“Five stars,” Jeff, dressed in gray herringbone to match his thinning salt-and-pepper locks, declared to all within earshot. Seated at an adjacent table, my unanticipated dinner guest handed down the judgment to his wife while assessing a final bite of lobster ravioli before turning to my party. “It’s got this kind of chopped tomato thing on top,” he opined, referring to the gently acidic concassé, then added, “and wow, that briny foam!”
Surrounded by frothy shellfish bisque, the lone pasta pocket of Jeff’s dreams costs $26 at Michael White’s latest venture: Vaucluse (100 East 63rd Street, 646-869-2300), a 12,000-square-foot Francophilic departure from the numerous glossy Italian restaurants (Marea, Osteria Morini, Ai Fiori, Costata) he and CEO Ahmass Fakahany operate as the Altamarea Group.
Executive chef Jared Gadbaw, who rose through the Altamarea ranks to take the helm both here and at the posh seafood salon Marea on Central Park South, stuffs the raviolo with fines herbes and enough lobster to fill a pescatarian toddler’s fist. A similar portion, piled with black-truffle shavings, crisp green apples, and celeriac, chills on a glass saucer adrift on a floe of crushed ice for $21. The bright earthiness of the produce and truffles harmonizes with the lobster just fine, but Jeff sure can pick ’em. That is one dense and filling solo raviolo.
White lavishes his customer base with a barrage of luxe and decadent ingredients, entrusting Gadbaw to steer Vaucluse’s cooks confidently around a kitchen that’s likely as butter-slicked as Paula Deen’s. More lobster and truffles show up in a $44 fricassee main course: a generous jumble of whole tails and claws atop a fungi-fortified potato purée surrounded by a moat of sweet port sauce. Another unabashed entrée of rosy veal tenderloin tournedos Rossini comes sauced with truffle-veal jus and served beside a foie-gras-topped toasted black-truffle-and-caramelized-onion sandwich: a brown-bag assemblage fit for a plutocrat’s lunchbox. The reason your $37 entrecôte tastes so damned good? White and Gadbaw age the boneless rib cut in a snowy layer of whipped beef fat.
Altamarea presents buttoned-up Vaucluse as a brasserie for the one percent, but White and Gadbaw’s propensity for heavy, richly larded cooking helps make this menu of elevated classics accessible to those who might otherwise be turned off by the high prices. You won’t go hungry splitting the $45 tournedos or bulky slabs of defiantly soft duck-and-pork terrines — mesmerizing $19 meat mosaics encased in pastry and set next to quail-egg-topped frisée salads.
Likewise for deep bowls of creamy red Camargue rice from the South of France, studded with plump snails, seasoned with garlic-parsley butter, and dotted with feta and buttery croutons. Other plates, like a simple roast leg of lamb with crushed potatoes or a starter of meltingly supple, charred-then-chilled leeks adorned with anchovies, almonds, and mustard seed vinaigrette, are stealthily shareable. Especially so when compared with the $46-per-person charge for duck breast served à l’orange with a side of vegetable gratin. And the chef’s dry-aged, fontina-and-tomato-jam-topped “White Label” burger, at $24 with a side of fries, clobbers the Minetta Tavern’s legendary $32 “Black Label” meat sandwich.
Vaucluse even throws the occasional bone to cash-strapped wine lovers. While they’re very much in the minority on wine director Richard Anderson’s lengthy, largely French list, a handful of bottles are offered in the $40 range, a gracious concession for a restaurant in this zip code serving this food at these prices. No one likes to pinch pennies when dining out, but it’s a blessing that some of the restaurant’s best dishes are also the most shareable (and thus most affordable). For all the cash and flash being thrown around this opulent, three-tiered dining complex, a judicious party can get out the door for less than $100 a head. Could it be that Vaucluse is more egalitarian than its environs suggest?
Not always. Depending on where you’re seated, dining here can feel like three separate restaurants. The parlor up front, outfitted with a glowing oval chandelier, reads splashy nouveau-bistro. On the other end, artsy wine racks anchor an intimate, elevated anteroom, and banquettes reserved for walk-ins face the highly trafficked bar area that connects the two main spaces. But consider this an incentive to plan ahead: Patrons confined to the “lounge” miss out on an amuse-bouche, though they are graciously offered selections from the kitchen’s breadbasket.
No matter where you’re seated, don’t skip the desserts from Alina Martell, who, like Gadbaw, works double duty, collaborating with Altamarea corporate pastry chef Robert Truitt here and at Ai Fiori in the Langham Place hotel. Chocolate rules, from ultra-concentrated dark-chocolate soufflés with coffee ice cream to the hazelnut-chocolate “Tarte Vaucluse” and an oddly addictive assemblage of milk chocolate ice cream embedded in a chocolate mousse studded with cocoa meringue. The crackle of Martell’s caramel mille-feuille under both fork and tongue is extravagant no matter your tax bracket.