Benoit + Brasserie Cognac
Two French standards yield very different results.
Thu Jun 19 2008
Time Out Ratings<strong>Rating: </strong>0/5
Benoit 60 W 55th St between Fifth and Sixth Aves (646-943-7373). Subway: E, V to Fifth Ave–53rd St; F to 57th St. Mon–Fri 7:30–10am, 11:45am–2:30pm, 5:30–11pm; Sat 11:45am–2:30pm, 5:30–11pm; Sun 11:30am–3pm, 5:30–11pm. Average main course: $26.
Brasserie Cognac 1740 Broadway at 55th St (212-757-3600). Subway: A, C, B, D, 1 to 59th St–Columbus Circle. Daily 11:30am–midnight. Average main course: $25.
Cassoulet at Benoit
Photo: Jeff Gurwin
When stuffy French restaurants ruled haute New York dining, West 55th Street, home to both La Caravelle and La Côte Basque, was the scene’s epicenter. But tastes have changed, as has the neighborhood: Those two warhorses folded years ago, though two cookie-cutter bistrosw;Benoit and Brasserie Cognac—have recently opened, possibly attempting to reclaim the former Francophile row.
Both projects have sufficient pedigree to make it happen. Benoit, a spin-off of a 96-year-old Paris brasserie now owned by Alain Ducasse, is in the old La Côte Basque space. Cognac’s chef Florian Hugo, meanwhile, is a direct descendant of Victor Hugo and a veteran of four Ducasse restaurants.Enter Benoit, where the once-staid La Côte Basque has been given new life with a bustling front bar, a 32-year-old chef by the name of Sebastien Rondier, and a trompe l’oeil sky ceiling meant to look nine decades old—which, by the way, seems to be the median age of the crowd. As I was picking my way through a pile of pristine shoestring fries—prepared “L’ami Louis–style,” a reference to a pricey French bistro—my neighbor de certain age barked, “You know, I ate at the original L’ami Louis!” He paused, “I think he’s dead.”
Among the other relics is a menu in a cumbersome wooden frame that touts several classics (escargots, duck à l’orange) imported straight from Paris. It largely ignores seasonality—it’s perpetually winter at Benoit—but it could be 95 degrees and I’d still order the cassoulet, prepared on some mornings by semiretired La Côte Basque chef J.J. Rachou. Served in a gargantuan bowl, it packs loads of hearty meat (pork loin, garlic sausage, duck confit) under a canopy of savory white beans. The dish seems downright light compared with a veal-tongue terrine, each slice of meat bound with a smear of foie gras.
My favorite item at Benoit, however, was also the cheapest: a $1 egg with airy mayonnaise, coarse sea salt, a single leaf of dressed romaine and toast. I was less impressed by Benoit-by-the-Sea. A dorade tartare appetizer tasted fishy, and breaded bass was practically flavorless, despite the accompanying butter sauce and eggplant puree.
Benoit is best visited in groups: Portions are huge, and many options are available for two, including a roasted chicken that fills the room with an herbal bouquet, and the decadent profiteroles, crammed with pastry cream and served DIY-style with fondue forks and chocolate sauce.
Roasted chicken at Brasserie Cognac
Photo: Jeff Gurwin
I found no such inspiring dishes at Cognac. It beats Benoit aesthetically—it’s a stunning cliché, with painted mirrors and French posters galore. My seat of choice, however: the outside patio with a Broadway view, all the way to Times Square. Its drink offerings are better too, with more than 100 varieties of the namesake spirit. But that’s where the superlatives end.
A lobster bisque, poured over button mushrooms, was nearly lobster-free—the better bisque was the lemony wine-and-shallot cream broth that pooled at the bottom of the juicy mussels appetizers. The entrées were markedly worse. A sour flambéed filet mignon was downright ugly, with a few sad potato slices and some wilted romaine. The vol-au-vent, meanwhile, wasted decadent ingredients on a carelessly assembled mess—somehow, the puff pastry crust managed to be burnt, while the lobster and foie gras within were no warmer than room temperature.
There were a few bright spots: a beautiful roasted chicken in a tarragon gravy; a croque monsieur lathered in butter and truffle oil; a floating island with a silky crème anglaise.
But the brasserie bellwether, French fries, proved les miserables—thin and limp, leaving an unpleasant oil film on my tongue. West 55th deserves better.