March 23, 1987 | Vintage Insatiable

Our Local French Revolution

           Star-crowned chefs come and go, but Le Cirque’s menagerie still swings from the dining-room rafters, jostling for position. “VIP,” it says in the reservation book next to a certain famous name. “Very VIP.” “Very VIP.” The list for lunch is one man’s Red Alert. Sirio Maccioni juggles, moaning…loving every minute. He will put Governor Carey’s eight at that VIP table. The First Lady’s walker, Jerome Zipkin, can have President Nixon’s usual corner post, across the way from Gerry Stultz. That leaves a conspicuous side-by-side for sable-swathed Ann Getty and her publishing partner, Lord Weidenfeld. But Sirio can do nothing for Lew Rudin. He will have to sit with his back to the room, because Sirio is determined to save the last banquette just in case a certain restaurant critic pops in unannounced.

           I am that critic. I cannot possibly be anonymous in what is my favorite French restaurant, as well as my favorite Italian (for the blizzards of white truffle in the pasta primavera and Sirio’s incurably Florentine ways). And I would never send anonymous readers here (to wither and waste away in the Gulag behind the bar), because Le Cirque without Sirio hovering is not Le Cirque at all.

           Anyway, my guest and I are nibbling, savoring, oohing and cooing, trembling in response to the enticements of Daniel Boulud, Le Cirque’s new chef. We are having a Lucullan epiphany. Quite clearly, most everyone else is simply having lunch. I spy an omelet across the room and a chef’s salad not far away. I study the house regulars. Small women with large jewels and trim beauties who make a career of marrying better every time. Let them eat sole.

           Perhaps our carpaccio of tuna is a shade too chilled, and its tiny balls of tomato and avocado, its strands of sorrel, are frippery you’d never find at Le Bernardin, but the oil-slicked tuna is sprightly and even tastier than Le Bernardin’s. The Friday bouillabaisse -- carefully poached lotte and shellfish in a fragrant broth -- reveals a Boulud weakness. His rouille is timid. Such a caution of garlic is too elegant for me. But lobster in a spinach nest with a melting flan of porcini and foie gras is haunting, and just barely cooked rouget wrapped in bands of crisped potato on a puddle of buerre rouge is as delicious as it is clever.

           At another lunch orchestrated by the chef, I am almost cheered when the unusually irresistible Parmesan toast is resistibly soggy, leaving room to explore one exquisitely sweet freshwater prawn, variations on foie gras -- starring the rich duck liver seared over soft ribbons of red and yellow pepper and under a tousle of crisp fried ginger -- three sea scallops sliced and layered with fresh black truffle in a heady truffle butter, and a thick fillet of Oregon sturgeon, flown in that morning, cooked rare at the core, scattered with slivers of celery root.

           Since the first of the year, Sirio has been urging Boulud to experiment, though he hesitates to abandon certain house classics. What will Boulud do with the masterwork of Thursday lunch -- the bollito misto -- with its aromatic boiled calf’s head, tongue, brains, brisket, and heaven only knows what else? It’s my favorite. But the new chef’s pot-au-feu is even more heroic, Sirio insists. He decides to have Boulud alternate. So this Thursday it’s pot-au-feu.

           But first I must try a few little experiments -- a frothy soup de canalou, coconut and cream of spinach, pretty but not compelling, and olive-oil-slicked raw salmon sparked with chive and transparencies of fennel. Mind you, I am tasting two lunches. The juxtapositions are bizarre even before we begin trading back and forth, but then, this is research. Now a ceramic egg appears. Removing its top reveals an intoxicating risotto of wild mushroom and white-truffle essence. Thank heaven there’s only an ounce or two, because I cannot bear to leave even one grain behind.

           Suddenly, there is a hush in the town’s chattiest luncheonette. Heads turn. I feel curious eyes riveted inches to my right, where two captains are lowering a mammoth platter to a hastily implanted side table. It looks like most of a cow, two chickens, a major allocation of lamb. There is even a poached foie gras -- and every vegetable worth boiling. I feel like Henry VIII in a room full of vegetarians. I must buy a Galanos dress for moments like this. Happily, only one or two juicy tidbits of fillet, rib, haunch, foie, cabbage, turnip, parsnip, celery root are quickly arranged clockwise on my plate, and the platter is trundled away to feed another seventeen gourmands of the Thursday retinue.

           In his secret heart, Sirio Maccioni knew that the defection of his last chef, Alain Sailhac, would not really dim Le Cirque’s luster. But it’s not enough just to feed the rich and famous. He wants to feed them well. When he caught Daniel Boulud sneaking in to work on Sunday, he felt calmer. The new menu offers the chef’s daily whims, the “menu de Coeur” (friends urged Sirio not to call it menu de courage) --three courses, three desserts, and a demitasse of consommé somewhere between at $60 or $65. For those who merely eat lunch, the prix fixe remains $28.75; dinner à la carte usually runs $120, wine, tax, and tip included.

           Pâtissier Jean-Marc Polleveys (a veteran of Girardet and of André Surmain’s Palm Beach venture) has arrived, and with his second, Francisco Guitierez, fashions sweet crackles of glazed pastry bearing raspberries, and old-fashioned puffs filled with fraises du bois (imagine, wild strawberries in March). Small tarts are filled with berries gleaming like jewels from Bulgari, and no one is allowed to ignore the much-imitated crème brûlée or an equally ethereal bread-and-butter pudding. Or the spectacular silver compote delivering sugared fruit, candied peel, coconut macaroons, and killer cookies. Or the chocolate truffles that arrive, discreet in their own covered crystal box. And today, on a giant black plate, there is intense espresso ice cream in a crisp almond-lace tulip on fiercely bittersweet chocolate with four chewy white meringues en garde.

           “The pastry chefs are insisting I must buy big plates for the dessert specials, every one of a different color,” Sirio sighs. “I think I will let them persuade me.”

Le Cirque, 58 East 65th Street


Plaza Athénée West

          Manhattan’s Plaza Athénée, a seedling of the grand old hostelery in Paris, was not about to take meekly the decampment of chef Daniel Boulud and two of his team to Le Cirque. In just the dramatic gesture such infamy cries for, Trust House Forte signed on the entire toque-happy Rostang clan -- papa Jo and son Philippe, who run the two-starred La Bonne Auberge Riviera, and son Michel, patron of his own Paris two-star.

           Each agreed to take turns ruling the range at Le Régence ten days a month while resident chef Jean Michel Bergougnoux bridges the gaps. Cuisinary commuting can be dizzying enough, but a parade of Rostangs could easily muddy the stew, since Jo and Michel reflect divergent schools. Papa is blissfully old-fashioned, with a garlic-olive-basil Provençal palate. Michel, the world traveler, is contemporary, focused on light and grace and health. Amazingly, Le Régence is already sunnier.

           Still, it may take a while for this transatlantic soap opera to smooth into consistent delight. At the moment, a dish may not taste the same from one meal to the next. One day, the “vraie soupe au pistou”-- the true pesto soup -- is a flat unseasoned mush. A week later, it is hearty and seasoned to a tingle. After a recent zigzag lunch, a food-writer friend almost weeps in befuddlement: “I was here last week, when Michel was cooking, and everything was spectacular.”

           Well, even so, three recent excursions suggest that the Rostang spirit has lifted Le Régence a notch or two toward a level of excellence that might merit spending $100 per person for dinner (more with the $75 tasting menu) and perhaps $65 for lunch.

           This swank little cul-de-sac is just steps away from Madison Avenue, yet you can imagine yourself in Paris. Clearly, a share of the tab pays for the fussily beautiful room…the color of old money. I feel as if I’m seated in a Wedgwood jewel box. “At the bottom of a Beverly Hills swimming pool,” my friend insists. No. Think plush-lined jewel box. Sea-green-on-sea-green carpets, graceful aquamarine armchairs, painted clouds overhead. It all spells luxury: silver service plates and heavy flatware and an unseen piano playing somewhere in the background.

           Even that vaguely disappointing lunch had its moments -- velvety raw scallops dressed in a mesmerizing haze of truffle oil with bits of broccoli and tomato for color and crunch, tenderest navarin of lobster in a faintly sweet Sauternes sauce, zesty and elegant bouillabaisse (“You’ll think you’re on the Riviera,” our captain promised), and Michel Rostang’s honey-and-vinegar-lacquered pigeon, two sublimely rare medallions, almost sushi, and two crisp-roasted legs, served with a molten potato gratin.

           The wine list has haute pretensions, and it’s not easy to find a modest bottle at dinner. But we are trying, as the lagniappe of the chef arrives, two little clams in luscious shallot butter for each of us. You may grow lyrical over the kitchen’s Lilliputian vegetables stuffed and carved and stacked. You may call it silly or needless torture. But there’s no faulting soft poached quail eggs to scoop up with the elemental brininess of sea urchin from its spiky shell or a splendid oyster-and-scallop soup earthy from leek and potato.

           Farm-grown bass, crisp-skinned and studded with pepper, floats in a pungent red-wine sauce, and though twists of grouper are (for our quartet’s taste) slightly overcooked, no one can resist their cushion of bacon-dotted cabbage. And lamb is brilliantly garnished with a garlicked zucchini cake and olive-oil-soused shallots.

           To help hotel clients from France feel at home, there are always carefully chosen cheeses, kept at room temperature (in tacky Saran). Deserts from the cart are pretty, mostly too sweet, except for a lemon tart with crème anglaise. So, it’s worth thinking ahead to order the splendid warm chocolate confection. Don’t overlook the cold chestnut soufflé with praline sauce and caramelized hazelnuts. And expect a two-tiered stand of truffles and cookies with coffee.

           There’s something quite French and very romantic about dinner in the Wedgewood jewel box. I see diplomats and grandes dames and redheaded beauties in Givenchy dresses. In the cacophony of what’s hot and punk and primitive on the dining scene these days, Le Régence lets you bask in a gentler time.

Le Régence, 37 East 64th Street

Chantily in Amber

           Don’t despair out there, you who are hungry and well-trust-funded and shell-shocked by the high decibels of today’s guerrilla restaurateuring. It’s not easy to spot you since you’re not wearing Mugler armor or Kamali shoulder pads and your man doesn’t feel comfortable unless he’s wearing a tie. You wouldn’t feed that Cajun singed catfish to the help. And what tout New York sees in duck-confit tortillas with mango sauce and unborn beets is an inscrutable mystery.

           Le Chantilly is thrilled to welcome you. You don’t really have to be an old fogey or even a young fogey. You just have to be up to bright light, bowing old-fashioned service, the shock of quiet, Park Avenue packaging --pea soup walls, matronly sconces, handsome tapestry banquettes, misty murals of French châteaux and the racetrack at Chantilly -- a hefty tab, possibly $140 for two, and Walter Mitty unleashed in the kitchen. It’s a stunning gastronomic update, but not jangling or outrageous.

           Perhaps you’re too young or too poor to remember the late, mythic Henri Soulé, whose fabled Pavillon was an académie culinaire for dozens of chefs and captains and waiters and busboys who went off to advance Soulé’s red-velvet banquette, quenelles-de-brochet-with-two-sauces vision all over town.

           Roland Chenus was just 32 when he became the chef of Le Pavillon, whisking up a storm across the street in what is now the vault of the First Women’s Bank. (Why is there no bronze plaque of homage?) Sadly, his recent years on the other side of 57th Street won little applause. The heavy hand of the France-Comté region of France, his homeland, larded with classic fussiness, left Le Chantilly an also.ran. 

           But perhaps the shy and modest Chenus was nurturing fantasies of a bolder, more adventurous self. For when the amiable Camille Dulac sold his share of La Gauloise to join the Chantilly partnership, the shock was the dazzling metamorphosis of Roland Chenus.

           What a startling liberation. Chenus has discovered coriander and ginger and curly chicory and hazelnut oil, raw-tomato sauces and the alchemy of dill “cooked” fish. What is the secret of his supernal squab, with its mysterious texture and astonishing taste? If he’s smart, he’ll never tell.

           Wide ribbons of rabbit are served with a tremulous leek flan and feuilletage hiding luscious rabbit nubbins, wild mushrooms, and foie gras. Excellent rack of lamb with sweet cloves of garlic arrives with a gift-wrapped timbale of ratatouille. Ginger-scented potato chips grace one evening’s special Muscovy duck. Even baby chicken -- always a test of the chef’s skill -- is a marvel of moistness and flavor.

           At lunch, dill-marinated salmon, tuna, and black bass sing with freshness, and a fine vegetable terrine swims in a scintillating tomato sauce. Pot-au-feu of poisons gathers a school of red snapper, sea bass, lotte, mussels, shrimp, and scallops in a savory pool. Even a tiny giveaway -- a square or vegetable terrine – is tasty, as is a garnish of avocado mousse stacked on pastry shelves like a napoleon. And translucent thins of beet and fennel jazz up nut-touched salads.

           There are flubs and miscalculations: a sauce too salty, a sauce too bland, a hard edge on the lobster one evening, bitterness once in the foie gras, poached fish too bland even for the old-folks’ home. Desserts on the cart can be tame and banal, too. But the Frenchmen here are serious, so there is a good cheese (Saran’d, alas) and, recently, a pleasing lemon tart and rich, satiny chocolate cake with giant ovals of sheer chocolate. It takes an exceptional soufflé to win me. Chantilly’s creamy lemon pouf did. Crème brûlée comes up from the kitchen with warm madeleines, as do slices of pear and apple intensely caramelized.

           True, the staff lacks the savoir faire and confidence of the crew at Le Cirque, and there’s a busboy who behaves as if they wound his key too tight, but if you long to be pampered in an aura of near-extinct calm, try the new Chantilly.

Le Chantilly, 106 East 57th Street

Discount Rachou at Le Festival

           There are New Yorkers who never feel happier or more blissfully overindulged than at La Côte Basque, where chef patron Jean Jacques Rachou is the Emperor of Delicious Excess. His exuberantly rich and gilded fare speaks to the eye, the mouth, and the wallet. It is always stunningly beautiful, usually delightful to taste, and it’s clear you’re getting your money’s worth.

           Before Jean Jacques moved on to stretch the walls of La Côte Basque, he earned his toque at Le Lavandou, a string bean of a room that he has now smartly spiffed up with beveled mirror, gray velvet walls, dark faux beams, lovely antique plates, and an all-fish menu. Rachou says that the sparkling Le Festival is waiting for his son, Didier, who has worked in papa’s kitchen two or three times a week for years and will train at Le Festival until he enters the Culinary Institute of America.

           Tiny it is, yes, but the style is unstintingly grand. For every course there is a different china service, each more smashingly beautiful--big plates and bigger plates and gargantuan plates, all garnished with passion. “Gawjus” as a word seems inadequate. And with a prudence that may be second nature for one who was born an orphan and bypassed school to enter the kitchen at eleven, Rachou has tagged his haute poissons at somewhat gentled prices -- $24 prix fixe at lunch, $40 at dinner, with only a scattering of extras.

           Ancienne and nouvelle play patty-cake here in barely cooked scallops riding buttery sauces; a medley of lobster, scallops, and rich-as-Croesus duck liver; ravioli pregnant with chanterelles; delicate tendrils of skate wing cooked to perfection in browned butter with capers; pompano with slivers of wild mushroom in buerre blanc; black bass scented with olive oil and curls of basil, artichoke, tomato, and fennel on spinach; celestially old-fashioned saffroned fish soup; snippetss of raw fish in salad; and a trio of tartars with coriander and fresh herbs.

           Have you forgotten how seductive a rich sauce can be? “I’m glad cream is back,” my guest cries. As for deserts, they are as voluptuous as might be expected. For lunch, they are toted uptown from La Côte Basque: wondrous apple-Calvados-custard tarte Normand, mocha dacquoise, intensely chocolate cake -- nothing too sweet. The house staff takes over for dinner, spinning a cracking croustillant of berries, glazing crème brûlée in a wide soup bowl (a vast field for its caramelized sugar), and sculpting a trio of chocolate sensations: exquisite ice cream, splendid mousse, and a white chocolate fluff in what tastes like a tart shell of fat to me.

           In the launching of Le Festival, perhaps Rachou himself was often out back, poaching. An early dinner and two lunches were heady with show-stopping sensation -- a mastery of cooking, a flair for flavor, a practiced hand steaming a fillet of gray sole just to a sublime custard, coaxing salmon into a rosy gift package in champagne-truffle butter. Even the lowly winter tomato was tricked into amazing flavor. And Dover sole was broiled to perfection.

           The luster is dimmed somewhat in a recent lunch. The piping-hot fish soup is as winning as ever. And a special red snapper dazzles in artful balance with string beanlets and porcini. But there are fishes too cooked, sauces lacking pizzazz, and the humble halibut is in no way elevated by its listless vinaigrette.

           Jean Jacques Rachou is indisputably captive at La Côte Basque, where multitudes of the rich demand he dance attendance. But the little claque who want to love Le Festival hope he’ll steal away more often, till he’s whipped his fledgling kitchen into better shape.

Le Festival, 134 East 61st Street

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