I've dined at three of the latest incarnations of the Carlyle Restaurant—an Upper East Side landmark since 1930—and I've always been struck by the value gap: No matter who manned the kitchen, the result seemed like average hotel food with Le Bernardin prices. In October, management said good-bye to Jean-Louis Dumonet and hello to Christian Delouvrier, who left Alain Ducasse at the Essex House last spring after the Times downgraded that food shrine to three stars. But Delouvrier is only temporarily lording over the kitchen to mentor Dumonet protégé James Sakatos—who was promoted to executive chef.
The menu, thankfully, has been seriously overhauled. Just two Carlyle classics remain: Dover sole—filleted tableside by waiters atop a portable oven the same way they probably did back in FDR's day—and dessert soufflés. The rest of the offerings pair haute French with regional American ingredients. Think Ducasse meets Danny Meyer, with a few Mediterranean options (like the salad Grecque, pictured).
Rich, hearty ingredients permeate the starters: A lovely butternut squash soup, thick and nutty, is poured over slices of dried duck prosciutto and brussels sprouts. The risotto has so much Asiago cheese that it tastes like a fondue; a layer of chanterelle mushrooms, layered on top like a pie crust, makes it an exquisite appetizer. Ambitious eaters unafraid of filling up too soon can start with braised Berkshire pork belly or Hudson Valley foie gras.
The Delouvrier-Sakatos two-headed hydra does not shy away from fussy French entrées with sexy sauces. The braised Alaskan halibut comes in a classic Duglere wine-and-cream reduction; the gently cooked Maine lobster is coated in a rich orange glaze made of carrots, cream and sherry; and the roasted California squab is served in its own jus—and tastes like some kind of savory game bisque.
There is a price to pay, of course, for this richness: All ten entrees are priced at $42 (with occasional supplements), and side dishes cost $11 extra.
The physical makeover, unfortunately, does not go far enough. The jackets-required dining room has loosened up a tad with an Art Deco carpet, brighter drapes and upholstery, and a paint job. But it's the kind of face-lift no one will notice much, and there's still an overbearing stuffiness. The headwaiters swan around with a snooty arrogance that is largely on the way out these days, especially at French restaurants. Perhaps this is what the predominantly older crowd has come to expect; there was nary a diner under the age of 50 on a recent night.
Still, Delouvrier and Sakatos have made the Carlyle restaurant a vastly more enticing eatery—one that is all too often overshadowed by the Carlyle Hotel's other destination: Bemelmans Bar. I'm not sure they've closed the value deficit entirely, but given the price tag to sample Delouvrier's creations at Ducasse even eight months ago, the case can now be made that they're trying.