisine is generally much saltier than any nouvelle cuisine that has followed. Suck it up for tradition's sake?
Lamb chops had a wonderfully smoky char, and the meat was lean, clean, and tasted of spring herbs. Quenelles, breaded flaked fish patties dressed up with sauce, aren't something you often see on a menu--indeed, Marie Fromage remarked that she hadn't seen them since culinary school. These were fluffy and light but decadently rich in flavor. The Spanish version of this dish, thought to be introduced by the Romans, is brandada de hacalao, found at Boqueria.
At my place arrived the true test of authenticity: the cassoulet. Benoit in Paris had the best cassoulet I've ever tasted--could the New York version compare? The perfectly tender white beans floated in a broth that was a little more watery than expected, but in the end this turned out to be a blessing, because the flavor was so intensely meaty (and admittedly salty) that a denser texture would have been overwhelming. Beans concealed a spicy lamb sausage and--surprise--an entire duck leg. This was over-the-top delicious, definitely on par with the Parisian version and almost certainly the best cassoulet in New York.
Wine aficionados will find a lot to like on the wine menu, which, like the food menu, includes many reasonably-priced, high-quality options. We really enjoyed our $10 glass of Bourgogne, a V. Girardin Cuvee Saint Vincent--and couldn't believe it was just $10.
We managed to find about two cubic inches of stomach capacity left to tackle dessert, which we ordered because of its clever name, Mister Mystere. But there's no mystery about it: this iced hazelnut mousse was refreshing yet rich, dressed up in melted chocolate, the perfect "light" ending to an excellent meal.
66 West 55th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues
New York, New York