benoitI knew a kid in high school whose last name was “Benoit.” First name Rick. Ricky Benoit. In Dallas, Texas, that French, foreign last name made him seem VERY sophisticated to me. I’ve since learned that French doesn’t always equate to “fabulous,” but France often does.

Alain Ducasse’s newish Manhattan brasserie, Benoit, has suffered through some pretty tough reviews, since it opened at the beginning of the summer. I haven’t been that eager to fork over a small fortune to eat mediocre French fare in the culinarily-challenged hinterland that is Times Square/Midtown. Plus, I’m still sore at the loss of the venerable, if stuffy, La Cote Basque, which once occupied the space. “Brasserie,” however, is one of my favorite restaurant aesthetics (though a recent, disappointing meal at Rue 57 reinforced my contention that rustic sconces and distressed mirrors alone do not an inspired French dining experience make). Balthazar still does it best and there’s no surprise that it’s located in SoHo, not on 55th St. But some photos I’d seen of Benoit compelled me, recently, to go scope out the restaurant’s bar when I found myself entertaining an out-of-town guest, and therefore north of 14th St.

We’d left MoMA. It was happy hour. I was, oddly, in the mood for a dirty, vodka martini, and Benoit presented itself as a convenient choice. We had drinks only in the front bar, so I can’t attest for the food, and martinis are really the entry-level cocktail for any bar worth its salt (especially in midtown), but I enjoyed the clubby, yet playful, atmosphere of black and white striped walls, checkered floor, and muraled ceiling. My drink was stiff and salty, perfect to enjoy in front of the large windows that had been left open to let in cool, nighttime air. Surprisingly, the service was also lovely.

I’ve admitted to being a downtown snob, but circumstances sometimes call for getting a decent drink somewhere other than Bar Q. A couple strong rounds at Benoit set us on track for a ‘good night’ indeed. Enjoy the martinis here and good luck drinking just one.

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