April 27, 1970 | Vintage Insatiable

Lutèce: Miracle On 50th Street


        France travels so well.

        France undiluted thrives at the Restaurant Lutèce…brilliant, eccentric, individual and alive. Alive, and therefore inevitably flawed, Lutèce is the witty and civilized creature of André Surmain.

         In the beginning…Henri Soulé, the great god of transplanted gastronomy, created Le Pavillon. His disciples were overzealous in pious imitation. The classic mold was cast. Fine French Food, Manhattan Division, meant red velvet banquettes, crystal sconces, Siberia for the lady from Kalamazoo and a tuxedoed cold shoulder at the door…your host as benevolent despot and Super Servant.

         Not for André Surmain.

        He can rip up a check and eject some hapless peasant as despotically as the next autocrat. But Lutèce is not a dining room. It is Surmain’s home. He is not a super butler. He is your host, a zany country squire with his fat lapels, the bluff blend of pinstripe, tattersall, stripe and Art Deco abstract. It is a highly aristocratic vulgarity, especially those crepe-soled rust suede Hush Puppies. It suits.
        An abrading Manhattan decade has failed to dim the glow of Gallic soul at 249 east 50th Street. There is France’s tricolor fluttering in the urban choke above the awninged sidewalk of Surmain’s pygmy townhouse. Narrow hall…on the right, a sawed-off bar beneath a wail+ of temperance: “L’alcoolisme fait de l’homme une brute.” Tiny tables, a homey hodgepodge of memorabilia: a Paris street sign, “Place de Furstenberg,” letters, Lutèce credentials, awards, prizes diplomas, affiliations. Surmain has more merit badges than a pre-Aquarian Eagle Scout. Past a tiny slip of kitchen – “the miracle on Fiftieth Street,” Surmain marvels – is the sunroom, fresh, lucent, summery even in the drear of winter with its shiny porch wicker, yellow plaid tablecloths, trellis walls, and balloon stemware, the silver set bowl down à la mode Française. Beyond, the garden is ceilinged in plastic that blurs the skyscraper thrust and shields against all inedible missiles. The full defiance of flowering greenery will be back once workmen get the new air conditioning-heating capsule in place…faux summer year-round. Upstairs is more formal...Aubusson tapestry, marble mantels, silver girandoles…a living room with tables set for four.

        The menus are dazzling graphic excursions…at night, in numbered editions, à la carte prices listed on the host’s carte only. Even the tailored $8.50 prix fixe lunch listing courts the jaded palate by brushing the clichés lightly and adding cold pike pâté in crust with watercress sauce, morels in cream, fleshy cèpes á la bordelaise, chicken or lamb wrapped in a flaky croûte…adventurous plats du jour, always a few fresh flight of fancy on the dessert table.

        Henri, your captain, is Felix Krull as a Frenchman – fresh, not yet paralyzed by boredom, a rogue charmer with his stylishly fat bow tie, his unfailing enthusiasm and that one uncontrollable wisp of winged brow, quivering with his message: your taste is impeccable, it says, the food today, uniquely sublime. If you want to leave he wine choice to Henri, he will respond with wit, taste and commendable thrift.

        French too, in the most rococo tradition of la grande cuisine, is the schooner sculpted of fried bread riding the tray on which your tourte régence ($4.25) is served, or the tête of suckling pig with its artful maquillage gracing the pâté platter. Even in France decorative food sculpture is a neglected art. Muttonfat and sugar are treacherous media. There is a fine line between the master confectioner Careme and Walt Disney, from grande to cutesy. La Serre in Paris is sheer theatre with its fantasy pastry baskets and sugar porcelains. Chez Barrier, a newer Michelin three-star in Tours, is a Disney menagerie with lard swans, Technicolor crayfish, chocolate elephants. Chez Point, the famed Restaurant of the Pyramide in Vienne, France, trots out pyramides in butter and sugar, and then fresh flowers, a touch tsk-tsked by Andre Surmain as he notes: “In classic cuisine, the décor must be edible.” Chef Andre Soltner is a master of the muttonfat rose. “Look at those lilies of the valley,” Surmain urges. “Even the leaves are made of muttonfat. Not tasty, but it wouldn’t kill you.”

        All these touches – Felix Krull, the upside-down silver, the tricolor, the good ship Wonder Bread – would be empty affectation if there were not a master in the kitchen. Chef Soltner is driven by good demons. He is obsessed by perfection. Lunch at Lutèce can be absolutely glorious, sense-reeling. The pâtés and pastry-wrapped packages are magnificent. But glory is maddeningly ethereal. So much depends on mood: Chef Soltner’s. Henri’s, your own, the fishmonger’s. At times, bliss falters…disappointingly so.

        After three delirious lunches and one strangely uninspired dinner, I thought money might be the crucial ingredient: perhaps what seemed dazzling at $8.50 was doomed to seem somehow mundane à la carte at $20. To test this brilliant theory (with its small debt to Einstein, Lord Russell, the existentialists and Sylvia Porter), there was another incognito dinner, more dazzling than not, but still…uneven. Money these days, one must add, has almost nothing at all to do with the value of food. After all, money has little to do with the value of money. Nine years ago Lutèce à la carte called for an embarrass de extravagance. Today the town is riddled with less rewarding houses of embarrassment.

        The dining room was lightly populated that Thursday evening. Service thus was sharp, efficient, polite, exquisitely conning and...unhappily, a bit smothering. Claude just didn’t have enough to do. All started well. Our host arrived late, flushed from the Lone Star Boat Club squash courts, and Captain Claude greeted him like a regular: “Ah, good evening, Mr. Kaufman.” Did we wish to order? We had come for theatre…an event…Claude was rushing us toward mere dinner. Gracefully, he withdrew till resummoned. Then again, he grew restless as the Kultur Maven explored the magical mysteries of the wine list…to read it aloud before dinner is an oenophile’s grace. Claude pressed, hurried…hovered. His suggestion -- a Gevrey-Chambertin, $20 -- was neither greedy nor inappropriate, only unsolicited. K.M. was annoyed.

        But dinner restored the high. Only the Begum Kaufman was disappointed. A question of choice and Claude’s benign neglect: he had permitted her to order turbot de Dieppe poche, Hollandaise ($7.75) and asparagus, also Hollandaise ($3.25)…Hollandaise overkill. And this after a pedestrian beginning: mushrooms and artichoke hearts a la Greque ($2.75)…canned and bland. Otherwise, dinner was lovely. Our host’s Scottish salmon ($4.50) was beautifully served. The mousseline de brochet nantua ($4.25), a mini-mousse of pike in a heady lobster-scented cream sauce, was magnificent, as was the pâté of pike ($4.25) in pastry crust. The Aga Kaufman was delighted with his mignon de boeuf en croûte Lutèce ($8.75), tender rare slices of beef Wellington. Carre de Pauillac, rack of lamb ($17.50 for two), was served pink as a howling infant, with a bouquet of vegetables. The salad was a small jewel – crisp and tart and beautiful. The Aga wanted cheese ($2.50). Claude chose a fine, creamy St. Marcellin and an impeccably ripe Brie. The currant ice ($2.50), a legend, was fiercely purple, instantly reviving. Frozen raspberry soufflé ($3.25) tasted a bit grainy and tired to me. The evening had been a bummer for the Begum. She pleaded with Claude for something wonderfully, wickedly, sinfully chocolate…clearly she should have been offered the Gâteau de Nancy – a chocolate-filled chocolate confection, rather like a d’acquoise, prepared daily by Mme. Surmain herself between classes at Hunter, where she is working toward a bachelor’s degree in anthropology. But Claude did not understand sin and chocolate. All he could offer was the chocolate mousse ($2.75) – a perfectly presentable mousse, but nothing to feel debauched about. Dinner, four covers ($1 each), four drinks ($8), the Gevrey-Chambertin, a Pouilly Fumé, plus tax, came to $119.05, without tips.
        At $8.50 that makes lunch an exalted bargain. One fine lunch adventure began with a superb pâté of suckling pig and morels, those wrinkled black woodland mushrooms, in cream – an intoxicating prologue. Then, lamb en croûte and the plat du jour, a magnificently sauced sea food mélange, tender lobster, nutty buttons of scallop, in a velvety nantua with a tender flaky pastry bow. With it: a fine fruity Pouilly-Fumé, La Doucette ($5 the half-bottle). For dessert, tarte tatin, caramel-glazed apple pie and heavenly bombe glacée au praline with a heart of candy. With the café cona (75 cents extra) come petits fours lined up in rows on a silver tray. (Democratic petit fours…not only for Lutèce pets…though as Surmain quotes Chanel president Gregory Thomas: “The best restaurant is the restaurant where I am best known.”)
        When Ted Bates & Co. was paying Jerry Della Femina $63,000 a year, JDF lived in an $80-a-month Brooklyn apartment. Now he is his own boss and lives on Second Avenue, kitty-corner from Lutèce, one floor above the Surmain family pad, and his idea of haute gourmania is lunch at Lutèce, “all you can eat for $1,000.” Lutèce celebrates spring with a festival, importing a little wine…a muscadet, a Provence, a sylvaner from Alsace. Chef Soltner cooks daily specialties of the region. At the zenith of this year’s Beaujolais frolic, Mr. Della Femina was simmering under the garden’s heating arcs and already lightly browned when I arrived. He was hooked into a tomato-red 21st-century telephone. Intimations of the Polo Lounge. Mr. Della Femina had the winning air of a man who wouldn’t be caught dead without a phone in his hand and wonders if he’ll ever really be comfortable being that kind of man.

        “I really am trying to get rid of this hairdryer,” he apologized, “but I can’t figure out how to disconnect.” Together we found the cutoff button. “I wish someone would come and baste me,” Mr. Della Femina said. “I think I’m almost done.” He sipped his Kir and confided his ambition to be a figurehead. “I’m thinking of franchising my name. For $3,000 anyone can call himself Jerry Della Femina.” A busboy passed offering miniature gougères, tiny cheese puffs. Mercifully, the heating arcs switched off. Della Femina’s pale green crème Saint Germain was a subtle, adult pea soup. My saucisson, a boldly garlicked sausage, was served in a robust red wine sauce. The filets of sole amandine were a sorry, soggy, curled, dry-edged affront, but the festival plat du jour was a savory crumb-coated squab chicken, juicy and fragrant in a terragon-wine sauce. Almond pie – soft, perfumed custard in an excellent crust – was custard elevated to sainthood, but the crème renversée au café was almost flavorless. With coffee, Della Femina asked for lemon peel. With fine flourish, he ignited a match, held it to the folded peel and tossed it into his demitasse.

        “This always impresses people,” he assured me. “Sometimes I toss the peel away and throw the match into my cup.” The check arrived. “My God,” JDF noted, “they give it to you in a prayer book.” Lunch came to $29.35 ($6 for our Beaujolais, a 1969 Brouilly), considerably short of $1,000 and Della Femina insisted on deductibiling it to himself. Then he wrapped himself in a devastating suede trench coat.

        Once Della Femina’s daughter was invited to dinner at the Surmain’s apartment. “Naturally I couldn’t wait to ask what she had,” he recalled. “Spaghetti, she told me, with catchup.”

249 East 50th Street.

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