A new chef tries to live up to a wine list.

Duck à l’orange

Duck à l’orange Photograph: Roxana Marroquin

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

Tim Kopec, the longtime sommelier at Veritas, has been sporting one of those Prince Valiant–style haircuts, kinda like Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men, long after it was cool. On a recent visit, there he was, with that same haircut, and that same phenomenal wine list that made Veritas famous. I asked him recently whether he altered the wines to reflect the arrival of new chef Gregory Pugin, who took over about a month ago. He flashed a grin that translated to, “Are you smoking crack?,” though his response was more diplomatic: “We’ve always had a good list.” As with his museumworthy hairdo, why mess with success?

Veritas was launched a decade ago around its 3,000-choice wine cellar, one of the country’s best and least marked-up. It seems the core mission remains intact, despite the loss of founding chef Scott Bryan. He quietly turned out simply prepared, wine-friendly American fare with enough panache to rate with the best in the city. His first replacement, Ed Cotton, lasted only a few months.

Pugin, meanwhile, is one of those French wunderkinds seemingly bred, like a foie gras goose, for haute cuisine. Shipped off to Biarritz’s famous Hotel du Palais as a 17-year-old apprentice, he eventually wound up in Joël Robuchon’s stable, trailing the great master to Macao, Tokyo, Lisbon and Las Vegas, before finally helping him open L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in New York two years ago.

Veritas’s basic approach is unchanged—a mandatory three-course prix fixe, currently $90—but there’s been a tilt toward the Gallic. Given the oenophilic theme, that shift is promising, and Pugin’s flair is visible in each plate—his compositions are striking and painterly. The low-key décor, with a brushed metal bar and warmly-lit dining room where comfortably-spaced tables allow for private conversations, provides a suitably neutral backdrop.

But I found myself occasionally perplexed at how wine-unfriendly Pugin’s offerings were. For instance, a starter of sautéed frog legs came immersed in a cold cream-of-watercress soup, accented with chanterelles and fresh almonds. While I had ordered a sauvignon blanc in anticipation of the dish, the undiluted bitterness of the watercressoverwhelmed my wine. The mild frog-leg nuggets were also muted by the potent soup. The almonds, chanterelles and watercress all returned in the langoustine salad, with three sweet tails as the satisfying showpiece. But again, the watercress, doused in vinaigrette, a notorious wine-killing ingredient, proved a nuisance when it came to pairing.

Starting to feel like a culinary Elmer Fudd, I found that pesky watercress yet again beside my favorite starter, an outstanding, if seasonally misplaced, foie gras terrine. Redolent of the flavors of allspice and cinnamon, it was complemented perfectly by a side of caramelized onion-and-raisin compote.

Thankfully, the entrées added some yet unseen ingredients to the mix, to superb effect. While every properly trained French chef knows from duck à l’orange, Veritas’s version is modern and majestic. The thick, medium-rare strips of duck breast glistened like sirloin, and the subtle orange jus, rather than overwhelming the dish, melded seamlessly with its slightly gamey flavor. Even better was a beautifully marbled, nearly gelatinous Wagyu fillet, served au poivre, with a sumptuous onion confit quenelle.

The waitstaff, appropriately invisible, had steered me toward Pugin’s pipérade-style cod, a pedestrian fish that rarely excites me. But this was worth the detour. The main ingredient was again exceptional: the fish seared until crisp, with pearly, moist meat hidden within. Pugin’s Basque training came into play with the just-hot-enough medley of red and green peppers, and an artful cod-stuffed pepper.

Pastry chef Mina Pizarro, formerly of Per Se, has bridged the Bryan and Pugin regimes. Pugin may be seasonal, but she’s not, favoring dark and rich over light and fruity—but like Pugin, her plating is exacting. A serviceable chocolate and caramel torte was actually a slim rectangle topped with a gelée that you could see your reflection in. A peanut-butter bar was more whimsical, accompanied by just about every classic pairing short of jelly: caramelized bananas, marshmallow cream, chocolate and apple sorbet. Though nothing was bad, nothing wowed, either.

Pugin, meanwhile, had the opposite problem: inconsistency, coupled with promise. As good as the Scott Bryan Veritas three-course experience? Not yet. Pugin offers a bill of fare that does not sufficiently take into account the restaurant’s chief draw. He bears watching, though, and until then, Kopec and his team provide the one constant for this old-timer in transition.

43 E 20th St between Broadway and Park Ave South (212-353-3700). Subway: N, R, W, 6 to 23rd St. Mon–Sat 5:30–10:30pm. Three-course prix fixe: $90.