At Adour, the dining room is rimmed with temperature-controlled wine lockers. Rendering by the Rockwell Group.
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Ducasse's Wine Show

Ted Gachot - January/February 2008

Goblet in hand, Alain Ducasse re-enters the New York City scene with a vinous new look.

Bacchus will be the extra guest at every table at Adour, Alain Ducasse's red, white, and rosé flagship restaurant in New York City. Scheduled to open in January in the former Lespinasse space in the St. Regis Hotel a year after he closed the luxe Alain Ducasse at the Essex House—his oft criticized, oft brilliant first foray into the United States—Adour will toot and tout the culinary world's amorous duo, food and wine. Indeed, it's been said that Ducasse himself sipped and swirled—and maybe even inhaled—at least 99 wines to choose the right match for each of the dishes on executive chef Tony Esnault's menu.

As for its design, Adour is something of a new direction for Ducasse. Gone are the pallid tones and crisp elegance with which his culinary empire has hitherto branded its outposts: the classic design vocabulary cut with a few astringent drops of modernity, the sense of timeless quality and subdued theatricality, the hallmark fussy simplicity.

Adour's designer, the Rockwell Group, excels in an altogether different milieu: creating stagy, stylized experiences. Spectacle is the title David Rockwell gave to the monograph about his own work, and the firm unabashedly embraces design and architecture as means to that end.

It's a curious marriage, in other words, Ducasse and Rockwell. Adour essentially turns its back on its century-old quarters. The Beaux Arts moldings, mummified in silver leaf, are left to glow spectrally behind a new perimeter of glass etched with a meander of grapevines.

Within those confines, wine forms an inescapable motif. The main dining room is punctuated with temperature-controlled armoires displaying the wine collection. The color scheme, characterized as "burgundy and chardonnay," includes "wine-colored" leather upholstery. One detects notes of dark wood and brass. Four decanting stations mark the corners of the room, visible, like televisions in airports, no matter where you sit. There, the sommeliers ply their trade in plain view, as if they were sword swallowers with Cirque du Soleil. One expected, perhaps, a design scheme sympathetic to the food? Les affaires sont les affaires. A large table, classic in line but formed entirely of glass, stands illuminated in the center of the room like the ghost of fine dining.

Times change. In the small, four seat Sommelier Wine Bar (de rigueur glass sculpture hovering close by), an interactive, motion-sensitive wine menu projected onto the goatskin bar top allows guests to peruse, by virtually flipping through the "petals" of a rosette-shaped icon, the extensively annotated and cross-referenced collection. It's a nice idea, giving guests access to far more enophilic tidbits than a bound menu could ever provide. The goatskin is a winning touch, too, calling to mind guzzling shepherds in the Pyrenean foothills, and turning up again on the low bronze tables in the two tasting lounges and in the Private Vault Room. There, one encounters the same virtual wine menu (and more dangling glass). Fifty leather-bound wine vaults, with a capacity of a dozen bottles each, are available for purchase, and the labels will be lovingly collected in personalized albums as each bottle is drained.

The trio of nooks old-timers may recall from Lespinasse are still there off the back of the dining room--now with mirrored ceilings and styled Left Bank, Right Bank, and River Room. The latter includes a mural by New York painter Nancy Lorenz, amorphously evoking the Adour River that runs through southern Gascony and drains into the Atlantic near the French Basque city of Bayonne. Stepping away from the generic abstraction of restaurants like Mix or Beige, Adour makes a gallant attempt to ground itself in a particular locale, two in fact: the river valley of Ducasse's youth and New York City.

Maybe Ducasse—like the new French president—is making an effort to get in touch with his inner American. Or possibly, weary of making unheeded appeals with Gallic subtlety and nuance, he has decided—like the Roman emperors—to simply give the locals what they want. In this case, that appears to be wine and spectacle.