There’s a business cliché that executives learn at $1,000 seminars: Change or die. The folks behind Gilt have only partially accepted this dictum. The dining room floor’s orange rubber overlay and the bar’s honeycomb lunar lander architectural flourish—which together defile the 125-year-old Villard Mansion, home to Le Cirque during its grandest days—sadly remain. Gone instead is risk-taking chef Paul Liebrandt, an experimentalist of the Wylie Dufresne/Homaro Cantu ilk.
New chef Christopher Lee steps into this absurd theater and does something surprising. He makes Gilt, whose very name connotes beyond-the-pale decadence, practical. He’s slashed the three-course prix fixe by 15 percent, to $78. The wine list, one of the city’s greatest but also most absurdly upscale, now has more sub-$100 selections (the $12,000 1900 Margaux remains, but I had an outstanding $48 Santa Barbara tempranillo). The chef also eschewed Liebrandt’s delicious theatrics—I still remember eating his sandwich of crab-and-gingerbread gelée, bracketed by dried seaweed—in favor of an American menu with heavy global touches.
Just 31 years old, Lee boasts serious bona fides, having apprenticed for Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Daniel Boulud, wowed in a deputy role at Oceana and headed the kitchen at Philadelphia’s Striped Bass, one of that city’s perpetual treasures. Those last two experiences manifest themselves at Gilt, where more than half of the choices on the small menu—four hot and cold appetizers, four land and sea entrées—come from the ocean.
Take Lee’s dorade escabèche. From a dish that can come off as bad pickled herring, he creates a wonderful Greek salad, as colorful as confetti, with black olives, feta cheese, phyllo crackers and sweet pickled cucumber that tastes like watermelon. Diver sea scallops, impeccably firm and sweet, get dressed up with a silken black-truffle gravy that would make Boulud proud. Another hats-off to the French chef comes in the form of Lee’s nicely marbled rack of lamb with a winning lemon jus, poured tableside.
The new Gilt’s signature dish is a tuna Wellington—rare yellowfin wrapped with chopped porcini mushrooms in a thin pastry crust, flanked by two clashing dipping sauces, a rich foie gras emulsion and a tart red-wine reduction. (A parallel Liebrant signature, typically exotic, was dover sole, prepared sous-vide, encrusted with cheese and topped by apple jelly and smoke haddock).
Dessert from brand-new pastry chef David Carmichael (also from Oceana) has some of the old Liebrandt kookiness—witness the “Chocolate Solar System,” three chocolate balls stuffed with treats like sorbet and soft fudge, sitting in chocolate foam. To Lee’s credit, he’s left the enchanting postmeal ceremonies intact, including meltingly ripe cheeses, with unusual sauces like Guinness and cider, and the city’s top after-dinner tea list, with obscure artisanal offerings such as South African rooibos with a shocking vanilla taste, pungent enough to shame the Earl of Grey.
The courteous hosts, a slick wine staff and proper, formal service (despite the bizarre rock-and-soul soundtrack) made the experience stand out from so many other New York fine-dining establishments. I did like Gilt under Liebrandt, and while I miss the pyrotechnics, I also appreciate Lee’s high competency. I will come back—if they toss that rubber floor.