January 23, 1973 | Vintage Insatiable
Au Revoir, André Surmain
Love is still the best game in town. And man in love is absolutely beautiful. I am not sure if the object of his passion really matters. Let him love rocks or young girls or ophthalmology or a guy named George. A ration of consummation transforms.
And André Surmain loves his life. Antique motor cars, Majorca, sailing, his family…his name, his triumphs, adventure, but not necessarily the incessant detail of running New York’s most consistently pleasing French restaurant -- Lutèce. A few weeks ago Surmain gathered fourteen friends and champions to mark his 52nd birthday -- gentlemen in black tie, women decorously bared and brilliantly painted, all palates keen in great expectation.
After the tease of champagne and the fresh foie gras in brioche, after pointedly refusing lobster à l’américaine and one of the house’s voluptuous inventions -- a pastry package of veal and sweetbreads and brain -- after the ’55 La Tâche and the ’49 Lafite-Rothschild and an exquisite chestnut Vacherin in counterpoint with a nectar of d’Yquem, came the non-surprise: Surmain had sold Lutèce to his sorcerer-chef-partner, André Soltner.
“Everyone thinks I’m crazy,” Surmain brooded, but only for a moment. Exit in triumph. The irascible maverick, champion…and lover. Crazy? Or the sanest man in town?
Once before Surmain sold away the core of his existence -- the family’s thriving cosmetic business, Aziza, alchemists of the perfume made with cognac. “I thought I was selling my life. I went bananas,” Surmain recalled. But this winsome Lutèce, France undiluted, was ahead. It began with the narrow townhouse at 249 East 50th Street and James Beard’s cooking school. Beard and Surmain made pâtés to sell at his wife Nancy Surmain’s boutique -- nice little pâtés at princely prices. Then in 1961 came a few tables, an open garden and a young Alsatian chef in the tiny kitchen. And the most staggering prices in town. The critics were not kind. No wonder André is still almost gracelessly defensive, refighting old battles he long ago won. Now the credits are rolling. Let it be noted in the gastronomic yearbook: the vision of Lutèce is André Surmain’s.
Surmain has been restless for years. He bought himself a farm in Majorca and spent months there, leaving Soltner increasingly on his own. Lutèce thrives, and now it is Soltner’s, with the treasury of wines Surmain once fondled like jewels -- and priced accordingly. Still the miracle of East 50th Street.
Friday, December 15, was Surmain’s last night as host of Lutèce. In a sleek, ink-blue blazer of the Real Club Náutica de Palma de Mallorca, André said farewell. At 11:30 he kissed a few cheeks and left. Next morning he gathered chewing gum, peanut butter, back issues of Mad magazine and English muffins for his family in Majorca
“Gather your rosebuds, André.”
He nodded. “And mushrooms and strawberries.”