On a cold rainy afternoon in New York City this winter, I suddenly had a craving for the food of my adopted country, France. So I booked at Benoit, and told the friend I was having dinner with to meet me there.
Walking the streets of Manhattan, I thought about how French restaurants in New York City have always mirrored the city’s changing appetite, along with its social history. For many years, for example, the now-defunct La Côte Basque, at 60 West 55th Street where Benoit is now located, reigned as a sort of an exclusive public dining room for New York’s Francophile high-society types, including people like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Truman Capote, who used it as a venue in Answered Prayers, his never published roman à clef about New York society.
My own history with French restaurants in New York has been decidedly less glamorous. When I arrived in the city after university and got a job as a junior at a prestigious publishing house that paid me a penurious salary, I never went to these headliner French restaurants myself, although, of course, I knew something of them by association.
At my first job, my tiny office overlooked an air shaft at the bottom of which was another of the city’s most famous French restaurants, La Grenouille, with its jaunty anthropomorphic murals of frogs and beautiful flower arrangements. I kept my window open a few inches all year round, since New York office buildings are as wastefully and uncomfortably overheated in the winter as they are over-air-conditioned in the summer, and this meant I often found myself hopelessly teased by the smells of bread baking, sautéing shallots and rich beef stock rising from a kitchen 30 storeys below while I sat at my desk eating a 50-cent hot dog from a street cart for lunch.
A year later, I landed a new job as the editorial assistant to a very famous editor who dined out with his authors, including Truman Capote, every day at noon. Part of my duties included making lunch reservations at a rotation of what were then the best French restaurants in New York City – La Caravelle, Le Veau d’Or, La Cote Basque and Lutèce.
The same editor invited me for lunch at La Grenouille to celebrate my birthday that year, and I finally got to eat the food that had tantalised me for so long; unforgettably, I had oysters gratinéed with champagne sabayon and frogs’ legs à la Provençale, the first I had ever eaten.
Stepping inside Benoit, I was hungry for good solid Gallic grub, however, and so I suggested we share the charcuterie plate as an hors d’oeuvre, and then I’d have the escargots and quenelles de brochet, the fluffy pike perch dumplings that are a signature dish of Lyon, with a sauce Nantua, which is a béchamel sauce combined with crayfish butter.
My friend opted for the terrine of duck foie gras with fig chutney and toasted brioche, followed by the pan-roasted king salmon with seasonal vegetables and Béarnaise sauce. From the excellent wine list, we chose a white Crozes Hermitage by Alain Graillot. The charcuterie plate came to the table with a croc of cornichons and included a beautifully made terrine de campagne that was so richly flavoured and pleasantly emollient we might easily have been seated in a snug bistro in the Latin Quarter in Paris. This dish spoke not only of the seriousness of the kitchen, which is now helmed by young Parisian chef Laëtitia Rouabah, but its ingenuity in creating authentic French tastes with North American produce.
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My snails were plump, herbaceous tasting ones from Burgundy that were served in bubbling individual baths of hot garlic butter as a welcome triumph of French comfort food on a cold wet night in a frenetically busy city. My friend offered me a chunk of her unguent and earthy foie gras on a torn-off piece of toasted brioche bread, and it was impeccable, too.
Rouabah put a delightfully modern spin on quenelles which was very clever as well, since the pleasantly light dumplings were stuffed with the sauce Nantua instead of being lashed with it.
The king salmon fillet was a beautifully seared firm piece of fish with two earthy garnishes – butternut squash purée and trompette de la mort mushrooms, which highlighted its provenance in the clean pristine waters of the Pacific Ocean off the Alaska Panhandle. Unlike farmed salmon, it also had a firm texture and no oily taste, so it was the perfect foil for the sunny yellow Béarnaise. This impeccably well-made sauce would surely have received a tip of the hat from Escoffier himself, and also led me to muse on how the mineral-rich pungency of tarragon has a quietly thrilling affinity with this fish.
Declining the unimaginative selection on the cheese plate, we concluded this impressively good meal with a richly caramelised tarte Tatin for two with excellent crème fraîche from Vermont. In a city heaving with noisy, expensive, trend-driven restaurants, Benoit is a quiet haven of Gallic gastronomic excellence and an opportunity to sample the technically flawless cooking of one of the most talented female French chefs working anywhere in the world today.
60 West 55th street New York, NY 10019, USA.
Tel. (1) 646-943-7373
Average dinner $75.
From France Today magazine
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