Chef Daniel Boulud’s last NYC restaurant opening, Le Pavillon in May of 2021, seemed like a huge deal at the time. It was among the hospitality industry’s splashiest early post-vaccine pandemic premieres—it landed a lovely location in a flashy new midtown skyscraper and elected officials attended a ribbon cutting ceremony for the occasion like it was some kind of midwestern supermarket, rather than the latest on a long list of a celebrity restaurateur’s Manhattan—and worldwide—ventures. The spendy spot’s fanfare was kind of quaint. Then, its mere existence launched a smattering of ‘the way we whatever whenever’ internet word casseroles, and the dining public responded by snapping up La Pavillon’s $125 (now $135) three-course tasting reservations.
Boulud’s Le Gratin had a more routine introduction to its Financial District address last month. It’s one of those returns to normalcy that people keep wishstablishing: that an excellent restaurant can open without ever severing a single ribbon must mean that New York is back, baby. Again.
Le Gratin’s sidewalk-level room at The Beekman hotel was previously occupied by Augustine. It feels more like a suite that can accommodate the shy side of 100. Crescent leather booths up front in view of the blushing bar that fit four and feel luxuriously roomy for two, banquettes, and untethered tables all awash in mild amber hues are quick to fill. Slightly fogged mirrors, dainty floral fixtures in handsome dark finishes, more blooms splashed across gleaming tiles that stop short of recalling grandmom’s bathroom and the high-set illuminated Roman numeral clock that divides the space between the front and the back are all familiar from before.
It's romantic in vaguely precise ways. This is where you’d visit in the midst of a secret, shared with someone unexpected, at what seems like an inopportune time that turns out to be the perfect moment, amplified by nice cocktails like the au soleil (gin, lemon, Grand Marnier, mint, Angostura) and the le début de la faim (rye, Bonal, Campari). This quality comes on stronger a little later in the evening, though the operation is conceivably just as suitable for more festive-than-most business dinners or after-work drink rituals, and, given its location, you’re liable to spy the occasional tourist. But the unifying hallmark here is character. Le Gratin, even while borrowing considerable style from that relatively recently vacated venue, from with a famed chef who could be simply cutting cookies by now, has the hard-to-come-by essence of being a place. Plenty of restaurants get by on that alone, and for years, but Le Gratin’s food is also exceptional.
“I would have all of that again,” my own, very expected someone said the other night, right after I’d ordered dessert. “Right now.” This, after not-so-secretly wondering if my order design was overly ambitious.
Le Gratin’s French menu is influenced more specifically by Lyon, Boulud’s hometown. Created with chefs Guillaume Ginther and Jean François Bruel, both of whom previously worked at Daniel, the titular technique appears somewhat sparingly, but brilliantly. The quenelle de brochet au gratin ($32) is essential to Lyon, a staffer says. A cylindrical pike dumpling achieves sensations of airy lightness and buoyant texture to ‘how’d they do that’ magic trick effect. Its preparation is challenging enough (though I’ll spare you a summary of pages 184-190 of my edition of Mastering the Art of French Cooking) to champion dining out at all, even before considering the rich Gruyère-mushroom béchamel that fills out the dish.
Generally, don’t-try-this-at-home recipes are second only to the hope that a purveyor will produce something unlike anything commercially available within a reasonable distance on the list of reasons to go out. Le Gratin’s quenelle isn’t its only example of that promise fulfilled, and it’s joined by similarly outstanding offerings. Escargots are made half a hundred ways around town, and here their expert selection suggests individual, labored inspection. They're lightly fried and plated with an herbaceous spinach coulis and terrific three-bite triangles of pig trotter as smooth as swine can be with a crispy exterior ($24). The appetizer abstractly evokes items from the lowkey food film Defending Your Life. Everything here is so good that you’ll search for reasons to reduce the options. The crabe Marie Rose ($28) is on the lighter side of starters, with plump bits of shellfish, improbably ideal avocado, lettuce and grapefruit, but maybe you had seafood salad for lunch. Likewise, the trout roe that tops deviled eggs ($14-$22), or maybe you’re pacing yourself toward the mains.
The gratin dauphinois comme marie makes a strong case as Le Gratin’s own essential dish: impeccably executed cheesy potatoes available as a standalone side ($14) or served as a matter of course with the spit-roasted chicken (half $37, whole $70), or as a choice with the pan-seared Dover sole ($85) or the côte de boeuf for two ($180). It’s also wonderful to pair with the sliced duck breast ($39), marvelous at the recommended medium-rare, which comes with its own sparse assortment of spring vegetables like a spritely asparagus stalk, a couple of earthy carrots and a mellow turnip that cuts the duck’s concentrated flavor.
Do order ambitiously; dinner comes but once a day and evenings this exquisite outside of explicitly fine dining destinations, like Boulud’s Daniel, are even fewer and farther between. But calibrate for executive pastry chef Kristyn Onasch’s comprehensively splendid desserts like the choux et prune à la crème ($15), with chantilly that practically floats, and a near-sweetness you’ll keep going in for as if to seek another kiss. Just maybe save that action for those later hours when La Gratin assumes its more romantic posture.
The Vibe: Effortlessly romantic at dinner hour and beyond, but equally adept as a business or after-work destination.
The Food: Excellent French fare with a focus on Lyon. The quenelle de brochet au gratin, escargots with pig trotter, gratin dauphinois comme marie and duck breast are highlights among highlights.
The Drinks: A full bar with some well-crafted cocktails, wines by the glass and sub-$100 bottles and a couple of beer varieties.
Time Out Tip: The door marked WC leads you through a labyrinth before you reach the bathroom, which is down a flight of stairs, but you’ll pass through a lovely atrium to get there.
Le Gratin is located at 5 Beekman Street. It is open Tuesday-Thursday from 5pm-10pm and Friday-Saturday from 5pm-10:30pm.