May 17, 1993 | Vintage Insatiable

Erik Blauberg: Candidate for Stardom

        I can imagine the heart-quickening rush that must have seized the first pilgrims to hit the dowdy working-class quarter outside Paris and discover the delicious shenanigans of Michel Guérard. Not that Erik Blauberg is an original with the force of a Guérard. But after two decades roving and whisking, here and in France, gathering strength and certification in the wings while others danced, he’s created a spotlight for himself and already transformed a workaday canteen hidden inside a glass fortress into Colors, a likely candidate for sudden stardom.

        Quietly, with no fanfare at all, Blauberg has whipped a crew of dazed cooks out of their conditioned pasta robotics and into a frenzy of exotic emulsions, modish flavored oils, and advanced “jus.” It hasn’t been a cinch, this switching of gears – weaning 150 or 200 regulars at what was R.J. Colors from their fusilli expectations to Florida grouper with chive oil and blood orange sauce. Not with the entire lunchtime army arriving at once and demanding to be fed in 40 minutes, while outside, in the Park Avenue Atrium, another 150 fuel on the $11.95 prix fixe in Colors’ discount café.

        But just a dish or two into my first tasting lunch – arranged by a trusted friend with perfect pitch of the palate – and I know. Dr. Richard Coburn, the plastic surgeon and racing enthusiast who longed for greatness as well as a fair return from his investment here, may have struck gold. Smiling and just a little bit anxious is the doctor’s doctor, Frank Valenza, cuisinary soldier of fortune, a feeding coach for hire since losing his own legendary Palace, in its time one of our town’s two or three best restaurants.

        Yes, R.J. Colors made a modest profit. But the cleverly angled banquettes with armrests swathed in turquoise suede and the riot of color had come to feel shabby and garish. The staff slept on their feet. Stalking a world-class Italian chef, Valenza advertised in the classifieds – “Seeking three-or four-star chef.” And Blauberg answered. He never really planned to be a cook. As a youth on the move, a Marine brat, he’d worked as a dishwasher in the Catskills to make extra money. In San Francisco, he found himself scrubbing up and giving the prep cooks a hand. In West Palm Beach, hired to come in at 3 p.m., he showed up at six in the morning to watch the sauces being made. Impressed, the chef became his mentor, and later took him along as a sidekick on teaching forays in France. At 38, Blauberg had worked on both coasts, at Tavern on the Green, then side by side with David Bouley, later marking time in a resort kitchen. One look at his resume and Valenza persuaded Coburn to forget Italy. It was time for a great American restaurant, he insisted.

        Two or three notes into that first lunch, a chorus of flavor, the brave greenery of spring, the two of us are barely able to contain the squeals of discovery. The lobster is a marvel of tenderness in its sweet port-tamarind sauce. Cod cooked to a custard and small ovals of fingerling potato are lightly coated in a saffron glaze, intense but with no hint of chemistry. Some clever marinade has transformed mere tuna, edges encrusted with herbs and minced olive. Everywhere, there are feathery greens, elegantly, minimally dressed. “Mescalin,” says the waiter. Mesclun, indeed.

        As for sublime black bass wrapped in a perfect potato crust, with staccato piles of corn, unborn peas, and favas – did the waiter say orgasmic, or organic? Both are true. Somehow, even normally insipid veal is full of savor. “There are 600 flavor compounds in meat if you know how to bring them out,” says the chef. Truffle oil in the potato puree doesn’t hurt at all. And the small, thick ovals of lamb are spectacular, the layered fig-and-potato gratin quite luscious, the sauce sweet. Ah, there’s the flaw… too many sauces are sweet – most effectively with the meat, somewhat jarringly with fish. Perhaps if I weren’t tasting so many dishes, I’d be somewhat less cranky.

        In the next two weeks, as Blauberg strengthened the line in his crowded kitchen and worked on each dish, prices crept up (appetizers $7 to $12, entrées $16 to $21 at lunch, $18 to $26 at dinner). Pasta lovers and secretaries on tight budgets disappeared, and a scattering of foodniks hunting for Colors in the confusion of East 46th Street saw a welcoming sign and a doorman. Driven by the suspicion that the awkward child might be about to blossom into a destination, Olympia & York seems ready to give Colors a street entrance. Designer Charles Mount braced to do half a face-lift one weekend, a second half the next.

        And every day, the reach is growing grander. Friends tagging along for lunch and dinner note the spiffy service, the choice of first-rate breads, the measured fawning of the captain as he annotates the menu: “light, very light, light-light, also quite light.” Even the foie gras, he assures us, is a nicely “light” choice. (Perhaps. If light means ”smallish.” Still, it’s splendid with slivers of cepe, delicately dressed.) Dinner begins with a prelude – a roasted oyster swathed in a sweet mulled-red-wine glaze, a hill of minced guinea hen on strings of celery root, topped with perfume-y mushroom duxelles and a tiny tartlet with dime-sized circlets of roasted tomato and green pepper. “Enjoy it,” says the waiter. “It’s the gift of the chef.”

        So far, there’s no pastry chef, and Blauberg’s on his own, but that’s hardly a torture if you order sublime ice cream or satin-smooth sorbet (best without the cantaloupe puree). That is, if you can possibly resist the remarkable chocolate soufflé – devilishly powerful and quivering with a duo of ice creams and deep, dark chocolate sauce. Suddenly, there are cookies, too (chewy almond florentines with dried cherries, macaroons), and house-made chocolates (lavender and espresso cream, molten truffles). Out of nowhere, the once exclusively Italian wine list takes on airs with everything from Corton Charlemagne, Cheval Blanc, and Lafite-Rothschild to fairly priced bottles from Napa and Sonoma.

        Only time will tell if this chef has the gift of creativity. Some of what he does now if clearly borrowed, but all of it is impeccably cooked, and the impact has us raving. Perfect lobster with balls of mango, avocado, and tomato in a tangy puddle. That sashimi-quality tuna. Shiitake tossed with asparagus, cauliflower, leeks, roast pearl onions, currants, raisins, and greens in a dress touches with mint, coriander and chive. Even the mushrooms-and-barley soup or the ubiquitous Caesar salad takes on a new elegance, every flavor intense and clear. Pastas have moved to another place. A thin sheet of pasta imprinted with fernlike chervil is the coverlet for lobster, crabmeat, and artichoke in a lobster-saffron sauce. Homemade spaghettini of chive with a hint of truffle oil is a riot of cepes, vegetable “vermicelli,” and herb oils. I’m willing to swear there is blackberry juice in the halibut’s sauce, but the fish is perfection on a hill of truffle-oil potato puree. The sweetness is verjuice from rebier grapes, says the chef. Odd, but perhaps you’ll like it. At lunch, slices of sensational rare beef on another hillock of whipped potato have the sweetness of glazed pearl onions, and it works.

        It will take awhile to persuade the tenants to stagger their lunches, and it’s anyone’s guess whether or town’s fussy eaters are ready to search 46th Street after dark. Nomads that we are, sometimes SoHo or TriBeCa seems easier. One day soon, Blauberg will take time to put his signature on the menu in the atrium. Just because it’s a buy doesn’t mean it can’t have a boost of finesse. For now, though, he’s getting stronger every day. A score for the doctor. And for the doctor’s doctor. A joy for us.

237 Park Avenue, enter on 46th Street. Now closed.


Insatiable, The Book, Bby Gael Greene