Spring has arrived in the white-marbled wine bar of Benoit, the New York bistro of superchef Alain Ducasse. The three dishes set in front of me shrug off the heaviness of cold weather fare with bursts of flavor. There's a silky velouté with pillowy, seaside-perfect crab cakes, a fresh bass fillet garnished with warm beurre blanc, and a delicate dessert singing with the vibrancy of lemon, thyme, mint and cucumber.
Executive chef Laëtitia Rouabah, who sits at the table, knows these tastes and textures by heart. To recapture the attention of diners who want something beyond the flavors of a traditional French bistro, Ducasse asked Rouabah to join the renovated Best of Award of Excellence–winning restaurant in fall 2016 to revitalize the menu. Rouabah, 35, has worked with Ducasse for 14 years and is a trusted protégé. This spring marks the 10th anniversary of the bistro.
Melding the familiar with the unexpected, Ducasse, Rouabah and head sommelier Alexis Blondel organized a three-course meal and wine pairings suited for springtime entertaining. The corn velouté with crab cakes pairs with a vibrant Riesling, the striped sea bass is elevated by a Savennières, and the dessert, a citrus composition with lemon thyme ice cream, delivers freshness alongside a dry vermouth. Below, Wine Spectator adds 10 wine suggestions.
Rouabah is stressing the importance of buying the bass fresh at market when the soft scrape of a chair announces Ducasse’s arrival. He makes a slight hand gesture to acknowledge our hellos and teases, in a quiet voice, “She is the chef. I am her assistant.”
Rouabah dives back in. For a family gathering, the warm corn velouté is a straightforward dish. Minced jalapeños add a hint of heat here and in the accompanying crab cakes, which are buttery and crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. To let the flavor of the crab cakes fully integrate, Rouabah recommends letting the mixture sit overnight if possible.
For this creamy appetizer, Blondel recommends a vibrant Alsace Riesling like the Domaine Trimbach Riesling Alsace Réserve 2013. “It has beautiful tension, une belle tension, we say,” he explains. “Always the rule for spiciness: Acidity is key.”
The bass is steamed with vegetable stock, olive oil, thyme and garlic, and topped with a handful of sea beans—green succulents with a nutty flavor and crunchy texture—and a rich beurre blanc. There’s an ingredient in the sauce that isn’t your average pantry item, but its role is relatively simple. Seaweed—fresh if you can find it, but dried is just as good—provides healthy vitamins and acts as the salt of the dish. While eating, the only clue that seaweed is part of the sauce is a satisfying briny edge that cuts through the butteriness. Cooked spelt, an ancient species of wheat, provides a contrasting texture to sink your teeth into, compared to the melt-in-your-mouth bass.
For this main course, Blondel suggests a Chenin Blanc with notable acidity and a bit of salinity, such as the Damien Laureau Savennières La Petite Roche 2013, to complement the dish and cut through the richness.
For the steamed bass dish, Ducasse and Rouabah stress the importance of sourcing local, fresh products and seeking balance—“Not too much salt, not too much fat,” says Ducasse. For great cooking, he says the approach should be, “What do I have, and what do I know I can do with these ingredients? And then you taste …” A small smile. “Délicieux.”
Even with a recipe that can be complicated at times, “People don’t need to put lots of pressure on themselves to realize a dish completely,” Rouabah adds. “It shouldn’t be—gasp—‘I have to cook the spelt for exactly five minutes!’ Cooking should be a pleasure.”
The dessert is a crescendo of citrus in three parts: lemon thyme ice cream, lemon mint cream and Meyer lemon confit. The final result, Ducasse says, tastes of lemon curd, but with a twist: Finely diced cucumber gives an unexpected but vibrantly refreshing pop of flavor and defines the dish. Blondel recommends a complex, herbaceous vermouth like La Quintinye Royal Extra Dry to pull out the flavors of the dessert with vivacious clarity.
The following recipes are from Benoit executive chef Laëtitia Rouabah and restaurateur Alain Ducasse, and have been adapted for home cooks from their original form by Wine Spectator.
For the Corn Velouté:
1. Slice the corn kernels off the cob using a corn cutter or knife. Scrape the bare cobs with the back of the knife to remove the natural starches and juices. Pour the corn and juice into a saucepan.
2. Add the minced jalapeños and cipollini onions. Sweat all the ingredients for 5 to 7 minutes, until the onions are soft and the corn slightly roasted, then add the heavy cream and cook it slowly on low heat for about 40 minutes.
3. When the corn is very soft, place in blender and blend until it is a smooth puree. Taste and season with Tabasco, lemon juice, salt and pepper as needed. Serves 4.
Note: If the velouté is too thick, adjust by adding 1/4 cup of vegetable stock.
For the Beignet-Style Crab Cakes:
For the batter and frying:
1. Combine the crabmeat with all ingredients in a medium bowl. Season to taste, and set aside. If possible, let the mixture sit overnight to let the flavors fully integrate.
2. Pour vegetable oil into a large saucepan fitted with a deep-fry thermometer. Heat oil over medium-high heat until thermometer reads 375° F. Meanwhile, whisk flour, cornstarch, sugar, baking powder, salt and pepper in a large bowl to create batter. Gradually whisk in a dash of water as needed to help blend the batter, as it will be thick.
3. To fry, work in batches of 4 and return the oil to 375° F between batches. Measure 1 heaping tablespoon of the crab mixture and roll into a ball, then drop it into the batter. Using a fork, toss to coat and lift from batter, letting excess drip back into the bowl. Carefully lower crab beignets into the saucepan of oil. Fry, turning occasionally, until crisp and deep golden-brown, about 4 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel–lined plate and season with salt. Serve alongside the velouté. Serves 4.
For the Beurre Blanc:
For the Striped Sea Bass, Spelt and Garnish:
1. For the beurre blanc sauce with seaweed, sweat sliced shallots in a sautoir pan with a dash of olive oil, and season with salt, to taste. Deglaze with the white wine and reduce until almost dry. Whisk in cold butter bit by bit until there is a thick consistency. Pass the mixture through a chinois or colander back into the sautoir and keep warm on low heat, being careful not to overboil. Take seaweed and rinse well to remove extra salt, and chop finely. Add the seaweed to the beurre blanc and mix gently. Finish with a drop of lemon juice from 1 of the lemons from the bass recipe and season to taste. Keep warm.
2. To cook the bass, combine 1 cup of vegetable stock, 1 teaspoon of olive oil, thyme and garlic in a steamer pot and bring to a boil over high heat and then add the fish. Bring down the heat and cover. Let it cook for approximately 8 minutes.
3. Roast the spelt in the oven at 350° F for 10 to 15 minutes until nicely toasted. In a separate pan, sweat the onions with another dash of olive oil and add the spelt with 4 cups of vegetable stock. Add more stock if necessary. Cook the spelt in the stovetop pan with the minced onion over low heat for approximately 10 minutes. As it cooks, add in another tablespoon of vegetable stock, little by little, until the spelt has a creamy consistency like risotto. (Take it off the heat before it develops a pureelike consistency.) Add the butter and season with salt and pepper to taste, and set aside. (Don’t add any more butter here, because the dish will become richer with the beurre blanc.)
4. For the garnish, zest 1 lemon (reserving the juice), blanch the zest by putting it in cold water, then bring it to a boil. Repeat this process a total of 3 times; set zest aside. Cut olives into quarters, then sauté with sea beans and lemons over medium heat for 5 to 7 minutes.
5. To serve, place the spelt on a plate. Glaze the bass with some of the seaweed beurre blanc and place alongside the sautéed sea beans, lemon and olive. Finish with fresh lemon zest from the second lemon and grated bottarga, salt and freshly ground pepper on the fish. Garnish with tarragon and serve with additional beurre blanc. Serves 4.
For the Lemon Mint Cream:
1. Bring the lemon juice to a boil, then turn off the heat. Add the mint leaves, letting them infuse for 10 minutes. Strain to discard the mint, then combine the juice in a bowl with the sugar, eggs and agar-agar. Pour back into a stovetop pot and bring to boil at medium heat for about 5 minutes, while whisking.
2. Place mixture in a separate bowl and wait for the temperature to cool to 100° F. Slowly add butter while mixing with a hand mixer at the same time. Place in fridge for 24 hours.
For the Lemon Thyme Ice Cream:
1. In a saucepan, bring the milk and butter to a bare boil, then immediately turn off the heat and remove the pan from the heat. Add the milk powder and half of the sugar, and boil again. In a separate bowl, whisk egg yolk with the rest of the sugar, and cook it like a crème anglaise by gradually whisking the hot milk mixture with the yolk mixture, and returning to the saucepan. Strain, then add the thyme, letting it infuse for 24 hours in the fridge. The next day, add the lemon juice, strain again, and spin it in an ice cream maker until you reach desired firmness.
For the Meyer Lemon Confit:
1. Cut the lemons into quarters, place each into a pan of cold water and bring to a boil. Strain the lemon in the pans, place the boiled lemons again in cold water, and repeat the process of bringing them to a boil and straining a total of 3 times, in order to help remove the bitterness.
2. Prep the syrup by boiling water and sugar until it reaches 140° F, then add the 2 lemons from the 2 different pans.
For the Finishing Touch:
Create a ring with the lemon mint cream, then place the diced cucumber on top, followed by the lemon pieces and the lemon confit. Before serving, using a microplane, add lemon or lime zest, then finish with the lemon thyme ice cream on top. Serves 4.
Note: The following lists are selections of very good and outstanding wines from recently rated releases. More white wines rated in the past year can be found in Wine Spectator’s Wine Ratings Search.
DOMAINES SCHLUMBERGER Riesling Alsace Grand Cru Saering 2014
This is lightly fleshy in texture and light- to medium-bodied, offering a mouthwatering mix of ripe yellow peach, grapefruit granita, stone and spice flavors. From France. Drink now through 2024. 455 cases imported.
ZIND-HUMBRECHT Riesling Alsace Turckheim 2015
A fresh, crowd-pleasing white, with floral and fresh herb accents to the flavors of nectarine, guava, stone and spice. A light- to medium-bodied Riesling that's broad and creamy, backed by a firm frame of crunchy acidity. From France. Drink now through 2027. 1,500 cases made.
POET'S LEAP Riesling Columbia Valley 2016
Snappy and refined, offering expressive star fruit and slate aromas that lead to sleek, lingering apricot and spice flavors. From Washington. Drink now. 4,900 cases made.
FRANZ PRATZNER Riesling Alto Adige Valle Venosta Falkenstein 2014
Notes of petrol, grapefruit zest and fresh thyme lead the way in this lively Riesling, with crunchy white peach and Meyer lemon flavors. Light- to medium-bodied and vibrant, offering a lingering, silky finish. From Italy. Drink now through 2021. 3,750 cases made.
RAVINES Riesling Finger Lakes Dry 2016
Very lively, with good cut from start to finish, as peach, yellow and green apple and honeysuckle notes stream through, backed by a lingering mineral hint. From New York. Drink now through 2020. 5,825 cases made.
DOMAINE DES BAUMARD Savennières 2015
Alluring, with quince, creamed pear, verbena and green almond flavors allied to a creamy texture, all offset beautifully through the finish by light quinine and mineral hints. Approachable, but this seems built for the cellar. From France. Best from 2018 through 2030. 1,500 cases imported.
CHÂTEAU D'EPIRÉ Savennières 2015
Shows lovely purity, with a mix of mirabelle plum, yellow apple and white peach flavors that are brightly defined as they race through the mineral- and verbena-accented finish. Has cut and drive. From France. Drink now through 2030. 553 cases imported.
CHAMPALOU Vouvray 2015
Sleek pear, green apple and green plum notes race through this enticing white, backed by a flash of quince on the finish, with a bright verbena edge. From France. Drink now through 2024. 2,855 cases imported.
JEAN-CLAUDE & CHRISTOPHE PICHOT Vouvray Domaine Le Peu de la Moriette 2016
Juicy and friendly in feel, with forward lime, meringue, quince and pear flavors laced by a light ginger hint. Slightly rounded edges show on the finish, but with enough buried acidity to stay lively. From France. Drink now through 2022. 7,200 cases made.
KEN FORRESTER Chenin Blanc Western Cape Petit 2017
This has a slightly rounded edge, with meringue and lemon chiffon notes, but it's fresh and lively overall, with pretty yellow apple, fennel and green plum flavors holding sway through the finish. From South Africa. Drink now. 7,500 cases imported.
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