It's the little things — a maître d' carrying your drink from the bar to your table; the waiter's reassuring but unobtrusive presence throughout your meal. And it's the big things — a piece of fish cooked to exquisite perfection, its skin crispy, its sauce delicate; a plate of food so fussed over and adorned it looks like a piece of art. There's a lot to love about true fine dining.
You won't find me shedding too many tears over the demise of our city's old-school temples of fine dining. As a critic they were fun to cover and a pleasure to indulge in, but I recognized how out of reach they were for most people. The emergence of the more casual chef-driven eatery has, in my opinion, been a healthy turn of events.
But there's no doubt that losing the majority of our most expensive restaurants has left a hole in the scene, one that, until now, no one has really filled. I'm talking about precision. French technique. Food so cosseted it is utterly dependable as a special-occasion treat. While the joys of upscale Southern are a more obtainable indulgence, there's something to be said for food that's refined above all else. Problem is, with the disappearance of places such as Joël and the Dining Room, cooks aren't coming up through the kitchens of chefs who know precision. Creativity reigns, rather than technique. There are very few chefs in town who have even been classically trained in a great kitchen.
One chef who lives and breathes technique is Cyrille Holota, trained classically in his native France before coming to the U.S. to work with Joël Antunes at the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton. When Antunes left the Dining Room to open Joël, Holota went with him, and Holota manned the kitchen at Joël after Antunes left for New York.
After Joël closed, Holota went to work for French American Brasserie. At the time, I hoped he'd be able to put some of his talent to work revitalizing FAB's menu. But FAB has a formula, one that has to do with classic dishes they're loath to change. It appeared as though Holota was not allowed to make much of an impact.
So it seemed odd that his next move would be to BLT Steak, a restaurant across the street from FAB that has its own formula and a menu designed by a celebrity chef, Laurent Tourondel. BLT is known for its high-quality steaks and rich sides, and its inspiration is thoroughly American. What could there be at BLT for a modern French chef? Wouldn't Holota be just as stymied broiling steaks as he was cooking barely passable French onion soup across the street?
It seems that at BLT, a compromise has been born. The regular menu is still the menu Tourondel built, showcasing aged, broiled steaks that could do meaty battle with any steakhouse around and, in most cases, win. There's a Dover sole dish that is one of the finest pieces of fish in town, its white flesh firm and sweet and cooked to an exacting tenderness. There are sides and salads and sauces that represent the best of American cookery. The creamed spinach hums with an undertone of lemon zest; the chopped salad bursts with the crunch and sproing of the freshest seasonal veggies. And the restaurant's signature popovers are better than they've ever been, the flaky, cheesy poof of bread pulling apart like croissant dough.
But Holota has been given his own platform as well. The "blackboard menu" is his to build daily, and it offers two appetizers, entrées, sides and desserts. Everything I've had from that menu harkens back to the heyday of Joël.
An appetizer of cod brandade sat in a prim square on the plate, exhibiting the exact right fluffy heft, its flavor a mellow and sweet combination of whipped potato and salty cod. Tiny croutons placed just so added buttery crunch. A curried eggplant soup adorned with one fat scallop was like velvet, its lustrous consistency almost outweighing the fact that the soup could use a touch more eggplant flavor. Lamb tenderloin looked deceptively simple, roasted and sliced and served with pretty eruptions of color in the form of expertly peeled heirloom cherry tomatoes. But a sneaky espresso cardamom dressing caused the lamb to burst with flavor.
While exceptionally cooked and rife with extravagant ingredients, I found a cod entrée with chanterelles and artichoke hearts a smidge boring. Tiny quenelles of what tasted like saltless grits furthered the meh factor — the dish seemed fancy for fancy's sake. On the other hand, a lobster tail entrée was bizarre in all the right ways, served with "gnocchi Romaine," three patties of polenta with sour cream on top that had been toasted like a marshmallow. Chanterelles appeared here as well, and the whole thing was swathed in a Meyer lemon sauce. The particular cloying sweetness of that fruit worked exceptionally well, the almost dessert-like citrus playing against the rich gnocchi and the buoyant flesh of the lobster.
Here's my one true complaint, and it's not a small one: BLT Steak remains ridiculously, almost comically expensive. It is not hard, if one is drinking, to spend $300 on dinner for two before you've even breached dessert (and you should breach dessert, particularly if they have the hot, pudding-like, sugar-crispy edged carrot cake). When asked for a cheaper recommendation from the admirable wine list, sommeliers point to bottles in the $60-$70 range. The blackboard menu is available as a prix fixe, for $60 per person, which hardly qualifies as a bargain. In theory, it's unsurprising that food of this quality would be so expensive. But BLT doesn't feel particularly special. It feels like a steakhouse. A nice, modern, luxe steakhouse. Does it feel like a place you want to propose to your girl, or celebrate your decade-busting birthday? Not really. So it's hard to make a case for that chunk-o-rent priced meal when the digs point more toward a business lunch than a once in a lifetime experience.
Is it worth it? That all depends. If you've got the cash and you just want the best, most coddled steak around, it might be worth it. If you miss fine dining and the sheer thrill of food prepared by a master, then it might be worth it. There are very few chefs in town deserving of that title: Master. Cyrille Holota is one of them.
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