There was an article in the 3/17/04 edition of The New York Times which reviewed Montrachet, the restaurant where I popped the question to my now fiance and future wife. We ate there after graduating college in 1999, our first “mature” meal, and the second time we ate there I left with a bride-to-be on my arm. In honor of that special occasion, I have decided to post the entire review. Though the review isn’t necessarily super positive, I must state that we were there for their ultra-popular B.Y.O.B. night, that Jessie is not only a “foodie” but a great lover of wines and that we stuck to the prix-fixe meal which they make so many times that they can’t really screw it up. Here is the review:
RESTAURANTS age in different ways. Some, like Joe Allen, sag into lovable shabbiness. Others, like La Caravelle, become time capsules – fastidiously maintaining their youthful charms. Many just fade away.
In 1985, Drew Nieporent, then a fledgling restaurateur, opened Montrachet in TriBeCa, then a downtrodden industrial landscape. Diners came flocking, and soon Montrachet became the showpiece of a re-emerging neighborhood.
Montrachet wasn’t just stylish, it was serious with a capital S. Bryan Miller gave it three stars in The New York Times (and advised diners who were driving to this unusual area of the city to call for directions). Of the food, then under the direction of a young David Bouley, he wrote, “One evening you can enjoy a homespun French dish of braised cabbage rolls stuffed with foie gras and squab meat and flanked by squab legs. Another time it could be an au courant preparation such as red snapper with tomato-coriander sauce and fresh pasta.”
Mr. Bouley now owns Bouley and Danube nearby. Mr. Nieporent has added 14 restaurants, including Nobu and Rubicon, to his empire. And Montrachet – now in the hands of Chris Gesualdi, the executive chef – has reached a critical juncture. It will either firmly establish itself as a classic in the hearts of the New York’s diners – or just whimper out. TriBeCa is a different place now. It doesn’t need Montrachet. It has to want Montrachet.
Entering the restaurant is a bit like stepping through the looking glass. There is no coat room in the tiny foyer. A small portable heater set on top of a wine cask buzzed at the coat checker, who took my coat, hung it on a metal rack in the dining room, then looked up my reservation. She was polite, warm even.
Before me stood a dining room with sponge-painted walls and self-consciously modern paintings. It felt like a scene from “Wall Street.” I could picture Michael Douglas sitting at a red banquette, bellowing into a first-generation cellphone the size of a shoe.
I hadn’t been to Montrachet in years, and I suddenly felt the disappointment of returning to a childhood home and finding that the backyard is not so big as you remembered, that the curtains are kind of shabby. Montrachet even smells old.
A lobster salad in a murky broth, duck breast and a gummy tarte Tatin shot out of the kitchen and paused briefly at our table. In an hour, we were done. In some respects, it was ideal. It was a weeknight, and I didn’t feel like dining into the wee hours. But three-star restaurants shouldn’t treat you as a takeout joint does.
On other visits, the food took on more luster. Roasted chicken was moist, its skin crisp enough to snap. It was nestled in a potato purée with bright green peas and a rich garlic demi-glace. Risotto with truffles was dense with mushroom flavor, and uninhibited by its simplicity.
A dish of braised tripe looked a lot like shreds of carpet in a brown sauce (how does one make tripe attractive?) but hit all the right notes. It was hearty and savory – a scattering of fava beans and chips of black truffle lurked within. The squab was equally well composed. Roasted pink, it was gamy and sweet, with the breast meat sliced and fanned and a leg there for gnawing. Atop a tangle of frisee, sharing the plate, was a quail egg cooked soft so that the yolk tamed the zesty dressing. But the squab also epitomized the problem at Montrachet. Much of the cooking is textbook-correct, yet you will not be awed. You will be fed well and sent home.
Monday nights tell the rest of the story. That is B.Y.O.B. night, and the otherwise sleepy restaurant springs to life. Regulars pour in and are greeted by name. A troupe of sommeliers glide around the three small dining rooms, pouring from bottles that crowd the tables. All evening, a clamor of glasses and conversation fills the air.
For wine lovers, Montrachet provides a joy ride in the esoteric: long pages of the wine list are devoted to classic and obscure Burgundies. The list rambles, impresses and excites. And just when you’re feeling befuddled, a sommelier moseys by and saves you from giving up and ordering a beer. Montrachet’s team of wine stewards are masterly at listening, assessing your inclinations as well as the plumpness of your wallet and then coaxing you to try something new.
This kind of service can be found only in an older, established restaurant. And it sums up what has happened to Montrachet. Its reputation for exceptional wine has trumped its food. It’s no longer a three-star restaurant aiming to blend perfect food, wine and service. It’s a wine haunt.
A special wine list is ample motivation to dine out, and in a way the menu, like the menu at Veritas (also known chiefly for its wine list), does not make the mistake of competing with the wines. Montrachet’s menu is flush with hearty but restrained bistro classics like magret of duck with peppercorn sauce, mustard-crusted salmon, foie gras and creme brulee.
Unfortunately, though, too many dishes fail even to provide sturdy pairings for the wine. The tuna tartare lacks both the clarity of flavor you find in the best quality tuna and the acidity needed for contrast. The goat cheese salad is fragmented by flavors like red pepper and pine nuts.
Some mistakes are too elementary to comprehend. A molten chocolate cake, a recipe that seems to be in the DNA of every American chef, is thick and sludgy here. And although the Gewurtztraminer panna cotta is tangy and floral, you couldn’t jiggle it with an earthquake.
The kitchen employs lots of ramekins, lots of sticky savory sauces and fruit sauces – coulis, in 80’s parlance – decorated with swirls. This is neither irony nor postmodern quotation. It is simply inertia. Sadly, the gloss and the grooming and the energy in Mr. Nieporent’s restaurant empire, which all started here, are now to be found elsewhere.
239 West Broadway (White Street), TriBeCa; (212) 219-2777.
ATMOSPHERE A 1980’s flashback, with sponge-painted walls and bright abstract paintings.
SOUND LEVEL Quiet enough for eavesdropping.
RECOMMENDED DISHES Roast squab; red wine risotto; roast chicken; saddle of rabbit; trio of beef; creme brulee; strawberry and fromage blanc dome.
SERVICE Deft and not hovering.
WINE LIST An extraordinary list, whose strengths lie in Burgundy. The bartender makes a delicious kir royale.
HOURS Dinner, Monday to Thursday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, to 11 p.m.; Lunch, Friday, noon to 2:15 p.m.
PRICE RANGE Dinner, appetizers, $11 to $22; entrees, $24 to $30; desserts, $9 to $10. Prix fixe, 3 courses, $36; 6 courses, $79.
CREDIT CARDS All major cards.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS Steps at entrance. Restrooms on main level.
WHAT THE STARS MEAN:
(None)|Poor to satisfactory
Ratings reflect the reviewer’s reaction to food, ambience and service, with price taken into consideration. Menu listings and prices are subject to change.