Back when I was compiling my annual “The Best New Restaurants of the Year” for Esquire, a few times over thirty-five years, as soon as I entered a place I sensed that it was going to be quite out of the ordinary and a prime contender for the list. Pulling open the iron doors of Christophe Bellanca’s new restaurant across from the Museum of Natural History, I had a very keen sense that would be the case, and throughout the next few hours there, I never wavered from that first impression.
On looks alone, Parisian interior designer Caroline Egasse’s interiors show a sophisticated restraint as well-crafted as a Chanel jacket and skirt ensemble, even evoking the pale colors of taupe, black and white that epitomized a style that never goes out of fashion. Even though I bewail restaurants without tablecloths, the soft, padded treated leather used here is really quite beautiful and the lighting allows you to see everyone, easily read the menu and appreciate the color and presentation of the food set on Bernardaud china. In addition, when this space was called Dovetail its hard wooden walls caused a sheer cacophony; now, with soft, subtly textured surfaces throughout, this is as civilized a dining room as I’ve been to in quite some time, reminding me of similar rooms at modern restaurants in Paris. There are touches of leather, brass, porcelain tiles and Élitis wallpapers, with the counterpoint of a bold blue vinyl and silk mural. A 16-seat outdoor patio will also be available for neighborhood folks to enjoy with friends and family as the seasons permit.
The attractive, largely female staff, from the host station to the bar and split dining rooms, is all well dressed in black (though t-shirts on the busboys seems out of character). General Manager Adrien Falcon sets a tone of casual hospitality, and beverage director Andrea Morris is every bit as helpful in assisting you to choose the right wine.
The restaurant’s guiding mission, is “To be creative is simple but to understand what is simple can take a lifetime,” which is in line with the late master chef Joël Robuchon’s credo, at whose New York L’Atelier Bellanca had been chef de cuisine, and you can see the lineage of those menus in his own cooking. (He had also been chef at L’Orangerie in Los Angeles and Le Cirque in New York.) Among New York French restaurants Bellanca’s cooking is closest to Eric Ripert’s at Le Bernardin, though the latter is entirely focused on seafood, where very little is done to the main ingredients to put them all in balance. Bellanca’s is less fussy than Daniel Boulud’s, less lavish than Gabriel Kreuther’s and far more innovative than the tradition-bound La Grenouille. And it is wholly his own.
The à la carte menu has four sections, and, since prices are remarkably moderate, one is tempted to choose from all four, including dessert. (There is also a bar menu with nothing over $18 on it, including a cheeseburger and fries that anywhere else would run you $25 and up.) You will begin with a complimentary amuse bouche, like the warm mushroom cappuccino with sweet potato and a reduction of Madeira wine.
We chose smooth, creamy foie gras with a lovely apple/cranberry confit and Pineau des Charentes fortified wine ($29), which made a nice balance with the hiramasa sashimi with avocado, black radish and tangy fresh yuzu ($18). A beautiful rendition of beetroot that had been lightly smoked (which somewhat compromised its natural earthy flavor) came with barberry, crispy amaranth and a nice touch of Upper West Side tradition—borscht ($18).
Some of the best, sweetest sea scallops of the winter came with the fine texture of Savoy cabbage and a black truffle emulsion one can never tire of in French cuisine ($28), while eggplant was glazed and served with smoked yogurt and a vegetable curry, which reflects tastes Bellanca picked up when he cooked at Robuchon’s restaurants in Hong Kong and Macao ($18).
Among the main courses a perfectly cooked wild black bass revealed just how wonderful this species is, here braised and sided with shiitake chutney, razor clams and a turmeric emulsion ($38). I had my first venison of the new year here and it was superb, nicely gamey, simply grilled and served with coco bean and the sea plant salicorne, with a punch of grain mustard ($46). Duck also seemed a capital idea for a January evening, and it came spiced, with agave turnips and satsuma mandarine that had just the right sweet-and-sour elements to make this a modern version of canard à l’orange ($46). Iberico pork had a great deal of flavor on its own, succulent and sweet, served with first-rate presa de bellota ham, a mango aigre-doux and a little minty Thai basil, with extremely creamy jalapeño-laced pureed potatoes ($34).
Bellanca employs not separate pastry chef, but the desserts are as special as the rest of his menu, beginning with a warm Manjari chocolate tart with vanilla ice cream ($15) and a crisp-to-the-touch vacherin glacé with clementine marmalade, refreshing citrus salad, and an orange blossom-kaffir lime sorbet ($15). Caramelized pineapple is set beneath a warm bomba rice pudding and accompanied with Armagnac-splashed raisin ice cream ($15). Hot soufflés are not easy to find in New York these days, so Bellanca’s perfectly puffy version with orange rum and green cardamom ice cream makes it seem all new again ($15). For something lighter there is an intense raspberry sorbet with Meyer lemon and elderflower jus ($9).
Clearly this is not classic French cuisine though its underpinnings are based on very carefully calibrated formulas learned over decades in French kitchens now influenced by other culture’s cooking.
The wine list is admirably wide-ranging, with the French selections, as you’d expect, the most abundant, but while there are some fine choices under $100, there is a bewildering number at $150 and way, way up, which is, perhaps, the reason I didn’t see many wine bottles on the surrounding dining room tables.
Putting the vague word “Essential” before Bellanca’s name doesn’t begin to tell you what to expect, like saying “The Essential Johnny Cash.” When dining at this level, you realize that the alteration of one ingredient or even the temperature by a few degrees would not provide the same unique result Bellanca’s food delivers in course after course. And to do so at prices considerably below his competitors’ is an added pleasure when you can bask in such a beautiful and well-modulated atmosphere where service exceeds expectations without ever intruding.
Essential by Christophe is open for dinner Tues.-Sat.