Regine’s: Feeding the Night Crawler
October 3, 1977
I know I ought to hate Regine's. It’s all so precious and pretentious and outrageous. The prices: I seem to have been rudely separated from $309 for an indifferent dinner for four. The décor: a curious mingle of elegance and tawdry flash. The food: so many misses. The wine: I've yet to sip a stirring bottle. The people: all that posing. So much chichi. The pretty glass people who provoke such an embarrassment of both disdain and longing in me. Is Andy Warhol whispering to Diana Vreeland what life is all about?
I know I ought to hate Regine's. And yet here I am again, more or less loving it. Loving the sweet blond shyness and graceful authority of the maître d'hôtel, Camille. Loving the stylish pas de deux of movie-star-handsome waiters lifting giant silver warming bells from delicately sauced entrées to send a flutter of butter perfume noseward. Loving the fake gardenias in their lapels, the young decadence in their knowing smiles. Oh, Colette. Loving creamy scrambled eggs served in their fragile shells with a halo of caviar. Loving pockets of veal pink at the heart, graced with a crunch of perfect vegetables and creamy green chive sauce. Loving a shock of supernal scarlet beet purée and sweet and sticky raisin-studded petits fours. Loving to dance.
That's it of course. The tragic flaw. I love to dance. I have often though I might have been a ballet dancer if I hadn't backed into a radiator at my very first dance lesson. I was seven. I never went back. Growing up on Saturday matinees at the Royal Movie Theater in Detroit, I dreamed I would come to New York and wear black satin gowns by Adrian and chain-smoke in nightclubs. And dance. Once I fell in love with a professional dancer. When we lindied, the crowd melted back as if he were Gene Kelly and I Cyd Charisse. I never got over it. Now, as a serious epicure, I am convinced that the last place I want to confront great food is in a discotheque. Foie gras and a screaming Hustle seem utterly incompatible. A meaningful relationship with delicate layers of crackling pastry and asparagus in silken parsley butter cries out for quiet intimacy. Still, the glamorous chain-smoker in black satin I could have been mocks such gastronomic prissiness. If you're going to dance and don't get too blue over mindless extravagance…why not eat as well as you can?
That is Regine's philosophy. That is why she has enticed the ambitious and adventurous Michel Guérard -- surely France's most creative, most imitated chef -- to "style" all her club menus. And style is, alas, the operative word. To capture the sense of cuisinary epiphany of Le Pot au Feu (the snug bistro in a dowdy Paris suburb where Guérard first wowed the gastronomic faithful) and transfer it to a slick, Art Deco'ed night-crawling supper club is impossible. Guérard's disciples and students deliver the style but not the essence. Still, night crawlers must feed, and Regine's epicurean ambition works rather well in her Paris club, where the prix fixe dinner is only 180 francs-- about $36 --wine included. Guérard is close by to supervise. French provisions are familiar. The dining room is cloistered away from the music. A gaggle of disco fans do not tap-dance by the tables, playing Dodgem with the waiters while Stevie Wonder blasts, as they do in the Park Avenue outpost.
Still, Regine's at 59th Street and Park Avenue was launched here seventeen months ago with hope and flair. Then the resident chef quit. Guérard was away, caught up in the triumphs of his cuisine minceur, polishing his new cookbook and tending the Pot au Feu, now lovingly transplanted to Eugénie-les-Bains in the southwest of France. There were hasty Band-Aid visits, a new chef installed…feverish investigations. Was it really as bad as all that? Yes. And finally, with a stroke of the one discipline in which Regine's genius never falters-- publicity --a "Gourmand Week" was announced. Michel Guérard himself would be in the kitchen for a week to choreograph a brilliant new menu.
Still a believer, still inexplicably innocent, I talked to Michel in Paris, urging him to arrive in New York with time ahead to explore the markets and do some homework. He smiled. He shrugged. The Guérard inside is proud, cunning, stubborn, and independent. He arrived on a November Sunday, no time for homework. At noon he fainted. The flu, physicians said, and ordered him to bed. So preparations for the first night of the Gourmand Week went on without him. The gourmands were to arrive Monday evening at eight. The house was papered with press, jet-set influentials, glossy chums of Regine's-- the mouths that count, the palates that know, the tongues that wag --and a few ingenuous paying customers. At 6 P.M. Michel arrived, frail and flushed, determined to oversee. The kitchen population was at an all-time high. A professional pastry man had been imported to produce blissful sweets. (Before he came, the $5 portion of chocolate cake tasted like a reject from the supermarket's day-old discount bin.)
That first night, feverish and dizzy from the flu, Michel could only taste, pinch, poke, prod, sniff, and, nearing the dinner-hour countdown, calmly show apprentices how to wrap gently poached oysters in lettuce weskits. His hands are delicate -- not the gnarled, swollen, oversize hands one often sees on men who spend their lives in professional kitchens. Guérard cooks with wit and intellect, an artist's eye, a child's fresh impulse, and impeccable taste. Classic French service is dispensed with here. Nothing is carved or transferred from copper to china in the dining room. Everything is arranged in precise still life on the plate in the kitchen. Guérard eyed each "design" as it swept by, adjusting leaves of spinach.
Next day, he was deeper into the sauce. The truffle soup was deemed anemic. He added a booster of truffles, foie gras, and périgourdine sauce. He asked questions. "I want myrtille. What is myrtille in English?" His second, Gilbert, a veteran of Regine's in Paris, had a dictionary, "Bilberry. It doesn't exist here." Guérard shrugged. What could he use instead?
Guérard was not happy with the vinegar. "If we could get a mother, we could make our own," he mused. "Who has a mother [the skin or clot created by acetous fermentation that turns wine into vinegar]?" Gilbert promised to see. Guérard was trying to heal a burned sauce. "The first quality for me in a chef is knowing how to rectify a sauce," he said, tasting. His middle finger went into the sauce, then into his mouth. "She is a lost girl," he said sadly.
Michel was wearing his starched white chef's coat, a napkin tied jauntily around his neck. "If I had six months, I could turn this into a great restaurant," he said. That was Tuesday. Next night, same hour, I heard him telling friends: "If I had a month here I could turn this into a great restaurant." Had he done five months' work in a day? Or overestimated the task? Or fallen in love with his own illusion? Well, every day that week the kitchen did get better. By Saturday New York's favored mouths were raving. But what really mattered was how the kitchen would hold up after Guérard departed.
The January-February ice age froze profits all over town. I don't know what the chichi do to keep warm. Fly away on freebie junkets, maybe, or sit home in little sable bed jackets, warmed by the fire of their rubies, or crawl under their Porthault electric blankets for a racy game of backgammon. Anyway, bodies were sparse at Regine's in the icy steppes of deepest-January Park Avenue. There were the usual geriatric dandies supping with their daughters. The dance floor had inviting bare spots, but I was nostalgic for last spring's cosmic thrill, when I had danced a Wedgie away from Elizabeth Taylor, waving my arms with stylish abandon, wondering if she would notice my whimsically modest diamonds. Never once did she take her violet-smudged eyes from her partner's. Every other eye on the floor was riveted on her. In January I found myself dancing a Wedgie away from Sanath, sommelier of the Palace, in a sprinkling of moths and flutterbys, the "B" list from the Great Gatsby's last splash, a fringe of sparrows, and one adorable pussycat in a Brownie shirt with lots of merit badges.
Spring freed all the pretty glass people from winter hibernation. Celebrity's darlings emerged from their Bahamas burrows. Summer nights at Regine's can be so chichi the air is thin. Other nights are sodden. And Last Year at Coney Island. I know Regine thinks her preposterous prices will keep out the riffraff. The cheapest bottle of champagne costs $65 in the disco. It is suspenseful to pick up a check at Regine's. I've never been charged the same price twice for a glass of Perrier, and I've been billed $4 for a glass of tap water. Lining up in the wind-whipped vestibule to pay that noncardholders' $10 cover -- cash, please -- is a lesson in humility. But status seekers feed on such masochistic thrills. And in the sunset glow and tawdry nightclub brocade of the disco, who can say if the man in shades is a Jackson Heights cowboy or a Saudi Arabian millionaire? Anyway, I guess I'm here to judge the veal, not to grade the chickens.
Yet, in and out of season, the dining room is sleek and debonair, wonderfully Fred Astaire. And the stylish aubergine-velvet tub chairs are comfortable, though-- regrettably --not designed for cuddling. The service is still splendid. All those handsome young men in black-tie-and-gardenia smile and kowtow as if they've been hypnotized to believe waiting tables is an aristocratic sport, something like polo. So even though this is serious food in a bizarre context, you may be seduced by the theater and by Guérard's escape from Manhattan-French-menu cliché, though the escape has been sadly hobbled in the latest menu trim. Overpriced? Yes. Even though the $10 door charge is dropped at dinner, two can easily spend $100 and up, up, up. Even so, some portions are skimpy, and entrées arrive lukewarm now and then.
The maddening reality of Regine's is simple: The kitchen's performance is utterly unpredictable. It was brilliant in winter,
When no one came and the kitchen was staffed to bursting; sluggish in spring, when the faithful rallied; it impressively revived toward summer. Who knows what autumn and Guérard's newest fall menu will bring? Parched throats in the disco build the profits. Serious gastronomy is a luxury…a philanthropy that pleases Regine's ego. I doubt she will give up trying to make it work. Alas, even charging $18 for a stuffed leg of chicken and $6 for a goblet of fresh fruit won't subsidize the kitchen. There were no fresh flowers on the table one June night. And a leek quiche at $6 struck me as a depressing economy. But there was a splendid red snapper floating in a sublime beurre blanc with a wreath of celery, onion, and leek strands and crisp broccoli florets -- a dish so close to perfection my restaurateur companion sent a bottle of champagne to the kitchen. We shared the fish and then divided a portion of poached chicken, too sparsely herbed and stingily moreled. Winter's desserts were breathtaking; spring's a fiasco. But this June evening there was a fine chocolate marquise, irresistible cookies, an aristocratic strawberry tartlet, and disgraceful sorbets, one so perfumed with chemicals it was unidentifiable.
Still, the presentation is brilliant, and if you can forget about price, there is pleasant adventure in crisp asparagus and foie gras in a balloon of pastry with a salty parsleyed butter cream; the gourmand salad of string beans, asparagus, truffles, and silken pink foie gras; slices of duck breast in a green peppered sauce with apples; rosy beef fillet with raisins; and that intoxicating beet purée, even though the pastry is tough, not buttery, the string beans are tasteless, the apple is utterly without flavor, the raisin sauce is too sweet.
Regine's is not the Pot au Feu. It is not pure Michel Guérard. But still, there are moments of originally, and often the supper-club fare is delicious, served with style and spirit. Regine will be in periodic residence again, gathering stardust, papering the house -- Regine of the rose-smudged eyes, moth-white face framed in the flame of her hair, commanding her gardenia'd army, seeding gossip in her jet trail. Andy Warhol, Diana Vreeland, Elizabeth Taylor, a hairdresser from Rego Park…what does it matter, as long as he is happy to play young Gene Kelly to your inexhaustible Cyd Charisse?
502 Park Avenue at 59th Street 826-0990