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Pilot Light: Hotel Dining: Escoffier Would Be Proud

Ariane Batterberry - March 2014

Hotels and hotel dining suffered a traumatic blow in 2008 due to the Great Recession, followed by a Sargasso Sea of doldrums. Recovery started a few years back, but this season almost every major hotel here in New York City is calling in a top chef to reinvigorate its restaurants—Michel Richard is at The New York Palace Hotel, Geoffrey Zakarian at The Plaza hotel, and Sam Hazen, late of Veritas, will be at the Park Hyatt. The Peninsula New York has a fine new restaurant, as has the Loews Regency Hotel and the St. Regis New York.

Moreover, the concept of cutting-edge restaurants in boutique hotels originated so long ago by Kimpton has taken hold, with Shaun Hergatt at Hotel Chandler, Marc Murphy at the Viceroy, John Fraser at the Standard East Village, and others.

I decided a tour was in order. First, I set foot in the hushed domain of Michel Richard, his first serious restaurant in New York City. The room, a belle époque robber baron’s lair, all polished paneling, made glamorous by tables with seductively illuminated surfaces. The start was splendid. The warm and homemade multigrain roll sowed a fairy dust of seeds on the soft white tablecloth. The first amuse, an astringent mélange of tiny cubes of raw tuna and watermelon scattered with sea salt, was refreshment itself, while a salad of mysteriously herbed mushrooms was a bell ringer. My first course, foie gras brûlée, was a mousse of foie with a caramelized surface scattered with fruits. My Wagyu beef arrived in the form of perfectly done, tender pink rectangles that exploded with flavor. Dessert presented itself as two eggs, which were in fact construed with white chocolate and mouth puckeringly tart curd for a dazzling zing.

The Villard Bistro features a very simple menu—crab cakes, chicken chopped salad, and a Villard burger—simply prepared. The winner is a great aerated pâte feuilletée, served as a savory with mushrooms, or filled with cream for the city’s best napoleon.

The St. Regis has extended its mobbed King Cole Bar into the lobby, and called in John DeLucie of Crown. There’s a snappy menu of global favorites, such as a spicy eggplant and goat cheese “Nizza,” a truffle “mac and cheese” scattered with crunchies of crisped garlic, and merguez sausages that languish under a moist blanket of roasted grapes.

André Balazs invited Fraser, the wizard of Dovetail, to create Narcissa at his new Standard East Village, his chicly funky, hip boutique hotel. All light wood and jaunty stripes, Narcissa is already packed with young Americans having young American food—rotisserie-blackened beets with pungent horseradish sauce, a tiny and crisp baby chicken nestled in a soothing broth, and fried carrots with a jalapeño/tofu dip.

In the late 19th century, the Grand Hotel was the purveyor of “grand meals.”

Escoffier was not a restaurateur. I sense the grandeur coming back to hotels, while boutique hotels lead the way to the “cutting edge.”

Ariane Batterberry, Founding Editor/Publisher