[Pigging by Wilfrid: April 4, 2015]
Chevalier, the new restaurant in the new Baccarat Hotel, may just hold the clue to the future of French dining in New York. Whether or not that's the case, it's a sparkling debut from Charles Masson and Shea Gallante--in some ways an improbable, but clearly a very promising team.
And suddenly no more: breaking news as I finish this review: Masson has already moved on.
And to think I'd resigned myself to not seeing any more openings of this scale and ambition in Manhattan, unless from an organization with an established raft of successes like the Altamarea Group.
I can only review the experience I had, so here's my piece as written, but note that Charles Masson has parted "amicably" with the project, replaced by Chevalier's general manager, Thomas Caron, a Danny Meyer veteran.
Probably everyone reading this knows just who Charles Masson and Shea Gallante are: but just in case, here are the facts. Charles Masson was for almost forty years the general manager and partner in La Grenouille, the great survivor of New York's grand French restaurants: still there; older than Le Cirque; older by four years than Le Périgord; outliving La Caravelle and La Côte Basque; and still holding three stars from the New York Times. (The story of how Masson came to leave La Grenouille has been covered thoroughly elsewhere.)
Shea Gallante, a mere shaver in comparison, spent four years as chef de cuisine at Bouley, followed by six years heading the kitchen at Cru, winning a Michelin star, then four years as executive chef at the plush trattoria Ciano. Although I wasn't always persuaded by Gallante's work at Cru, he deserved a bigger canvas than Ciano, which charged him with producing a quite conservative Italian menu.
Those two wordy paragraphs can be condensed to this. Polished service in a sumptuous setting, married to an of-the-moment take on French cuisine (yes, I'll be coming back to that), gives birth to by far the best of the new French restaurants I've tried. Better than Dirty French and Lafayette, much better than Cherche Midi or Le Philosophe. And better than those worthy contenders Racines and Rebelle (just reviewed here). I sat for a couple of hours or more with a mad smile on my face.
Mind you, I'd just emerged from the craziness of the bar on the second floor. Not easy to find--there's an elevator in a dark room off the 53rd street entrance, but no signage for the bar--it's discovered at the end of a series of long, spacious lounges where guests...lounge, I suppose, and drink on expensive-looking furniture.
The bar itself is not under-stated. Chandeliers are huge, all different, colorful. The walls are slammed with what appears to be selected works from the last five Whitney bienniels. The crowd is packed and noisy. There's a thoughtful list of classic and signature cocktails, but while the bartenders do measure...kind of...they're putting the drinks together pell mell. Perhaps most appropriate to the gay (old-style) ambience is that glorious photo of Clark Gable, Van Heflin, Gary Cooper and James Stewart hoisting a few in evening dress, hung behind the bar.
I'm sure there are other routes, but the easiest way I saw to transition from bar to restaurant was to go down in the escalator, leave the building, then return through the restaurant's separate door. And immediately one is ushered into a haven of peaceful calm.
By chance, the host desk was briefly deserted as I arrived, and I was taken directly under Mr Masson's wing and promptly seated, giving me a chance to congratulate him on the flowers. Always his pride at La Grenouille, he hasn't stinted himself here. The dining room is framed by two towering displays of pink blossoms.
"I'm glad you appreciate them," he whispered.
I'd planned a restrained dip into Chevalier's offerings. Two courses are offered at $74--and that's a steep entry price--or three at $96. Compare an established high end midtown restaurant, The Modern: three courses at $98. But I was feeling so pleased and coddled that I asked about the chef's tasting.
And that really does mean a dialogue, as your server seeks to ascertain your preferences (the new season's vegetables, please). Bread is whisked to my table, and at the adjacent table, a brief word from a customer--not even a request--produced an offer of gluten-free bread. Some diners will always be dismayed by French servers wearing formal suits, but the actual service here is unbelievably attentive. I even overheard a captain failing to reject out of hand a table's request to take the cheese course as an appetizer.
The tasting, which turned out to be priced at $125, did feature a selection of dishes from the carte. A meaty forkful of yellowtail crudo to start, with a great accent from a dollop of citrus nage on the side.
Then the show really started with a rather phallic spear of giant white asparagus from Carpentras, wrestled into submission by some more local offerings--scallions and green garlic.
This is another wine-list which is unrelenting in its proffer of three-figure special occasion bottles. I'd ordered a glass of Drouilly champagne to start, and continuing by the glass wasn't going to be cheap, so I put myself in the hands of the sommelier.
The sommelier--an abundantly ebullient character, recently with Le Bernardin--tried even harder than the captain to personalize his selections. I asked for unusual wines with regional character, and told him I didn't need buckets of fruit. "Would you consider Savennières unusual?" No, I wouldn't. "What about Corsican whites?" Well, yes. "Good," he said, "Now I know where I'm going." And off he went.
I didn't write down his bottle his brought, but highlights were a Californian Viognier where the malolactic fermentation had been interrupted, preserving a refreshing tartness, and a Juliénas, of all things, with such a subtle, delayed finish it made me laugh out loud. The wine pairing was $80, and there was some welcome topping up of pours.
I don't know why, but I rarely order lamb, expecting it to be a bland red meat option. This Colorado rack and loin was beyond reproach, and elevated by the garnishes: chunks of intensely flavored house-made lamb bacon, and classic petits pois a la Française.
Refreshingly, there's no supplement for cheese; it treated as a dessert. All the more surprising, then, that the selection is so generous. No less than seven cheeses, with a panoply of garnishes. Ripe Affedelice, the Chablis-washed charmer from the makers of Epoisses, and a rich blue goat cheese were memorable.
Dessert, whimsical petits fours, the conclusion to the kind of meal I hardly expect to be offered in our current dining climate. Shea Gallante is sending out meticulously composed dishes, based on the right ingredients. Service is French, but the food? See my take on Rebelle. This is modern French dining, in the same vein as Rebelle and Racines, and therefore very close in many ways to what Gallante would produce if he was charged with preparing a sophisticated seasonal American menu.
Here at Chevalier, though, exectution is elevated, and it's wrapped in a glorious package of setting and service. Yes, it's very expensive: $200 per person is easily achieved, even with relatively modest wine, and I exceeded that.