On my first visit to the Adolphus Hotel’s remodeled French Room, I was very curious to see the consommé, which arrived in an elegant, double-handled, gold-rimmed bowl. The clarified broth was full and rich and beautiful, yet somehow ephemeral, as if you had skimmed sunshine and ended up with this elixir. In the liquid floated six tiny ravioli with fillings of spinach, the essence of viridescence; foie gras, urgent and intense; and mushroom. I wanted the flavors to go on forever.
Did a Proustian memory of the former French Room arise from tasting the consommé? No, as it turned out. Neither was a French Room reverie evoked by the amuse-bouche that evening, a green sphere balanced on a minimalist spoon in a field of wheatgrass, the presentation streamlined and modern. This was so different from everything the old French Room used to be: fussy, pastel-hued, filled with cherubs, where veal with curry risotto and lingonberry sauce was an even worse idea than it sounded. Now the rococo dining room is stately but understated, Versailles without
Michael Ehlert, The French Room’s new chef, has been showing his affinity for the exquisite discipline of the French canon with dishes that trace their origins to Escoffier. He has been putting pommes Dauphine, souffléed potatoes soft as velour, in a dish that tosses out the usual Burgundy land snails in favor of Long Island sea snails, a dozen or more of them eased out of their shells, plump and soft as oysters and very briny. They came with a potent watercress sauce, like a good sorrel sauce you might serve over fish. In his hands, this was a profoundly smart dish.
I loved duck a l’orange, the classic sauce mounted with ample butter and finished with Grand Marnier, like an orange-zest caramel, with a gorgeous tang and perfect viscosity. I loved tête de veau; the clove-spiced, mustard-daubed morsel from a calf’s head was a tour de force as the central part of a seven-course tasting menu, a suite of experiences that were elegantly complemented by their wine pairings.
In this dining room where they used to wheel souffles, marble-topped carts now hold cheese- and dessert-scapes, little worlds of apothecary jars and boxes filled with bergamot marshmallows, sea salt caramels, miniature financiers, pâte de fruits, and marzipan confections. You’re quickly drawn in, like a pauper lavished with largesse.
On another night, try the cheese cart’s Muenster with honeycomb or the creamy buffalo-milk wonder. The figs, are they poached with lavender? The city’s other cheese plates are child’s play.
The wine list reads like a dissertation full of elegant and non-fusty French wines and spirits like absinthe and Chartreuse. But then a bartender appears, and your attention is momentarily captured by the theatricality of tableside cocktail service. “Why Not a Sazerac?” the menu reads. Loose-leaf tobacco curls its smoke into a cut-glass tumbler for the drink that revels in its drama.
It is, of course, a place of exquisitely minded details. Servers’ gentility is softened by warmth.
Was everything in the plates perfect? No. The pear that accompanied foie gras poêlé was mealy and the plum far from in-season. But the foie gras itself, scored meticulously and seasoned so the tongue found pops of salt, was seared hard and fast, remaining pure liquescent decadence inside, like olive oil and melted butter. It was perfect with the Pinot Gris with which it was paired, a sweet wine that took the place of Sauternes.
With the tranche-cut salmon served silky medium-rare over chanterelles, you feel petty saying the sea beans weren’t juicy enough at the joints and the salmon’s lobster sauce upstaged it, turning monotonous.
At its height, a meal meant finery in which nothing was irrelevant, the cooking impeccable. At its nadir, there were a few compositions I’d rather forget.
A vegan eggplant “entrecôte” held loose reins on powerful, unpleasant flavors, with a black garlic purée that tasted like burnt fruit to which something truly awful had happened; a strange, root-vegetable-y bordelaise; and dark, wrinkled, mushy bouchon potatoes—all browns and singularly unappealing.
Pastry chef Eric Burrell’s floating island was not flirty, diaphanous billows of meringue set adrift in a sea of crème anglaise, but a painfully sweet molded dome perched stiffly on piers of macerated cherries. Generally, the approach to desserts made me feel they stopped short of being the dainty, exploratory essays they could be.
Still, what bothered me most was that, like a doll’s house, the gilded, sublime space feels strangely hollow. A dinner can be splendid and yet missing something. The golden room where fantasies come true can feel empty.
And so, one evening, wandering down a few steps from the now-luminous dining room into the darkened French Room Bar, I found a new crush.
The remodeled bar is like an Orientalist boudoir, enigmatic and lush in textures, with blue velvet banquettes flanking a red lacquer chinoiserie mantel. It seems an appropriate place to wear a silk dressing gown and sip a $75 tableside-assembled martini that comes with accoutrements: a spoonful of caviar, sea beans, and lemon juice turned into a pearl by means of molecular gastronomy.
I mentioned to the attentive bartender that I couldn’t help but be intrigued, particularly after experiencing the drama of the incomparable Sazerac. “Let’s,” the bartender said. “Shall we?”
The French Room is now a fine lady; The French Room Bar is a mistress.