Promotional material for Michael White’s new French brasserie, Vaucluse (100 East 63rd Street; 646-869-2300), compares the dining room to a “South of France farmhouse” — but, unless we’re actually talking “glamorous chateau,” chances are most Provençal homesteads aren’t rife with silver-haired men clad in blue blazers and women clutching Birkin bags, all sipping Chopin martinis (“Nothing in it, just Chopin, lemons on the side”). That disconnect doesn’t make the place any less wonderful — the ability to cater to and wow folks who can eat anywhere they choose is what makes the place so good.
The first French concept in the Altamarea empire, Vaucluse took five years to come together. Both White and his partner, Ahmass Fakahany, spend a lot of of time in France. White travels to the South with his Italian wife as a relaxing way to break up their family-centered trips to Europe. Fakahany owns property in Vaucluse, and because of that — and the way the word rolls off the tongue — the pair decided to name the restaurant after Fakahany’s part-time home.
But the menu isn’t based in that region alone; it celebrates cuisine from all over the country. Aside from a select few dishes at Ai Fiori, this is the first time in a while that White, who spent years living in France, has been able to focus solely on Gallic cuisine. “I’m known for Italian,” White tells the Voice. “But I’m also a closet Frenchie.”
To start, White and executive chef Jared Gadbaw offer a selection of seafoods, salads, and established brasserie dishes. Along with caviar ($115 an ounce) and foie gras ($27) with hazelnut gâteau, endive, and strawberries, there’s pâté en croûte ($19) and duck and pork terrine with pistachio, cherry, and whole-grain mustard. The escargots à la bourguignonne ($17) is another winner, an ideal foray into snails for beginners — the shelled imports are cooked with rice and a smoked-bone-marrow broth, sprinkled with breadcrumbs and feta cheese, and finished with a grass-colored garlic-parsley butter. From the salad section, the grilled leeks are a must-try; they’re served with toasted almonds and mustard seed vinaigrette, and what looks like lemon zest on top is actually a preserved egg yolk “bottarga.”
White reveals that “everyone is cooking at the top of their game.” One of a handful of homemade artisan pastas on the menu serves as an example of that high level of execution: épaulettes, a ravioli with two pockets, one stuffed with sweet rabbit meat and the other with reblochon cheese, is served drizzled with an intensely flavored black truffle reduction. The dish is delicately refined, yet robustly exciting. The same is true with the White Label burger ($24), a combination of aged beef, shallot confit, fontina cheese, tomato jam, and a horseradish-laced whole-grain mustard — it’s so good, it touches an emotional core.
Entrées include a range of meats and seafood. The night we visited, a server highly recommended pan-seared trout ($34) with lemon, brown butter, and capers. Truffles and foie gras make multiple appearances here, as in a decadent veal tenderloin with foie gras, caramelized onion tartine, and black truffle jus. For two, there’s canard à l’orange ($44 per person), a variation on the classic with roasted Rohan duck and orange. If house cassoulet (offered as a rotating specialites du jour) is any indication, the duck is most likely a complete reinvention of the traditional dish. Like the space itself, the cassoulet takes the rustic French theme and gives it a glossy finish. The time-honored dish is elevated with pork belly, duck confit, and berry sausage; it’s served in a copper pan with al dente beans and sauce au vert, a chimichurri-like herb mix that brightens the rich cuts. Depending on the day of the week, the restaurant’s other daily specials include sole “bonne femme,” boeuf bourguignon, and bouillabaisse.
Pastry chef Alina Martell has created a menu of diverse French sweets: A chocolate soufflé ($14) incorporates Valrhona guanaja 70 percent chocolate, served with white coffee ice cream. Millefeuilles ($10) are light and delicate, with caramelized puff pastry, créme mousseline, confiture de lait, and a milk ice cream. The standout dessert is a vacherin aux fraises ($10), a crisp meringue encapsulating frozen fromage blanc cheese, with strawberry consommé.
The beverage menu offers a handful of beers and a list of predominantly American and French wines. There’s a concise selection of aromatic cocktails ($14) like the “Tournesol” — saffron-infused Bombay gin, Cointreau, Dolin Blanc, and Saler’s. The “Vaucluse Julep” features Michter’s #1 rye, Pineau des Charentes, coconut, vanilla, and lemon.
Vaucluse is open daily for dinner, with lunch service scheduled to begin in a few weeks.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 21, 2015