December 21, 1987 | Vintage Insatiable

Remembering Le Pavillon

        There was once an amazing time when a man and a woman could fall in love in five and a half minutes. One could leap before one looked. Only Mom made chocolate-chip cookies. The kiwi had not yet been invented, and quiche was lush and exotic. If your daddy took you to Chambord for the rack of lamb or you once expressed devotion to your mate by promising to master the secret of the chocolate-mousse cake at the Chauveron, you remember that innocent time. How green we were, how easily wowed – the avant-garde of the food-obsessed hordes that would follow. How carefree we were, lapping up puddles of butter.

        And the prix fixe lunch at Le Pavillon just $7.

        Fame is cruelly mercurial. I think each time I pass the First Woman’s Bank, imagining its vault, a cold steel hulk in what was not long ago the town’s most celebrated kitchen – with not even a few inches of bronze to mark where once Le Pavillon hummed, an academy that sent its pupils off to found the Le’s and La’s of fine French dining, some still cluttering the side streets of Manhattan.

        In its glory, Le Pavillon was our town’s greatest – some said only – French restaurant. and Henri Soulé’s icy snub and passion for perfection were legend. Exiled royalty and their duchesses, elder statesmen, nail-polish magnates – a cabal of the highborn and powerful – were pampered on his red velour banquettes in the narrow passage he called the Royale, and when Jack Kennedy insisted on milk, his bottle was served in a silver ice bucket with a hefty $2 tab.

        Fresh from college – and hungry – I’d made an amateur’s commitment to delicious excess, hoarding limited funds to explore the city’s temples of fine dining. But though I’d spent a formative year in the land of 365 cheeses and could make fettuccine starting with an egg and some flour, I lacked the courage to face the mythic master of haute hauteur. I was not Babe Paley. Or even close. I imagined being shuffled to darkest Siberia, condemned to eat yesterday’s lamb chops.

        But perhaps if I became a journalist…Voilà. M. Soulé positively dimpled in welcome, benevolently surrendering me to the chef, Clément Grangier, so I could sniff out my story “A Week in the Kitchen of Le Pavillon.” How kindly he tolerated by myopia, till finally the plump pouter pigeon (he was five feet five inches in height and perhaps in circumference as well) chided me: “The secret of the Pavillon is not in the kitchen. Le Pavillon, c’est moi.”

        A peasant from Saubrigues, a tiny village in southwest France, Soulé idolized the meticulous César Ritz. By the time I’d graduated from Velveeta to quenelles de brochet – Le Pavillon’s ethereal fish dumplings – the peasant had become a tastemaker, a diplomat, and a martinet. He wooed with caviar and Dom Pérignon and buttery petits fours, but his disdain and his anger could be lethal. He spent a fortune on red roses and kept his suppliers on their toes by pitting one against the other. A less-than-perfect sturgeon’s egg on his tongue could provoke a tirade. His fancy for Château Pétrus created Manhattan’s affection for that wine.

        Soulé soothed, scolded, snarled, cajoled, demanded perfection, insisted on his concept of propriety. If a client asked for freshly made butter, Chef Grangier himself wielded the whisk. And because his doctor had forbidden him his favorite tripe a la mode de Caen, Soulé invited me to lunch with him at 3 p.m. and insisted that I have it.

        For a time, Soulé found it amusing to run La Côte Basque, on East 55th (first site of Le Pavillon), as “Le Pavillon for the poor.” When the waiters got out of hand, he sold it, but the new owner fumbled, and in the spring of 1965, Soulé was forced to revive it or lose the unpaid debt. He died there in 1966, collapsed on the floor of the men’s room, the pay-phone receiver dangling – some union vexation, they said.

        Le Pavillon lingered on, wan and wasting, as a syndicate of zealots struggled to keep it alive. Finally, in the quake of the economically tremulous seventies, it died. I remember imagining the flicker of triumph in a plump little ghost’s smile. Soulé liked to refer to himself in the third person, and he often said, “No one is indispensable. The chef is not indispensable. Only Soulé is indispensable. Without Soulé, there is no Le Pavillon.”

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