Benoit Bistro: Parisian Flair
After a 2-year absence, we returned to the recently refurbished Benoit Bistro in Mid-town on West 55th Street. Pulling up in a cab, we didn’t recognize the place as it has a totally different look—a rather jaunty white exterior with natty nautical-blue awnings.
Alain Ducasse has transformed what had been the quintessential French bistro in New York— the closest thing to his century-old Benoit in Paris—into a lighter-brighter version with a contemporary flair: Modern-Day Manhattan paraphrasing Old Paris.
Gone is the elegant wood paneling and antique lighting fixtures that had made the room feel intimate and the guests feel cosseted. In their place are pearl-like walls and teardrop hanging fixtures throughout, that if lovely, create a brighter-whiter room with a less seductive vibe. That said, the refurbished restaurant has held onto a number of its former charms, notably the plush red velvet banquettes and gilded glass partitions.
Arriving at 12:30 PM, surprisingly, the restaurant was not all that busy, though by 1:30 PM it felt more lived in, if not full. The former luxe ambiance (upper right) that made you feel as if you were in Paris—walking and talking, wining and dining in a deliciously decadent dream—is lacking. So, if you're looking for a place with an atmosphere reminiscent of your favorite haunt in Paris...this is not it. But the new décor, with its flashes of red and French-inspired posters, is lovely on its own terms.
What was not so lovely was that our party of four waited fifteen minutes before anyone came to take our drink order. Never a good sign. We flagged a waiter—or so I mistakenly thought—who turned out to be quite knowledgeable about the wines. Noticing a dry Riesling from Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes region among wines-by-the-glass, I asked my friends, all wine aficionados, if anyone remembered the name of the owner of the vineyard in the Finger Lakes who was the first to plant Riesling in upper New York State.
And the Answer Is…
Before anyone could answer, our server said: “That was Konstantin Frank.” And right he was! Dr Frank was a European transplant, a pioneer, whose wines were showcased for years at the former Four Seasons. I was surprised he had come up with the answer so easily, until I learned that Tim was not our waiter but the sommelier. I’ve become of fan of dry Rieslings of late, love the fruit-forwardness and the silky feel in the mouth.
That day, I ordered Poulet frites (roast chicken with gravy and fries), and the rest of the party, an adventuresome group, ordered sweetbreads, the cassoulet, and duckling a l’orange—all of which were delicious. But the poulet looked lonesome by itself on the plate, as the waiter had given the frites to my friend with the cassoulet. We got that straightened out, but I was taken aback that the kitchen sent out the poulet without so much as a garnish, not even a sprig of tarragon. Of course, when restaurants undergo renovations, even the uniforms seem to change, with the waiters and the sommelier now in black aprons, nowhere near as classy as the former black vests with white aprons, as seen above in the “Two Years Ago” photo. Would you agree?
A Surprising Find
After lunch, I excused myself to check out la salle des dames downstairs, to find the staircase lined with fabulous black-and-white photos from the 40s and 50s. I could have spent an hour. And then there were the hats. J'adore les chapeaux. Why don’t women wear hats anymore?
By the time I arrived back, the dessert had arrived, the consensus being that the signature baba au Armagnac was dry, as it has not been soaked in brandy, but served more like brioche with Armagnac on the side in a small pitcher. Something was lost. Still, the espresso was divine and the conversation lively, so who could ask for more? Would I go back? Bien sûr! And something I haven’t mentioned is that the restaurant gets high marks for a sound level that makes conversation possible. But first I’d call ahead and see if they might be willing to dim the lighting, if ever so slightly.
That’s all for today, mes amis. Hope to see you back soon, when I’ll have the coffee ready. Or maybe a dry Riesling. Are you a fan of Riesling? Chardonnay? Sancerre? Chianti? Gewurztraminer? Do tell. What’s your favorite wine? If you have a second, drop me a line in the COMMENTS box below. It’s not that hard to do! Until we meet again, may life be good to you. À bientôt.
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