New York chef Andrew Carmellini is feeling nostalgic. At Café Carmellini, the grand brasserie he opened late last autumn inside the new Fifth Avenue Hotel, he has served venison loin with sauce grand veneur, a monochrome throwback to the time of Auguste Escoffier, the so-called “king” of French chefs who started codifying the basic tenets of haute French cuisine in the late 19th century. 

Carmellini’s brown-on-brown dish features the classic game sauce, made from long-simmered stock fortified with red wine and port, and elevated here with foie gras and bittersweet chocolate. “It’s real sauce making,” he says. “There’s history there… I don’t know if it’s great for Instagram, but it’s good for the soul.”

Veal medallions and spring pea all’ortolana at Café Carmellini
Veal medallions and spring pea all’ortolana at Café Carmellini © Evan Sung
Andrew Carmellini of Café Carmellini
Andrew Carmellini of Café Carmellini © William Abranowicz

For a while in New York this sort of labour-intensive, old-fashioned French food seemed on the verge of extinction, eclipsed by all things Italian, a surge in new-wave Korean, and a more improvisational style of auteur cooking. In the past decade the number of iconic French restaurants has rapidly dwindled. Le Périgord, established in 1964, closed in 2017. Le Veau d’Or, New York’s longest-running French holdout, opened in 1937, shut down in 2019. La Grenouille, which debuted in 1962, still hangs on, but is a shadow of what it once was. Even Café Boulud, star chef Daniel Boulud’s Upper East Side stalwart, a relative newcomer in this company – it opened off Madison Avenue in 1998 – lost its original home in the Surrey Hotel after an ownership change three years ago. 

Duck-frites at Frenchette
Duck-frites at Frenchette © Jovani Demetrie
Frenchette in Tribeca
Frenchette in Tribeca © Jovani Demetrie

But a renewed appreciation for retro luxuries and familiar comforts, combined with a general decline in big-ego chefs serving blobby, tweezered, avant-garde food, seems to be ushering in a new golden age for classic French cooking. Le Veau d’Or, a former haunt of Orson Welles, Grace Kelly and, more recently, Anthony Bourdain, returns under new ownership this summer, reimagined by Lee Hanson and Riad Nasr – the low-key chef duo behind Frenchette in Tribeca and Le Rock in Rockefeller Center.

Le Rock in the Rockefeller Center’s bison au poivre
Le Rock in the Rockefeller Center’s bison au poivre © Gentl + Hyers

The two Francophile chefs have spent the past few years subtly upgrading the place, adding a private upstairs dining room and developing a menu – of escargots, frog’s legs, blanquette de veau – that pays homage to the original. “You live in New York, you see a lot of these old establishments fall away and disappear. We wanted to keep this one going,” says Hanson. “The lighting is a little better, there are little touches here and there, but the feel of the restaurant will be the same.”

Café Boulud reopened in a new expansive location on Park Avenue last winter, with higher ceilings, bigger flowers, and the same classic cooking in a dining room that’s been packed every night. The menu includes seasonal riffs on classic dishes, like an extra-springy veal blanquette, along with long-time Boulud signatures like the potato-crusted seabass with red-wine sauce he first served in New York in 1986. “People love it,” says Boulud of the dish. “I think it will always be there.”

Chef Daniel Boulud in New York in 1999
Chef Daniel Boulud in New York in 1999 © Getty Images

Next door, the chef has also opened the even more old-fashioned Maison Barnes, in partnership with the high-end real-estate firm Barnes, a Parisian agency making its first foray into hospitality. The cosy dining room conjures up belle époque Paris, with winter garden trellises, cast-iron light fixtures, and floral frescoes from Stéphanie de Ricou, best known for her preservation work at the Louvre and Versailles.

The menu leans heavy on luxury, from shingled medallions of sliced scallops and Kaluga caviar to a lavish veal and morel terrine with madeira chutney. Large-format entrées are served with plenty of fanfare. A roast chicken presented with a lobster’s claws and head around it – looking like an interspecies Frankenstein monster – is a nod to a very classic pairing of chicken and crayfish. “Old is new,” says Boulud.

Potage Crécy and ravioles de boeuf at Maison Barnes
Potage Crécy and ravioles de boeuf at Maison Barnes © Todd Colman
Maison Barnes, on the corner of Park Avenue
Maison Barnes, on the corner of Park Avenue © Bill Milne

And Carmellini, who worked at the original Café Boulud when it first opened, has returned to his roots with the opulent Café Carmellini, designed by Martin Brudnizki to conjure turn-of-last-century New York. The food, a mix of haute French and Italian alta cucina, is generously portioned and exceptionally rich – from a golf ball of golden oscietra caviar to an extra-gooey sticky toffee pudding flambéed tableside like a baba au rhum.

Octopus and squid a la plancha at Four Twenty Five
Octopus and squid a la plancha at Four Twenty Five © Hallie Burton

Like Boulud and Carmellini, Jean-Georges Vongerichten also found inspiration in the past for his restaurant Four Twenty Five, which opened late last year inside a new Norman Foster-designed tower in Midtown. The elevated dining room floats above the street with sheer curtains. Says Vongerichten: “The look was inspired by the SS Normandie, which got stuck in New York during the second world war with four or five French chefs on board.” In a pleasing circularity, Vongerichten has tapped veteran chef Jonathan Benno (formerly of Per Se and Lincoln) to oversee his return to the exact Park Avenue block where his career in New York began. Along with some of his usual globetrotting hallmarks, you’ll find dishes like a densely marbled foie gras terrine served with a spiced madeleine and and a chocolate moelleux with buckwheat caramel and marzipan ice-cream. Too rich? Not a bit of it. “It’s New York,” says Benno. “People will always have an appetite for luxury.”

Four Twenty Five in Midtown
Four Twenty Five in Midtown © Nicole Franzen

Vongerichten’s next New York club, Chez Margaux, scheduled to open this autumn in the Meatpacking District, will feature modern French and international cuisine. And this summer will bring, along with the long-awaited reboot of Le Veau d’Or, the opening of Chez Fifi, from brothers David and Joshua Foulquier, the restaurateurs behind Sushi Noz. The new restaurant is their most personal – the Foulquiers were raised in the neighbourhood, and their father is French. Hence the classic menu and antique decor will take inspiration from their favourite bistros in Paris: Chez L’Ami Louis and Les Gourmets des Ternes, which they often visited when growing up. “We were worried for a minute that French food was falling out of fashion,” says David Foulquier. “I just think somebody needed to put their best foot forward, and now people are starting to do that.” 

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