July 31, 1990 | Vintage Insatiable

E.A.T: Eli Zabar Stands, Chutzpah Rampant

        My new friend Lauren knows the truffles I’ve seen, knew we were soul mates long before we ever met. She describes to me her own insatiable passion for ice cream, her dedication to aerobics as the only antidote to a near-fatal attraction to Le Madri’s white-cheese focaccia with truffle oil. “I don’t believe it,” she says. “You don’t know Eli’s PLT. Prosciutto, lettuce, and tomato on brioche.” She stares at me. I sense my mouth has lost a star or two, her respect is drifting.

        We meet at a small green-and-white marble table in the cool clatter of E.A.T Cafe, the sun pouring through the plate-glass window exposing our vanities at play. I’m a little tardy, having lingered dazedly at the carryout counter contemplating lobster salad at $32 a pound, my adrenaline in paralyzing overdrive. “Are you sure?” a customer asks plaintively as the clerk demands $87 for his small bag of necessities. A slender blonde legend in tangerine with acrylic fingernails sneers at him as if a cockroach had popped out of her Chanel sac. A browser eyeing the price tags on the sandwiches to go clutches her throat and backs out the door.

        “Oh no,” I cry, spying the basket of Eli’s bread on our table, the irresistible nut-and-raisin-stuffed wheat, the gawjous seven-grain loaf. Now that the junk bondsters and the conceptual artists of the savings-and-loan plunder are cowering, Eli Zabar stands alone, chutzpa rampant on a field of spicy greens. I was never quite as impressed by Eli’s precocious brilliance in sticking his own labels on ordinary commercial vinegar and charging E.A.T. prices as I was by his shameless boasting about it. So what if the rogue charges an elbow and a kneecap for crab cakes. He can never be a villain in my book, thanks to the genius of his supernal breads. They’ve become something splendid to chew on in restaurants all over town. He even delivers by plane—his own—to special customers in the Hamptons. Needless to say, he’s getting richer every day.

        “The ladies who lunch at Le Cirque love to come here,” says Lauren. “It costs no more, and you don’t have to dress.” Lauren is trim and vibrant in faded jeans and a simple $300 T-shirt. I stash the bread under the table to keep temptation away as our sandwiches arrive. Crisp-fried soft-shell crab and the mythic PLT as advertised, both on brioche. Tangy grilled marinated peppers and goat cheese on fragrant focaccia. Grilled ham and Gruyère oozing fat from every pore.

        “How much is this?” I ask.

        “If I knew, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it. This is the rule of life,” she says. “If it would be $5 just anywhere and $10 someplace good, it will be $20 here. I’m sure Eli would tell you we’re all shallow, stupid people with money to burn. Aren’t these fabulous?”

        She’s right. So some of the white beans are too cooked, some too little cooked. Maybe the salad is sort of vinegary and sometimes untouched by the uneven fall of vinaigrette. Never mind. The sandwiches are marvelous, and at $12.50 to $20, don’t be ungrateful. “At dinner, the place is packed,” Lauren reports. “Everyone knows you can just walk in and you’ll get a good meal. You have to work too hard to eat out in New York. And breakfast is a bargain,” she whispers. “You order coffee, and the bread and jam is free on every table.”

     She looks at her watch. “Do you mind if I run?” She picks up a cookie, chewy and delicious. “I don’t know how much they are,” she says, in response to my query. “They come in a bag--$10, I think. Four of them.” (“Twelve,” says Eli.)

       On my way out (leftovers in a people bag), I spot Eli. He introduces his wife, Devon Fredericks, a food mogul herself, not long ago at Loaves and Fishes in Sagaponack. I ask for a menu. “Give her one that isn’t laminated,” says Devon. Touching. It’s a match made in Fort Knox.

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