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The Best of the Best 2003: Dining - Alain Ducasse at the Essex House

Scott Haas

From the moment you enter Alain Ducasse at the Essex House until you step out to the streets of Manhattan, your senses are indulged with a series of unique, remarkable pleasures. The excitement derives not just from the food, but from the service and the atmosphere—and it is all so sophisticated and restrained that the dining experience there prompts an immediate reevaluation of every other upscale meal you have ever enjoyed.

The decor is subtle, subdued, and understated, without the hush of the rigid formality that can be stifling in some haute French restaurants. Instead, there is an almost spalike aura to the place, a sense of quiet pleasures. The mind and body relax as you prepare for a meal that will transport you from your ordinary existence.

Pierre Grall, the restaurant’s manager, couples the tranquil effect of
the rooms with service that is blissfully playful, even silly at times. This restaurant is confident enough to encourage its patrons to have fun. Waiters, for example, will wink at you as you look in awe at a plate of artfully presented food, such as a poached egg covered with a thin layer of black truffles to create the impression of an objet trouvé. Wine director Gérard Margeon will pour a wine to accompany each course and challenge you to guess what is in the glass.


Then there is the food itself. Ducasse is French, and his techniques are French, but his food is quintessentially American. “Ninety-five percent of the products used at our restaurant are from the United States,” he explains.

Ducasse’s philosophy of food, rooted in his experiences as a child growing up on a farm in the Landes region of France, is straightforward. “We follow the seasons,” he explains, “respecting the products and, of course, never forgetting the technique.”

Though his plates may be arranged to look like works of art, there is a simplicity to the selections: breast of squab with foie gras; poached egg, warm leeks, and black truffles; fillet of striped bass with fennel and saffron pistil. Desserts at the restaurant are more elaborate, but the flavors are equally pure.

The food is so superior that you leave Alain Ducasse with a new perspective on dining. To describe food in terms of a religious experience often sounds ridiculous; but occasionally no other conceit will suffice.

Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, 212.265.7300, www.alain-ducasse.com

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