After some years of absence, French star chef Alain Ducasse is back in New York with a vengeance, i.e. two new restaurants, both of which opened in midtown Manhattan and only a few months apart. First up was the much-anticipated Adour, which debuted in the St. Regis in January. Less formal bistro Benoit followed suite in April (incidentally, a few days after the New York Times blessed Adour with a solid three-star rating). In light of Ducasse’s first foray into Manhattan—his much-gossiped-about restaurant at the Essex House, which featured $250-plus tasting menus and white-gloved waiters—expectations ran high for Adour, as gourmets debated whether Ducasse would again set out to overwhelm the city with an unhealthy dose of French formality. Those hoping for scandalous details (remember the selection of haute pens presented to diners for a somber check-signing ritual after a meal at the Essex House) will be disappointed. In many ways, Adour feels more perky Californian than brooding Frenchman.
All overly precious dining procedures have been purged from the sleek David Rockwell–designed room with its Pinot Noir-and-gold color scheme and soaring walls clad in modern glass panels boasting etchings of grapevines. Sure, diners are served by an army of waiters, but there’s no hushed ambience to speak of, and the young staff happily delves into lengthy menu explanations, mulls over multiple options from the excellent and fairly priced wine list, even makes the occasional (gasp) joke, like the story about recent diners who threatened to make off with the gorgeous hand-blown glass decanters (made especially for Adour in Slovenia).
The food, too, overseen by Ducasse’s executive chef Joel Dennis, is unpretentious to a fault, and what you read in the menu (“frogs legs velouté–watercress, crunchy celery/fennel”) is exactly what you get. The ingredients are first-rate, dishes are cleanly executed and the flavors straightforward in classic Ducasse fashion; a recent meal included perfectly seared foie gras served with mango and velvety duck breast with polenta that came in a small ceramic Le Creuset dish, so as not to ruin the minimalist arrangement of duck and vegetables on the plate. More adventurous foodies may miss a bit more of a wow-factor both in the presentation and innovation of the dishes—I did, especially at the price point (entrées average $40). But no one will find fault with the inspired wine list, which includes some six hundred bottles but also offers a substantial selection by the glass as well as by the decanter, approximately a half-bottle. Perhaps in another attempt to disarm, the abbreviated wine list (you have to ask for the cellar book) is grouped in gimmicky categories, like “exploration” and “treat,” but the selection is a masterful mix of lesser-known gems, from Austria, Greece and Castille and Leon, among others, as well as big hitters. Old and new world are evenly weighed and for every Saint-Emilion and Barolo, you also find top Cabs from California and Pinot Noirs from Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
Much has been made of the high-tech wine bar at Adour and indeed, the interactive screen that allows you to browse the menu and learn about wines is pretty cool, but considering that the bar has only four seats and is located right behind the hostess desk, chances are it won’t make for any serious competition for the ever-buzzing King Cole Bar, located a few steps from Adour. Of course, if the venerable St. Regis hot spot is too crowded, you can always head down the street for a night cap at Benoit.
TIP: With its soaring ceilings, the main dining room at Adour, in the former space of Gray Kunz’s Lespinasse, is not the most intimate setting; if you’re coming for a romantic dinner for two, request a table in one of the alcoves that form a half-circle around the main room. The semi-private dining room, separated by sleek floor-to-ceiling glass wine coolers, can accommodate up to ten people. Dinner only. Reservations can be made on www.opentable.com.