The Coach House is Bullish on America
When King George VI and Queen Elizabeth came to dinner in 1939, F.D.R. and Eleanor served hot dogs. Was it wit or parsimony or noblesse oblige? Americans do have a sweet passion for self-mockery . . . teasing friends from abroad with junk-food forays and such culture shockers as fruited Jell-O mold. But enlightened primitives with foreigners in tow will pause at the arch of Washington Square, commune fleetingly with the spirit of Henry James, and head west to the flickering gaslight of The Coach House for a taste of America, refined and celebrated.
The American melting pot too often blurs the land’s glorious ethnic distinctions, factory-sculpting insipid process cheese and flash-freezing vinylized beef stroganoff never to confront the grace of sour cream. “Yankee kitchen” frequently signals chicken à la king, cornstarch curry, and little old ladies in lace-up shoes. Too many beef houses give in to monomania, too many hotels succumb to creeping “Continental,” forsaking Americana. But for all its fluffy quiches and blanquettes de veau, for all its Greek diversions and Provençal touches, the Coach House remains essentially American, sophisticated and endearingly Southern . . . an ethnic gathering, not a melting.
To feed the great French chef Jean Troisgros recently, the kitchen wrapped Maryland lump crabmeat in Hormel prosciutto, then served thick Madeira-haunted black bean soup and a native sirloin in an accent of pepper. Comice pears accompanied American cheeses and chocolate cake and pecan pie. California bottled the Cabernet Sauvignon and Chablis. Troisgros left dazzled, carrying two iron baking molds and a recipe for the house’s grainy little logs of corn bread.
Certain Coach House glories haunt the gourmands of this town. That splendid black bean soup. “I would be very happy to be buried in a bowl of that black bean soup,” confides our own Alan Rich. The titan lamb chop—a triple-cut rack of loin, buttery tender and bright pink inside its char. The huge steakhouse sirloin cloaked in midnight pungence of pepper, one of my favorite dishes in New York restaurants: The bass poached in a subtle wine, tomato, and herb-scented broth transports restaurant guru Joe Baum. Psychoanalyst Mildred Newman, second best friend to all who are their own best friend, is mesmerized by the chicken pot pie. Aristotle Onassis was so taken with the homemade sausage and lentil salad he’d ordered as an appetizer, he demanded more as an entrée and left with a small CARE package. The desserts can be comically moving—the infinite statement of fudge humbly listed as chocolate cake, fine pecan pie, a radiance of butter cream and crunch called dacquoise, the classically innocent bread and butter custard, a boldly silken orange Bavaria. In season there may be venison stew or boeuf bourguignon with quince and quince tart. One wintry day recently there was a supernatural tripe soup. Calf’s head and tongue and feet, veal bones, tripe, and chicken bones had simmered for 24 hours in stock. Then the meats were julienned and 46 egg yolks added to thicken the brew. It is a potion with a life force equal to DNA. And it could kill a man in these atherosclerotic times. “Yes, it is a solid protein,” patron Leon Lianides said proudly. “I should put it in capsules.”
Still, for all these savory triumphs, the Coach House is not the warm and welcoming inn it ought to be. The reception can be decidedly chill, even brusque . . . not a flicker of a smile. “But you’re fifteen minutes late.” Snapphish. Or no greeting at all. “Yes, the gentleman is already seated.” Airy wave toward the back of the room . . . the host is too busy to escort me through the maze. The gentleman on the red banquette in discreet shadow is very handsome. There are daisies and carnations in a mug. I am determined nothing will spoil a romantic champagne . . . to please me it must be American champagne. The captain is utterly disinterested. He isn’t sure what he has on hand . . . his eyes shift across the room. He may have a champagne of Paul Masson. He returns with a half-bottle of Korbel. The search for a white wine is similarly cavalier. The captain is so bored that I am afraid he will fall asleep.
The Coach House with its red banquettes and the red Dalmatian carpet, its spotlit oils of foxing, racing, wassailing, seems genteel, a country club run by fallen gentry and old retainers who would rather not. Tonight I feel I am in a fantasy PullmanPullman steward and serves with the arrogance of a king. And if I don’t get a hot corn stick soon I may sink into despair. The gentleman asks. Twice. At last, the corn-stick server finds me. The waiter wants to please. He smiles. He responds. At last, we are . . . in touch. The only contact. From time to time the captain passes, glances at the wine . . . but never pours. This dinner will cost me $60.95. At that price I want to feel somewhat more welcome than a cat burglar.
Two similar dinners in the chill follow. What’s wrong? Aren’t splendid food and devastating sweets enough? Do I need theater at the table? Proprietor Leon Lianides is shy, his champions defend. And so I decide to lunch, no longer anonymous, with two Coach House regulars and a third friend with a willing mouth. We taste one of everything — maven-to-maven-to-numbness. And there are a few disappointments. Baking fresh lump crabmeat in proscuitto sounds like a pleasing flight. Perhaps it would work better if the proscuitto were thinner and a fine sauce provided liaison. Little shrimps and mussels were ossified in their clumsy unclarified aspic. And still swooning over a recent encounter with the perfect Imam bayaldi, I find the eggplant Provençal somewhat boring. (At a lunch it is exquisite: velvety chunks of eggplant tossed with onion, tomato, currants, and mushrooms.) The bass baked in a giant copper oval, rubbed with oil and cracked peppercorns, is anointed with lemon, fresh-snipped dill, and parsley after the crackling skin is tenderly peeled back. Are we going to let those cracklings get away? Certainly not. They are divided and devoured, and though the fish is somewhat overcooked—my fault; it was ordered in advance, I was late—even in adversity it’s a knockout. One evening the steak au poivre was a flavorless beauty. This afternoon it is impeccably aged and rare and aristocratic. The triple cut loin chop is quite perfect. The osso buco has been over-refined, manicured from the bone, and though nicely accented with fresh grated lemon peel and parsley, it misses the obligatory garlic zing. And the mignonettes of veal with artichokes and chestnuts seem unhappily fussy beside the more organic offerings. The most beautiful Boston lettuce seen in months appears, sedately dressed with black olives alongside perfect Brie. Dessert is a bacchanal, plates passing and crossing—dacquoise, seductive chocolate cake, a particularly pleasing blueberry pie, tarte tatin . . . the upside down apple pie I personally prefer more caramelized.
Some of the Coach House refinements bore me. Bass in a saintly broth is just an awkward hulk of fish to me. The scrod may be delicate and fresh, but Creole sauce is a homely invention. When Lianides is away, simple shyness and boredom escalate into the lackadaisical. At lunch one day the pâté was peculiarly moist and crumbly, as if it had been frozen and thawed. The salad dressing was oily and unseasoned. Gazpacho was a thick purée mournfully bereft of garnish. The chicken livers were mostly dry and gray, and the sauce tasted of scorch. And the wine list was as maddening as ever. No vintages are listed, and no shippers. Many labels listed have long since been depleted. New prices are scrawled in ink over the old. There are few half-bottles. The captains rarely know what is available. And though Lianides expresses an interest in American wines, he could take a cue from the Four Seasons’ remarkable new American wine list and make native bottling a house specialty.
Leon Lianides is a proud and serious man. The Coach House would not be a brilliant exercise in Americana if he were anything less. He began as a passionate amateur, eager to learn. Albania-born, Lianides grew up on the island of Corfu and was an industrial engineer working in promotion for the Skouras Theatres Corporation when he decided to buy the Lane, a hangout for little old ladies in what was once the chic Wanamaker carriage house. He took classes with James Beard and studied at the Ecole des Trois Gourmands in Paris, learning to be a butcher, bake, tend bar, and become one of those proud, determined full-time restaurateurs he claims you can recognize at any industry gathering. “The owners are the pale yellow ones with lumbago and trembling hands. The tanned, healthy ones are the suppliers.” He is properly obsessed with details that count. Besides the corn sticks popping hot from the oven, there is beautiful crusty bread from Zito’s. The quiche is fluffy, its crust meticulously pre-baked to lock in crispness. I loved it layered with leek and homemade sausage.
When friends are in the house, he hovers near, recommending, uncorking bottles of wine—just to taste—bottles that do not appear on the bill. For the Paris Trib’s Naomi Barry he sent the waiter to ask the kitchen for some fresh homemade mayonnaise—delighting Ms. Barry (but making a cynic wonder the vintage of the mayonnaise on hand). When one Coach House regular complained that Lianides set his vodka martini at the far edge of the table, Lianides explained, “I put it there because you always order it and never drink it.” The tripe soup was planned to please one of the town’s Big Mouths. But even a nobody, as the woman next to me described herself, may suddenly find herself possessor of a plum pudding hand-delivered to her office “simply because I said I loved it.”
Pets are to be petted, and regulars deserved unabashed pampering. But the hopeful transient duo who leave $42 for lunch and a modest young Bordeaux want more than a perfunctory welcome. If bonhomie does not come easily, perhaps one must fake it. A little theater of tender care is needed. If the Coach House were less splendid, the climate would scarcely matter. But as the town’s most brilliant celebrant of the American kitchen, the house ought to vibrate with pride enough to generate a few watts of warmth. 110 Waverly Place.