Even in the age of chef franchises, watching Laurent Tourondel go from failed fishmonger (Cello) to one-man Manhattan commissary (BLT Fish, BLT Prime, BLT Burger, BLT Steak), then on to running a national food empire with restaurants in L.A., D.C. and Puerto Rico, has been nothing short of breathtaking. Generally, expansion dilutes greatness—a fact that makes the excellence of BLT Market, recently opened on Central Park South, that much more impressive.
The corporate brand (for those recently awoken from a three-year coma, it stands for Bistro Laurent Tourondel), which is known for juicing up beloved styles (the burger joint, the fish shack, the steak house), can cross yet another tried-and-true genre off the list: the market-driven seasonal restaurant. Tourondel’s version comes complete with shifting monthly menus, weekly chalkboard specials and featured local artisanal purveyors, whose wares can be purchased behind the register. He nails it, somehow improving on elements I’ve seen a million times before.
Take the complimentary bread. At BLT Market, a demi-baguette comes piping hot in a paper bag, with parsely-garlic butter oozing from each piece. For an amuse-bouche, the kitchen’s day-to-day toque, Tourondel deputy David Malbequi, proffers a sexed-up pig-in-a-blanket: a Schaller & Weber beef-and-pork dog wrapped, strudellike, in a flakey cheese-enriched crust.
Those free nibbles set the tone—think Green Acres through a pretentious urban lens—that also manifests itself in the atmosphere. The restaurant is tucked into the Ritz-Carlton (BLT has a burgeoning national relationship with the chain), and Tourondel’s designer, Michael Bagley, installed oak plank floors and has dotted the walls with antique hoes and other rural bric-a-brac, to go with the expensive leather and velvet banquettes and commissioned vegetable paintings. To complete the effect, when the sliding windows open onto the park, the stench of manure from the hansom carriages wafts past the sidewalk tables and right into the dining room. What would a farmhouse restaurant be without barnyard smells?
Or, for that matter, cheese? There is a big emphasis on the curds, procured via Murray’s, which factor winningly into a good half of the starters. An appetizer of zucchini blossoms, stuffed with a delicious troika of mascarpone, mozzarella and Parmesan, ooze like egg yolks when pierced. Cheeseless first courses fared all right too—the tender meat in a decent sautéed soft-shell crab appetizer was complemented by a mélange of sweet corn and dates, balanced by the briny shock of pickled ramps.
Despite the chefs’ French passports, they have a way with Italian dishes. Favorites include silky homemade gnocchi in a fennel cream sauce with fiery lamb sausage; rigatoni with a ricotta so creamy it approaches béchamel, enlivened with Esposito’s pork sausage; and rough, al dente risotto topped with langoustines that had a lingering salty streak. I especially loved the plush texture of the veal-and-pork meatballs—stuffed with ricotta and topped with rosemary—which weren’t spoiled by the dull tomato-garlic sauce.
I had zero quibbles with a gorgeous New York strip: The marbled, grass-fed beef was lusciously soft, enhanced by a complex pepper rub that hit my taste buds in feisty waves, like a chain of firecrackers. It’s probably the best piece of meat I’ve had at any BLT restaurant.
Staying true to American style, desserts pummel with sweetness. A McIntosh apple upside-down cake gets gooey with calvados-infused caramel. The insane richness of a toothsome rhubarb and summer-berry cobbler was tempered only by a tart white-cheese sorbet.
As this is a hotel restaurant, I also sampled several of the breakfasts. Granola that has seemingly been handpicked, kernel by kernel, populates each yogurt parfait; only eggs from a place where the straw is spun from silk are served—all at a cost. Figure $50 per person to start your day. Such is farm life in the high-rent district. Eva Gabor juggled the juxtaposition on television. Two more European immigrants, Tourondel and Malbequi, seem to be doing it quite well in restaurants.