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Dec 24, 2006 04:22 PM

disappointed with Alain Ducasse, but many NYC gems

I take an annual fall trip to NYC because it is the greatest city in the world, with fine food. I always want to try every Michelin 3 star in cities I visit, so this year went to Alain Ducasse for the first time. What a disappointment. My entre of New Zealand Bass with vegetables was very bland, and my appetizer of foie gras and tapioca ravioli with celery broth wasn't much better. My dessert was nothing special either. The bread, the cheese and the madelines after dessert were all good, but at a Michelin 3 star it is a shock to not find any inspiration in appetizer, entre or dessert. The first sign of trouble came during the ordering process, when our server brought a large truffle for us to smell in the hopes of luring us into ordering the $320 truffle tasting menu. That made it feel like just fancy a clip joint. I wonder how they got 3 stars?

This year I also tried Jean Georges for the first time, and it was a real treat. I ordered five dishes plus dessert and they were all delicious and interesting. For example, an earthy soup of mushrooms and root vegetables, contrasted by a maple foam. It was fun to try to guess the chef's intention with each dish, sort of like being a judge on Iron Chef. The servers were friendly and helpful in understanding the thought behind the food.

I went back to Le Bernardin a couple times and it was great as usual. Delicious food and very friendly people. Tried Per Se last year and it was great, but not worth the hassle of getting reservations when there are other equally good places that are easier to get into (I have heard folks say the same about the French Laundry).

Before this trip the best US restaurant in my experience was Joël Robuchon at the Mansion, in Las Vegas, so I was anxious to try the new L'Atelier Joël Robuchon in NYC. The food is just wonderful, and the counter seating is great. I ate there 4 times in 2 weeks, and had interesting conversations with other diners each time. Everyone who eats there is like a Chowhound. One lady sitting next to me wanted to eat lightly so shared part of each of her dishes with me - she and her husband are from Kentucky and also own an apartment in Manhattan. There was a recent thread about the best steakhouse in NYC, and I would say that the best steak I've had in the city is the Kobe rib eye at Joël Robuchon with their truffle mash potatoes. They even have a great seasonal vegetable salad you can eat as a starter and great desserts, to create a reasonable steakhouse experience.

Of course, NYC has great food beyond the Michelin 3 stars. I always go to Katz's for pastrami, ordered "juicy", and to Barney Greengrass for smoked fish. I also love Suzu Sushi on 1st Avenue near 58th. Went to Grimaldi's in Brooklyn for pizza and they do have great crust. However, I prefer the pizzas I make at home (sacrilege?) but their crust is better. Waiting for the loo is a chance to watch them putting pies into and out of their very hot coal oven. Nice walk across the Brooklyn Bridge on the way there and back, too. The morning beignets on the lower level of Grand Central are nice.

Last year I tried Peter Lugar's Steakhouse in Brooklyn. The steakhouse experience was great, but I'm sorry to say the meat itself was nothing special. Sliced and sitting in a pool of melted butter is not a substitute for good marbling.

My wife is generally not interested in NYC, although I have lured her there several times for Atlantic crossings via the QE2. In Sept 2000 we went to the Windows on the World, rest in peace, where the food and the view were just wonderful. Her brother said it was the best restaurant he'd eaten in. I'd say the old Lucas Carton in Paris was the best I'd eaten in, although the best meals I've had have been in private homes. Not that my friends are better cooks than the great chefs, but it's hard for a restaurant to match the personal attention paid to home meals.

I'm always happy to hear about good places to eat in NYC.

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  1. Thank you for this long, informative post. I've never eaten at Ducasse but you must know it has a stormy history. Before it opened anticipation was so high that a reservation there was the hottest ticket in town, more in demand than a racy video of a movie star on Youtube. Unfortunately, Ducasse lived in New York in the 1960's, when top restaurants served canned vegetables, and he didn't realize things had changed. He thought he'd wow diners with elaborate presentation, and the food was an afterthought. So the restaurant was panned. He then put a lot of work into it, and finally earned the top Times and Michelin rating. Then it went way downhill and lost the Times stars. It moved from its old location and for that reason is currently unrated by Michelin.

    1. Thanks for the report. A lot of folks here feel that the Michelin guide doesn't necessarily identify the best in NYC. You may want to try some places in between the elegance of Ducasse and the informality of Katz and Grimaldi's. Many people feel that Lupa and Babbo are among the very best in NYC although they are Italian and do not have 3 Michelin stars. Other great options that come to mind are Eleven Madison Park and Cru. For the amount one spends at Per Se or Ducasse, you can really go crazy at these places and have an incredible meal. I haven't been to all the places you mentioned (can't get motivated to try for Per Se) but the meals I've had a Cru, Babbo, Perry Street, and Lupa have been among the best meals of my life.

      Thanks again for your feedback! Have a great holiday!


      1. Thank you for a terrific post! While I don't agree with all of the opinions posted (I found Cru to be unmemorable; the steaks at Lugers are miles ahead of any other on both of my visits there; and Per Se is WELL worth the effort), it's always great to get another perspective.

        I've yet to try Joel Robuchon, but your easy entry at the bar and great description puts it on my list.

        If you're looking for an off-the-beaten-path place with terrific food, I would recommend a Jack Lamb restaurant - either Jack's Luxury Oyster Bar (I haven't been to the new location, but it's getting great reviews, and the old location was terrific!) or, better yet, go to Degustation. It seems to sit underneath the radar but in the words of a foodie friend I took there: "That was one of the best meals I've had in New York in years!"

        Keep trying around and posting! Have a wonderful holiday.

        1. I went to Alain Ducasse about a year after it first opened and had a similar experience. The food was bland but the cheese course was amazing. I never went back and was starting to wonder if I should. Thanks for letting me know that nothing had changed significantly.

          The next time you are in New York you should try Per Se. Every dish was excellant and some were truly outstanding.

          1. I've always found Ducasse to be hit or miss. Never had what I consider a GREAT meal in any of his restaurants... but have had some good/excellent ones and even at that I find reason to go from time to time... weather in NY or mostly Paris. Funny you mention the truffle... cause that actually is one thing I look for at Ducasse... esp. white. His truffle tastings are excellent. He sources only the finest truffles for his restaurants... always great. As you probably know they only have a few days left in NYC and then they will be closing. Im sure that fact didn't add to your experience... as the fire must be gone from their bellies. The new spot for Ducasse will be the St. Regis... but will not be haut cuisine, so many of the staff will be leaving.

            Enjoyed your comments on other places and generally agree. I haven't been to Robuchon yet but friends also say its excellent. I did poke my head in a few weeks ago and do think the room suffers a bit... as they inherited the space from the existing Four Seasons restaurant.

            The best meal Ive had in the past few years in NY was the meal I had at Per Se about a year ago.