January 12, 1981 | Vintage Insatiable

Great Chefs, Inspired Feasts

        Now comes winter to celebrate the cuisine of astonishment.

        It’s not that New York’s affluent mouths are jaded. Oh, I suppose some of ours are. But, by far, the true provocation for all the culinary high jinks and experiment is our great appetite for adventure. Self-taught chefs, expatriates from vested-suit professions, yearn to grow and create. Professionals groomed in the classic French tradition leap to the challenge. (Well, blessedly, some do.) New Yorkers, numbed or resigned to taking a small-business loan to pay for dinner, respond joyfully to the dazzle.

       This winter, the great chefs and restaurateurs are enmeshed in their seasonal obsession… fresh game, and how to get it. Wild pheasants appear… an unexplained miracle. Remarkable venison… wild ducks… five perfect squabs, no more – don’t ask where they came from. Le Plaisir has a source for fresh chanterelles from Oregon. Someone has bootleg raw foie gras (if you’re lucky, you’ll get a taste). Chanterelle persuaded its Cape Cod supplier of scallops in the shell to bring in liver of lotte. Fresh Dover sole – just eight of them – inspire Dodin-Bouggant improvisations. At Lutèce André Soltner bakes parsnips in cider he brewed himself at his Hunter Mountain retreat. Perfectionist chefs are paying $5 a pound for twig-thin French string beans. Radicchio, crunchy and costly red lettuce from Italy, colors aristocratic salads. There are raspberries too. And now is the climactic high of the oyster lover’s year, with ten or twelve varieties nestled, voluptuous, on ice at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central.

       Whether they spent their summer vacations on tasting sprees in France (with the obligatory homage to Girardet, outside Lausanne) or merely daydreaming nouvelle notions in a hammock, the master whisks of my favorite restaurants are poised to deliver winter pleasure.


        Le Plaisir (969 Lexington Avenue, near 70th Street), orphan of early gastronomic massacre, is clearly a miracle. To survive it all. To bloom. And now in full, glorious flower. Japanese-born, Escoffier-trained Masataka Kobayashi is riding a new high of confidence. What emerges from his kitchen is a mastery of color, design, texture, flavor in a brilliant sensual balance. He has never been stronger. Not to be missed: Delicate crayfish (or lobster) mousse tucked into mystically cloudlike sweetbread “fritters” with nuggets of cèpe on a nest of cucumber “noodles,” subtly sauced, wittily garnished. A duo of livers in rectangle – calf’s and foie gras – quiveringly rare, with fresh chanterelles. And favorite hors d’oeuvre: Raw lamb marinated in a zesty herbed vinaigrette. Oysters wearing jeweled crowns on lily pads of spinach. An intensely perfumed scallop soup. Sinuous slivers of fresh chanterelles and vegetable ribbons in splendid consommé. No one cooks thin homemade pasta as perfectly as Masa. For winter, it’s green with smoked salmon and cream. And there are poached quail eggs and nubbins of seafood in a Nantua sauce en cocotte.

        New to the winter menu are salmon fillets in a beurre blanc with a rain of crunchy golden whitefish roe. From the house’s own New Jersey farm come baby quail, smaller than your thumb, with poached Seckel pears. Something as potentially mundane as a chicken breast becomes sublime, wrapped around an herb farce, not one second overcooked, with great coins of truffle between each slice, and an accent of tarragon. Even veal scallops are exciting, served in a fine lemon butter with chewy wild morels.

        Nuggets of candied peel are a delicious bittersweet contrast in the frozen grapefruit soufflé… dark ovals of intense chocolate mousse in a raspberry pool are exquisitely ribboned with a drawing in crème fraîche. But pastries and the hot soufflés are often disappointing – as if they were made by someone who never eats desserts. A flaw: The room gets crowded, and the clackery of self-conscious chic-lings does escalate. But recently the house decided to cancel lunch and concentrate on dinner, giving Masa “more time to experiment.” A delicious new chapter is sure to unfold.


        If you’ve fallen in love with the “calf’s liver in bondage” at Dodin-Bouffant (405 East 58th Street), never fret. It’s one of the few signature items devotees won’t let Bob and Karen Pritsker retire in their constant seizures of creative evolution (though the “bondage” depends on whim and the availability of chive “lashings”). Nothing is ever static here. Indeed, the air crackles with the tension of Bobby Pritsker, maniacal, driven perfectionist, and the tightly wound Karen, caught in their remarkable symbiotic creativity.

        From the magnificent melting brain scallops with three flavors of mayonnaise; sublime prune-and-coriander-stuffed duck leg with cranberry puree; saffron-scented ballottine of chicken bouillabaisse; pigeon with ragout of fennel, leek, tomato, and star anise; ricotta pepper tart and silken nutmeg ice cream… each dish stuns the eye, provokes the tongue, astonishes the nose.

        Morning supply deliveries detonate Pritskers’ daily improvisation. New dynamite-fresh ginger in the market inspires lamb roasted with ginger-scented potatoes dauphinoise. A new technique makes tastier duck bread, served rare with a mille-feuille of apples using Karen’s own pain de mie, and a poached lady apple stuffed with puree of turnip. And “to use all the duck legs we’ve got kicking around,” there is a creamy celery-root soup with juniper-scented duck dumplings wrapped in Chinese cabbage. Delicate little briny mussels ring a puree of Italian parsley in a puddle of buttery mussel essence. And there is a fricassee of astonishingly tender swordfish. That possessed creature you see harvesting wild garlic chives mornings in Central Park is Bob, of course.

        If there’s a flaw, it’s their determination to make the earth move with every dish. As you crunch just one more cookie, succumb to buttery chocolate truffles and fat orange-and-frangipane-stuffed prune… a quick fix of coffee is crucial to collect your senses. That’s just the tiniest complaint. A subtlety now and then wouldn’t hurt. But spare me the blahs. I’ll eagerly risk their dizzying dazzle.


        Monarchies tumble but the Palace (420 East 59th Street) is surviving its own little Reign Of Terror, and new this winter is the $25 prix fixe lunch. The place is a far tramp east from midtown, but a perfect tax-deductible plot with unbeatable wow.

        Wallow at a discount in Palace posh. Spicy tea roses and pulled-candy apples. Old-fashioned captains without the old-fashioned snoot. Butter in silver rolltop dishes. Sculpted ice and pastry baskets and pasta towers of Pisa in the classic tradition of Carême… foolish and delightful. Chef Michel Fitoussi has discovered some secret alchemy for cooking thick salmon fillets to a blushing perfection – nobody does it better – and the butter-enriched mussel fumet with a hint of sorrel is a splendid complement. The suprême of chicken has the same moist just-doneness in its tangy vinegar-spiked sauce. Liver of lotte is tenderly poached too and floats – a lobe with a mousselike texture – in a piquant sea with slivers of snow pea for crunch. Bass en croûte, scallops with green peppercorns, and the house’s exquisite pompano baked in rock salt compete with daily improvisation – salmon mousse, perhaps, with a crunch of golden whitefish roe, or angel-hair pasta with bay scallops and earthy morels in cream.

        Begin with garlicky herbed snails in a barquette, or a pastry cornet filled with crisp asparagus and perfect hollandaise… or lump crabmeat, rich saffroned mussel soup, of a pearlescent seafood terrine surrounded with lemony tomato puree. Each entrée is wittily garnished with turnip and carrot logs tied in scallion “ribbon” and nutty mushroom duxelles in an artichoke heart. Perfect greens in Fitoussi’s remarkable vinaigrette follow. And then the Palace’s famous white-chocolate mousse, a hot apple tart, and possibly the best coffee ice cream in town… with homemade caramel sauce, plus petit fours, chocolates, and coffee. Palace lunchers are often seen lingering over coffee with the dinner menu in hand, fantasizing evenings of more outrageous decadence.


         Lutèce chef-patron André  Soltner has been gathering laurels longer than anyone, but he still gathers his own wild juniper berries too, experiments constantly – and acts as if each day were the day he must make his mark. He demands St. Pierre and rouget from France… begs for fresh frog’s legs… schemes for a few plump pigeons… and stands on his ear to please guests who reserve with the line “We’ll eat whatever the chef wants to cook.”

        Lutèce (249 East 50th Street) is at its most dazzling in the $45 “degustation” – a parade of hors d’oeuvre and entrées with an ice between, and two desserts, changing every day. (Everyone at the table must order the degustation, preferably before 8:30; just specify when you reserve.) A tiny tartlet with sweet dollops of frog’s leg in garlicked cream began a recent “tasting” dinner. Next came fresh chanterelles with carved baby artichoke hearts in a shallot-and-Madeira-steeped cream, followed by a delicate fillet of pike with tomato and a dash of sherry vinegar. Two slightly overcooked fillets of St. Pierre came afloat on a buttery lettuce-flecked sea. Then, after a properly tart hyphen of lemon ice doused with marc of Guwurztraminer, incredibly moist pheasant was served with a simple sauce, browned Brussels sprouts, julienne of celery root and parsnip (from an upstate farm) braised in home-brewed apple cider. Three asparagus in an exquisite vinaigrette was salad. Pink grapefruit and pear were baked in a sabayon sauce, followed by a flaky pastry with frangipane as a carpet for raspberries. And cookies. And candied oranges.

        With winter there is rabbit, in stew and fast-sautéed: pumpkin soup; glazed oysters on vegetable julienne or fresh spinach; rouget in a light cream sauce with red-bell-pepper confetti; venison; and whatever the market or serendipity delivers… transformed by the chef’s wit and whim.


        When last encountered, the Quilted Giraffe’s chef-patron, Barry Wine, was threatening to make mustard ice cream. Well, he has not abandoned all such nouvelle-kitsch notions. Only now… more of them work. His technique is surer. He is as fanatic a seeker of perfection in product as ever. Home from France, he and wife Susan have borrowed some grand Gallic notions – a new cheese cart, a library of serious after-dinner digestifs, sweet butter in a giant block dressed in a flounce of ruffled lettuce. “At Alain Chapel, in Mionnay, the butter is even bigger,” says Wine enviously. There are still brilliant combinations that don’t work in the mouth… and some timidity in seasoning. Even so, the Quilted Giraffe (955 Second Avenue, near 50th Street) is soaring… expensive too, alas, with the dinner prix fixe now $40 and the tasting dinner $60.

        Start with a crackling strudel of crabmeat and scallops, or crisp-skinned confit of duck with carrot and bean purees, or plump snails in an herb-scented cream, or witty beggar’s purses. Sevruga caviar in crêpe “knapsacks” tied with chive “string.” Meticulously just-sautéed scallops are brilliantly played against bittersweet caramelized endive and briny seaweed. Fresh ginger is delicious with tenderly poached bass. Old favorites are back – nutted calf’s liver, and kidneys roasted with mustard seed. For a $5 supplement, there are melting sweetbreads in a fine chive hollandaise, and gray sole with foie gras and enoki mushrooms. Desserts are evolving too, but the slightly adolescent pecan square, served warm, is still obligatory.

        As winter begins to bluster, Barry Wine is thinking of hiding oysters in an eggshell with sauce so rich you’ll be happy to eat it with a demitasse spoon. He’ll be experimenting with a freestanding fish soufflé wrapped round a fish fillet – a longing that seized him at the L’Oasis, in La Napoule. And he’s talking about the gentrification of garbure, a peasanty soup of southwestern France. He’s a la mode, all right… surer now… and growing.


        When I discovering Chanterelle, a sedately stylish, brightly lit oasis in a night jungle of cast-iron warehouses (89 Grand Street, 966 6960), David and Karen Waltuck were still feeling their way toward what was surely going to be a gastronomic high. When David was good, he was very, very good, and when he was off… well, at least it was a bold try. There are still flaws now and then, and, with wine, a $36 seven-course dinner easily runs $115 for two. But Waltuck is relaxing, growing… triumphant.

        “Our Lady of the Armoire” – that’s Karen, playing grande dame at the escritoire – sets the mood for serious excess. Start with delicate veal tongue and an herb-perfumed white-bean salad. Go on to bass quenelle in a lettuce chiffonade… fricassee of lotte, oysters, and baby scallops gracefully sauced… then slightly tough and not exactly thrilling veal. Splendid cheese comes from neighboring Dean & Deluca. Then ice cream heady with praline, delicate tuile cookies, candied orange peel, dark-chocolate truffles, and coffee. Each week a new adventure.     

        All fall, friends brought wild mushrooms. David, once a marine biologist, inspired his supplier to find lotte liver, serves it sautéed – a sweet nuttiness played against broccoli rabe. Now there is venison terrine in red-wine sauce, but he has a side of elk and plans to experiment with all its parts. He is perfecting his duck-and-turnip pie, sautéing kidneys with brandy-spiked prunes, steaming oysters in cabbage leaves to float on a light cream sauce. He does calf’s liver with little braised radishes in a mustardy wine sauce, roast pork with braised fennel, and for lunch, which will begin in February, cassoulet. 


To read earlier more detailed reviews click here for Le Plaisir, Dodin Bouffant, The Palace, Lutèce, Quilted Giraffe, Chanterelle.

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