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Montrachet - No Longer Off The Beaten Path

 Photo by Steven Freeman
 Photo by Steven Freeman

Our first time at Montrachet was more than twenty years ago on a perfect summer evening, rare for New York. The restaurant had opened only four months before, and the surrounding area was a rundown waterfront neighborhood of warehouses and small industrial plants which bore not the least resemblance to Paris. Yet, after many a wrong turn, when we finally found West Broadway and Montrachet, it seemed as if we had landed on the Left Bank and were about to enter a familiar and well-loved local place.

There was a clouded window beside a beat-up wooden door that opened to face a coat rack. To the right were a row of banquettes and a mahogany bar; above was an old plaster ceiling. It was a weekday night, but the place was full. We sensed a Bohemian patina, a welcoming ambience, and as things turned out, enjoyed the best French meal we’d ever had outside of France.

Montrachet's new chef: Richard Farnabe - click to enlarge
Montrachet's new chef: Richard Farnabe
Photo Credit: Steven Freeman

Since then, there have been many, many times at Montrachet for marker moments and for no special reason at all. Our son proposed to the woman who became his wife over a bottle of Montrachet – at Montrachet. We’ve been there through a series of distinguished chefs from David Bouley to Deborah Ponzak to Harold Moore to Chris Gesualdi. We learned a lot about wines, particularly Burgundies, from the incomparable Bernie Sun. We’ve seen the abstract art and the wine bottles go up on the walls. And through it all, the feeling of being in Paris has never waned.
A few months ago, this time on a typically perfect autumn-in-New York evening, we returned to Montrachet to discover the Paris connection had been enhanced by a the presence of a new executive chef. Richard Farnabe is young, handsome, intense, and a native Parisian. As a kid, he would do the produce shopping for his family at local markets.  

Photo by Steven Freeman

He studied at the Ecole Hôtelière and was subsequently mentored by the legendary Jacques Maximin at the Hotel Negresco in Nice. Although he excelled, Farnabe feared racial prejudice would limit his opportunities in France (he is black), and so in the mid 1990’s, he moved to New York where he found greater freedom and more chefs who, like him, are under 40. He worked with  Daniel Boulud and then Jean Georges Vongerichten.  Last July, when Chris Gesualdi left to teach at the  Institute of Culinary Education,  Drew Nieporent lured him to Montrachet.

It seems a perfect fit. The young French chef is grounded in the know-how of his native cuisine, yet has had enough exposure to American style and taste to be able to create an appealing blend. This much was apparent in a revised menu which included some new offerings, new takes on old favorites, and seasonal specialties. A selection of game from Scotland was available this evening: hare and pheasant both cooked in red wine, the former stuffed with raisins, pistachios and foie gras, the later with foie gras and accompanied by braised cabbage. There was also a tasting menu where each of six courses made use of white truffles that had just come in. But our party focused on the regular menu and such dishes as the creamy risotto with cauliflower and broccoli, a pair of grilled oysters on either side of a dollop of caviar on a bed of tapioca, the smoked lobster with fall vegetables and black truffles, and the seared halibut with chestnuts and porcini mushrooms.

Roast chicken has been a Montrachet staple since the beginning and the favorite of one in our group. It has been replaced with a delectable roast poussin (a small pigeon-like bird) that came with braised endive and juniper berries and was perfectly matched with the exquisite dry white Burgundy (J.M. Boillet, 1998) for which the restaurant is named. “If there's any place on the planet to try Burgundy, this would be it,” Bernie Sun used to say. “We have 600 on our list.”

 Photo by Harvey Frommer - click to enlarge
 Photo by Harvey Frommer
 Photo by Harvey Frommer - click to enlarge
 Photo by Harvey Frommer
Photo by Harvey Frommer - click to enlarge
Photo by Harvey Frommer

Although Bernie is no longer at Montrachet, the wine culture he helped create is thriving. Troy Kinser has taken over as Wine Director, and a pair of young, dynamic, and informed sommeliers, Peter Lockhart and Elizabeth Harcourt, guided us in our choice of the Montrachet and another excellent Burgundy, an aromatic Pinot Noir, Chambolle Musigny (Christophe Roumier 1999).

They are enthusiastic about being affiliated with a restaurant whose 20-year tradition of collecting and serving fine wines is widely recognized by such as Wine Spectator who gave it their highest award, declaring, "Montrachet offers more than a great list; it delivers the best wine experience in New York."
“We have 9,000 wine selections and a 12,000 bottle wine cellar,” says Tracy Nieporent, who is involved with Montrachet along with the restaurant’s owner, his brother Drew. Tracy is director of marketing for the Myriad Group of which Montrachet is a part as well as Restaurant Chairman of NYC & Co. 

Photo by Alan "Battman" Batt - click to enlarge
Photo by Alan "Battman" Batt

"We bring in famous winemakers from all over the world who don't come to this country very often for special wine dinners. They'll explain, say, twelve different kinds of wine. I'm personally more insane about baseball than wine, but people who are passionate when it comes to wine really enjoy these tastings.

“Our philosophy is to seek out the finest wines from the best producers, unswayed by fashion or trend,” he went on. “We look for wines that are natural, not handled or manipulated excessively, and expressive of their "terroir." Value is our primary concern, especially with today's escalating prices. Value means maximum flavor per dollar. An expensive wine should be worth its price tag.”

 The Brothers Nieporent: Drew (top) and Tracy - click to enlarge
 The Brothers Nieporent: Drew (top) and Tracy

Looking back over the past twenty years, Tracy acknowledges it has been quite a ride. Drew Nieporent began with an idea: a modern, sophisticated and, at the same time, informal, non-pretentious and non-intimidating French restaurant –unheard of at the time. He made it happen with style and quality in a part of town where nothing much was happening. A couple of decades later, the brothers are the establishment, the neighborhood is one of New York’s hottest, and Montrachet spurred the creation and is now part of the Myriad Group which includes other notable Tribeca eateries, among them Tribeca Grill and Nobu.           

“Tribeca was so far off the path, everyone got lost. But now it’s the path. We have to constantly look at the marketplace and see where we fit in it,” Tracy told us. “That’s why we participate in Restaurant Week and BYOB (bring your own bottle) on Monday nights which is copied now all over town.

“To stay fresh and vital, you have to make changes. You have to retool, like a sports franchise. But when you make changes, you have to be certain you maintain the quality and integrity of the restaurant.”

He tells us a story that illustrates what he means. “In 2003, Bruce Springsteen finished his tour with a concert at Shea Stadium, and he came here together with the E Street Band and all their PR people. As a rule, we don’t seat anyone after 10:30 or so, but this was an exception. They arrived at 1 a.m. and didn’t leave until 5. They sat on the banquettes with their arms around each other, and Bruce said to his band, ‘You know we’ve been on the road for two years. We’ve been all over the world. We’ve made a lot of people happy. And that’s good.’   

“I can’t tell you how great it was to be a fly on the wall, to witness the camaraderie, the respect they showed one another. It showed me that when these people perform, they have a lot of integrity in what they do.

“I like to think we have that kind of integrity.”

239 West Broadway
New York, NY 10013

Phone: 212-219-2777

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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