July 16, 2019 | BITE: My Journal
The Best of the First Forty
Here I am announcing the first Ask Gael report on the cover of New York magazine, 1987.
For New York’s 40th Anniversary celebration issue, I was asked to choose the ten most important restaurants of the four decades I had been reviewing. It wasn’t easy. I asked if it could be a dozen. Being a food writer, I meant thirteen, a baker’s dozen, of course, but then I came up with fourteen, well, fifteen actually, if you count Babbo.
I put together an odd list. Many had arrived before Clay Felker’s vision of a city weekly. I arranged them chronologically, I think. Only six survive today, not necessarily at the original address. Here’s the list:
Shun Lee Dynasty
Windows on the World
Gotham Bar and Grill
Lafayette at the Drake
A selection of my selection follows below.
Andre Soltner showing me the menu in the garden of Lutèce.
With Alsatian André Soltner in the kitchen (almost constantly; in 34 years, he only missed five nights, once for knee surgery), Lutèce sets the gold standard for what a French restaurant should be in America, despite Craig Claiborne’s snarly initial one-star review in l961. “The menus are dazzling graphic excursions,” I wrote. “At night, in numbered editions, à la carte prices are listed on the host’s carte only. Even the tailored $8.50 prix fixe lunch courts the jaded palate by brushing the clichés lightly and adding cold pike pâté in pastry with watercress sauce, morels in cream and fleshy cèpes à la bordelaise.”
Andre Surmain chose Parisien café chairs when he opened Lutèce in 1961.
Early on, winos are stunned when owner André Surmain decides to price his bottles at market price, ending the days of the $5 Bordeaux. The Times’ four stars finally emerge in 1980. We never thought Soltner would retire, but, he did, shockingly in 1994. Click here to read: “Miracle on 50th Street.”
This is a vintage photo of the Grill Room at the Four Seasons.
The Four Seasons was restaurant visionary Joe Baum’s dazzling celebration of the seasons and Philip Johnson’s austere, staunchly American setting, in a fancy French era. “The learned astronomers charted the arrival of winter at 7:44 p.m. on December 21, with the sun playing off the earth’s chilliest tilt,” I wrote. “Fine for the rest of the hemisphere. But New York’s winter has already unfurled precociously at twilight on December 15 behind a hedge of poinsettias in the southwest corner of the Seagram Building as Winter came to rule the varied year, at the Four Seasons.”
Tom Margittai and Paul Kovi ran the Four Seasons for Restaurant Associates and then bought it.
First under Restaurant Associates, then on their own, Paul Kovi and Tom Margittai tend Power Lunch in the Bar (opens 1975), now the Grill, still feeding the powerful. Annual California Barrel tastings are a heady song and dance boosting Left Coast wines. Click here to read: “Can Spring Be Far Behind?”
Maxwell Plum’s ceiling.
The grand café as Show Biz. A mythic mating bar, kaleidoscopic stained glass ceilings and a jungle of Tiffany lamps. Maxwell’s Plum was as exuberant as its impresario Warner LeRoy, his rotund form wrapped in wild plaid taffeta suits, arms flung wide, welcoming 1200 customers a day. Young Drew Nieporent at the podium. The ambition of its eclectic American menu -- from hamburgers and chili to caviar and stuffed squab – wins Claiborne’s four stars in the late 1960s. Where else could you sup in such an exuberance of fairyland clutter?? “Trio Con Brio” appeared in New York July 16, 1977 but Maxwell’s had already closed the weekend before. Click here to read it.
The first Shun Lee Dynasty ultimately led to the current space on 65th Street.
Shun Lee Dynasty: Trek to the Great Wall. Explore the kitchens of Shanghai. Make the gourmand swing of Hong Kong. What adventurer could resist? Not I. But when I hunger for supernal Chinese food, I don’t have to stir. For depth and variety and style and luxury to thrill infidel tastes – to please even the most sophisticated American palate – I have a feeling that the best Chinese restaurants in the world are right here in New York.
Remember the Flower Drum? (click here to read: “High Rent Chinese” September 27, 1971). Chef T.T. Wang’s Uptown Upscale Chinese with Michael Tong at the door, the first Chinese four star, set the scene for Shun Lee Palace, for David Keh’s empire and a confluence of Chinese master chefs in the late 70s, giving the city the best Chinese eating it has ever had, though not for long.?
Shun Lee owner Michael Tong in a photo by Art and Living.
“Ask for Michael. Give him the secret Szechuan handshake. I swear it’s not only journalists he pampers. Anyone who loves Chinese food with a passion will win him in no time. Say you’re my cousin. Let him dazzle you with candied walnuts and the best cold delicacies in town: tender young chicken in a peanutty hot paste ($5.75) to cool with springs of coriander; boned duck ($5.50), a perfect foil for the house’s brilliant chili-blasted hot sauce; and just-cooked shrimp, the survival side of incendiary – a trio costs $12. If you look wistful, he might toss in soft bean curd rolled around chewy black mushroom.” Click here to read: “A Scrutable Guide to New York’s Chinese Restaurants,” April 2, 1979.
Sirio Maccione in the early days of Le Cirque on East 65th Street. It opened in 1974.
In all of its incarnations from 1974 to today, Le Cirque, the hand-kissing Sirio Maccioni’s A-list eatery has been both a club for defrocked presidents, the jet set and the ladies-who-lunch crowd, and a serious eatery, proving ground for Daniel Boulud and Sottha Khunn. Blame Le Cirque also for the rediscovery and eventual abuse of crème brûlée.
Toiling in the vortex of Sirio Maccioni’s consuming obsession with perfection, Chef Boulud is flying. Day after day, he perfects dramatic new matings, all the while reviving great bistro classics and poised to deliver any of the menu’s 50 or so items backed up by his troops in white, some 30 at 1 p.m., when the night crew moors alongside the day.
None of the loyal lunchers at Le Crique seemed to take offense at the monkey theme.
“Today, you will have choucroute, and beer in a champagne glass,” Sirio announces. Ivana Trump accepts. “I am proud to say Le Cirque is a bistro,” says New York’s consummate ringmaster. Le Cirque as bistro is his latest fixation. Let the chef compose sonnets of fresh black truffle and sliced potato with mâche and chervil, or green herb-tinted risotto with prepubescent quail, artichokes, and wild mushrooms ringed with a slick of quail glaze. Sirio is raving about the osso buco, the bouillabaisse, the tripe, today’s “simple” salt-crust-baked chicken, a luscious bird teamed with fresh peas, baby artichokes, and spring onions in a haze of powerful black pepper. Click here to read: “Le Cirque: Circus of the Stars,” April 10, 1989.
Windows on the World opened in the World Trade Center in 1976. Would it bring back downtown?
Windows on the World: This instant landmark floating 102 stories in the sky was impresario Joe Baum's brilliant comeback from exile by Restaurant Associates, signaling a financial turnaround in the city's darkest economic moment, key to revitalizing Lower Manhattan. “The Most Spectacular Restaurant in the World” is the headline on New York’s cover in May 31, 1976.
“Every view is brand-new…a miracle. In the Statue of Liberty Lounge, the harbor’s heroic blue sweep makes you feel like the ruler of some extraordinary universe. All the bridges of Brooklyn and Queens and Staten Island stretch across the restaurant’s promenade. Even New Jersey looks good from here. Down below are all of Manhattan and helicopters and clouds. Everything to hate and fear is invisible. Pollution is but a cloud. A fire raging below Washington Square is a dream, silent, almost unreal, though you can see the arc of water licking flame. Default is a silly nightmare. There is no doggy doo. Garbage is an illusion.” Click here to read: “The Most Spectacular Restaurant in the World.”
Here’s chef-owner Barry Wine in the early days of the Quilted Giraffe on Second Avenue.
Transplanted in 1979 from its innocence in New Paltz to a Greek coffee shop on Second Avenue (Barry and Susan Wine lived above the store as did André Soltner around the corner), the Quilted Giraffe set nouvelle cuisine style with outsize service plates, the first degustation in NYC, the Grand Dessert Tasting, and later, Japanese small plates and sous vide, recruiting American chefs Tom Colicchio, Wayne Nish, Jan Birnbaum when few French restaurants would hire Americans.
Back in New Paltz, the Wines grew their own asparagus and pea sprouts and on weekends Susan gathered fraises du bois. They rented a building. (“We know we had to live over the store,” Susan says. “This is not a job, it’s a lifestyle.”) A narrow Greek luncheonette was transformed into cozy elegance. On Memorial Day 1979, they locked the doors in New Paltz, shipped their old convection oven south, and one week later opened the new Quilted Giraffe, “around the corner from Lutèce” on Second Ave.
The hungry nomads who had loved them in their upstate adolescence followed. And new friends proved loyal too. I suspect many New Yorkers with $100 to splurge on dinner for two will be tickled pink here. They’ll bask in the generosity of space. An embrace of booths, tables proportioned for elbows and luxury, dark wood, inlaid mirror, and café au lait Ultrasuede, classic chairs -- all create unusual comfort. The rosé is pink and spicy, the candle in frosted-glass shade, subtle flattery. The staff is naïve but earnest. The menu sings with creative notions, and the food arrives arranged in Japanese metaphor. Sometimes it is quite good. Click here to read: “Nouvelle Notions and Naïveté,” February 25, 1980.
The opening of Odeon signaled the way to new action downtown.
In 1980, with no money but lots of style, Lynn Wagenknecht and the McNally brothers Brian and Keith didn’t only help create a trendy New York neighborhood in a former industrial wasteland. They made Odeon, a faded Deco cafeteria with Patrick Clark’s nouvelle cuisine, into the American bistro prototype and paved the way downtown.
“I can’t remember the last time I was in Odeon…years, decades. We gathered tonight for 7 o’clock drinks at a friend's loft on Hudson Street and our pals suggested Odeon for dinner after. They’d run into chef Tom Valenti and his wife having burgers there recently. Ah, yes…a reminder of Odeon’s iconic burgers and fries in the intense days of 1980, when foodies and nightlife wanderers first ventured downtown to J.S. Vandam and Capsouto Frères. And the giant red neon spelling out ODEON became a beacon for the eclectic chic.” (Are you old enough to remember the late Patrick Clark in the kitchen?) Those were the golden days, when the London-born McNallys were a triumph of three. Click here to read: “Odeon Never Grows Old. It Is Old.”
The Gotham Bar and Grill opened in 1984, the era of the Grand Café.
As always, the excursion starts on a high. The sidewalk's nighttime murk opens to a buzz of theater, three levels creating runways for people-watching; strivers, achievers, politicians, their chroniclers, the neighborhood. We arrive at Gotham Bar and Grill, a bar for flirtations, sometimes poutful waits (one flaw here), and B-minus nuts. (Is the mix top-heavy with peanuts, or is everyone like me, devouring the almonds and cashews?). The infants and toddlers who were welcome at six are gone now. And the soaring space feels fresh, with its classic forms and witty garden ornaments, its brilliant lighting and its floating parachutes to muffle the sound.
When Alfred Portale took over the Gotham kitchen, he did beautiful food. Later, his food grew tall.
The years have worn the clever stenciled floor (watch out, it can be slippery), but the room's subtle grays, greens, and terra-cotta, the pediments and globes, still work. So does the service, growing slick to match the intensifying sophistication of Alfred Portale's cooking. He is not one of the wunderkinds reinventing the chicken. Go elsewhere for pork cheeks, beet-tinted mashed potatoes ringing the plate, or birds wrapped in Indian pancakes. He's too pure for that, too hooked on the classic, too focused on the perfection of the product itself.
That’s why you could eat at the Gotham every night of the week and never get zonked by sensory overload. Splendid lamb-chop bones, crossed like swords. Sushi-grade venison. Tonight's spectacular squab, its texture sublime beside whole cloves of roasted garlic, crispy bits of pancetta, crimini mushrooms, and ratatouille. Let other geniuses play with miso, lemongrass, and Thai fish sauce. Portale's food can be Italian, as befits his heritage; French, reflecting his training; occasionally Portuguese, or vaguely Indian, an expression of his curiosity. Click here to read: “Gotham: Grill Crazy,” October 11, 1993.
Maguy and Gilbert Le Coze opened Le Bernardin in 1986, not long after receiving a third star in Paris.
Cozy enough at Le Bernardin, their two-star, Brittany-sky-blue nook off the Champs Élysées, Maguy and Gilbert Le Coze never wanted anything but New York. For six years, the two scoured midtown on periodic visits. Twice, perfect deals fell through, and they went home to Paris demoralized. But a year ago, real-estate powers at Equitable offered to pave the parquet at 155 West 51st Street with greenbacks if they would bring their highly personal celebration of the sea to gild the company’s new home base on dowdy Seventh Avenue.
Having fallen in love with Maguy and Gilbert at first sight and dined and danced with them on two continents, I heard every tale of their New York woe and triumph. But as tastings for friends began a few weeks ago, before Le Bernardin opened, the critic in me beat a retreat. “I’ll come later,” I said, “without warning, once you get going.”
The day after the opening, my phone rang off the hook, every foodie in town reporting in...mostly with raves. All week the gourmaniacal telegraph clacked. “Eli Zabar arrived for dinner carrying his own bread,” came the headline. They were fainting over the halibut and weeping joyfully for the vinegar. One piranha reported, “We rated the desserts a 15 out of a possible 10.” I felt like an orphan. Of course I had to go.
Have you known me long enough to trust me? Indeed, the baby Le Bernardin is something of a miracle. The Brittany-sky-blue paint is scarcely dry, but Gilbert is already stunning the pampered with his minimalist art, and Maguy’s dining room moves with astonishing grace. They seem somehow more brilliant here in our mesquite-and-blackened-redfish-weary wasteland than at home, where the competition is towering. Click here to read: “Le Bernardin Beguiles Our Crocodile,” February 24, 1986.
Jean Georges began following his own inspiration at Lafayette in the Drake Hotel and started a revolution.
The museum curator catalogues an artist’s work by medium: oil or ink, watercolor, crayon, or pastels. So why shouldn’t Jean-Georges Vongerichten divide his edible masterworks into “bouillons,” “les vinaigrettes,” “huiles parfumées” (infused oils), and “jus de legumes” (vegetable extracts)? The prose is not nearly as mannered and pretentious as it might seem when you study his early spring menu at Lafayette, simply because most everything is delicious if not downright dazzling.
There are hollow chefs who cook with their intellect but not their guts, and aesthetes who pander to the eye at the price of flavor, committing tortured travesties. But Jean-Georges, leaping about his glass-enclosed kitchen conducting the corps de cuisine, has made the sublime – well, sublime. That’s what’s drawn the crowd tonight to this sedate, slightly stunted room with its civilized spacing of tables, splashes of tulips, salmon velour armchairs and oil lamp glow, pink roses in porcelain swans, and knowing staff – all very cozy, elegant, French, and expensive.
Jean Georges never stops inventing.
And somehow the $100 per mouth (about half that at lunch) seems not at all outrageous for the thrill of Vongerichten’s exquisite sea-urchin custard tinted with fennel juice – the spiny shells propped on a hill of fennel seed toasted rice crackers hoisted like sails, and a salad of fennel on the side – or for the Louisiana shrimp in their peppery, pungent lemongrass-and-carrot-juice bath. Sound ghastly? It’s amazingly good. Click here to read: “Lafayette: The Drake’s Progress,” March 19, 1990.
Tony May opened San Domenico on Central Park West in 1988. Here he is with his daughter Marissa.
San Domenico, Tony May’s 1988 take on the uppercrust style and regional taste in this Imola offshoot (after introducing carpaccio, house made ravioli and tartufo at his Italian Fortnights in the Rainbow Room in 1972) is a hothouse for star chefs: Theo Schoenegger, Paul Bartolotta, Scott Conant, Odette Fada. May’s Gruppo di Ristoratori Italiani, emphasizing imported Italian products, unites owners “to improve the image of Italian cooking through education.” May’s now defunct Palio and Sandro (recently revived) are aperitivos of serious Italian eating before the age of Batali. Click here to read: “Kiss Me, I’m Italian,” May 27, 2008.
Nobu Players: Drew Nieporent, Robert De Niro and Nobu Matsuhisa.
In toro-loving circles, the landfall in Manhattan of Nobu Matsuhisa was hailed as if it were the Second Coming if not the First. The chef's taste and bravado, honed on a path from Japan to Alaska to Peru and Argentina, had lured the crème de la crème as well as the skim milk of Hollywood to his cramped temple of vinyl on La Cienega Boulevard. Now, in league with Tribeca ward boss Robert De Niro and his restaurant right-hand Drew Nieporent, Matsuhisa realized it made no sense to clone a dump – not in the gracious old bank the partners had leased to house Nobu.
Still, no one could have guessed that out of designer David Rockwell's fertile noggin would come sheer enchantment: the cobalt-blue horizon of the smoking room, set behind blue velvet and winter twigs; the copper leaf and off angles of the ceiling; the real birches with ersatz branches; the curving wall of black river stones ("like a slab of beluga," rhapsodized the Voice), and the usual Rockwell wit (30s fans and fish on chenille, cherry blossoms painted on the beechwood floor, tall stools with chopstick legs, the service bar in a bank vault). Just when we're ready not to be amused again by the irrepressible Rockwell, he tosses off his best design yet.
Nobu or not Nobu. Opinions are fierce. Brilliant, says one. A disaster, reports another. He loved it. She hated it. The crowd is in full surge. With no World Series going, the new sport in town is table-nabbing. I call Nieporent requesting a spot for out-of-town friends, not me. Can't fool Drew. "What a waiting list tonight," he says. "Madonna and a party of six want 8:30. Calvin and six, 8:30. Martha Stewart and six, 8:30. Peter Guber, six… Jean-Claude Van Damme. And guess who I'm calling back first." He wants it to sound like a complaint, but clearly, he's in heaven. Mere mortals will go on hold for a while. Is this a revival of sushi chic?
Our waiter, an import from La Cienega, has not lost his Hollywood. "Irasshai," he barks in traditional welcome to each new arrival. Alas, he can't get our order straight, urging us to begin with cold dishes, then bringing hot and forgetting half. Toro tartare with caviar in a small frosted-glass dish on a doily is worth the $25, I suppose; the voluptuous tuna belly is a sensory explosion.
"In my 25 years in business, this is my first doily," says Nieporent. Click here to read: “Nobu: Toro! Toro! Toro!” October 31, 1994.
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