Once, a restaurant was a place you went for a meal, but as prix fixe prices have begun to climb past the triple-digit mark, chefs have developed aspirations to deliver not just food, but a philosophy. The philosophy of Alain Ducasse at the Essex House was to see how much sensuous pleasure could be packed into two and a half hours. Ever since it opened in 2000, the two principal reasons to go there were Ducasse himself, one of the world's most honored chefs, and the guilty thrill of eating the most expensive meal in New York City, priced at $160 a person, which seemed like real money back then.
Now, both those distinctions have been lost. The latest breakthrough on the pricing front occurred a few blocks away at Masa, in the new Time Warner Center, where Masayoshi Takayama purveys his jewel-like sushi tidbits at a prix fixe that starts at $300. And earlier this year Ducasse, with 17 restaurants around the world, turned over the controls of his custom-built 3,000-pound oven to Christian Delouvrier, who earned four stars from The New York Times for his elegant, classic French cooking at Lespinasse. To install another four-star chef, with his own style and reputation, in a restaurant bearing Ducasse's name was regarded as asking for trouble, like booking Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown on the same bill. Delouvrier, who had dreamed of having his own name on a Manhattan awning but fell short of raising the several million dollars it would take even before the first lobster crawled in the door, would have to be content with cooking Ducasse's food, or so the dining world assumed.
But Delouvrier has made the collaboration work, by adopting to the nth degree Ducasse's obsession with fresh regional products and his deceptively simple preparations. "It's not that easy to do," Delouvrier says. "I read all the books of Mr. Ducasse." As a measure of his self-confidence, Delouvrier spent the last couple of weeks designing a new prix fixe tasting menu for the fall that will be priced at $225 a person, up from $150 in the spring. (One answer to the obvious question--how does he get away with it?--is that he has to lure only 65 people a night to fill his dining room. Masa seats just 26 and the newly anointed four-star Per Se has just 16 tables.) Delouvrier and his sous-chef, Sebastien Rondier, devised the dishes, which then went to Ducasse for approval. Among those that made the cut: baby sea scallops from the coast of Labrador, topped with osetra caviar; a terrine of duck foie gras with apple-quince marmalade; sea bream with braised fennel and olives in a red-wine reduction. "Write this down," Delouvrier instructs. "I design the menu according to the Alain Ducasse philosophy." For $225, you should demand nothing less.