May 5, 2008 | Insatiable Critic

Honor Thy Benoit

Spiffy presentation of a lackluster bird at Benoit. Photo: Steven Richter
Spiffy presentation of a lackluster bird at Benoit. Photo: Steven Richter

        Say what you will about Alain Ducasse’s evolution from Michelin three-star-wunderkind at Louis XV in Monte Carlo to the French evocation of a global Let-Us-Entertain-You feeding emperor. There lives inside this jet streaming calculator a kind of Santa Claus, Tooth Fairy, Don Quixote, Mother Theresa - an ecologically-driven Ducasse, dedicated to rescuing a threatened species - the classic bistro.

        Ducasse swooped in with cash to save the venerable Aux Lyonnais in Paris, and more recently shored up the limping 96-year-old Benoit. Now, on West 55th Street, he has led the resuscitation of La Brasserie LCB, Jean-Jacques Rachou’s opus interruptus effort to revive his own swooning La Côte Basque – the Westside transplant of the original mythic Henri Soulé’sPavillon for the poor,” forced to vacate its original space on East 55th to make way for an invasion of Walt Disney on Fifth Avenue.

        Ducasse’s unabashed need to be embraced by New York has a real chance for fulfillment at Benoit once he whips the kitchen up a bit. Those of us obsessed by our stomachs and nostalgic for tradition have to be grateful he’s salvaged touches of the LCB brasserie (cartoon ovals in the frieze, art deco sconces), created a sexy little bar (with cherubs in a ceiling from an old bakery), added his own stunning antique molds and timbales that we’d love to steal, and now offers bistro nostalgia to evoke all the oldies that have disappeared from the streets of New York. An ancient French apothecary makes a spectacular small private dining room upstairs.

Marvelous snails and a mess of charcuterie. Photo: Steven Richter

        Benoit’s gentle prices alone are seductive. Imagine! A dozen escargots in a haunting parsley-garlic butter bath under toasty chapeaux for just $16, onion soup at $9 (cheaper than Fairway Café’s price, for goodness sake), respectable quenelles de brochet at $19, a whole St. Marcellin cheese to share for just $12 and a chicken for two with fries at $48. We don’t expect snappy service so early. Friendly and welcoming is a plus (not very French but French enough).

        Still, after days of trial and soft opening, let’s have some discipline in the kitchen. Slow is no big deal. But when you invoke the crunchy fries (pommes allumettes) of legendary l’Ami Louis, they should be hot. That chicken better have a little flavor. A trellis of fresh herbs and half a garlic bulb scattered on top as the bird is ceremoniously presented in its copper sautoir isn’t enough. Still the hand-chopped beef tartare lives up to heightened expectation.  There are some thrills on that charcuterie plate, too, but it’s all a tumble, no respect for the duck’s silken liver or Lucullus-style veal tongue layered with foie gras. The bread is house-baked but no threat to Balthazar’s. The tarte tatin is a sad tale of good and evil: slightly singed, but not caramelized, on a cardboard crust, with its divine crème fraîche left on the table to drown your sorrow. Friends at another table, shocked by the pale beige skin of their chicken, leave complaining: “You’d think Ducasse would hire a cook to run the kitchen.”

Best Cellars Chief Executive Nose, Josh Wesson pours. Photo: Steven Richter

        It’s sheer luck that our dinner date tonight is Best Cellars’ grape mogul, Josh Wesson. Informed by the reservationist that the house still lacks a liquor license, he arrives toting several bottles: a South African rosé, a robust cabernet or two, whites that have him sniffing and chewing approvingly.  He excuses himself to pour samples for foodie pals stationed across the room. In turn, they send us goblets of  ‘98 La Tour and '82 Brane Cantenac. Once the house’s license comes through, such Dionysian revels will be more structured.  You’ll order from a friendly wine list – with enough moderate choices to match the sanity of the menu prices - or the leather bound “reserve” book of treasures that will thrill serious winos.

        Benoit opens for breakfast at 8:30 a.m., a gauntlet flung at Michael’s morning coven down the street.  I’ll be back this week for lunch and try the elbow pasta with ham and Gruyère – your maman’s mac’n’cheese, zut alors.  M. Ducasse saved Benoit in Paris. I trust in time he can save Benoit ici.


60 West 55th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. 646 943 7373
Breakfast Monday through Friday. Lunch Monday through Saturday. Dinner Monday through Sunday. Brunch Sunday.
Cafe Fiorello

Providing a continuous lifeline to homebound elderly New Yorkers