I remember trying (unsuccessfully) to explain to my Grandmother how a fax machine worked some 30 years ago. But these days, I seem to expend so much effort struggling to latch on to technology’s slippery tentacles myself – just to remain relevant enough to carry on a conversation with a millennial without sounding like a ripe idiot. But as many new industries seem to emerge out of convenience for the younger end of the population, could the most overlooked business arena be the nostalgia industry for baby boomers? If “experiences” are supposedly more coveted than “things”, then perhaps the biggest growth opportunities might actually be lurking in our rear-view mirrors. Here’s one: being able to enjoy classic Parisian gourmet dishes that taste exactly as they did a century ago. And if you happen to live in New York, you can skip the transatlantic hassle at Alain Ducasse’s import, Benoit, now in its third and most triumphant incarnation in midtown.
Remember those romantic trips to Paris, where unless you spoke flawless French, your waiters invariably rolled their eyes uttering: “Tête de noeud” (knucklehead) under their breaths? Well, your memories have been well preserved. The service team at Benoit have perfected the lost arts of snooty indifference and sheer disinterest for the fact that I might like to see a menu, or might need a little more time deciding between Pork Rillettes or Duck foie gras terrine, or that the fine family of four who followed us in, is paying the check while we’re still wondering if we’ll ever see our aperitifs.
But, as if by thematic apology for a series of Buster Keaton-like false-starts (let me be clear that no verbal apology was offered), a silver vessel filled with warm cheese puffs arrived to quickly shut us up. All it took were two or three of these fluffy little balls of greedy goodness to hit the “restart” button on my first impressions.
The all-time franco-favorite menu includes century-old hits that will (should) never die, such as Pâte en croute and Escargot. And Ducasse’s newest chef Laëtitia Rouabah, whose vertical resume stretches from the Plaza Athénée Hotel, to Air France’s first class lounge to the very top of the Eiffel Tower, is a stickler for honoring traditional French flavors and preparations while holding back on over-reinvention.
The much written about Onion soup gratinée is a mic-drop humdinger. Dark, caramelized sweet onion shreds in a rich, salty and umami broth with a decadent layer of so much Gruyere that it manages to keep every spoonful company until the very last drop. Speaking of cleaning the platter, the Tarte Flambée is another exercise in flavorful delight. Thin crusts of flatbread held together by an umbrella of cheese and onions, with just the right amount of bacon nibs to give every mouthful a salty, smoky aroma. Plate after plate left the kitchen with the same fastidious attention to detail, delivering the most tender and magnificent Sweet Spiced Rohan Duck or Bordelaise Skirt steak you’d expect.
But I swear I could hear the Marseillaise crescendo as I bit into my Quenelles de brochet. Two almond shaped pike dumplings luxuriating in the most staggeringly delicious lobster bisque as they prepared for their disappearing act. With a texture somewhere between an unbaked meringue and an ultra-smooth omelet, finished with a rich, crustacean flavor that could have ended the French revolution a full month earlier, I’m only now regaining the full complement of my faculties.
All I could say about the silver dessert trolley as it glided by to a table with more time on their hands than ours, was: “Aaaaah, next time.” A bientôt Benoit.