He is the John Wayne of beurre blanc, defending the fort long after the rebels have hoisted the flag of radicchio. The one pure chef, fearless in his conviction, with a certain naïveté. André Soltner, ruler of a tiny world on 50th Street, in a dollhouse castle 18 feet wide by 100 feet long. Lutèce, frozen in amber. To hurt him would be sacrilege – he is that honorable, genuinely loved and respected. He is simply what he is, no apology, no pretension, proud of his faith, though you might call it stubbornness. Sirio may call a dozen customers every morning and invite them for lunch, but André has never called one. Soltner has rarely strayed from the kitchen (“just four nights in 30 years), unlike the gallivanting playboys of the American range and the Bocuse mileage-plus gang. “We are cooks, not ambassadors,” he says. There are no Technicolor drawings in his sauces, no pyramids or flying buttresses on his plates. “Cook means what it means – to cook the food, not to architect it.”
In a world of so few eternal verities, there is Lutèce. The neighbors change. New, gaudy awnings confuse. But there it is, the two steps down to the unassuming beige door, circa February 16, 1961. Madame Simone tucked into her cloistered crib, tracking the bills on (shocking twentieth-century touch) a small computer. For eighteen years, Pierre Autret has polished the small zinc bar below that very same street sign, PLACE DE FURSTENBERG. If you’ve loved Lutèce forever, the bar is a charming cranny. Without stardust in your eyes, it may seem cramped and shabby. Past the scrawny Pullman kitchen with its slit of a pass-through, into the parlor with its luxury of space. Refreshed each summer, with or without wallpaper, always the same. And into the trellised garden, where affection and expectation refract the daylight. Always, the same. The roses, pink tonight in a skinny silver pitcher. The famous Redouté print of the rose on the menu, a museum piece with its foie gras en brioche, the venerable mousse of duck with juniper berries, that ancient relic of the sixties mignon de boeuf en feuilleté – Beef Wellington to you – a menu revised not with the season but when the supply is exhausted.
But that’s scarcely a felony. The listing is meant only to give first-timers something to hang on to, a strap on the subway as they hurtle toward dinner in what has been America’s most celebrated restaurant for decades. Habitués never see a menu. They eat the plats du jour.
From the day in 1972 when founder André Surmain sailed his own boat across the Atlantic to Majorca in a fit of mid-life crisis, leaving the chef behind to buy him out, Soltner began emerging from the kitchen to make the dining room rotation. Smiling, eyes tilted up at the corner, he stands, one hand on his hip, in his laundry-issue whites – no custom order, no embroidery. “There are chefs working six weeks, and they must wear their name. Not me. I don’t need it. People know me anyway.” He takes the order. “Meat, fish… chicken.” Calling to reserve (easier now, especially at lunch), the savvy often say, “Whatever André feels like cooking.” Often the $60 prix fixe escalates into a tasting, several small dishes and a full-size entrée for $78 (usually $90 to $125 all included.) That makes the $38 lunch feel more like a bargain.
How they love him. Newcomers, thrilled by his attention. The devout (three times a week, five times a month, business seductions in the cozy upstairs salon privé): “It’s like eating in his home.”
“He does dishes for us he wouldn’t cook for just anyone.”
“I asked for something citrus, and he created a fabulous orange tart, just for me.”
And to the whiz kids, the younger-generation star chefs, he is a model. His humility (“I’m just a cook”) and his politeness inspire. His steadfast stance in the kitchen calms their wanderlust (a little). “Twice I came to leave my resume,” Gotham’s Alfred Portale remembers. “And always he came out to see me, even when there was no opening. You get so many resumes. Now I make it a point to see them in person too.”
The Soltners are just two days back from the annual five-week August fermeture. Five weeks for the staff, but only two for them, having lost ten days supervising the painters, and another ten at the end, cleaning up. At 5:45 a.m., Jacques Coustar (he started 38 years ago in France as Soltner’s commis – a kind of slave in the apprenticeship regime) begins the brioche and gets the stocks bubbling. André wakes at eight, watches the news on CNN in the fourth-floor apartment above, and drinks his Postum (“I even take it with me to France now.”). Morning oatmeal seems to soothe his sensitive stomach. The kitchen is quiet, the cooks (most of them veterans, ten, twelve, fifteen years, the Americans from the Culinary Institute) all methodical. Two secretaries field the phones in triage, chasing Soltner as he moves from the cellar prep room to the kitchen. “It’s not too much problem,” he assures one caller. And then another. Suppliers dangle goodies – mushrooms, figs, berries from Oregon. What about scuba-dived scallops? “Ho.” He is somewhat skeptical of theatrics. “Some, they don’t know what they’re doing. They don’t always tell the truth totally. But I try everything.”
He looks relaxed. “I try to keep myself calm,” he says, rubbing the swell above his belt, but it’s a stomach-turning day. “Last night so many people. One couple insisted to wait anyway. They didn’t sit till 10:30.” At 12:45 a.m., he finally descended to the prep room to place his orders before climbing to bed and the French news on the telly. This morning, the photographer’s demands are a distraction. And I’ve asked the chef to “do whatever you want,” not one but two different tastings for our quartet tonight. Complications multiply. The Cottage Cheese Queen, Mimi what’s her name, is coming. He has forgiven her the long-ago demotion to three stars, which shattered him – “I told everyone, ‘It’s not important,’ but we cooked like robots for three months. I was destroyed.” An orthopedic surgeon from California has a party of sixteen upstairs. Can’t he do the same tasting for everyone? Impossible. “Some can’t eat seafood. One wants pork shank. The doctor comes often. He must have something different.” Eight orthopedic surgeons, Soltner marvels. “You have my food,” he tells them, “but don’t touch my knees.” Ah, those knees, those cartilage-manqué knees – two surgeries already, and he is 61 next month. How long can he fly down these stairs?
What will become of Lutèce? There are no children, no heir. Simone wants to go home. André broods about the future. This year he brought in a chef and maître d’ for a six month trial marriage, hoping they’d decide to buy the place. But no. Chef Pierre Schutz retreated from the impossible dream. “Lutèce is André Soltner,” Schutz says. “No one can replace him.” Lutèce is his joy. It’s still fun. The staff is family (with pensions), and even the busboys have been here twenty years. He will not simply leave them. The choice is painful. To let Lutèce survive without its soul or to sell the house minus its name… and see it disappear forever.
Lovers. Tourists. Lutèce loyalists are gathering tonight. Across the room, a man dines solo: He says he is a chef. “You’re my god,” he tells André, bringing him a paper sack of wild mushrooms. Of course, he is the house’s guest.
If you grew up at Lutèce, and if your knees whimper sometimes, too, you may remember when the $8 lunch shocked the bourgeoisie. Likely, you noticed the gentle evolution in Soltner’s cooking. The light sauces, the less-cooked fish, the vegetable terrine held together with its own juices, the subtle creep of cilantro. “The products today are 1,000 percent better than twenty years ago,” he will say. Forget the outsize plates. Not here. No chewy bread, no nutty grains. The roll is crustier now but bland. And though many of us, wallowing in our town’s gastromillenium, are tougher to thrill these days, there are thrills here. And many quiet pleasures.
Sometimes it is simplicity that stuns. A perfect little chicken in a crackling mantle. A buttery pastry with fromage blanc and perfect squares of bacon on the tarte flambée. Thin cutlets of sweetbread, nattily crumbed and sautéed. Creamy layers of potatoes in a gratin dauphinois. The special tang of salmon lightly smoked over apple peels and applewood (brought green from the weekend house in Hunter every Monday).
Forget edible still lifes. Most everything looks defiantly plain, even a bit tacky. “When I see arranged plates, all I can think of is the hands touching – it repulses me.” So the complexity sneaks up without warning. Tonight’s savory lobster brick – bits of crab and lobster, mushroom and zucchini rolled in the Arabic version of phyllo and sautéed, with tenderest morsels of lobster beside a tangy puddle of tomato coulis. Caviar and its classic accessories (sour cream, chopped egg, minced shallot) layered in an eggshell. And luscious chunks of frog’s leg and red-and-green-pepper-flecked quenelles in fragrant cream that excites purrings and exclamations. Entrées are a roll call of grand mère’s cooking, the robust bistro fare I once saluted, provoking anguished outcries from the chef: “Lutèce is not a bistro.” But the juicy veal shank (presented on the haunch), amazingly moist rabbit under a boa of root vegetables, and baked lamb with onions and potatoes are surely Alsatian home cooking. Earthy, like the tarts he gives away. “I cannot charge for them. It’s not Lutèce food. But the customers love it more than caviar.”
So the duck is tough, and the fish is too cooked for tastes Soltner ranks as barbaric. The wine treasury (nearly 30,000 bottles stashed down the street) carries daunting price tags. The “Petite Carte” is more realistic, with many half-bottles and even three labels from California, a recent grudging bow. “I believe in Simard,” says our captain. He’s right. Desserts seem to have lost that edge of exquisite perfection. Best are an extraordinary crème caramel, melting caramel ice cream, a real tarte Tatin (that sticks to your teeth). The exact same cookies are baked every day, but the palmiers are crimped and squiggly.
My affair with Lutèce mirrors scenes from a long marriage. The first storm of passion. The deepening of love. Affectionate familiarity. A certain ennui. The seven-year itch. Irritation at the other’s inability to be anything but what he is. And now, admiration and tenderness for exactly that.