Keller launches not-so-French Rakel

Keller launches not-so-French Rakel – Thomas Keller, New York City restaurant

Paul Frumkin

Keller launches not-so-French Rakel

NEW YORK — After Thomas Keller spent a year cooking in Paris and a year running the kitchen at La Reserve here, it would seem to follow that he would eventually open a French restaurant of his own.

However, Keller has taken a different path with his two-month-old West Village venture, Rakel.

While the 31-year-old chef is familiar with traditional dishes like a grilled veal chop with roasted shallots and garlic, he is also comfortable preparing new-wave culinary combinations, such as his deep-fried oysters flavored with a wasabi-mustard-and-jalapeno-pepper-laced cocktail butter.

“I suppose the menu is basically French,” Keller said.

But Rakel is by no means a French restaurant–even if Keller’s partner, Serge Raoul, already owns two successful French bistros–Raoul’s in Manhattan and in suburban Nyack, N.Y.

The 85-seat operation, like so many other contemporary urban American restaurants, doesn’t lend itself to easy labels. It is a kind of high-fashion crucible, recombining diverse–and occasionally incongruous–culinary ideas and influences. Even the name is a reshaping of sorts: Rakel–pronounced Rah-KEL–is a contraction of the two owner’s surnames.

Storm cloud decor

The restaurant’s imposing loft-space decor is not easily categorized either.

Broad white columns and an 18-foot ceiling painted with pink-tinged storm clouds dominate the 2,100-square-foot dining room. At the same time giant postmodern paintings, a striking, black-enameled backbar and a partially exposed kitchen all compete for visual attention. And, ultimately, a video camera positioned on the roof of the 12-floor building will transmit shifting cityscapes onto a screen hung in back of the bar.

Nevertheless, the main focus of attention is Rakel’s free-style menu.

A French influence

Keller, who has been cooking professionally for 10 years–one of which was spent working in the kitchens of such high-powered Parisian restaurants as Taillevent, Chiberta, and Gaston LeNotre’s Pre Catalan–admitted a heavy French influence.

And certain dishes, such as the grilled veal chop, rabbit roasted with rosemary, or roast duck breast with lentils and bacon, bear that claim out readily.

With others, however, the connection is less obvious.

For example, grilled sweetbreads are the basis for one main dish, but additional ingredients include Chinese five-spice powder, fried Chinese rice noodles, and lemon grass.

Another sweetbreads dish–in this case, an appetizer–is accompanied by fried leeks but flavored with a sesame vinaigrette.

A third example, lobster poached with arugula and served with sauteed vermicelli, doesn’t announce any Oriental influence. Nevertheless, the vermicelli are actually Japanese noodles that have been blanched off, formed into small cakes, and sauteed until crispy.

Keller asserts that he is not trying to turn Rakel into an East-West-fusion restaurant, though. “My cooking is stylized,” he explained. “I’m not trying to marry any particular cuisines together.

“I don’t want people coming in here next year and saying things like, ‘But we heard this was a French-Japanese restaurant.'”

Keller admittedly knows little about Oriental cooking but adds that he enjoys eating at Oriental restaurants. “Since I don’t know that much about it,” he said with a shrug, “I can’t be too critical.”

In nearly all cases, however, Keller’s dishes are labor intensive.

An innocent-sounding preparation like salmon grilled rare with a green herb butter sauce and fried parsley gives no real indication of the work involved. In fact, the herb butter is colored with chlorophyll extracted from various vegetables or herbs–a process that takes a full day. Even with a seven-man kitchen at dinner, Keller said, it is a difficult–and expensive–menu to execute.

For a ragout of crustaceans and fish with saffron consomme–a preparation similar to a bouillabaisse–the kitchen prepares a pasta flavored with lobster puree. “It has to be prepared daily and refrigerated,” Keller explained.

Lunches average $25

As a result, Rakel tends to run a moderately high check average. According to general manager Alison Price, who had previously managed New York’s Gotham Bar and Grill, the average lunch check is about $25 per person while dinner is double that. The restaurant is currently doing few lunches–the neighborhood provides little office space–but about 70 to 80 covers at dinner. Keller said he would like to do about 120 covers each night.

The kitchen accounts for approximately one-third of the restaurant’s 3,400 square feet. To some degree, it is patterned after the kitchen of Taillevent, which, Keller observed, was highly organized. “There wasn’t one restaurant I worked in Paris that could turn out food as consistently as Taillevent,” he said.

The main line is a pedestal island construction because “it’s easier to keep clean,” Keller said.

The line has four positions for saucier, poissonier, entremetier, and eventually a grillade. Each chef has his own flat top, burner and oven.

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