April 5, 1976 | Vintage Insatiable
The Palace: Splendor in the Foie Gras
The Palace hustled into being one year ago with an acute sense of terminal decadence. Was there ever more an obscene moment to launch the most expensive restaurant in town? The Dow Jones was so low its chin pinched its toes? Breakfasts grew bitter at the specter of swollen Mauritanian bellies haunting the morning paper. All summer New York City teetered on the edge… a fat rotten apple.
It was a time to buy gold, talk poor and postpone that new sable. Even the very rich economized, patching the old Porthault sheets to make them last another season, limping along in last years Mercedes, canceling summer in Cap d’Antibes, making due with an $18,000 beach rental in the Hamptons. Would anyone be crass enough to boldly patronize the Palace’s Trimalchian bouffé? Surely he’d be heckled and stoned by bands of roving unemployed.
A gossipy cabal of French restaurateurs sneered. Proprietor Frank Valenza of the Bronx, a failed actor and the creator of the gimmicky Proof of the Pudding restaurant, would never pull it off, they gloated – he was neither professional nor French. In my set, where it’s my mouth that counts, the Palace was anticipated as sheer hype.
Well, the Palace has survived. No doubt some come to bask in its cachet as the most expensive fueling stop in town. Oiled Arabs, weary of toting all these greenbacks around, are grateful to have their wallets so sweetly lightened. Six customers have earned the house’s eighteen-karat-gold credit card by spending $10,000. One enthusiast has dropped $19,000 so far. IRS whimsy finances a lot of fresh truffles.
But the Palace survives because it is not merely good, it is dazzlingly splendid. I don’t know a restaurant in America anything like it. For sheer luxury and excess, for exquisite detail, for its caviar, its wild mushrooms, its pastry baskets sculpted in sugar, for the innocent unhaughtiness of its style and its nouveau-riche glitter, nothing else comes close. It may not yet be the best, but it is certainly…the most.
Two driven egos rule: Valenza the incurable ham, and Claude Baills, his brilliant young chef. Theirs is a true folie à deux, a duet in madness. Each makes outrageous demands on the others. Frank roars. Claude threatens. Frank smoothes everything with green paper – it’s only money. He counts every penny, telling anyone and everyone how much it all costs, amazed at his own extravagance… spending, spending. And Claude delivers. “He has the eyes of a saint,” says Valenza.
Well, no one has ever accused Frank Valenza of grace. To him, the Palace’s first birthday was not merely an occasion to celebrate. It was a time to gloat. Loyal patrons and friends were invited to a party, tariff $125. Enemies were invited, too, especially competitors who said he’d never make it; even, by accident, one who was dead. A ransom in truffles was marinated for weeks. Two bottles of pear brandy at $18.75 each went into the silken ice that unjaded guests’ palates between the baby lamb and the terrine of wild duck; Valenza opened two priceless bottles of 1897 Lafite-Rothschild; poured Margaux ’53 in magnum and Romanée-Conti ’33 with the cheese.
The dinner was flawed. It’s a challenge to serve great food to so many at once. The pace was slow, finally a torture in its fifth hour. And still Claude’s sainted touch shone in the sublime sweetbread-and-truffle stuffed puff pastry tourte; the salmon-trout, plump with pike mousse, skillfully sauced and wittingly garnished; and a celestial confection of savarin and soufflé perfumed with rum in fragile crème anglaise.
But I’d been indulged by a sybaritic friend at dinner ($227.30) only the week before. So my sense of what the Palace can be was still fresh. It had been one of those sense-tickling times. We came near weeping over the mussel soup with its tiny skeins of carrot and celery and its sweet bay scallops afloat. And giggled inanely all through the parade of sweets, succumbing to simple silliness and a dozen wicked petits fours.
Who knows if the Palace can survive another year? Will Claude cave in? Will Valenza abandon gastronomic philanthropy if the house fails to pay its way? Will puritans, moralists, and revolutionaries lurk in wait to mow us down as we stagger from dinner?
The Palace tells us more than we may care to know about who we are. I am not Albert Schweitzer or Mother Cabrini. I have yet to meet a single saint in this town sworn to poverty, chastity, and cottage cheese. There are men and women noble and true, dedicated to research or music or evangelism or chasing the bogeyman from traumatized psyches, and they spend their income on horses and houses and Halstons and hatcheck girls. I buy 99-cent stockings at Alexander’s so I can feel comfortable paying $6 a pound for goat cheese. I will continue to spend small checks to CARE and buy datebooks from UNICEF and be a Friend of the Library. But I won’t apologize for being a saint to my stomach.
420 East 59th Street, 355-5150. Prix Fixe, $50
Click here for Vintage Listings Page.