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Alain Ducasse at the Essex House

Recently a well known theater critic told us, "When people ask me what play they should see, I urge them to find a fine restaurant. Restaurants are the theater of our time." Alain Ducasse at the Essex House - Click to Enlarge
Alain Ducasse at the Essex House - Click to Enlarge He made this comment somewhat before the opening of Alain Ducasse at the Essex House and "The Full Monty" on Broadway, but it came to mind after dining at the former and contemplating spending $90 a ticket for the latter. Dinner at Ducasse will set you back more than will an orchestra seat for the big hit of this season. But you will be doubly rewarded.

Think of the Essex House, the 1930’s art deco hotel fronting Central Park South, as the theater and the restaurant that lies behind a pair of richly carved wooden doors at the far end of the lobby as the stage. Cross the footlights and enter the rarefied world of the multi-Michelin-starred restaurateur in this, his first New York appearance.

The scene is three spacious, lushly-furnished dining rooms and a centrally placed state-of- the-art kitchen visible behind a large window. Rosewood paneling and grainy granite pillars form a stately backdrop. Carpeting of gold and white zebra-stripes that call to mind the old El Morocco, silk walls, rose-red upholstered chairs, whimsical cone-shaped ceiling fixtures, and striking works of modern art, among them a great metallic abstraction of musical instruments, add splashes of exuberance and excitement. A narrow greenhouse hugging the length of the window wall is abloom with roses and miniature orchids. Beside each diner’s seat stands a little wooden stool, a thoughtful repository for handbag or briefcase. And then there are the small touches: framed photographs of Parisian and Central Park scenes, strategically placed antiques, a collection of Lalique treasures -- all combining into a vivid and eclectic set.

A cast of fifty five waits in the wings, ready to serve a maximum of sixty five diners, and with only one seating for lunch or dinner, you can easily be lulled into believing the show is being performed for you alone (or so it seemed to us, even though during our visit, every seat at every table was occupied). The acoustics in the high-ceilinged rooms add to the illusion for you hear no one but your dinner partner and the ever attentive attendant who silently appears whenever there is a choice to be made, an order to be taken, a question to be answered, or a particular prop – be it a piece of flatware, a crystal goblet, a creamy linen napkin, a custom-designed dinner plate, or a little gilded pyramid to cover the butter -- to be unobtrusively and accurately placed.

Like members of a repertory company, many of the staff have worked for Ducasse at one or more of his establishments in France and have come along to be part of this New York experience. "I’ve been with Mr. Ducasse for six years," Yammis Stanisiere, the elegant assistant maitre d’ tells us. "Our restaurant manager has been with him for twice as long. The chef de cuisine, the chief sommelier, the pastry chef, others as well come from the Ducasse restaurants in Paris or Monaco. We know what he wants, and we know exactly how to do it."

We had learned of this phenomenon last spring when we stayed at the newly opened Abbaye de la Celle, a small country inn in Provence. The manager and headwaiter had come to this Ducasse property from his restaurant in Paris. Now Yammis Stanisiere tells us the chef from La Bastide de Moustiers, another Ducasse hotel in Provence, has moved on to become the chef at the Abbaye de la Celle. "It is a small world," Stanisiere says. "We all know each other."

But many New Yorkers have joined the Essex House company as well. Our waiter, Daniel Smalls, is a young African American who grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Well trained in the Ducasse manner, he nevertheless injected a note of engaging American informality into the continental ambience. Daniel’s was not the only American touch we encountered that day. There was the pumpkin-filled ravioli, so apropos for October dining in New York, the scallops and lobster brought down from Maine and the striped bass flown up from Florida, the cheddar cheese from Vermont and the goat cheese from New Jersey.

Which brings us to the subject of this elaborately staged production. Even before the menus appeared, irresistible little cheese pastries were laid before us. Our artfully arranged appetizers arrived on plates of white pressed Lalique glass: the aforementioned scallops with golden Osetra caviar from Iran, so delicious not a single tiny grain was ignored, and a dish of warm leeks in a black truffle vinaigrette accompanied by a soft boiled egg – an unexpected and wonderful autumnal combination. After the pumpkin ravioli with white truffles and chestnuts, a delectable surprise treat from the chef, it was time for the entrees: lobster roasted in its shell accompanied by crushed potatoes with black truffles, and lightly seared filet of striped bass served with a delicate pasta dressed in lemon. Both were perfection. We drank an ebullient French champagne and also a splendid sparkling water from the Scottish Highlands and toasted a show destined to enjoy a very long run.

Although nearly sated when the cheese trolley arrived, we had to admire the two-tiered international assortment: stilton from London, gruyere from Switzerland, camembert, brie and goat from France, as well as the Americans offerings served with walnut marmalade and country bread. One of us succumbed to a small sampling while the other, after declining vociferously, could not resist just the tiniest nibble.

Dessert -- the last act – was still before us. We had been asked to place our orders earlier so the chef would have ample time for their preparation. Neither the baba au rum (one selects the rum from a variety of options), nor a clafoutis of rhubarb with vanilla ice cream, whose cold and creamy tartness still lingers in taste-bud memory, disappointed.

One would expect coffee would at last bring the curtain down, but no. There is yet the pastry trolley, miniature chocolates, caramels, indescribably yummy macaroons, even pear-shaped amber-colored lollipops to be dealt with – encore, after encore, after encore.

As we headed backstage to meet the star/producer/director, we were thinking John Barrymore playing the role of Sol Hurok. But Alain Ducasse, dressed in his chef’s whites, standing in a black granite and glass brick kitchen that is futuristic, and at the same time traditional, turns out to be low-keyed, modest in style and demeanor, much younger than we anticipated, and with a kind of impish sense of humor. He points to our micro cassette recorder with a little grin. "FBI?" he asks. He shows us his new book about American foods and chefs. He’s curious to know how we found the Abbaye de la Celle. And when we ask him how he likes being here, he responds with a gentle self-effacing smile. "J’adore America et j’adore New York," he tells us, "particulierement la diversite!"


Alain Ducasse at the Essex House
155 West 58 Street
New York, NY 10019

Phone: 212-165-5535
Web: http://

Photos by Harvey Frommer

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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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