February 25, 1980 | Vintage Insatiable

Nouvelle Notions and Naïveté: Quilted Giraffe.       


          The Quilted Giraffe was an adorable, wonderful oasis of haute ambition in upstate New Paltz when I first wrote about it in 1975.  That early rave whipped Barry and Susan Wine to fiercer ambition. The house baked its own crusty baguettes and stocked a fine cellar. Invisible hands played Chopin throughout dinner, and there was a rubber giraffe in the bathtub of the ladies’ room. The menu said “canard aux navets” (duck with turnips) and the cherubic red-haired waiter (“I am the French expert”) insisted “navets” meant olives. The chef soon went unabashedly nouvelle, delighting a claque from miles around. And there was even great vintage wine by the glass—an indulgence I wish more restaurants would venture.


          For this culinary triumph the Wines had no training at all. Milwaukee-born, New York-honed, he was a Wall Street lawyer who loved to cook. In the innocence of the sixties, they moved upstate so he could be a country lawyer. She opened a gallery and a shop selling women’s clothes. They started the restaurant to create a lunchtime mecca “like the big shopping centers do.” One day Barry Wine decided he could do as well as the resident chef. With each serious review they grew more ambitious, eliminating lunch to concentrate on dinner, selling the shops, trekking to New York twice weekly for provisions. They spent two inspirational weeks in Paris. And last spring they decided they were ready for New York.


          They rented a building. (“We know we had to live over the store,” Susan says. “This is not a job, it’s a life-style.”) 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 rose 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. Sweetbreads are anointed with hazelnut oil in a toss of patrician greens with walnuts, nicoise olives, scallions, and carrot strips blanches to a subtle perfection of tenderness.


          Gently marinated tournedos of venison are served rare with currants, pine nuts, chestnut puree, and a tangle of enoki mushrooms. Rare rib steak wrapped around scallion with Bearnaise is more appealing than at first contemplation. Lamb is delicious and beautifully garnished. Pink and tender calf’s liver arrives in a fragrant armor of crushed pistachios. Breast of duck is tender, rare, and garlicky. All these on the $32.50 prix fixe dinner. Lunch is equally imaginative at $17.50.


          Barry Wine is sweetly obsessed, a perfectionist, with a passion for quality and the urge to experiment. There he is, circling the dining room, introducing the guests to the two-foot-rod of Japanese radish. “It’s so hairy,” each woman squeals in turn.


          “It tastes like a potato,” he announces proudly. And so it does. There are thin crisp-fried strips on the plate of parchment-baked bass in lettuce, alongside buttery broccoli florets and snow peas. He won’t let a customer eat the same entrée garnished the same way twice. That’s an obsession, And no table ever receives the same vegetable twice in the same night. He’s out back juggling thirteen possibilities, driving the sous chef crazy, because that’s the way Barry likes to eat—something different every time. He does shoestrings of vegetables long as spaghetti, and tendrils of daikon to encircle a mustardy liver hors d’oeuvre.


          Lamb salad spiked with basil has a diadem of ripe pears and a nest of applesauce so stunningly good I would have loved some to carry home in a jar. While an ice to clear the palate in a three-course meal is pretentious, many Americans seem to love it, and now that Barry Wine has bought himself a $600 Mini-Gel, the sorbets are as smooth as silk and the persimmon ice is celestial (though a but too heady with clove). The grand dessert---a taste of everything served in relay, with a brace of ramekin soufflés—is $15 extra for two, and worth it. The fruit sampler includes sweet cherries from New Zealand and whatever exotica the market offers. There is white-and-dark-chocolate mousse and a sliver of chocolate-coconut tart. Then ice creams smooth as a high-class con man with a magnificently chewy strip of pecan pie. And more till you call a halt with the lagniappe of a chocolate-dipped strawberry.


          But…yes, there is a but…if only the Quilted Giraffe were totally wonderful. Alas, too often the kitchen just misses…a stumble that betrays the amateur. “The sauces are simple,” Barry Wine confides, “because we don’t have the background of a trained chef.” Skill he has. And an admirable philosophy of  “spare no expense.” But his taste is…exotic. He is hungry for experiment. Jaded before his time.


           “The customers love it,” Susan Wine observes. “It’s the food critics who are down on nouvelle cuisine.” I disagree. Nouvelle when it works is transcendence at table. Nouvelle for shock value alone is just plain silly—especially at these prices.


            Barry Wine was experimenting with mustard ice cream for a brain salad the last time I stopped by. When I cringed, he assured me quickly he wouldn’t put it on the menu unless it was wonderful. His witty and beautiful seven-layer cake of Scotch salmon and calf’s liver with a tomato-rose crown would be a masterwork if it weren’t such a curious mating—like a blind date with John Travolta and Lily Tomlin. But customers apparently love it, even at $10 extra. In the meantime, the lamb salad is blandly unsauced, the lovely seafood strudel in crackles of phyllo dough cries for a richness to bind it, and the bass in lettuce is also unnecessarily ascetic. The wild-mushroom soup, so spectacularly flavorful, still has that curious texture.


          The Wines are totally dedicated, hardworking, truly monomaniacal about quality…unfailingly sweet and sincere. Experience, I hope, will calm the wild nouvellisme that drives Barry Wine. The Wines may even outgrow the quilted giraffe hangings that seem somewhat nursery-time for Second Avenue. Though you can’t blame them for being sweetly sentimental, if not superstitious. That’s the giraffe they rode from New Paltz to Lutèce Country.


The Quilted Giraffe, 955 Second Avenue, near 50th, 753-5355, Lunch, Tuesday through Friday noon to 2 p.m.; dinner, Monday through Saturday 6 to 10 p.m., Closed Sundays. AE, DC, MC, V.