Launches high-end venture despite downscaling trend

Essex House banks on upscale Les Celebrites: launches high-end venture despite downscaling trend

Robin Lee Allen

NEW YORK — At a time when many fine-dining operations are downscaling, executives at the newly renovated Essex House here are betting that top chef Christian Delouvrier can buck the trend with the hotel’s luxury restaurant, Les Celebrites.

Banking heavily on Delouvrier’s reputation as one of the city’s most talented French chefs, Essex House executives said they have few qualms that customers will pay the $70 average customer ticket for Les Celebrites’ French cuisine.

“We are concerned about how the economy will affect anything from the rooms to the dining,” said Dimitrios Zarikos, the hotel’s director of food and beverage. “But our approach to anything we offer is that we offer value, and we feel that the value is such that we can ask the price. We’re not cheap, but we’re not expensive. It’s value everywhere.”

Les Celebrites and its sister restaurant Cafe Botanica — a moderately priced operation offering California fare — were both unveiled recently following the completion of a 20-month, $75 million face-lift of the 60-year-old Essex House, which is now owned by Japan-based Nikko Hotels International.

The restaurants are cental to marketing the Essex House as a modern luxury hotel, Zarikos said. “We would like to position the hotel through our food and beverage operations. We wanted to have a full spectrum of restaurants. A third will be a Japanese restaurant to open next year.”

Delouvrier — who previously served as executive chef at the Parker Meridien’s luxury nouvelle French restaurant, Maurice — is pivotal to this marketing plan. But although his name is attached to both operations, Les Celebrites commands his expertise and time. “Les Celebrites is more mine,” he said. “I’m really working here. I’m here every day and every night.”

For Les Celebrites, Delouvrier developed a menu of French dishes influenced greatly by the presentation techniques he acquired during recent study in Japan. He calls his cooking cuisine terroir — cuisine of the earth.

“We drifted away from nouvelle cuisine,” he said. “It involves fresh vegetables and good seafood. And we’re lucky to have a rotisserie in the kitchen, so meat is less greasy and more healthy.

“I believe in real taste and something simple,” he added. “Everybody is copying everybody else, but I’m not copying anybody.”

During his tenure at Maurice, Delouvrier imported his ingredients from France. At Les Celebrites, however, he relies on regional ingredients. “If we get things from France into the United States, it doesn’t make sense. “We work with what we have here,” he said.

Entrees include baked bass Mariniere on a bed of Boulangeres potatoes, $31; tender beef stew with a tart of carrot confit and roasted cepes for $29; and a roasted prime rib of beef served with marrow in a shallot sauce with sauteed potatoes and vegetable fricassee for two at $29 per person. Among the appetizers is a Japanese-inspired salad of sweetbreads and field mushrooms with a julienne of vegetables for $15.

A menu degustation for $85 features house-smoked Atlantic salmon, cucumber salad with sour cream sauce and lemon zest; and curried sea scallops in a thin, light pastry with tender spinch leaves. And a menu degustation rotisserie offers salad of spit-roasted Muscovy duck with asparagus, carrots, peas and potatoes and lobster au jus garnished with couscous for $65.

Delouvrier said he would take an active cooking role in the restaurant’s display kitchen. “There’s a time to be behind the desk, but there’s also a time to be on the floor and also cooking,” he said. “It’s no joke. That’s why we have the window.”

The window is one of only a few in the restaurant, which exudes a regal feeling through deep, rich colors and little natural light. Walls, nearly mahoghany in color, are bordered with gold trim and accented by golden columns and golden drapes. A few dark-colored sideboards line the walls and sport crystal fruit bowls and tall crystal candlesticks that sparkle in the romantic lighting. The restaurant seats 56.

Multistyled paintings by unlikely artists, like James Dean, Phyllis Diller, Edgar Allen Poe and Gene Hackman hang liberally throughout the restaurant. The collection gave Les Celebrites its name, Zarikos said.

“All of these people have donated, sold or are exposing their artwork, and it’s for sale,” he said. “We are also doing auctions once or twice a year.”

Unlike Les Celebrites, Cafe Botanica has a bright, outdoor atmosphere created by light tan walls and several windows with a Central Park view. Brightly colored paintings of garden scenes adorn the walls, and plants are ubiquitous in the 124-seat restaurant. Against one wall is a greenhouse built with glass and iron that simulates garden gates. Inside are more plans and a fountain.

The menu includes appetizers like grilled goat cheese with Californian red oak lettuce, baby frisee and shiitake mushrooms for $9.50 and a deep-fried eggplant and shrimp sandwich with a garlic-ginger soy sauce for $13.50. Entrees include saffron pasta with mussels, sea scallops, clam and green tomato compote for $13.50; a barbecued leg of rabbit with orzo and broccoli for $16; and a grilled filet mignon of tuna and shripms on focaccio bread for $18.50.

Cafe Botanica caters to hotel guests as well as New Yorkers and is open for breakfast, lunch and dinnder seven days a week and Sunday brunch. The average dinner ticket is $29.

Delouvrier shares the optimism of Essex House officials about the restaurants’ ability to succeed.

“The strategy is to do what we do best,” Delouvrier said. “Take each restaurant and treat it like a restaurant, not a hotel restaurant. I believe very strongly in what I’m doing.”

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