February 14, 1983 | Vintage Insatiable
Plaisir By Any Other Name
Returning to Le Plaisir is bittersweet…. An evening with someone you once loved beyond believing. Of course it isn't going to be the same. Hard to imagine anyone recapturing the sense-dizzying electricity, the innocent eccentricity of Le Plaisir at its most glorious. Weary and disillusioned when Wunderchef Masa Kobayasha was lured to California (a second shattering coup de cuisine; the original chef, Claude Baills, had exited earlier in a curdle), co-owners Stephen Spector and Peter Josten bartered out of the dream, selling even its name. Now Pierre Jourdan, scion of the shoe empire, suffers the backwash of love’s labours lost.
Jourdan has ripped away the peachy chintz, padded the walls with a rusty soupe de poisson silk, set up a plush pink aperitif stop west of the slick brass-wrapped bar, and hired away from La Tulipe chef Guy Reuge, born in Normandy, reared in the Loire Valley, trained in Alsace, later of Le Cygne. There are no more vibrations of urgency, no giggly cocktail-party clatter, no powerful foodies dishing dirt and truffled pasta. There are fewer tables – fewer folk, alas, to revel in the space and the quite wonderful food. The greeting is shy, the service awkward, but soft light creates drama against breathtaking flowers, and I can’t think of a cozier romantic spot to take a sensualist to dinner.
Taste the luscious fast-seared foie gras with its hint of sherry vinegar, its port-plumped raisins and just-wilted spinach… that quivering flan nesting crayfish in a fine Nantua sauce… lobster, lovingly truffled (but sadly meager), centered on endive spikes … splendid squab or rare duck breast or a breast of that flavorful wild duck, col vert (a meat leg joint is served on a second plate along with pleurote, the voluptuous mushroom), all with little vegetable tuffets and timbales in tandem or whole roasted cloves of garlic and shallot – their dynamite mellowed to a savory softness by being cooked in the skin.
As you sip wine chosen from a small, unimaginative, uninformed list with – to its credit – a handful of reasonable choices, the chef sends little pastry puffs filled with silken mousse of foie gras and pigeon liver. After lobster salad, good gravlax with a French accent, a slice of tasting game-bird pie (sufficiently warmed), or a fresh and handsome fish terrine in a thin bath of tomato and lemon comes a benediction of soup, part of the $38 prix fixe dinner. It might be as deceptively simple as carrot cream with a frazzle of carrot on an island of crème fraîche, as complex as fennel and pumpkin (stir to blend) or an earthy alchemy of mushrooms, cultivated and wild. Small rectangles of striped bass are braised in lettuce afloat in a Sauternes-spiked sauce. A dwarf lobster, meticulously poached and served on delicious tomato cream, is as lovely to the eye as to the mouth. But the best that can be said for one evening’s special partridge is that it is inspiration for a pastry overflowing with a divine slink of pleurote. Cheese – pedestrian Brie or all manna of goat ($2 extra) – is served with the chef’s wonderful home-baked walnut-onion toast. For dessert: stylish dacquoise; fine warmed tarte Tatin; smooth, sometimes too sweet sorbets; moist, deeply fudgy chocolate cake; floating island memorable only for the size of its boring egg-white fluff; and delightful petit fours, crisp tuiles, miniature lemon meringue tarts that are almost as sticky as rubber cement, macaroons, and pointy little chocolate truffles.
Perfection is a long way off now. The boring petits pains must go. Sweet butter is better in block or ramekin than in curls. Soups and sauces must be constantly tasted, seasoning adjusted. At one dinner almost half the dishes served needed salt. When you’re spending $130 for two, some of the portions seem stingy. Desserts could be less predictable. I vote for something daring in lemon and orange. Only success, I suspect, will bring a spark to the service. But M. Jourdan himself, alas, is too passive. Other hosts can be intrusive, indiscreet, bubbling over with braggadocio, and yet win allegiance because their passion for perfection (or success) is so intense.
Friends of its former life have stayed away out of loyalty to its old owners, as if in a mournful challenge to Le Plaisir’s right to survive. “I see now it would have been best to change the name,” Jourdan broods. Well, with a chef this talented it seems worth agonizging over tdetails, offering advice and consent. If Le Plaisir’s future were no so precarious, it would have been among the top twelve, la crème de la crème, in last week’s rating of New York’s best French restaurants.
Yes, it’s hard to take a broken heart back to the scene of lost love. But all that Le Plaiser lacks now are pats and pans from savvy food folk, applauding, complaining… insisting that Guy Reuge and the tentative M. Jourdan go for the stratosphere.
969 Lexington Avenue, near 70th Street