As any true foodie knows, in New York, the emphasis is always on the “new.” In our quest to check out the latest and the hottest, old friends sometimes completely fade from memory. Take Brasserie, the Midtown eatery that has been in business for almost 50 years. It was totally off my radar, despite some very pleasing meals there in the past. But when I heard Franklin Becker, a chef who had impressed me during his stints at Local and Trinity, had taken over the kitchen, I knew it was time to make a return visit.
At first, the experience was dispiritingly similar to revisiting many an old friend; the restaurant’s ultra-modern design by the famed architects Diller & Scofidio hadn’t aged well, with some of the furnishings in need of cleaning or repair. (The restaurant is awaiting delivery of fabric from Italy, we were told.) But one bite of the irresistible baguette with super-creamy butter that begins every meal – a tradition that pre-dates Becker’s tenure – and a lovely if pricey glass of Sancerre, and it didn’t seem very important. And once Becker’s superb creations arrived at our table, it didn’t matter at all. While the weather’s still chilly, make sure to sample his fully flavored lobster bisque, rich yet not overwhelming and completely redolent of the crustacean. Decidedly lighter, yet still satisfying, is the “tuna cru,” essentially a round of carpaccio topped with a dollop of avocado and caviar. But to truly encounter Becker’s facility with creatures of the sea, sample both the most perfect grilled Mediterranean sea bass, which arrives simply crowned by parsley, lemon and extra virgin oil, or a particularly hearty preparation of sublime diver scallops atop a mound of whipped sweet potato, cabbage, and mustard, all napped in a red-wine truffle vinaigrette. Not wanting to ignore the carnivorous side of the menu, we opted for heavenly orange-glazed duck breast, served delightfully rare, accompanied by a fennel-onion sousbise with bits of duck confit and a small cast-iron skillet of flawlessly fried spaetzle. Yet, as full as I was, it took every ounce of strength not to wander over to a nearby table and ask for one bite of a magnificent looking – and unbelievable huge – rib-eye steak. (Our extremely charming waiter told us that the many steaks on the menu were still among the most popular items.)
Becker turns over the dessert course to pastry chef Kenneth Larsen, who manages the impressive feat of turning out finales that are both inventive and delicious. A rich chocolate cake with a layer of “crème brulee” in the middle was irresistible, followed by a banana-bread-like cake topped with a slice of caramelized banana and a round carrot cake which wore a hat of cream cheese soufflé glace. If there’s a lesson to be learned, it’s this: Don’t forget your old friends – especially when there’s a new chef in the house!