Alain Ducasse at the Essex House?
Has anyone up there tried this place yet? (Mr. Ducasse is the owner and operator of two three-starred restaurants in France.) The current issue of Fortune magazine (8/14/00, page 322) contains a scathing review. Dinner for four: $1,559.62!
I had dinner at Alain Ducasse last week. Contrary to the scathing press (see Fortune and NY Post reviews, etc.), it was a truly remarkable experience. The tasting menu was uniformly great (in fact, mostly spectacular), as was the service (friendly, not obsequious). I did not find the place to be overly pretentious; it's a formal, but comfortable, experience (and this was the uniform verdict of all 4 people in my party, all of whom are in their early/mid-30's). Contrary to the Grimes article in the Times, the sommelier did not force us to order outrageously expensive wines (in fact, his recommendations were, without me begging for mercy, right on and on the "moderate" side of their wine list).
The only fault I would point out is the art (which is hideous). And, of course, the obscenely expensive prices (dinner for 4 was $1500 [including tax and tip]). Other than these issues (and, I readily admit, the price is a major issue), I would heartily recommend it for a special occasion. However, given the reactions of others, it would appear that people's experiences have been wildly uneven.
By the way, about the difficulty of getting a reservation, I called on July 5 (name not on the waiting list) and was able to get a reservation for 4 people at 7:45 pm on Friday, July 21 (after I declined Monday, July 24 because I had plans). So, it appears that the restaurant is being less than honest about demand.
I have to say I was shocked at how vicious the FORTUNE piece was. Having co-authored a book addressing restaurant criticism and having heard earfuls from chefs and restaurateurs about harsh reviews, the FORTUNE piece was surely one of the most damning reviews I've ever seen of any restaurant anywhere (e.g., and I kid you not, "Dante, have we got news for you: There's now a new circle of hell. At Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, you'll see grownups spitting food into napkins, you'll bite into bread so burned you'd think Freddy Krueger were running the kitchen...The restaurant is so bad -- the artwork looks like an elephant has thrown up tubas....")
Ouch!! (Perhaps FORTUNE assumes that all of Ducasse's Michelin stars provide his new restaurant with Teflon coating?)
Although I haven't been to Ducasse yet, a few things occur to me.
First, is it really fair to review a restaurant that's only two seconds old, as the Post and Fortune have done? (Though I haven't seen the Fortune review yet...) There's no question that it takes some time for an establishment to iron things out, both in the kitchen and in the front of the house.
By the same token, I'm not even sure how I feel about a critical piece that purports not to be a review, as Grimes gave us in the Times. How is a review different than a critique? Is a review only a review if it announces "okay, this is a review"? A reviewer writes a critique, but we're not supposed to see it as a review? Does that mean we're not meant to take the criticisms seriously? On the one hand, if the writer doesn't feel he or she has enough material/experience with the material to be fair, is it appropriate or responsible to publish a critical piece? On the other hand, I'm certainly interested in reading someone's first impressions. (Can you tell I'm struggling with this?) I know this gets into some sticky territory, particularly on this site, with "What Jim had for dinner." And as I say, I'm not really sure how I feel about it, since I certainly enjoy reading these types of pieces. I think I just find the idea of review/not review kind of artificial. How does anyone else feel about this? Maybe someone can help me clarify my thinking...
Second, getting back to Ducasse itself, I'd like to play devil's advocate and offer some perspective on the expense. The prices seem to be completely in line with three star restaurants in Paris, where, by the way, diners' average salaries are much lower than in New York. True, this is not a three star in New York; it's a no-star. But it is a three star chef attempting to do three star food. And it is limited to one seating, which by definition drives the price way up--you could even say it doubles it, if a restaurant is fully booked. If it's not worth it to many people to pay such a premium to keep a table all evening, that's another thing.
This is a free market, and a bull one at that. There's tons of money in New York waiting to be spent on food, so Ducasse will no doubt have customers. If he doesn't eventually deliver a transcendent experience, I doubt the venture will succeed. Personally, I'm more incensed at the hundreds of mediocre and/or pretetentious restaurants that are charging $35 for an uninspired or ill-conceived entree with a side order of unprofessional service. And don't get me started about wine mark-up in most restaurants. Maybe I'll be outraged at Ducasse's prices too if I ever have a chance to eat there and I happen to be very disappointed. Or if it causes every other restaurateur to raise their prices. But until then....
Finally, and this will probably seem to contradict everything I just wrote--I'm sorry for the pioneer diners who may be suffering as they test the waters in a place that's so costly. I'm sorry for them AND I thank them--someone's got to do it! And I'm glad to hear that some diners have had very good experiences there.
re: Leslie Brenner
> First, is it really fair to review a restaurant that's only two
> seconds old
Obviously it's completely unfair, but you must feed the readers something, otherwise the competition will.
> By the same token, I'm not even sure how I feel about a critical piece
> that purports not to be a review, as Grimes gave us in the Times. How
>is a review different than a critique?
I think the answer to that is that a critique describes a single dining experience and therefore should be taken as less statistically significant than a review.
> particularly on this site, with "What Jim had for dinner." And as I
> say, I'm not really sure how I feel about it, since I certainly enjoy
> reading these types of pieces.
When I read this kind of review I treat it as I would treat a message posted in the forum and not as a newspaper article. I think that most of us develop this "clique" of people whose restaurant opinions we trust (and sometimes an "anti-clique" of people who have a taste opposite our own) - in this site's case, Jim is one of those people. It is most definitely a problem when someone who is supposed to be the restaurant review zeus publishes a piece saying it's not really a review and it might have been better for such an article to be published (and even written) by someone else.
> Second, getting back to Ducasse itself, I'd like to play devil's
> advocate and offer some perspective on the expense. The prices seem to
> be completely in line with three star restaurants in Paris, where, by
> the way, diners' average salaries are much lower than in New York.
The prices reported are slightly above average, I'm also not quite sure about the diner's average salary, but I trust you have the statistics on that. The question is whether the quality of the food is also around the three star average (as hard as that is to define).
> Personally, I'm more incensed at the hundreds of mediocre and/or
> pretetentious restaurants that are charging $35 for an uninspired or
> ill-conceived entree with a side order of unprofessional service. And
> don't get me started about wine mark-up in most restaurants.
I could not agree more - and if Ducasse keeps with French tradition, the longer the restaurant exists, the effects of having a cave will become more noticable (I actually had quite a few bottles in Parisian restaurants that were priced way lower than the current auction prices).
>The prices reported are slightly above average
I happen to have a menu from Arpège, where first courses are $34.28-$60, and main courses are $51.42-$85.71 (I used an exhange rate of 7F=$1.) I haven't seen Ducasse's menu, but Grimes says the most expensive first course is $50 and the most expensive main course is $74. Although in France service is included, we seem to be in the same ballpark here, especially since the exhange rate is particularly favorable for Americans at the moment...
re: Leslie Brenner
At the risk of stressing the point, I happen to have some checks from Arpege :-) None of which exceeds 3500FF/couple (including the two most expensive first courses, 1 split lobster course, 2 meat courses, 1 cheese course, 1 dessert, 2 aperitifs, an 800FF bottle of wine, tea, coffee, water, etc.). I imagine that a similar menu would cost (including tax and tip) about 40% more at ADNY. Then again, a more important question is probably
Prix fixe is, what, $140? And let's say you get three perfectly serviceable bottles for $60/each. With tax and tip, that should come to about $960 (less with cheaper &/or less wine)...I'm sure the "perfect wine" with each course, and a post-grub $40 cognac, is delightful & all, but I doubt you're having a significantly lesser experience by resisting the pressure.
We found Mr. Grime's "non-review" of Alain Ducasse at the Essex House to be very much on target. Our own Ducasse experience was, overall, not wonderful.
We ordered two appetizers and a main course each, and found our dishes neither especially flavorsome nor innovative. We have both had better sea bass, for example, and better veal. The spaghettini, which we ordered despite the unfavorable evaluation of a gastronome friend who had tasted it the week before, was of very questionable consistency.
That said, the foie gras was excellent (not seared, but paté-style), and the very generous portion (a never-before-seen quantity!) is enough for two. Our favorite part of the meal, however, was actually the soufflé.
Also on the positive side, the service was both attentive and unobtrusive a rarity, these days.
The young and overly-zealous sommelier, though, recommended an odd bottle of South African wine. The pinotage had a smoky finish which did not compliment many of our dishes.
As for the décor, think somber. Dark mahogany, with black and brass. What were they aiming for, the expensive coffin look?
It was an experience, though, and we don't regret going. Were just not re-booking anytime soon. Like I've said before - if you can afford it, go for the same reason everyone else is going - out of curiosity, and to say we've been there.
As for the price, someone on this board posted that restaurants in Paris/Monte Carlo are much more expensive than in the US. They're not, and nowhere near the range of ADNY.
As for the Fortune review, I have not seen it yet, but have just read excerpts - sounds a bit overly critical, but when Ducasse decided to charge so much, he set himself up to be scrutinized in such a fashion.