Recent Meals at Adour & Prune

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Brillat Savarin famously said, “Tell me what you eat, I’ll tell you who you are.”

As much as I’d like to believe that most people go through their lives believing this, my hunch is that most people don’t think it’s a character-defining moment when they sprinkle Splenda into their coffee. Instead, I think many people subscribe to a different notion. Their adage might go something like this: “Tell me WHERE you eat, I’ll tell you who you are.”

As someone who prefers eating home to eating out (although I do eat out several nights a week), I can’t imagine defining myself by where I eat. Yet, if you look at where I eat during a given week–mostly: Taro sushi, Long Tan, with occasional jaunts to Pearl Oyster Bar, Franny’s, Grand Sichuan, and Momofuku–that probably says something about me. What does it say about me?

1. I like Asian food;

2. I like oyster bars;

3. I like places that are casual and unstuffy where the food is good.

That last bit, I think, is the key bit because last week I ate two meals with my family that are a study in contrasts. The first meal was at Alain Ducasse’s new restaurant Adour and the second was at one of my favorite New York restaurants, Prune.

Many of you might remember my last experience with Alain Ducasse. It involved a free truffle tasting menu (see here) that caused something of a sensation on the web. That meal was one of the most surreal nights of my life: we sat in a V.I.P. chamber behind the kitchen and held court as various servers entered and exited with truffles, wine and baskets of bread. It was a very formal exercise–perhaps the most formal experience I’ve had in fine dining–and, despite the wonder of it all, a bit overwhelming.

Alain Ducasse is aware of this criticism. Most of the reviews of his original restaurant were similarly disparaging of the overly formal service. Now that his eponymous restaurant has closed, he’s opened Adour in the St. Regis hotel–a wine bar / restaurant that is Ducasse’s attempt to let his hair down.

Yet look at this picture and tell me if you think party girl or stuffy butler:

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I’m thinking the latter and you might too. The place, despite a funky virtual wine menu projected on to the bar, is pretty stiff and serious. Craig and I met my parents there and as we sat in a little banquette drinking cocktails and waiting 45 minutes for our table, Craig and I recognized many of the same characters from our meal at Ducasse. There was the sommelier from Burgandy (he came over, recognizing us, and said hello–a very friendly fellow); the smiling bread man with the giant bread basket. “Remember us from last time?” we asked him as he came around the table with tongs and sourdough baguettes. He smiled even wider and shook his head: “No.”

It’s difficult to slam Adour because, as this post suggests, where you eat says something about who you are and, inversely, who you are says something about where you eat. Meaning: this isn’t a place I really wanted to go–my parents enjoy formality way more than Craig or I do.

So if formality is your game, you’ll probably enjoy these elegant gougeres (the cheese oozes out when you bite in):

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Or this very sophisticated foie gras tapioca ravioli with sunchoke broth:

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Look at the precision of Craig’s hamachi appetizer:

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That sort of precision befits a place like Adour, where the waiters gaze at you like a very tired doctor asking questions of a recalcitrant patient. It’s not a very relaxing place but I imagine the type of person who comes to Adour isn’t a very relaxed person: probably a hard-working Wall Street type who wants to purge some cash to impress a business partner or a date. Or maybe a true sophisticate who’s eaten their way through the Michelin guide and approaches a meal here with a magnifying glass and a notepad, eagerly recording every sensation as it occurs.

Even though my lamb dish was lovingly presented:

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I found it a little bland and boring. The star of the night, however, was my mom’s scallop dish—Scallops with salsify, spinach, black truffle and shellfish jus:

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I loved the rich almost meaty sauce with the scallops; an unusual and daring combination since most people think of seafood as lighter fare to be lightly sauced. And the slivers of black truffle elevated the plate into the stratosphere; a transformative bite that suddenly justified the formality of the space–this isn’t a library, it’s a temple and, from that perspective, the atmosphere served the food.

The raspberry creme brulee was my favorite dessert, though the dark chocolate sorbet was like a big gooey bowl of cold chocolate soup:

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All in all, for an Alain Ducasse joint, this is less intimidating than the last venture, though still a little off-putting. My least favorite moment of the night involved the wine service. Since I was ordering lamb, mom was having scallops, and Craig was having a hamachi appetizer we all wanted to order wine by the glass. I wanted a red, mom wanted a white, Craig wanted a white. A sommelier (not the one from the comic post) came over after we ordered our wine by the glass and said, “Excuse me” (in a very heavy French accent) “but the idea of this restaurant is to show how different bottles of wine compelement the food and we very much recommend to you that you all share a bottle of wine so you can all taste the wine with your different plates of food and talk about how the wine tastes with the food.”

It was a strange thing to say–especially when we were all very set on having wine by the glass–so I asked: “But what if some of us want white and some want red?”

“What are you eating?” he asked.

I told him what everyone was ordering and he reflected and opened the wine list and said, “Perhaps a strong white would be good? Strong enough for the lamb?”

He pointed to a $200 bottle. I saw my dad’s eyes pop out of his head–this is not what my dad had in mind–and then I awkwardly had to steer the sommelier to the cheaper end of the wine list, just to keep my dad’s heart rate at a healthy rhythm. It was all very awkward and uncomfortable and as much as we thought the wine he ultimately brought (a Viognier) to be very nice, I still would’ve preferred a glass of red and mom would’ve preferred another glass of her Chardonnay.

That intimidation factor is essentially why there’s very little place in my heart for a restaurant like Adour. I admire the craft, the skill, the professionalism of everyone there, but it’s just not very lovable.

And then there’s Prune. If my soul were a restaurant, I’d want it to be Prune. Charming, sweet, small, sophisticated but accessible, Craig and I took my brother Michael and his now fiance Tali there the night before he proposed. When the waitress we had last time saw us sitting there, she came over and gave Craig and I a hug. That’s the kind of place Prune is.

Here’s Michael and Tali with their menus:

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And here’s the first thing they sent over–roasted peppers stuffed with brandade (whipped salt cod and mashed potatoes):

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Call it rustic, call it homey, call it whatever you want to call it but as a first bite to a meal this hit the spot just as much as the gougeres at Adour with way less formality and much more love.

The environment has as much to do with it as anything else. At Prune, you feel like you’re at someone’s house; it’s so small, it’s almost like someone’s apartment. And the food is like the food a really talented, enthusiastic chef friend would make for you if he or she had you over for dinner. Like this meatball appetizer, which was moist and tender and packed with flavor:

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We shared that four ways and then had appetizers of our own. I had the most peculiar thing you will have for a long time; a monkfish liver (I’ve had it there before) cooked in butter and served with buttered toast:

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What a wondrous thing monkfish liver is; called the foie gras of the sea, it really tastes that way. All the richness and unctuousness of foie gras but all the brininess and salinity of seafood. Again, it’s like a friend made a brilliant gastronomical discovery and wanted to share it with you; not nearly as precise as the appetizer Craig had at Adour, but a million times more electrifying.

Michael and Tali made enthusiastic work of their grilled head-on shrimp in anchovy butter:

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And then came my entree: rabbit braised in vinegar.

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Dining out is often about trust and if I were at a place I didn’t fully trust, I’m not sure I’d have ordered rabbit braised in vinegar. But Prune is like a great friend, the kind you stand in front of and fall backwards on during one of those trust exercises. So rabbit braised in vinegar is what I ordered and guess what? It was sublime. So packed with flavor, so explosively good—I’d love to have it again and again for the rest of my life.

Ok, so you see where this is going. “Adam loved Prune and hated Adour,” you’re probably thinking. “Why couldn’t he just say that and conserve my brain space?”

I appreciate your impatience, reader, but it’s not quite that simple. There’s a place for Prune, there’s a place for Adour–both have their merits and both have a particular crowd they serve. Maybe it’s a red state / blue state thing, or a left-brain / right-brain thing. Who knows?

But if the top of this post is accurate, I’d like to believe that my love for Prune and ambivalence towards Adour says something about me. It doesn’t make me a better person or a lesser person, it just makes me the kind of person that likes cozy, homey restaurants with cozy, homey food more than the stuffy, formal kinds. I’m just a cozy, homey Amateur Gourmet; for better or for worse, that’s what where I eat says about me.

27 comments

  1. See, my soul would be more like Adour. Effervescent, voluptuous and not understood by everyone. To each his own.

  2. Describing Adour as “stuffy” in your final analysis detracts from the point you are trying to make, because I suspect that people who prefer Adour over Prune would be more likely to describe Adour as “elegant” or “challenging” as opposed to “stuffy”. I’m more of a Prune-type myself, but making the assertion that you prefer “homey” to “stuffy” (a word with a clearly negative connotation) suggests that you do think there is something better about those of us who prefer Prune. I think your point would be better served by describing Adour in terms that someone who preferred the Adour experience would use. It’s unlikely someone would say, “Adour is just wonderful, it’s so stuffy!”

  3. You have fallen into a common trap. You have defined yourself as normal and anybody different as “something other”. There are perhaps not as many people who feel just as at home and comfortable at Adour as there may be those who relate to Prune, but people to whom that level of order is normal exist.

    There are millions who would find Prune a bit “un” as well. Millions don’t even want to go to NY let alone to a well-known NY restaurant.

    I love NY and am not the least bit intimidated by the speed, the noise, the traffic. I really do not like restaurants that are noisy and lots of those so-called comfy, at-home restaurants are very noisy. It has in recent decades been a point to make in NY restaurants that if they are hot they are also noisy. I personally would settle for the relative boredom of the cuisine at the Four Seasons for the calm and relative quiet I expect there, and that may also apply to Adour.

    If I go to a cheapish vegetarian place in the Lower East Side, I expect noise. I eat and get out. When I dine I don’t want that experience. Nor do I want a waitress to hug me just because she has seen me before.

    I like to think I am normal, too. I am just quite different to you.

  4. When you decided not to write restaurant reviews awhile back I was a little disappointed, because those posts were some of my favorites. However I think posts like the one above, that incorporate thoughts from your dining experiences while not really reviewing the restaurants, are more enjoyable than a standard review.

  5. When you decided not to write restaurant reviews awhile back I was a little disappointed, because those posts were some of my favorites. However I think posts like the one above, that incorporate thoughts from your dining experiences while not really reviewing the restaurants, are more enjoyable than a standard review.

  6. Blimey! I know exactly what you mean. I can’t bear overly formal restaurants, it’s like a part of the experience has been taken away and replaced with something that makes me nervous. I didn’t even know what a gourgere was until I read it in Larousse Gastronomique last night ( a bit of lightweight bedtime reading…). I must have sub-consciously sensed you were about mention them…….

  7. Well I adore prunes. Even though most would give them a bad rap. After reading your review of sorts. I would adore Prune. My kind of place. So, I am not sure what that says about me. Luckily I have some time to ponder it. Of course, while eating prunes.

  8. Great post!

    I share the sentiments as Sara (above) though. Nobody is going to admit liking stuffy, uppity, formal restaurants; at least they won’t describe it that way. On the other hand, most of us tend to like cozy, warm and inviting places.

    So, ultimately, is the food at Adour beyond exceptional that it warrants putting up with the apparent stuffiness?

    But I understand your point. I would probably describe my experiences too in a similar vein.

  9. Oh my… Can I have the hamachi appetizer with the monkfish liver entree? Please?!?!

    I’m so jealous.

    Personally, I do love the chance to get myself out to a “stuffy” restaurant, as long as the food is worth the price! (Seriously, my only quibble with the “high-end” restaurant experience is I feel over-charged for the atmosphere). If I’m going to shell out that much dough, EVERYTHING better be on point.

    I have to say, though, I’ve never been to Prune but as soon as I can get myself down to NYC, I’m going. Everything that you guys ate looks amazing.

  10. Your post really hit home when you describe your-foodie-self as “lik(ing) places that are casual and unstuffy where the food is good.” I recently ran a chowhound message thread for Seattle seeking the best casual dining experience meeting the following criteria:

    – Excellent food

    – Comfortable, casual atmosphere – no dives

    – Good service

    – Mid-range prices (most entrees under $20 for dinner)

    Results are here: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/487020

    I’m starting a NYC list of restaurants that meet that criteria and Prune is the first one to go on it. I’ll put it at the top of my list for my next trip to the City.

    Thanks Adam!

  11. I think I love when you do restaurant reviews because I can live vicariously through you and all your fancy restaurants. Looks delicious! And that bowel was a typo? Who would have known?! :)

  12. I think I love when you do restaurant reviews because I can live vicariously through you and all your fancy restaurants. Looks delicious! And that bowel was a typo? Who would have known?! :)

  13. Rest assured Ducasse can do informal. Dinner at Aux Lyonnais is fantastic with great bistro feel.

  14. What stuck me most was your insight about where you felt most loved. Is there a place for the feeling of love to come through in a very formal setting anywhere, not just a restaurant? If not, then why not and how can it rise to the occasion?

    I also think there is a place for both types of dining experiences, of course. But I would like to feel loved within each. Is that too much to ask? I don’t think so. Aren’t places like Chez Panisse and The French Laundry able to convey some sense of love, reletively speaking?

  15. Adam, Your comparison between Adour and Prune befits my comparison between The French Laundry and Chez Panisse. Comments welcome.

    V

  16. At first I thought the radish slices on the hamachi were rose petals! But like you said, it seems the presentation is attractive, but a bit intimidating and overdone.

  17. So much fun to read. I too love your reviews. But a follow-up on the Adour sommelier experience: Why didn’t you just tell him “thanks, but we’re happy with our by-the-glass selections” and be done with him? What surprises me is how, at such a fine place, the sommelier was so blatant in his “sell-them-up” tactic.

  18. It appears you took a few flash photographs at Prune and many many non-flash photographs at Adour. A snap or two here or there is one thing, but taking many photographs could be considered a rude intrusion on other diners’ privacy, and taking flash photos should be grounds for the boot.

  19. That sommelier was just trying to get you to spend more $. Even though, if you think about it, the table might just have spent more $ on wine by the glass than with just one bottle that, by the way, did not go with all your meals. Viogner with lamb? No thanks! You should have had a Syrah. Stick to your guns next time – study your wine more so you know what you are drinking and ordering!

  20. That sommelier was just trying to get you to spend more $. Even though, if you think about it, the table might just have spent more $ on wine by the glass than with just one bottle that, by the way, did not go with all your meals. Viogner with lamb? No thanks! You should have had a Syrah. Stick to your guns next time – study your wine more so you know what you are drinking and ordering!

  21. I’m so glad you’ve kept doing the odd restaurant review, especially one so considerately written as this. I also appreciate that you do not try to foist off your own very personal opinions and tastes as objective truth, a trap far more common in criticism of any kind than calling yourself “normal,” as Judith pointed out. Of course you’re normal to you, what else would you be? But maybe it’s just that if I were a restaurant, I’d want to be Prune, too. At any rate, great post.

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