July 22, 2019 | BITE: My Journal
A reader complained that last week's BITE: Not So Innocent Times, excerpts from reviews of the first forty years of New York Magazine, did not include Chanterelle. Yes, that was an accidental ommission. Here are my earliest memories of that downtown glow.
The Daring Young Man on Grand Street
December 31, 1979
David and Karen Waltuck in the early months of Chanterelle.
“It's like a mirage…a stage set…a teasing dream. Black streets desolate and littered against the shadowy cast-iron facades on the outer edge of SoHo. Suddenly, a cube of light: a tall storefront magnetically aglow. On the door is written Chanterelle. Inside, a studied elegance. Soaring columns and wooden wainscoting. A blizzard of white linen against gray carpet. A great fan of stately flowers, birds of paradise. A stylish Sally Bowles gets up from a handsome writing desk to greet you and hangs your wrap in a tall carved armoire.
“If you did not already suspect a serious drama about to unfold (big balloon glasses, splendid bread, a ramekin of sweet butter are all cues), the menu would confirm it. Drawing by Marisol. On the right is the $30 seven-course dinner. For feebler appetites, the a la carte is on the left. Chef David Waltuck is 24, and he is in love with the mythic Fernand Point's fabled Pyramide. The Pyramide, its three stars tarnished, is not as brilliant as it was, and David Waltuck is not yet as brilliant as he intends to be. But when he is good, Chanterelle is astonishing. And now, while the wine license is pending, you can bring a fine bottle or two (from a cellar cache stocked at a pittance, perhaps, or at least reasonably tagged from a wine merchant). For when the license comes through, dinner for two could run $100.
“Chanterelle was instantly impressive. But with a full house -- SoHo crowd in raggedy chic, a quartet from Dean & DeLuca, including a chef in stained whites -- the kitchen limped along. A fricassee of seafood in delicate sea-urchin cream was slightly overcooked. Scallops, flecked with lime peel and vegetables julienne, humiliated by too long a poaching, arrived in a broken sauce. And the intermission between courses dragged on so long that my companion grew antsy, tipsy, and sodden with bread, butter, and despair.
"The chef is alone in the kitchen," our waiter confided. "We are only two weeks old," the stylish brunette apologized. "Everyone seems to have arrived at exactly the same moment." It was impossible to guess if it was the chef's philosophy or the chaotic timing that had doomed the seafood.
“Even so, the splendor of his ambitious prix fixe could not be denied. Perhaps the raw salmon might have been sliced thinner, in more aristocratic style. But the oxtail terrine was a triumph of taste and texture, classically garnished. The fish fricassee swam in a delicious sauce. Salmis of duck Eisenhart, named for a friend of the house, was served on two plates -- the breast sliced and extremely rare, accompanied by scalloped turnips, sautéed zucchini, and braised little white onions in a red-wine-and-duck-liver sauce; the leg roasted crisp, juicy and pink. There were perfect greens tossed in a zesty vinaigrette and four kinds of cheese from the superlative larder of Dean & DeLuca. Then tart grapefruit sherbet and a tray of goodies -- crisp palmiers, candied grapefruit peel, and glorious chocolate truffles, bitter and dark.
“Two weeks later only three tables were taken. A chill draft leaked through the wainscoting. A rather noisy blower warmed up the room. But the dinner was close to perfection. I floated home in a euphoria of discovery. Imagine, with all the restaurants of SoHo that just miss or don't bother to try, in the iron valley of Manhattan…to find a talented chef with wings of ambition. Imagine a salad of decent confit of duck with ribbons of endive and slivers of scallion in a fine vinaigrette. Creamy herb-scented fish soup, its fish dumpling afloat with a crunch of pine nuts. Gently cooked lobster navarin in a haunting sauce perfumed with cream. Poached sirloin garnished with green sauce, a whole leek, and turned turnips -- an imaginative notion sabotaged by a failure of seasonings.
“Again, perfect salad. Again, exquisite cheeses: vacherin, Pont l'Eveque, crottin de Chavignol, and a froth of fresh chevre. Slightly snowy pomegranate ice and a little tray of confections. From the a la carte list, a splendid mille-feuille of gently poached oysters spiked with garlic and anchovy in cream, and perfectly cooked chicken in a tasty sauce scented with morels and chives. Ripe pears in a tea sabayon (another inspired notion gone slightly awry -- too much sugar). And all this from a menu written, refreshingly…in English.
“If I'd written at that moment, this would be an unqualified rave. But a third visit put Chanterelle in clear perspective. The truth is, David Waltuck is experimenting as he goes along. His own taste is not fully developed. How else to explain serving a gritty, frozen slab of something optimistically called hazelnut ice cream? His quail eggs were overwhelmed by a red-wine butter made from a wine that reduced to an ammonia aftertaste. The sauce of his sweetbreads with crepes had an after-bite too. Delicious barquettes of buttery spinach and mussels in a creamy tomato-tinged nectar needed a napping of sauce to bring all the elements together. And the chopped tomato garnishing a fine fish terrine wanted olive oil and acid for balance, not walnut oil.
“Still, most of his instincts are admirable. And with his wife, Karen, an émigré from the high-fashion world, he has turned a tacky Crest-toothpaste bodega and cuchifritos stand into a handsome setting for serious dining.
“Chanterelle is the fruit of the Waltucks' consuming obsession. He had always cooked, but he studied marine biology, ‘just long enough to know it was the last thing I wanted to do.’ Six months wandering Europe, eating, exploring the great markets, brought him to the Pyramide in Vienne, just south of Lyon, a career epiphany. Back in New York with no experience at all, he got a job as a cook at the Empire Diner, then did a year at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park and became night saucier and banquet cook at Tavern on the Green. A second year at the CIA was ‘too stultifying,’ so he came back to New York, got a job at La Petite Ferme as sous-chef, and began to plot for the day he would be on his own.
The luminous store front is like a beacon in the darkness of not-yet-developed SoHo.
“All last winter, in long johns, the Waltucks hunted for space till they found this corner on Greene and Grand. They sold shares to raise the $110,000 it took to open the doors. And for a time David and a dishwasher did everything alone. Now he has a second chef. The menu changes weekly, and when the door is locked on Sunday, David comes in to experiment with new dishes for the upcoming weeks. He gets his ideas from what he reads and hears and eats. Sometimes he dreams them too. Two weeks ago he tasted a vegetable sausage at Dodin-Bouffant. The next week he did his own variation: oyster sausage with a sublime watercress cream.
“I wish this review were a rhapsody of discovery and celebration. It almost is. But Waltuck is young. He needs to taste more so he'll know when a sauce is bizarre or a dessert doesn't work. Still, he is already so good, and what he and Karen do is so exciting and unique in the neighborhood, that moneyed SoHo will gamble with him, and the less discriminating may not notice his stumbles. Will you gamble too?" 89 Grand Street.
Perfection is Still the Word at Chanterelle
November 30, 1992
A collection of menu covers designed by artists for the Waltucks hangs on the wall.
“Chanterelle wants to feel more friendly, too. It can get lonely on your high horse. “Well, we are expensive,” chef-patron David Waltuck observes. Tonight’s prix fixe is $68, and the gala tasting with flutters of white truffle is $95. But we are here to sample the $40 Market Dinner, a nightly improvisation culled from what purveyors are pushing at a discount. It could be Muscovy duck on sale or a sudden abundance of lobster or raspberries.
“Tonight’s dinner will have to be sublime to win us over and cool the choler from waiting 45 minutes for our nine o’clock table, with only a very belated flute of champagne to blur the trauma. In one lobe of my brain I understand Chanterelle fans come to celebrate, and there’s no polite way to evict them. In the other lobe, hunger and fatigue fuel indignation. If looks could kill, the homicide squad would be clearing a space for us.
“So score it a triumph for the house and for tonight’s seductive poetry of flavors. The exquisite ravioli of wild mushrooms afloat in a puddle of cream under a haze of white truffle erases the pain.?It’s not that tonight’s Market menu is totally dazzling. Yes, the monkfish on caramelized onion and cabbage is delicious, but for me, even an impeccably turned-out duck terrine is somehow boring, not what I want to eat today. But everything from the $68 menu is wonderful.
“The ennui – the frozen-in-amber quality I felt a year ago – is gone. Flavors hit the high notes. And even the room, a bit stiff after the move from Chanterelle’s beloved store front on Grand Street, feels livelier. Explosions of flowers against autumn leaves seem more lush and extravagant. There was always pride in the details – the perfect bread, the small offering (tonight, curried onion fritters), great cheeses kept as they should be kept, jewel-like éclairs and truffles, the sculptor’s bronze the check arrives on.
How nice to discover perfection is still the faith. Caviar-and-cauliflower flan accompanies fat Pemaquid oysters. Fast-grilled foie gras with currants and caramelized onion sits on a bed of boutique greens. A tangle of seaweed and gingered vegetables elevates this raw tuna. Even a weary classic like seafood sausage – a signature here – has new zest. Rack of lamb and roast venison seem somewhat tame next to a powerful salmis of mallard braised in red wine with wild mushrooms and a spectacular broth of cod and succulent Manila clams enriched with mysterious gelatinous bits that could be the most voluptuous cépe but are actually pig’s feet.
David tasted a seafood sausage and a week later Chanterelle’s signature seafood sausage appeared.
“For some, only the chocolate medley (fallen soufflé cake, chocolate sorbet, hot chocolate soufflé) will do. Deeply intense sorbets, marmalade of tropical fruit with citrus ice cream, and a mille-feuille of fresh pineapple napped with dark rum sabayon are what lull you into blissful languor. For some reason, lunch has never caught on here. The room is even more glorious and starched by daylight. That makes it a perfect hideaway for clandestine trysts, spiritual, sensual, or monetary." 2 Harrison Street, off Hudson.
Should I break open the piggy bank to celebrate Chanterelle's 25th year?
December 13, 2004
Waltuck opened Elan in Flatiron in June 2014 but it never drew the numbers it needed to pay the rent.
“Chanterelle is the same unique grand drama of ?ne dining (no dress code) that David and Karen Waltuck dared on Grand Street in the desolate blackness of unexploited SoHo 25 years ago. “It’s like a mirage,” I wrote then. “A stage set. A teasing dream.” Though they’ve since moved to grander quarters in Tribeca, where menu covers drawn by artist friends hang in the vestibule, the Waltucks look much the same, wearing similar shaggy-boy coifs - he, quite shy; she, still whirling and trilling enthusiasm.
“ Though more brilliant and driven chefs do the Michelin tasting-menu riff these days, David still has his triumphs. Tonight, on the $95 prix fixe (it’s $115 for the seven-course tasting that once cost $30): a wonderful terrine of smoked ?sh, simply dressed bay scallops that fairly sparkle, Moroccan-touched lamb loin, and a seduction of desserts. It’s still the perfect place to celebrate. Not only for cuisinary epiphany, but because it’s sedate and civilized, indulgent, and unfailingly romantic." 2 Harrison St. at Hudson St. December 13 2004.
Chanterelle closed in October, 2009.
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