When Gilt shuttered and Adour died, it seemed like an era of elegant dining in New York City hotels was coming to an end. Certainly the rather sudden demise of the latter, M. Ducasse’s sole remaining fancy restaurant in the city inside the St. Regis, was a gut punch to those among us who miss the days of the venerable Le Pavillon, La Côte Basque and La Caravelle. (And those like me who were born too late but miss it ancestrally.) Coupled with the closing of Gilt at the New York Palace Hotel, which launched Paul Liebrandt on his merry way before Corton, it appeared this model was dunzo.
Hotels have been notoriously difficult homes for restaurants. Frequently they’re union shops, which is great in general, but in restaurants it makes profit—always an elusive quarry, almost uncatchable. I remember Sirio Maccioni telling me outrageous stories of 45-minute en masse coffee breaks in the middle of pre-service prep when Le Cirque 2000 was at the New York Palace—one of the reasons he chose to sally forth outside of hospitality.
But a clutch of new hotel restaurants are proving fine dining in hotels isn’t quite ready to check out. Most lavishly and spectacularly, the argument is made in the very space that housed Gilt. Now Michel Richard, the jolly French chef of D.C.’s Citronelle has opened a fine dining spot for the ages called Villard Michel Richard. The room—protected up the wazoo since it is the ornately carved former home of a 19th century railroad baron and boasts a mural by Augustus Saint-Gaudens—looks much the same: Richard has thrown in some large photographs of French actresses but pretty much, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Of course, that doesn’t extend to the menu, which is much more luxe but much less experimental than Gilt’s, even in its later stages under Justin Bogle, Paul Liebrandt’s more quiet but no less talented replacement. (Bogle ended up opening Avance, a wonderful restaurant in Philadelphia.)
On a recent evening, not even the waiters—members of Local 6—have turned over. The food they serve however—a Mosaic surf and turf, for instance, which arrives on the illuminated tables like a modernist painting—is signature Richard. He isn’t a modernist chef, but he shares with that trend a certain playfulness. Case in point, the surf and turf: a dish of alternated perfect circles of tuna, lobster, beef and another mystery circle which could be a meat but, when prodded, reveals itself as thin slivers of marinated pepper. Or a Lobster “Begula” Pasta which comes in a tiny caviar can and looks like caviar but is actually pearl pasta and cuttlefish ink atop a poached egg and lobster. It’s funny and it’s fancy, as in elegant, but not fancy in terms of preparation. The nine-course meal clocks in at $185 per person, which is just plain fancy.
As far as the former home of Adour goes, well, that’s still closed, but the King Cole Bar—that bastion of strong drinks, the midtown demimonde and a beautiful mural by Maxfield Parrish—is back with John Delucie at the helm. Delucie has added some minor touches to the room itself but importantly, the St. Regis has placed the adjoining rooms under Delucie’s control. Redubbed the King Cole Bar & Salon, now leopard print skin-wearing ladies and men with large watches enjoy a menu full of Delucie’s haute comfort food. On a recent night, the space under the mural was packed with hard drinkers, but the surrounding tables were full of seafood towers ($225, $550 with caviar) and short ribs in barolo ($31).
And that’s just a few. Not discussed here (but they will be at a later date), but worth mention are both Kingside, Marc Murphy’s sprawling Roman & Williams-designed bistro at the brand new Viceroy, and Clement, the stunning new New American restaurant at the Peninsula. These, taken along with Villard and the new King Cole, indicate hotels and haute cuisine will be synonymous for a long time to come.