Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Alain Ducasse: Simply Sublime

How exactly do you blog about a meal at Alain Ducasse?

It’s me, André… the guy who eats snap skin hot dogs and andouille gumbo. The guy who can get as excited about a carnitas burrito as a rack of lamb. Holy crap, I eat Kraft Mac n’ Cheese.

In the same breath I can say that I have experienced meals at some of the world’s finest restaurants… Chicago’s Charlie Trotter’s, Amsterdam’s Blue Pepper, Istanbul’s Kosebasi, Rome’s Vivendo and Toyko’s Aragawa. I get around.

Well. Last night in New York, I had a culinary experience I had yet to experience in the city. I was the guest of Chef Alain Ducasse at his restaurant in the Essex House… and as you can imagine, it was an experience I won’t soon forget.

First of all, trying to blog about Ducasse is like trying to tell you why I like a painting at MOMA. Me describing the dishes to you would equate to me describing the brush strokes. Alain Ducasse is an experience, as much as it is a dining destination. His dishes are theatre, and the flavors are so simply complex (yes, read that again) that all you can do is buckle in for the evening, and savor every moment.

What exactly did I eat? I”ll tell you.

But first, let’s get a few things out of the way.

This place is crazy expensive. So expensive that if you need to ask, you likely shouldn’t be eating here. The basic menu will run you about $160 a person without a beverage… the good menu over $180, and the seasonal tasting menus about $250. The wines are exquisite, and priced as such. The service is attentive without being overbearing and the atmosphere dripping with elegance. You’ll need a jacket, and I didn’t see a male patron without a tie as well. It’s proudly stuffy, in it’s own pretentious way…. but that feeling leaves about the time the sliver tray of hand made artisan breads find your table.

On this night, I enjoyed the following dishes. Here are my thoughts.

I started with: Peekytoe crabmeat, gazpacho gelée, Heirloom tomato granite.

The crabmeat was formed into a solid slab, topped with thinly sliced tomatoes. The crab, delicious and fresh, was similar to the grade we enjoy in South Louisiana, where much of the nation’s crabmeat is harvested. For those who know crab, the Peekytoe is an interesting story, as this Maine sand crab was known as a throw-away product by lobster fishermen for years, until they changed the name in the late 90’s to Peekytoe… and poof! A new crab was born and is now shipped to the worlds finest chefs. The gelée was lost on me a bit, but the crushed ice granite was nothing short of exceptional, complimenting the sea flavored main dish with earthy, sweet tomato granules. Overall, this dish was sublime and set the table.

Next, I ordered the Maine lobster, steamed haricots verts, sugar snap/English peas, fava beans.

The lobster arrived as a smallish tail, placed on its side in the center of the plate. Small drops of herb infused oils dotted the plate, and framed the palate for the green bean/snap pea mixture placed to accompany the lobster. The lobster meat was buttery delicious, and the entire plate had a common thread of flavor that had been well conceived. It was a winning dish.

The main entrée?....Roasted and glazed milk fed veal, wild mushrooms/asparagus "fricassée".

The veal was thick and flavorful, and surprisingly included a ribbon of fat (for flavor), a detail missing from most restaurant versions of this cut. Again, the simplicity of the ingredients in this dish is what shines. Ducasse is a genius when it comes to allowing his main ingredients to strut their stuff… and he’s not one to cover the pure essence of these flavors with heavy sauces.

Finally desert….. an Apricot/Sicilian pistachio soufflé, marmalade & sorbet.

Hard to out his into words. Well made soufflés are nothing short of spectacular, and this one was no exception. It was served along side of a scoop of apricot sorbet sprinkled with roasted pistachio nuts. This dish may be worth the trip alone.

Final synopsis?

If severely refined French cooking isn’t your thing, you won’t like Alain Ducasse.

These dishes have no reflection on NYC… and actually scream of his other restaurants in Paris and Tokyo (Ducasse is connected to some 30 restaurants). You could certainly close your eyes and beam yourself to a place far, far away.

Remember, this experience isn’t all about food. A night at Alain Ducasse is decadent. From the moment you enter to the second you leave, you are a special guest… and you know it. This evening is about sending your senses into overdrive, and the kitchen skillfully and shamefully renders you senseless as they provide a seemingly endless supply culinary delights.

If you love food and dining, you owe it to yourself to have an evening at Alain Ducasse. You just might need to borrow from your Christmas Fund to pull it off…..