August 14, 2000 | Insatiable Critic

Gold-Plate Special

At his sky-high-priced new restaurant, Alain Ducasse is redefining the term "value meal." But are these really the best frogs' legs money can buy?

        Why is New York so frosty to Alain Ducasse? Can this be the warm and bumptious city that has welcomed millions of immigrants -- the hungry, the persecuted, outcasts and dreamers, saints and rapscallions -- to our streets paved with gold? We embrace Cuban baseball players and Italian tenors and Indian novelists-on-the-run so warmly yet offer France's emperor of haute cuisine the cold shoulder and a poke in the eye with his own fourchette.

       Buoyed by . . . what is it now? . . . eight Michelin stars that carry him like wings from one restaurant debut to another, Ducasse didn't mean to sound arrogant when he agreed to create the thrill of three-star dining in the freshly gussied-up cocoon that was once Les Célébrités in the Art Deco nostalgia of the Essex House. There would be only one sitting per night and a server for every customer. Veterans of the chef's growing army would drill local recruits in the Ducassian gospel: perfect products, precise cooking, proper service, and, after dessert, lollipops and at least three different flavors of caramels. (He is the Baskin-Robbins of caramels.) He never mentioned price. But rumors ricocheted. It hit the Daily News: dinner for two, $500. Type as big as V-J Day or Martians hovering over Times Square.

         Well, we have always had this little problem with the French. Remember that first trip to Paris? How they made us feel like boobs. So no surprise: On opening day, the alligators slithered into Ducasse's gaudy rose-gold-black brocade banquettes. The porcupines tensed their quills as they nibbled the $160 prix fixe.

         Opening week, a seasoned advance team is still wading through 2,700 reservation requests. With his usual just-descended- from-Mt. Sinai portentousness, Ducasse announces, "There will be no special treatment for the press. Only for les clients of Alain Ducasse/Paris and Louis XV in Monte Carlo." There are 1,750 in New York, he claims. "If they come only once a year, that's 600 tables." Aha, I am one of them. True, I had been conflicted about floating a second mortgage to finance my first dinner at the outrageously rococo-on-rococo Louis XV, $250 for two in 1988. But I loved the Marie Antoinette insouciance of his Provençal ditties and Italian borrowings in all that pomp. Loved the pigs' feet and leeks, the Pecorino ravioli in his coconut soup, the herb-flecked risotto with frogs' legs; loved the spit-roasted lamb served with a ragout of its innards.

         I'd also paid my respects when Ducasse moved into the gloriously overwrought maisonette at the Hotel Le Parc vacated by the shocking retirement at 51 of Joel Robuchon. "Half-baked," I wrote of those five meals at Alain Ducasse/Paris in 1996. As for the jet-setting on his wearying eight-hour biweekly commute between Paris and Monaco, I wrote, "We've gone from Robuchon to Robo-Chef." Even so, you might say I am a loyal client. I get my table on the second night.

        I see a faint light at the end of this tunnel. I sense the kitchen finding its edge. I'm eager to return.

         We are tucked into our grand, circular VIP booth -- there are only four, back to back -- under a gold-leafed dome that broadcasts whispers from faraway tables. Instead of prudently hanging one's handbag on one's knee or nesting the precious Judith Leiber on one's lap as a reasonably paranoid New Yorker must, women are urged to recklessly leave their purses on a low upholstered stool, as we did without fear in Monaco. I ask for ice water, New York water, tap water. Eyes fly wide. This may be a first. But without a sneer, water is poured from a silver pitcher. (I've saved $20 or $30 already.)

         The attempt to evoke Louis XV luxe (and justify Louis XV prices) feels a bit claustrophobic in such close quarters. A clash of colors and cushions, with a riotous mosaic of trumpets and saxophones by the clearly music-loathing sculptor Arman. So many captains and waiters and majors. So many cadets, ramrod-stiff, toting long rectangles of silver on one shoulder. So many classic uniforms. Yet the staff is surprisingly loose and engaging, not at all forbidding. And hooray, no one once utters the word "Enjoy." Voluptuous bouquets of roses stand at the entrance and above our heads, a few already wilting, but none on the table. And the plates created just for New York are somber stoneware. For a moment I read ADNY etched on the knife as anno Domini. With an exaggerated flourish, two small cone-covered dishes are placed on the table. The cones, cup size A from a fifties Maidenform bra, are set at an angle so the waiter can identify the butters. "This is sweet," he says, pointing. "And this is salt." Getting it backwards. And the butter is so warm, we send it back.

         A cadet halts at our table, swivels, presents arms. The waiter removes the single dish from the long silver tray. "The chef sends you an amuse-bouche to tease your taste." We stare at a plate of small brown wafers. "Rye tuiles to set the theme. Sweet, salt, citric, and bitter -- sun-dried tomato, Parmesan, lemon zest, and cracked pepper." I taste. I let one melt in my mouth. I taste another just to be sure. It's not even a big nothing. It's a small embarrassing nothing. "Maybe it's supposed to be the host," suggests one of my guests. "The body of our Lord Ducasse."

         No serious critic would judge a kitchen's cooking the second night. But even we, four obsessed foodniks confounded by Michelin's obeisance to Ducasse, are shocked. Chicken wings and frogs' legs "in green and white," a joke. Santa Barbara prawns muffled in thick mucilage on muddy citrus purée. The simperingly bland salmon and overcooked halibut. Our Stepford servers are so relentlessly programmed, they tremble in fear of the master's wrath because my mate, the Road Food Warrior, won't let them slice his steak. Pièce de boeuf de l'Arizona grillée is hardly the feisty prime we take for granted. You're talking New York, buster. Don't try to fool a steak man.

         Still, a luscious scallop with a topknot of Iranian caviar in a pool of slightly bitter greens impresses. A teacup of haunting sea-urchin royale is jealously shared. I'm enchanted by a wondrously melting globe of sweetbreads. The sommelier's chivalrous selection of a delicious $82 Concha y Toro Cabernet from Chile (as the red-wax-sealed wine card lists it). The caramels. "Take more," says the waiter. "We have to eat everything you leave." We chuckle over the choice of twenty pens presented on leather to sign the check. "Choose your weapons," the waiter cries. I total it $860 for four with my sleek Cartier ballpoint, a respectable discount on the rumored $1,000. Each couple is given a farewell goody bag with a yeasty almond-crusted brioche Riviera wrapped in tissue, perfect for breakfast. Two meals for the price of one.

         I never believed Ducasse would really come to New York. Not even Robo-Chef could juggle three ambitious houses so far apart. He was already spending half his time aloft on the tedious commute between Monaco and Paris, with an occasional helicopter spin to check out his inn at Moustiers. And several critics blasted him for his chutzpa (French for audacity). He is more fax machine than poet, wrote one.

         But the starched and stuffy Michelin gave Ducasse his double three-star epaulets anyway. One year later, at the age of 41, Ducasse crowed, "Michelin has accepted that it's possible for a chef to do something besides get fat behind his stove." No wonder he thinks he is the chosen one. Critics all over the world now hail his celebration of a lettuce leaf as the mark of a second coming (or first if that's your position). "We are like a machine," Ducasse likes to boast. The machine is ambidextrous. Between authoring (more or less) a parade of cookbooks, Ducasse opened a surf-and-turf joint called Bar & Boeuf in Monte Carlo, and three months later it had Michelin's "macaroon." As the consultant at Il Cortile, an Italian spot in Paris, he can claim yet another star.

He startled Parisians with macaroni and cheese, chicken wings, and bubble-gum ice cream at Spoon Food & Wine, then exported it to the Seychelles and to Ian Schrager's Sanderson Hotel in London, where it quickly became a canteen for the usual boldface names. Bergdorf and Le Printemps peddle his Objets: Saveurs kitchen equipment and tableware. Even eskimos in wired igloos can explore the world of Ducasse on his Website. Restaurant critic Gilles Pudlowski, looking at what makes Alain run in Le Point, calls him Ducasse le boulimique -- "perpetually unsatisfied." Having survived the plane crash that killed four companions in 1984, "he fights himself, trying to astound the world."

         Now he cannot sit still. Mr. Spoons wiggles and twitches and muses. We are having breakfast at Petrossian. Wonderful croissants. He might do a Spoon in Dubai. "Fabulous city, have you been?" He loves the Basque country. He is thinking of what to do next in New York. Maybe an inn. "I love the Inn at Little Washington, Virginia." Alain Ducasse/Paris, transplanted to the Plaza Athénée, reopens in September. A new restaurant, 59 Avenue Raymond Poincaré, devoted to fruits, vegetables, lobster, and beef, takes its place at Le Parc. "You are the first to know," he confides, as if he were giving me an emerald. (And he's already dispatched an aide to buy one of those painted cows on our sidewalks to graze outside the door of the new gambit.)

         "You are the talk of New York, Alain," I begin. He grins. He is almost adorable when he smiles, actually sexy. "Everyone wants to know who is my cabinet de P.R. Who does my publicité? I do not have a cabinet de P.R. I am only a petit artisan. Petit petit petit." He lowers his hand toward the carpet, thumb and index finger less than half an inch apart. "I am a petit artisan in a petit restaurant in a giant city." He sits there, his leg bouncing a little, picking his nails, which seem to be bitten. "Have you read my books? Well, I will send them this afternoon. If you read the books, you will know the real me."

         On Tuesday, July 10, I call to book a table anonymously for lunch the next day. Very humble. The reservationist studies her schedule, murmuring, "Ah . . . mmm . . ." Infinitely polite, she sounds amazed but pleased to find a table for two tomorrow at noon. Though we've been warned the room is booked for eight and a half months, there can be empty tables, especially at lunch. No-shows. (From now on, the house will charge a $150 deposit on your credit card when you reserve.)

         I arrive in time to catch a uniformed courier delivering baby carrots. The bronze whimsies of Parisian sculptor Folon have arrived, too. In the entrance, an urban man in a fedora, split down the middle. I chew on that symbolism till we're at table, with our own Folon mini -- a man with the Empire State Building for his head. Suddenly a figure in white leaps into the room. It looks like Jim Carrey. But no, it's Ducasse, advertising his presence, greeting an Asian couple in French. Is this the Ducasse who never goes into the dining room? He swivels and smiles. Aha. Fooled you, didn't I? Kisses my left air. Kisses the right. "Is it really you?" I ask. "Or is it your evil twin brother?" He smiles. He understands some English, but not everything.

        Ducasse swoops into the dining room once or twice a night -- Escoffier only knows where he goes in between.

         Then he's gone, like a brief apparition. And in his place are those nebulous rye tuiles again, offered like rare collectibles. But the bread seems fresher, and once again the young Belgian sommelier knows his lines, quickly offering a glass of the inexpensive Cabernet I liked last time when I reject his $30 glass of Pinot Noir as "too expensive." A drop spills. The waiter rushes over with a linen napkin to hide the scandal. And then another chef's amuse-gueule. Small and delicate bites of lobster en gelée with intense lemon cream, salted with more of that fabulous caviar, and for the first time I'm seeing stars, maybe even rainbows.

Granted, butterfly pasta with bits of ham and Parmesan is a yawn, and the pathetic roulade of sole reminds me of childhood at Longchamps. By mistake, the waiter brings Santa Barbara prawns -- a chance to note that they're remarkably livelier this time. Now I am asked to choose a knife for my squab from the dozen or more arrayed in a leather case. I feel like an idiot . . . if there's a best knife for squab, surely Ducasse should choose it.

         "Give me a nice feminine knife, please," I say. There's no time to brood. Two perfect ovals of exquisitely rare squab arrive and I'm soaring again. I ask for a reprise of the tart and citric apricot compote topped with melting bitter-almond ice cream I fell for at that first shaky dinner. Dismissing my guest's pedestrian soufflé, I go for its partner, a refreshingly tangy tropical fruit on custard spiked with a faintly bitter splash of coco-Malibu liqueur. Then from the rolling goody cart: cherry claufouti, nougat, and too many caramels. Now I see a faint light at the end of this tunnel. I sense the kitchen finding its edge. I'm eager to return.

         New York has gone berserk. By week three, we are consumed with rage against this monomaniacal intruder who thinks we will line up to pay $1,000 or more for a clever riff on the tomato that is not as thrilling as Jean-Georges's or Daniel Boulud's at half the price. We sneer at his $50 foie gras in a pepper bouillon and the $74 fillet of striped bass and suddenly find Alfred Portale's supernal roasted lamb chops a bargain at $36. Nonetheless, we join the line, scheming for a table. Could our grasping, aggressively insecure burg have given hotter press to Elvis if he'd been discovered dishing up fried eggs at the Essex? W predicted a feeding frenzy in June, surely feeding it. Ducasse was charm personified in Charlie Rose's hands. Then the Times critic chimed in with a "sneak preview" he said was not a review but read like a personal ad seeking someone with a reservation at Ducasse to invite him along. I guess that's a welcome of sorts to our town. What's so unthinkable about a $500 dinner? the chef wanted to know. Great products cost money. "When you go to see the Knicks to sit on the floor, it's very expensive, $500," he told the Times. "C'est fou, c'est extraordinaire, but it's a wonderful moment."

         And in fact, the kitchen at the Essex House is demanding products that no one else in New York asks for, says his devoted supplier, Ariane Daguin of D'Artagnan. "Alain wants the foie gras wrapped in parchment, delivered on ice, not vacuum-packed. The most expensive squabs, strangled. Organic chickens air-chilled with the feet on. I had to get special permission from the FDA. It's costing him double the usual price. They are the most focused, the most demanding."

         My friend Elizabeth calls in triumph. Her connection in Paris has pulled a few strings. We have a table at 8:45 tomorrow. The Road Food Warrior, having sworn never to return, decides to join us. ("I like that crack about the Knicks. Whoever fed him that line was clever.") We've got yet another VIP booth. The four of us feel rich and glamorous already. The crowd tonight is neither hip nor beautiful nor brand-name, but the chat is amusing. "Did you hear So-and-so was charged with killing his wife and children?" we overhear a woman ask. A man responds: "They are getting less and less tolerant about that kind of thing these days." Hoping to shed the absentee-chef charge, Ducasse now swoops into the dining room once or twice a night -- Escoffier only knows where he goes in between. Tonight he's a blur of white moving past my line of vision until he's sure I've noticed. A gift from the kitchen, silvery Iranian caviar piled on a perfect round of potato in buttery potato purée, is instantly disarming.

         There is still much genuflecting over those ditzy rye discs, but we're caught up in the thrill of yet another amuse-bouche, tomato four ways: intense molten slices on creamy salad greens in a pungent tomato vinaigrette, with a saucer of satiny tomato sorbet on green-tomato preserve. Flushed from the sommelier's warm and rounded $32 Malbec from Argentina, we giggle over the possible uses of the odd gynecological-looking implement a waiter has left for Elizabeth. It's an asparagus lifter, we learn, so she need not dirty her fingers eating the crab croquette that comes with the pea soup -- for the first time, transcendent. Dishes I'm tasting for the second or third time are all tuned up a notch. The vegetable lasagna. Long, thin slices of lobster with a kicky ginger-tinged salsa. Exquisitely poached foie gras with apple confit and raw apples slivered razor-thin on a truffle slicer at the table. The thick salmon again, perfectly cooked, firm and expertly seasoned. I'm knocked out by the pow of its spooned-on condiment, caramelized sweet pepper and onion. The halibut is still overcooked, but its haunting sea-urchin custard and a crunch of seaweed salad are fair recompense. Even a breast of chicken, invariably abused and boring, shows mastery at the stove. I can't stop eating the voluptuous macaroni in cream and cheese that comes with the chicken. And the sautéed grenadin of veal with a chunk of steamed veal breast wins over our table's fussiest carnivore.

         We're all quite high now, on both the theater of the absurd and the first intimations of authentic three-star indulgence. We trip through a portion of truffle-doused goat cheese, an exquisite salad of just-born leaves, and desserts (how courageous, no crème brûlée). Then sorbets, chocolates on a silver compote, little macaroons, and the candyman with his rolling treat cart, doling out pear-shaped essence of pear in a gel, pistachio caramels, cookies, and yet more pastry. (Another laugh for the silly fountain-pen shtick.) I'm in a waltz now with Fred Astaire. I'm cuter than Ginger, sexier than Rita, more graceful than Cyd. The only blip is the check: $663.73 before the tip. "What's wrong with us?" cries the Road Food Warrior. "It's not enough. It's embarrassing."

         Do I really want to believe the chef is personally squirting basil-oil polka dots on my plate? Must the chef of an eminent restaurant be in the kitchen every night? On Tuesday, July 25, at 8:25 p.m., I stop by to see Jean-Georges in his big telltale open kitchen. He's at Vong in London. Daniel Boulud is vacationing in Lyons. At Daniel, his chef de cuisine, Alex Lee, is driving a huge crew to feed a full house and 150 in the private-party room. At Le Bernardin, Eric Ripert is vacationing, too. "We try to be sure one of us is always here," says owner Maguy LeCoze. I follow manager Walter Krajnc through the kitchen of Danube into the kitchen of the Bouley Bakery on the trail of David Bouley -- "He was here just a few minutes ago." "I'm looking for Nobu," I tell the woman at the podium. "I was looking for him myself today," she says. "He's in Tokyo." Only Gotham Bar and Grill's Alfred Portale, deeply tanned from Hampton weekends, is in his kitchen. "You caught me cooking," he says. "We're working on new dishes for the summer menu. I work behind the line every night I'm here, four nights a week, five days."

         Next day the all-stars check in. "I am 95 percent of the time in the kitchen, 300 days of the year," Boulud tells me. "I'm only gone two weeks. I have to follow my daughter's school schedule. I trust my staff very much." From London, Jean-Georges Vongerichten assures me he is in his kitchen every night when he is in New York. "If you want your meal to be 100 percent Jean-Georges, I could only have six seats and do everything myself."

         Bouley calls. "I was away cooking a dinner someone won at a benefit," he tells me. "But normally I'm like a tennis ball between the two kitchens. It's only 37 steps. I spend 80 percent of my time doing spontaneous tasting dinners for regulars during the service, actually cooking." Eric Ripert on the line. "I'm never away more than two weeks at a time. I don't cook during service, anyway. I expedite. I don't see how you can control both the kitchen and the dining room if you're cooking."

         "I have a very modern way of thinking," Ducasse likes to say. "The chef is there to lead the team and not just to sit behind the piano." So let's give him his frenetic wandering. After all, AD/NY is closed weekends, ideal for dashing off to open his latest Spoon in Tokyo. Maybe we are grown-up enough, we fussy New York eaters, that we don't need either Ducasse or Jim Carrey jetéing through the dining room. I have eaten two lunches and three dinners at Alain Ducasse/New York, and his presence doesn't seem to matter. Remembering the euphoria of that one dinner, I recall my mate observing: "I get what it's about now. An evening of indulgence. Where you won't mind paying $500 because you're not coming if you can't afford it." Many New Yorkers may be less demanding, but for me the food must be seriously good.

         And it isn't. In that last lunch, even the holy tuiles are a mess, with bits of melted Parmesan flying. Without whatever gave the tomato cocktail its sublime aura a few nights earlier, it is fussy, a foolish stretch that may remind you that the tomato is a fruit, but it lacks even a slice of fresh tomato. Prawns à la royale is simpering baby food. The special raw scallops have a crude taste unmitigated even by caviar. And now the $66 breast of chicken tastes no better than any other delivered minus its feet. This $76 veal chop is not as good as many I can name in New York, certainly not twice as good. The chocolate, "hot and strong in taste, iced with coffee crystals," is not the swamp it was on first tasting, but it's lost the ice, and the caramelized brioche cubes are a reach. At dinner that same night, the spaghettini is actually less sodden but still much ado about nothing. The frog's legs have no redeeming social value. The gossamer sweetbreads would be so much better discovered inside a crunch of crust.

         I'm not really amused being forced to choose my knife or my pen just so the house can show off how many it's assembled. I'm annoyed. It's an intrusion and it's vulgar. Were Ducasse to try that gimmick in Paris, I think they'd roll him through town to the guillotine. It doesn't really matter much if I say the $500 dinner for two is obscene when our neighbors don't get enough to eat. I think $500 Knick tickets are obscene, too (by the way, Alain, they're $1,500 on the floor), not to mention $1,200 handbags (I bought mine at a sample sale and feel wanton enough). So on questions of what's worth what, maybe I can't be trusted. In certain circles now, nothing succeeds like excess.

         But the kitchen desperately needs to be brilliant, and soon. These recipes he claims to create in his head . . . they are too intellectual, too contrived. Narcissus is in love with his own gimmicks. The food has no emotion. If the emperor is naked, we will drape him in a tablecloth to give him time to get his ermine back from the Laundromat. Open to anything? Yes, we are. But in the end, we're not so easily fooled.

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