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Why the City's Power Women Choose Chevalier for Lunch

By Gary Walther
Photography By Evan Sung
May 12, 2015 | Food & Drink

Charles Masson envisioned a new type of restaurant for the city’s stalwart ladies who lunch and their business counterparts when he opened Chevalier at the Baccarat Hotel.

“I like to cook with one foot in the present and the other in the future,” says Executive Chef Shea Galante about the cuisine at Chevalier. Shown here, the roasted beets salad with fromage.

Manhattan’s ladies who lunch (and their corporate counterparts) may soon have a new clubhouse, the just-opened Chevalier on the ground floor of the Baccarat Hotel, opposite MoMA. The lure won’t be the triple-height dining room designed by Stephen Sills, or the modern French menu created by Executive Chef Shea Galante, who garnered rave reviews at Ciano and Cru, although they are sure to win notice. Manhattan’s grande dames will show up because the man running the room is Charles Masson, the debonair, blue-suited, on-cat’s-feet equerry, who until March 2014 presided over their current clubhouse, La Grenouille. (Masson resigned abruptly last year, over a weekend in fact, the explosive culmination of a long-simmering dispute with his mother and brother about the restaurant’s management.)

Masson has his eye on his former clientele not out of spite, but out of conviction. “Anyone who pretends that these women are an insignificant part of the business doesn’t understand the business,” he says. But he’s also quite clear that neither they nor his former clientele will find Chevalier a remake of La Grenouille—they probably won’t even find their favorite waiter, because upon leaving La Grenouille, Masson appealed to the staff to stay put. “This is a beautiful house that we built together,” he told them. “You must stay here.” “It would be silly to attempt to clone La Grenouille,” he says, “La Grenouille is one-of-a-kind.”

At Chevalier, Masson has a lot to work with. The double-height entrances to the right and left of the bar are hung with thick curtains, half-drawn, which make you feel as if you’re stepping onstage. The room itself is imposing and yet tranquil, a Sills hallmark. There’s no gilt, but there’s crystal on the table (and plenty of it in Chevalier’s bar), appropriate since the restaurant is named for Baccarat’s longtime creative director, Georges Chevalier. The only swoosh of color in the subtle palette of white, ivory, taupe, and cocoa is a wide column of ruby-red resin that forms the front wall of the room. The other walls are partially clothed in columns of rectangular, glazed antique-glass mirrors. Of course, there are gorgeous sprays of flowers, another Masson hallmark, and they are more restrained than the floral fecundity at La Grenouille. Chevalier is grand, with a small, sexy vibe, like a muted trumpet, and yet the scale gives the room gravity.

Braised duck tortellini.

That sense of the past whipped into a contemporary style is reflected in Galante’s menu. “I like to cook with one foot in the present and the other in the future,” is how he characterizes his approach. That means the menu is grounded in classic French cuisine, but not bound by it—and in some respects, it is not geared at all to women who “lunch.” For example, there’s the baguette with a delectable spread of whipped pork fat garnished with rosemary, served right after you sit down.

Chevalier accommodates the big spender—with caviar service and a high tier of shellfish—as well as the gourmet artisanal: The charcuterie is made in-house, as is the dough for the tortellini. But that dish is far from traditional, since it lacks the traditional tortellini ring shape—it should be called cappelletti—and it has a filling fit for a billionaire: braised duck, truffles, and leeks. But the rapporto, as the Italians say, is perfetto: The pasta and filling melt away in a slow duet, with a note of balsamic vinegar.

There are French classics deluxed, such as the French onion soup topped with caramelized Gruyère croutons garnished with a truffle soubise, and crème caramel with passion fruit yogurt mousse and almond nougatine. There are also dishes nicely reined in, such as the beautifully roasted beets with baby carrots, goat cheese, and radishes, all splashed with a pistachio vinaigrette. Two other such standouts are the single, muscular, succulent diver scallop in a deeply mushroomy sauce, and the turbot à l’orange. The name is a formality, as the citrus tang is delivered by a pavé of kumquat or other seasonal fruit.

For Masson, the challenge is to adapt to doing a restaurant in a corporate context. As director of Chevalier, he has put his definitive stamp on the dining room. Those ivorywhite settees beneath the floral sprays? “It’s funny you should ask about them,” he says, explaining that the restaurant ran out of the nubby (like a Chanel suit) chair upholstery fabric, at which point he insisted that the pieces go in as they were. They are the room’s exclamation points. He also persuaded the powers-that-be to jettison the banquettes as, he says, “They were too rigid. I simplified the dining room.”

In effect, Masson is offering his clientele his honed French restaurateur ace of spades: Make guests feel that they are at home, not design victims. 20 W. 53rd St., (212) 790-8800

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