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A Fine Show

Tony Demes is back with Noisette.

Chef Tony Demes' new French-modern restaurant Noisette is good for both dinner and a show if you do it right. Couvron, his much-missed previous restaurant—which Demes moved from Portland to New York in the early aughts—was well known for its four-hour, many-course tasting menus, and Demes has carried this tradition into the new venture. While the oh-so-petite dishes are available à la carte ($9-$18), the true heart of the place is still in the full $75, eight-course, ever-changing tasting menu, an enveloping two- or three-hour experience dedicated to the notion that dining can be a full evening's entertainment in its own right, not just a decadent prelude to later spectacles.

The small dishes are presented with obvious care and maybe a little showmanship: the oversize plates, tight culinary geometries and swirls of reduction native to the much-parodied nouvelle cuisine are often in evidence here. The servers orient each beautifully plated dish to the diner with terrific precision, as if framing a portrait over a settee. But a single glance at the kitchen will let you know this is a place of tradition as much as innovation or glitz. The main tools in use are the pot, pan and knife, not the freeze dryer or sous vide cooker.

Each dish is both simple and complex at once, a matter of four or five distinct notes brought into harmony. You find yourself comparing one rich bite to the next, wondering, do you prefer the tarragonned and hazelnutted lobster ($13) with the tightly cubed beet and pear together, or merely with the pear? (Answer: You prefer it with just the pear.)

There were no missteps in the 10 courses I tried, though there were standouts—in particular, a petite filet of tender white sturgeon ($14) atop a bed of creamy potato purée against red wine reduction, with shallot and bittersweet fennel on top. The potato "sauces," which were used twice during the meal, were a truly delicate notion; it is a hard thing to make potato interesting when it's allowed to be only itself. But this potentially familiar combination of tastes was in its own way renewed. A well-executed short rib and New York strip ($15), both very French in their saucing, were brought up against crisped, wilted tendrils of pea to similar effect.

Among the appetizers, Demes served up a celery root "hummus" ($9) that in texture was more like whipped custard, to be eaten using a turbined wheel of small unsalted potato chips ensconced in the hummus; the celery was frothy and gentle in its flavor, like whipped air tinged with lightly bitter memory.

As soon as one dish was savored and discussed and settled, another was brought. The pacing was on point throughout, as indeed meals were always served from the left and taken from the right, each ingredient explained, the water filled, the hand towels in the bathroom made of cloth and not paper. If you're trying to make eating an experience, the details count. So while there was no real pomp or formality—wear what you want—the formalities were so well attended to that they dropped from view.

In a town that rightfully prides itself on its whimsically homegrown fresh-local-casual approach to dining—we have achieved in only 15 years something of a genuine regional cuisine—Noisette manages to be both appropriate to the city and something that we nonetheless mostly lack, which is true high-end traditional fine dining. I'm happier than anyone that we have more haute hamburgers per capita than anywhere in the nation, but sometimes the smug comfort-foodieism is just a mask for entitled middlebrow taste gone haywire in its priorities. Noisette is a nice little tug on the proverbial scales. 

  1. Order this: Spring for the full tasting menu; even if you skimp on the wine you’ll still leave feeling somehow drunk and rosy.
  2. Best deal: And yet, you can also approximate the experience for half price by ordering a scattering of six plates and sharing.
  3. I’ll pass: If somehow there’s something you don’t like, take it home with you; give the paper your address and I’ll pick it up.

EAT: Noisette, 1937 NW 23rd Place, 719-4599, noisetterestaurant.com. Tuesday-Saturday, 5-10 pm. $$$$.