September 22, 1969 | Vintage Insatiable
Cafe Chauveron as Love Object
New York September 22, 1969
Cafe Chauveron has long been the love object of my unadulterated great food passion. Great food alone, isolated from chic, ego indulgence, pampering or masochism.
There isn’t a fashionable bone in the house. Oh, yes, I used to see Mainbocher there often. But Mainbocher is history, not fashion. The great shriek of chic so faithfully recorded by Women’s Wear Daily doesn’t echo on the mongrel block of 53rd Street east of motley Lexington. Cafe Chauveron draws solid merchants of commerce and culture, scatterings of tacky twosomes, expatriates from the provinces (Brooklyn, Lubbock, Flint) hungry for haute cuisine unsoured by haute snobisme.
The room is unabashedly dowdy. Guardian gladiolas glower funereally in the corners. Ersatz leather banquettes line the bland afterthought of champagne-flocked walls.
Even the tortures inflicted here are unfashionable. None of that cliché autocracy that feeds our innate masochism at the arrogant La’s: Côte Basque, Caravelle, Grenouille, Lafayette. Chauveron’s thorns are the prick of democracy. The house simply cannot say no. Reservations are accepted with absolutely no correlation to the possibility of a vacant table. On a busy night, a 45-minute wait is possible. Standees are invited to make time fly at the bar. Time flies there profitably for the cash register. But no one will wither or scold you if you prefer to wait dry, palate unnumbered for anticipated joys.
Though never docile in queues, I have always felt dinner at Chauveron worth almost any wait. Then one summer evening after a full 40 minutes of penance, the moist and nervous proprietor, Roger Chauveron, proceeded to escort to table a couple that had arrived several minutes after us. I know exactly when they arrived because I knew the girl—she’d said hello and we had presented husbands. Torn between Emily Post and the rage of frustration, we stammered, and when the chosen two remained mute (though obviously embarrassed and puzzled) we protested. M. Chauveron bluntly informed us we were mistaken. In a huff, we left... furious with M. Chauveron’s manner and the garbled priority, furious with our own strained tolerance for abuse. Acrosstown we ate a dreary banal French dinner, berating ourselves. Why hadn’t we simmered silently just five more minutes...just five more minutes. Eventually we braved Chauveron again. The food is that good. On another evening, friends who lingered in conversation over coffee were asked if they would mind leaving to free the table for a waiting party... an absolutely unforgivable rudeness, fallout of over-booking. And yet they too forgave and returned. Pleasure without a price? Your average everyday paranoid New Yorker wouldn’t know how to handle it.
And the food is magnificent.
With my chronic (but not debilitating) Puritan hangover, I feel rather decadent waxing lyrical over mere food. And lapsing into sexual metaphor seems sacrilegious. But I have had more than a dozen meals at cafe Chauveron that justified both decadence and sacrilege. Great sensuous feasts to stagger home from, giggling, pleased with the sheer brilliance of having chosen so well. Les moules au Chablis glacées, mussels buried in a sublime wine sauce enriched with whipped cream, then glazed under the salamander. Tender, pink-fleshed rack of lamb with primeurs, infant vegetables tasting as if they’d been grown in butter. And then a great voluptuousness of the chocolate, the Chauveron mousse—the Sophia Loren of mousses—gutsy, not the least bit subtle, wrapped in a thin sponge-cake package, served with a whipped-cream-fluffed sabayon sauce and—holy gluttony!—moist almond-scented macaroons. Fresh strong café filtre. Measure that climax, Dr. Masters!
In the name of science—and to free mussel/lamb/mousse-jaded senses—we explore the staggering variety of the Chauveron menu: heroic, a legend in haute dining annals. The unwarned might suspect that Chef Albert Heintz is a fraud, a madman, a shameless boaster or keeper of a mighty freezer. How could any mortal man so boldly take on the challenge of pleasing the whims provoked by so extensive a menu—29 hors d’oeuvre, 13 soups, over 60 entrees, bouillabaisse daily, cassoulet Toulousaine, tripes à la mode du Calvados, poulet reine (a regal chicken truffled and cloaked with foie gras in a cream sauce zesty with the scent of braised celery), chicken sautéed au Vieux Chambertin, lobster in five incarnations (curry, à l’Americaine, Newburg, choix des vieux gourmets or in snail butter), and, in season: venison, tender young partridge with grapes in champagne sauce, quail flamed in cognac, pressed mallard, wild duck, pheasant and Scotch grouse in a truffle-rich demi-glacé sauce. Some may be tormented by an excess of choices—delicious torture.
The cellar is celebrated, too—well stocked with noble labels of the most gracious years. A curious oenophile may even find himself touring the cave where aisles are labeled proudly: “Boulevard de Bordeaux” and “Avenue de Bourgogne.” It happened to a first-time late luncher from upstate.
I hate to dilute this celebration with a catalogue of complaints. Until a recent lunch, chef Heintz had never disappointed except in the quenelles, more earthbound than ethereal “dumplings” encountered elsewhere. But alas, love is not blind. The most perfect mechanism can occasionally falter. (Surely there are days when Don Rickles finds it tough to be cutting. Even Lady Bird must have littered once in her life.) This sad day the temperature hit 90. The plat du jour was boeuf bourguignonne, a cruel choice. The potage germiny froid, a cold cream of sorrel soup, tasted bland. Moules rémoulades came in a home-style vinaigrette-like sauce, rather than a classic mayonnaise-based rémoulade.
The captain did not look delighted when I ordered the soufflé Chauveron ($6 for two). The vanilla puff, studded with sweet chestnuts and flamed at the table, arrived several minutes past its prime, a fault not even the ambrosial sauce anglaise could mask. Perhaps no one orders the soufflé at lunch and the kitchen is not properly programmed to produce one. (Perhaps that’s why we were charged $8, the dinner price... a mistake apologetically corrected.) No point then in listing the soufflé on the lunch menu.
Chauveron may not be the most expensive restaurant in town, but it is stiff competition in that category. Dinner or lunch à la carte with wine may easily cost $45 and up for two. When M. Chauveron opened his first grand outpost of haute cuisine, Le Chambord, at the height of the Depression, lunch was 75 cents; dinner, $1.75. I shall not be the least bit rash when I suggest his prix fixe lunch is still one of the best buys in town—hors d’oeuvre or soup, entree, vegetable or salad, dessert and coffee from 5.50 to $10.
Chauveron—minusculely flawed, dowdy and irascible—I love you.
This obituary appeared in New York August 16, 1971. Later I learned that Roger had brought Café Chauveron to Bay Harbor Islands in November 1972. Both are gone now.
Love’s Labor’s Lost
Sublime food and great wine… sensual adventure without haute trappings, that was Café Chauveron’s tradition. No conspicuous elegance or drop-dead chic or obligatory arrogance. The Café Chauveron was long the love object of my unadulterated great food passion. Chef Albert Heintz was a sorcerer, master of the staggering variety of the Chauveron menu.
Now, without warning, without a final summons to one last farewell feast, one last orgiastic confrontation with a magnificence of mussels in their sublime Chablis-and-whipped-cream pool, one last textural experience of chocolate, the Sophia Loren of chocolate mousses… the Chauveron has closed. Forever.
A canceled lease. Chef Heintz’s return to France. And co-owner Albert Kaiser’s reluctant concession that no suitable new location has been found. Now it is clearly impossible to reassemble all the pieces of this wondrous machine.
But Roger Chauveron insists he will never retire. That is food for fresh fantasy.
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