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April 29, 2008

Benoit: Comfort on the Straight and Narrow

Benoit New York
Benoit New York

by Ondine Cohane

Whenever I leave Italy to visit New York, it's strictly no Italian: sushi, Indian, French, please. This is my time to check out the buzz about restaurants. So on one of those perfect New York spring days that make the city's citizens feel like they are living in the best place in the world (and they aren't wrong), I met my friend Norman at Benoit, Alain Ducasse's new Midtown bistro in the former La Cote Basque space.

I had heard, of course, about Ducasse's storming of the city with Adour, which opened to rave reviews in January (the chef seems to reinvent himself every few years here with a resiliency that few can muster). Even those heavyweights Adam Platt and Frank Bruni couldn't find much fault with Adour. But I was more interested in Ducasse's newer arrival: Benoit is an outpost of the old Parisian favorite (there's one in Tokyo, too), and I wanted to see how Monsieur Ducasse would interpret it stateside.

Benoit had the cheery bustle that Midtown always seems in desperate search of and the red banquettes and flea market fixtures that a bistro absolutely needs in order to be a true Parisian transplant, but it was immediately clear that it didn't have the well-worn coziness of its European counterpart (hell, maybe that's because the one in Paris opened in 1912). I was also not such a fan of the sky trompe l'oeil on the ceiling; it made me want to look at the real thing.

On the other hand, I was impressed that the menu stayed on the straight and narrow with simple bistro fare--who wants a huge sauce-filled extravaganza at lunchtime?--and Norman and I enjoyed items like the poached asparagus with mousseline sauce (such a good spring staple) and pike quenelles. By the end of the meal we agreed: Not the I-must-make-a-reservation-this-second hype of Adour but a good place for a steak au poivre and a glass of Bordeaux with a friend. After all, that is the point of a neighborhood bistro.

60 West 55th Street; benoitny.com

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