FROM PROVENCE WITH LOVE Grilled leeks ($16) with toasted almonds and mustard seed vinaigrette
Who thinks the Upper East Side is hopelessly stodgy? Not your dad or your boss. Not your great-aunt. Not the VIPs of a certain age claiming the tables and turnover at chef Michael White’s new Vaucluse. This grand reinvention of the jewel-box expanse that was Park Avenue Summer (or Fall, then Winter and Spring) lurched to top speed before you could say Vaucluse. Isn’t that a town in Provence?
“It’s just been 10 sessions and...” the chef shrugs, moving through the dining room to shake hands with NYPD Commissioner William Bratton and his wife, Rikki Klieman, at the Zagats’ table; almost bowing to Marcia Levine from the Marlborough Gallery; and saluting Jennifer Lang, here with her daughter Georgina. Spying me, his eyes widen as if he didn’t know I was there.
“The duck was delicious,” I say, blurting it out. I don’t usually make comments like that, but I’m a little dazzled too. I’ve been to Vaucluse twice and liked most of what I tasted, but when I spied the duck a l’orange for two, $44 per person, at the bottom of the menu, I tapped a foodie friend for a return match. Our two large plates, barely fitting on the small two-top, are the same: A Rohan duck’s breast has been roasted and sliced into islands of rare, meaty richness that march alongside floats of manicured orange segments into rich, winey puddles. No way I can finish the duck after the excellent tartare de boeuf we’ve shared as a starter. I can imagine returning to order just that and a salad for a satisfying supper. But now I’m overcommitted because I’m so taken with the crumbed leek-turnip-broccoli gratin that escorts the bird—savoring first one spoonful, then a second, then another.
The serving crew that was shockingly indifferent to cries for service or a waving arm—and walked by the table without seeing anything a week earlier—seems slightly more comfortable working the room now, though I did worry the belligerent busser who brought the duck would shove my bread plate to the floor to make room for the bird if I hadn’t suggested she could take both bread plates away.
Chef White needed to be French. Cooking Italian was getting to be too everyday for this Midwesterner, I suppose. A year out of culinary school in Chicago in 1990, he was working for Paul Bartolotta at Spiaggia, even following him to train at Ristorante San Domenico in Imola and lingering on for years to immerse himself in the Italian kitchen.
Now, he has 65 seats up front and 70 more in the less-appealing back room, in a neighborhood of well-financed midlife thrill-seekers and old fogeys eager to be fed in their neighborhood. And White is overseeing duck and pork terrine en croûte and poireaux vinaigrette with toasted almonds, confident he was born to cook French. In tribute to his finance-driven partner, Ahmass Fakahany, he calls it Vaucluse (even though the food is not especially Provençal) because that’s where his market-sage confederate has a retreat.
The space that once changed dress with the seasons as whimsically as Gaga has been dramatically redone with a mix of fine leather and tweed banquettes, smartly focused lighting and a new vaulted ceiling over the expanded eat-at bar. With both White himself and Executive Chef Jared Gadbaw bossing the kitchen on a recent Friday night, the food is mostly very good. I relish the crisp fried edges of the zucchini tartlet, though two sauces are definitely unnecessary. The cucumber-and-lettuce gazpacho is luscious too. Does it need such a generous plop of goat yogurt and pine nut oil? Maybe just a swirl. The camembert-potato tart with caramelized onion, lardons and black truffle is over-the-top but actually pretty good.
The simple chicken breast could not be more moist or flavorful—that’s strong praise from one who normally spurns breast of chicken. The minced dark meat with couscous as a binder is inside the tomato farcie. The Berkshire pork chop ordered “medium rare to rare” looks strangely pale and uncaramelized, but is so remarkably tasty the woman who ordered it sits waiting while her husband helps himself to yet another cut.
Of the Pâtes Fraîches Maison, I only tasted the tagliatelle with duck confit and was not impressed. The grilled salmon with sweet corn in a saffron bourride was good enough. I found the lobster fricassée undercooked, but my pals, happily finishing it off, flatly disagreed. It didn’t really matter since the $37 aged center-cut rib-eye was rare and meaty, and the fries alone would have made my night. I’d asked for them extra-crisp and they weren’t. They were soft, dazzlingly good. I had recently vowed to never eat more than two frites. Now I was eating them, without shame, two at a time, dragging them through the bearnaise sauce that came with the entrecôte.
Pastry Chef Alina Martell’s vacherin aux fraise and the millefeuille caramélisé honor the French commitment. There’s the toasted hazelnut dacquoise with chocolate creméux and a decorative “V” for those who must have chocolate. But in the last gasp of summer, I must choose the tarte aux fruits with black fruit sorbet.
Never underestimate Chef Bianco. He is not just an egomaniac who wants to stand bestride the world with a restaurant in every ZIP code, as I once thought. Tonight, he seems especially humble, as he stops by my table to boast without seeming overly boastful. The kitchen is not only baking the petit pains three times an evening but the large country boule too, and cereal loaf as well. “And it’s all natural levain—no yeast,” White confides. “That means it’s easier to digest. And we’re making our own butter as well.” The milk comes from the legendary Battenkill Valley Creamery in Salem, N.Y. “I’m doing a lot of kneading,” he says, flexing his hand.
100 E. 63rd St., 646.869.2300
Mon.-Thur.: Dinner, 5:30-10:30pm, Fri. and Sat., 5:30-11pm