At Midtown’s Chic New Canteen, the Food Isn’t in Fashion

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- It’s not easy to get into L’Avenue.

The issue isn’t only that reservations at the new restaurant at Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan are inconveniently blocked out from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Physically, it’s hard to access the place. After 8:30, as the department store is closing down, a security guard will point you down 50th Street toward the sole entrance. A gum-chewing hostess with an iPad then sends you to the ninth floor.

From there, it’s a meandering walk, past a bathroom where the toilets all seem to flush in unison (a water feature?), then down a corridor long enough for competitive sprints. Finally you’ll arrive at the Philippe Starck-designed dining room, replete with caramel leather banquettes and vitrines displaying beaded McQueen dresses and Valentino jackets as if they were museum pieces (but, yes, for sale).

It would be much easier to wander in after a morning of shopping, but the restaurant has made the perplexing decision to open only for dinner and drinks at first. Lunch service, which was planned to begin on March 4, has been pushed back to April. Presumably that’ll give Restaurant Associates, which manages it, time to get the place runway-ready. It isn’t now.

At Midtown’s Chic New Canteen, the Food Isn’t in Fashion

L’Avenue made a promising debut. An outpost of Jean-Louis and Gilbert Costes’s fabulous fashion canteen on Avenue Montaigne in Paris, it opened during Fashion Week with Joseph Altuzarra, Dior’s Kim Jones, and Carolina Herrera’s Wes Gordon popping by. Soon after, model Karolina Kurkova and Michael Cohen dined there (not together). But late one Tuesday in February, there were no recognizable faces in the half-full room—just a smattering of suits and a family dressed chicly in black. The 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. mob must have sprinted away down that long hallway.

The French(ish) menu is a random amalgamation of 33 items, not including sides such as too-salty-to-eat spinach. Starters begin with carrot-ginger juice and ricochet to chicken spring rolls with a mushy gingery filling. There’s also a dish of smoked salmon with blini, because fashion. Most purveyors of smoked fish like to slice it thin; L’Avenue serves it in inch-tall planks. If you sandwich it between blini, it becomes a slider, the closest you’ll get to a burger here. Forget trying to find a salad—there isn’t one on the menu.

Similarly counterintuitive is a main course beef tartare that’s $25 but still a fabulous deal because it’s the size of a football and, according to a server, mixed only with house-made mayo. If you ask for toast, you’ll get warm slices, which is polite but unappetizing. Would you serve ceviche in a hot bowl?

At Midtown’s Chic New Canteen, the Food Isn’t in Fashion

What’s genuinely delicious are the Pierre Hermé desserts. This is the star pastry chef’s only venue in the U.S., and if you’re smart, you’ll order the coupe satine—a glorious, textural mix of cream cheese ice cream, passion fruit sorbet, and softly whipped cream—as well as a plate of his famed macarons.

The perfect little cookies are also available at a kiosk by the entrance, along with modernist pound cakes in startling hues. These are one of the few items on the ninth floor that your average shopper will want to buy. (The rest of the floor is devoted to $225 Gucci baby shoes and gowns for dowagers.) It seems a missed opportunity not to tantalize diners with a few handbags, or even a Diptyque candle.

What L’Avenue has going for it is the neighborhood. Midtown is now flush with clubby dining rooms—and not just during the day, when well-paid office workers duck out. The four-year-old Polo Bar, open only for dinner, is still impossible to get into; tables at the Grill, Lobster Club, and Pool fill up nightly.

At Midtown’s Chic New Canteen, the Food Isn’t in Fashion

L’Avenue may also profit from the booming restaurant-in-the-store model, as proven by the eatery atop Restoration Hardware in the Meatpacking District, where the stiletto set grabs a burger before clacking out for the night. At the robin’s-egg Blue Box Café at Tiffany & Co., teatime is a magnet for anyone with an Instagram account. L’Avenue has a long way to go before it reaches the caliber of these places—or Freds at Barneys New York, its most direct competition.

The good news is that the place has nowhere to go but up. The room promises to be gorgeous during the day, with light streaming in through windows that overlook Rockefeller Center. Later this spring, the restaurant will open a terrace with outdoor bars, which will feature more of the clever concoctions from Experimental Cocktail Club’s Nico de Soto.

In fact, L’Avenue has the potential to be an exclamation point on New York’s expanding Midtown restaurant scene. With its Parisian pedigree and luxurious hangout vibe, it could wind up as another important non-tourist destination in the pedestrian-packed neighborhood. New Yorkers will just have to get used to the long trek in and out. It’s a great way to burn off the calories from a football of raw beef.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Gaddy at jgaddy@bloomberg.net, Chris Rovzar

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