The storied team behind Tribeca’s Frenchette, chefs Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson, have opened the doors to their latest project – and it’s their biggest yet. Here’s everything you need to know about Le Rock before you go.
1. Le Rock is the newest restaurant to open at Rockefeller Center, but it’s been years in the making.
Le Rock occupies the address of 45 Rockefeller Plaza, which used to be the site of Brasserie Ruhlmann, a go-to for French bistro classics for Midtown’s mix of international tourists and two-martini lunchers. And it’s one of many exciting new restaurants set to open at the New York landmark as part of Rockefeller Center’s expansive dining overhaul, which kicked off last year with the opening of Ignacio Mattos’ Lodi in the former Bouchon Bakery space. (Be on the lookout for new restaurants from the teams behind Atoboy and Atomix, King, and Olmsted, in the near future.)
For Nasr and Hanson, who previously worked at Keith McNally’s Balthazar, Pastis, and Minetta Tavern restaurants before opening their own restaurant, Frenchette, in 2018, this new endeavor — cheekily named Le Rock — has actually been in the works for years, even before the pandemic hit.
2. Le Rock is très, très French.
Despite the playfully French-esque name, Le Rock celebrates traditional French cuisine without apology or self-consciousness. Accordingly, the kitchen’s day-to-day operations are headed by executive chef Walker Stern who, before making a name for himself with his Brooklyn restaurants Battersby and Dover, spent years honing his skills in French cuisine working under Alain Ducasse.
At a time when fine dining has been declared irrelevant, or at least on serious life support, it’s not uncommon for high-end restaurants to embrace self-deprecation and irony. Hanson and Riad, however, are uninterested in that. Rather than downplaying the concept of the brasserie, Le Rock serves it to you straight. Le Rock is what it is, and it is, proudly, a French restaurant.
“I guess I want to get away from ‘this is our spin,’ or ‘take,’ or ‘twist’ on a dish,” Nasr says, while Hanson finishes his thought: “How many times can you actually do, really, new twists and takes?”
The Dishes of Le Rock
3. The cuisine is mainly French standards — with some wiggle room factored in.
The menu text is in French practically from corner to corner, featuring brasserie standards like escargots and leeks vinaigrette alongside deeper cuts that haven’t really been in the American vernacular since Julia Child’s heyday, like summer barbajuans, a fried Swiss chard and ricotta-filled ravioli originally from Monaco, or a rabbit paillard with summer squash and anchovies. Nasr and Hanson aren’t worried that this might intimidate guests who might be less well-versed in French cuisine and terminology.
“I think we often don’t give the guests the credit that they deserve,” Nasr muses. “They’re the adventurous eaters, right? They’re the ones that are pushing the industry, and pushing chefs to be more inventive. So let’s give them give them a lot more credit, rather than dumb things down.”
If anything, they imagine that any unfamiliarity will be an opportunity for their staff to interact with guests. This connects, of course, to their ultimate goal for Le Rock: to cultivate an environment that takes its food seriously without being stuffy, pretentious, or unapproachable.
While classic brasserie fare is at the core of the menu, it was important to Hanson and Nasr that they not be boxed in by tradition. The menu is broken into two main sections: a rotating section called “Cette Semaine” (This Week) that changes with the seasons and what’s in market, and a more permanent “Tout Le Temps” (All The Time).
“It’s very important for us to be able to have that freshness, not just for seasonality, but to keep everybody interested – keep customers interested, keep employees interested,” Hanson says.
4. The entire wine program is natural, and the cocktails are light.
While Le Rock’s food menu largely keeps to tradition, the beverage program is one place where the restaurant’s contemporary approach shines through. Wine director Jorge Riera, a longtime collaborator of Nasr and Hanson coming from Frenchette, has curated an expansive bottle list, comprised of 100 whites and 100 reds at last count. As is the case at Frenchette, Riera’s selections are all natural wines, with an emphasis placed on small growers and makers, which makes for an exciting experience whether you’re a knowledgeable oenophile or a casual drinker. And since a list of 200 or more wines can be daunting, there’s always going to be a wine representative on the floor who can talk guests through the options.
The bar program, by beverage director Estelle Bossy, formerly of Union Square Hospitality Group, is also very of-the-moment. There’s an emphasis on French Alpine aperitifs and cocktails that are bright in taste and low in ABV (alcohol by volume), which Nasr says is to create a sort of progression throughout the meal. Expect lots of fresh green herbs, and some alcohol-free options, like the Petit Pois, made with sugar snap peas, dill, and tarragon.
5. Le Rock is going to be an all-day, all-purpose venue.
For now, Le Rock will be offering dinner service only, but the plan is to eventually expand to an all-day program that includes breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Referring to their preparation for breakfast service, Nasr and Hanson used the term “omelet boot camp,” in a tone that sounded only kind of joking.
The environment, Nasr and Hanson hope, will be equally suitable for an afternoon coffee and croissant as for celebrating special occasions. And they’re certainly prepared for the latter: one of their desserts is particularly theatrical; a large-format baba au rhum, presented tableside with a choice between four different spirits to pour over it. Another dessert is a surprisingly versatile tower of mignardises, fit for afternoon tea or for topping off a birthday dinner. The pastry program comes under the leadership of Mariah Neston, another Frenchette veteran, as well as company pastry chef Michelle Palazzo.
For those planning celebrations, Le Rock also has an intimate private dining room that can be reserved for up to 16 people.
6. The space, and service, were designed to make you feel welcome.
Gone are Brasserie Ruhlmann’s dark, wood-paneled walls and deep burgundy seating. The space has been remodeled from top to bottom, preserving the building’s historic art deco aesthetic but updated with an airier color palette and all-new fixtures curated by Brooklyn interior design firm Workstead. The 4,000-square-foot space accommodates as many as 130 guests indoors, and the team plans to open a 70-seat outdoor terrace later this year. (By comparison, Frenchette has room for about 100 diners.)
Hanson and Nasr designed the space to cultivate a buzzy, social atmosphere. There are no booths, just long banquettes and small tables that allow for people watching and conversation among the diverse crowd that traverses Midtown Manhattan.
This sort of open-plan environment is another manifestation of the unfussy, non-hierarchical tone Nasr and Hanson want to set: to prove that real-deal French cooking, made with authentic techniques and executed by practiced hands, doesn’t necessitate exclusivity or uptightness.
“It’s already sometimes daunting, I think, walking through a revolving door,” Nasr said, referring to the building’s grand, 1930s exterior. “So you want to be welcomed and greeted, and sat down and made to feel, you know, like you’re in the right place.”
Le Rock is currently open daily from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., and will expand its hours to 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. in the future, with breakfast service to follow.