November 5, 1990 | Vintage Insatiable
Of Cabbages and Kings

        It was always a lark eating too much at my grandma Cecilia’s house. I feel the same exuberance and pampering at Vince & Eddie’s, with its sweet homage to Grandma, even though the clunky green-and-white water glasses didn’t come with jelly in them and Gram would have been dazed by future shock. “What’s this craziness? Dried cherries with your lamb shank? And shallot crisps? Chicken-fat cracklings aren’t good enough for you? You call that rod-itch-i-yo? What’s this modern world coming to?” she would sigh.

        Eddie Schoenfeld sighs too – happily, these days. He’s followed a long and winding road from being the only Caucasian face in the blue light at the long-gone Uncle Tai’s to this stylishly haimish little bistro on West 68th across the street from partner Vincent Oregera’s home digs.

        As the last flea-market photo of somebody’s discarded ancestors ($8 for the lot) was being hung in Sam Lopata’s fresh gray-and-white, leaf-strewn rehab. Eddie stationed himself outside. It was early October, the Jewish High Holidays, and as worshipers poured out of the synagogue up the street, Schoenfeld stood there shaking hands, announcing his presence.

        And now old friends and food-world scriveners from Schoenfeld’s earlier incarnations sit at his too-small tables that are covered in oilcloth (it cost a fortune, but he’ll save $35,000 a year on laundry; ask Grandmother), tucking into gigantic rations of lush, creamy onion tart, hearty white-bean-and-ham soup, stout-spiked beef stew, and one of the best chickens in town – pan-roasted to a crusty turn, moist and full of flavor beside a soft swamp of Savoy cabbage and escarole. 

        Not everything is equally glorious. “Home-cooking” was never necessarily great cooking. For every mom creating transcendent chicken-and-barley stew, there were two moms cooking the steak to shoe leather. And it was truly a rare mom with the imagination to produce liver this thick and pink with crisp fried onions. One evening, the broth of the sturdy bean porridge is oddly wimpy, and the tender veal-shank special hasn’t absorbed all the punch of its savory sauce. Hey, you guys in the kitchen (chef Scott Campbell and sous-chef David Ramer), these are the potent brews that always taste better the next day. The salty wedge of anchovy toast is livelier than its cargo of oysters lost in a greasy crust, and the squid is a bit soggy, but the apple-beet salad is splendid. Rare grilled tuna (Grandma would turn green at the thought) nestles against homey grain salad. The steak – fatty, peppery, and good – is served with old-fashioned plump fries. Pork chops are gargantuan, garlicky and moist.

        Everything is decently garnished, but if you’re going for excess, you may want to order mashed turnips, creamy potato gratin, very American mashed potatoes (buttery, with small lumps), and that cabbage, if it isn't already programmed to arrive on your plate. (Ask. Our waiter didn’t alert us that we’d ordered cabbage three times.) Linger for plum tart with hazelnut ice cream, a lovely apple terrine, excellent homemade ice cream (especially espresso), or “almost flourless” chocolate cake.

        Why is everyone smiling tonight? Sure, we’re about to part with $80 for two (if we stick to soup, chicken, dessert and a bottle of Los Vascos red from a Rothschild joint venture in Chile), even $100 for oysters, steak, and a robust Amiral de Beychevelle. But we feel happy anyway, wallowing in good value.

        It’s so cozy, what these two sly cats – Eddie and Sam – have wrought, smashing down a wall to put up white mullioned glass doors to the garden, finding a lost niche to fit a family-size table, shooting light on the glorious tree seen through the skylight, trailing leaves (real, fake, and painted) everywhere, scattering gold-leaf frames and treasures from antiquaire Maya Schaper, most of them for sale. (I bought a platter myself. Looks just like grandma’s.)

70 West 68th Street
Another Comeback for the Edwardian Room

        Over the years, the Plaza’s glorious Edwardian Room has been cruelly abused. For a while, it was disguised as the Green Tulip, Tom Wolfe, who had loved it as a breakfast hangout, “stopped going when they turned it into a disco.” Well, you can go home again, Tom. I’m not sure all this splendor is strictly Edwardian, but if you grew up in Queens or Czechoslovakia or Detroit (that’s me), it’s your dream of a grand hotel, fiercely, unabashedly romantic. The high, proud oak-and-mahogany-paneled ceiling wears a burnish of forever. Perhaps the burgundy brocade walls clash with the aggressively blue carpet underfoot. I love it. Love the roses everywhere, the petit-point armchairs, rose-damask cloths, the flora on Oscar de la Renta’s china (for sale in the gift shop), the bouquets fat as baby hippos, lilies by the hundreds. At night, light flickers, muted by pale-pink shades on every table, and you fall in love again, perhaps relive your Plaza honeymoon night (amusing diversion even if you’re both married to someone else). Carriages waddle by, and the park is green velvet. If you wanted quiet good taste, you could have yawned at home.

        By day, sun pours through stately windows framed in braided brocade with tassels that probably outweigh a free-range chicken. Fragile octogenarians – meticulously coiffed and painted in their Adolfo tweeds, with escorts whose eyes seem permanently wide, as if to say “How did I get here?” – are carried into the room by their chauffeurs. Donald himself holds court at the royal round in a far corner, lunching with Marty Raynes.

       “What could they be plotting?” a gossip asks.

        “Perhaps two negatives make a positive,” her companion replies.

        Marla look-alikes invade the room in twos and threes. Ivan-esque beauties, too. And a discreet interval after the Donald exits, Ivana herself takes a turn of the room. Only a congenital sourpuss could say the drama’s not worth the hefty tab – appetizers $6 to $17.50, entrée s $15- $27 at lunch; at dinner, $6 to $18 ($75 for beluga and corn blinis) and $28 to $38.

        From the moment you dial the Plaza, you are a pampered Eloise. Wanda answers, “It’s my pleasure,” she says, passing you to Alicia. Classical music tames the wait. The serving staff memorizes everything in phonetics. One touts “filet of mignon.” Another serves a small exotic offering from the kitchen, “wild martians, chanterelles in red-pepper sauce.” The sommelier is disarmingly savvy and irreverent. Is the wine too cold? “I’m holding it next to my heart, and that’s chilled it down,” he confesses. From the hotel’s own bakery come pumpernickel-raisin rolls, soft and warm. “Could you bring us some more brownies?” my friend requests.

        About now, you feel so rich and indulged you almost don’t mind the food. Rose-and-gold-leaf-cosseted, you stretch to love it a little. Plates arrive. It’s so beautiful.” “Yes, stunning,” you gasp at the architecture in potato, the quivering chive spears, the carpet of sesame glued to the rim of the plate like a thousand sequins. “They’ll have to vacuum me and the floor when I finish my chicken salad.”

        “Look at this.”

        “Well, look at that.” Sauces are squiggles of orange and green calligraphy. Desserts sit on Rio de Janeiro-sidewalk stripes of coca and confectioners’ sugar, or are flanked by a fork and spoon stenciled in sweet dust. The venison chops look silly peeking out of a hollowed apple.

        I want to take chef Kerry Simon and shake him till the pomegranate seeds fall out of his ears. He may actually have talent. Here and there is a trail of provocative flavor, a fish not too seriously overcooked, good thick chowder with small ribbons of spicy quail and nothing else to muck it up. But what to make of this grouper towered in beet pasta with arugula and orange-olive-epazote sauce? Or poached salmon with cinnamon vinaigrette? Or macadamia-nut-crusted halibut with red-onion confit and ginger vinaigrette? Makes you wish you’d ordered the baked potato with beluga (from the Spa Menu) at $75. It’s as if Simon had watched his mentor Jean-Georges Vongerichten cook his spectacular edible still lifes but had never tasted them.

        And he’s so cute. He tosses his hair a lot like an overbred racehorse. “Aren’t they supposed to wear hair nets?” my guest whispers. We are having an $85 tasting dinner at the chef’s table in the kitchen – bright, calm, a screen shielding us from the view of the dishwashing inferno. Simon flips his hair, the Cindy Crawford of the range – definitely not the toque type, much less ready for the hair net. We are treated to a parade of jewels. Boiled potato with cactus-fungus puree. Lovely “three-quarters smoked” salmon with rose fish (sea perch) topped with a fried ravioli and a kick of wasabi sauce. Goat cheese in squid-ink-black lasagna gift-wrapped in a banana leaf (the captain cuts the cord with great ceremony). Then foie gras in a potato fold. And at the perfect moment for a simple entrée… comes dessert.

        Childhood memories in a peanut-butter-and-chocolate torte with a dazzling trellis molded in chocolate. Thinnest apple slices caramelized and layered with cream, fine if you like eating air. Muddy chocolate crêpe with banana and coconut ice cream. Best are one evening’s special fruit shortcake and the pineapple-banana fritters with licorice ice cream and dots of snipped licorice stick – a monochromatic Miro on the plate.

        A guest book appears, with a $26 box of crayons and colored marking pens. You are to sign and express yourself in color. Inside, the enthusiasts who have preceded us in the kitchen confess their love for the chef. Even the artist among us cannot draw anything lovelier than Simon’s salmon tartare in crisp potato curls. The Plaza makes even narcissism seem romantic.

At The Plaza, 768 Fifth Avenue, at 59th Street.

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