Named for a top furniture designer of the 1920s, Brasserie Ruhlmann was supposed to be the culmination of one man’s obsession with everything Art Deco. Jean Denoyer, who also owns the Upper East Side’s Orsay and La Goulue, spent 30 years accumulating Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann’s handiwork, and earlier this year unveiled the ultimate collectible: a classic French restaurant full of Ruhlmann-inspired flourishes located in the middle of Rockefeller Center. There were problems, though: The food wasn’t that great, and the chef—Georges Masraff, formerly of Tavern on the Green—left in March.
All was quiet for a time. Then one day in early May, celebrity chef Laurent Tourondel, a man who seemed busy enough lording over BLT Fish, BLT Steak and BLT Prime, announced—for reasons not at all clear—that he would oversee the kitchen at Brasserie Ruhlmann. The menu has subsequently been BLT-erized. Some of the old classics remain—roasted chicken, steak tartare served with a quail egg—but the dishes now lean heavily on seafood, which Tourondel perfected at his first big-hit eatery, Cello.
His excellent tuna tartare comes straight from the playbook (literally from Tourondel’s cookbook, Go Fish): It sits high on a bed of avocado, cubed uniformly and covered in an Asian ginger-sherry vinaigrette. Tourondel also offers the same béchamel-infused creamed spinach he serves at BLT Steak—and spinach makes its way into the never-more-appropriate oysters Rockefeller, too. This version is by far the best I’ve ever had, with a layer of browned Gruyère and Parmesan adding even more richness.
Not everything comes from the BLT academy: The black bass in a Creole curry sounds better than it is—it’s a lovely filet, but the sauce tasted more of mango than of the spice. Tourondel didn’t invent sole meunière, of course, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better iteration than the one served—that butter sauce sure is rich and creamy. When he ventures away from fish, the results can be disappointing: The short-ribs bourguignonne was dry and undersauced and the wine sauce added little to what was already a remarkably flavorless dish. Desserts didn’t morph drastically during the handoff: Tourondel kept the best from the Masraff era, including a dreamy floating island—meringue balls in an ocean of crème anglaise.
Only two things have gotten worse: The dinner rolls were cold, standard-issue and seriously difficult to chew. And the prices appear to have crept up a bit—though there is a limited $25 two-course dinner prix fixe.
Sadly, despite the major upgrade, crowds haven’t discovered the place. I’ve been in a few times for dinner and walked past it several other times since it opened, and I’ve never seen it full, though the restaurant does offer a breakfast and lunch, which should appeal to businesspeople and tourists. It’s got other amenities, as well—beyond the ebony and ivory wall insets and intricate mosaic floor—most notably a 165-seat patio that looks out over the skating rink and plaza. If and when word spreads that this is a good Tourondel restaurant, and an easy reservation to score, Ruhlmann could become the serious brasserie that Tourondel claims he always wanted—and a restaurant filled with customers, not just artwork.