June 1, 1998 | Insatiable Critic

Divine Oeuvre-kill

The Waldorf's Peacock Alley struts and stumbles to the strains of a harp; Provence gets a workout at Jean Lafitte on West 58th.

        "Harps and cockscombs are not my idea of a fun evening,” mutters my mate, the Road Food Warrior, as we dip into a springlike toss of foie gras-stuffed morels and the rooster’s pompadour. And I agree. Great dining needs harp music like Sophia Loren’s décolletage needs a lobster bib. We are the captive audience of the loutish serving crew as they struggle to perform haute service rituals. The waiter’s eyebrows wiggle in exasperation to signal an errant partner so that the silver domes may be snatched from our entrées in unison. In a gold-leaf-and-marble cathedral like the Louis XV in Monte Carlo, we might giggle, but still, it dazzles. Under the stunted ceiling in the listless drab of the Waldorf’s Peacock Alley, we can only squirm. 

        And what is revealed as the four dented bells of our appetizers are lofted with exaggerated flourish? Much ado, most of it mildly pleasant. A coven of detached appendages from varying sea creatures huddle in the well of one soup bowl. “The shellfish consommé with quinoa,” the waiter chants as he pours on the lemony bath. Oh, yes, there’s quite a nice kick in the broth. I like the crisp soft-shell crab on my neighbor’s plate, with its “caper essence” and the added spill of sauce distilled from lobster coral. As my mascarpone risotto is suddenly exposed, an organic earth scent of morels hits my nose. 

        These are glorious times in our town for those of us obsessed with food. We get half a dozen frissons of delicious excitement a week but rarely a thrill to match the news that the Waldorf has snagged Laurent Gras, chef de cuisine of six-star kitchen brigadier general Alain Ducasse, to tempt New Yorkers into its languishing Peacock Alley. Definitely not the Evel Knievel of the range, Gras took months to explore the markets and analyze our outlandish mores before launching his own menu. A first dinner in December was a comedy of stilted ceremony and errors, from lost reservations and colliding waiters to the hammer that didn’t want to shatter the lamb’s clay cocoon to reductions reduced beyond recognition. 

        It took cockeyed optimism to even think of returning, but I was spurred by a colleague’s scattering stars on Peacock Alley. Though business lunchers join hotel guests to make the place feel half full at lunch, the dinner crowd is sparse. A savvy ringmaster like Sirio at Le Cirque 2000 or a chef-artist with his finger on Manhattan’s feverish pulse like Daniel Boulud may get the city’s curdled créme de la créme to a hotel dining room. A street entrance definitely helps. New Yorkers aren’t going to be good sports about walking through the Waldorf’s extraordinary Art Deco grandeur that is so sadly bruised by the mall costumes and mating calls of its transient tenants. But there are good portents in heavy garden roses, delicate stemware, the heft of silver, the amusing wingspan of a tempura-swathed shrimp disguised as a dragonfly, as salty and greasy as it is on a delicious gravel of lemony dried corn, peas, and sprouts. 

        He has studied us, this unassuming but confident Nice-born immigrant from France’s truffling fields. His name may be Gras, but, as he observes, “I try to slow down the fat.” He doesn’t like sugar either. Twice a week, he scouts the Greenmarket, discovering yucca and organic sprouts he has never seen before. There is a saucer of kohlrabi-sprout salad with my lamb at lunch and at dinner. Tiny pansies peek out of baby watercress, a bouquet with each entrée. Gras is a sorcerer with meat. His loin of veal “pickled in Verbena leaves” could not be more tender. From the succulence of its crust, I would imagine it was preserved in fat like duck. And the morels, dates, and roasted fingerlings tucked alongside are fine company. At lunch, jasmine-tea-marinated lamb is transcendent, too -- never mind the dissonance of its apricot condiment. Peas, asparagus, favas, and young mustard leaves in a broth of malanga (a South American root) have more pizzazz than a wussy toss of wild mushrooms roasted en cocotte. 

        Spoiled by the crustily beautified squab we get any night of the week around town, I find this bony, overcooked bird with its feet still attached impossible to eat. And though I admire the Jura-wine-and-mushroom sauce of the sole, and the idea of rhubarb in a rose-infused puddle beneath the turbot, all the fish are bland, too prim, underseasoned. If you are a fool for rhubarb, as I am, the somber few sticks in sweet strawberry juice under a cloud of yogurt sorbet will never satisfy. I’ve never felt the urge to sample aftershave, but I bet it would taste like the chef’s lemon-balm broth with its exotic-fruit salad. A surer thrill for lovers of anything tart is the citrus composition, grapefruit ten ways on three plates. 

        If the chef’s mastery of lamb extended to turbot, would I hasten back? If the harp went back to Heaven? If the room weren’t quite so soothing, a sedative without a prescription at $125 a person? If the uninhibited tourists in tank tops lurking outside got makeovers from Donna Karan? So many ifs. I can’t imagine. 

Peacock Alley, the Waldorf-Astoria, 301 Park Avenue, at 50th Street (872-4895). Breakfast, Monday through Friday 7 to 10:30 a.m.; lunch, Monday through Friday noon to 2:30 p.m.; dinner, Tuesday through Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday brunch, 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. A.E., M.C., V.  

        A breeze from Provence has shaken steady old reliable Jean Lafitte. In its almost fourteen years, Eric Demarchelier’s bistro has been a Gallic Cheers to locals, a hangout for actors and agents. But when the restaurateur made a scouting run across France and found 29-year-old Eric Gonzalez, a protégé of the Michelin three-star hero Bernard Loiseau, it must have felt like Kismet. 

        The doors closed for barely a hiccup of time so the place could gussy up. Dark-burgundy walls became French-vanilla. The old movie posters got gilded frames. Out went the clunky bistro china. In came fancy goblets, Limoges, votive candles aglow in translucent French igloos, acidulated stocks, and tricky emulsions. 

        Gonzalez, who worked with Jacques Chibois in his two-star kitchen in Cannes, has a clue. He’s got some fine tricks under his toque -- marvelous monkfish on the bone with cumin-doused carrots in a meaty wine glaze, and crisp sweetbreads with a mushroom clafoutis and thyme-licorice emulsion that he says is inspired by ideas from his first mentor, Loiseau. There are unexpected flavor pops and sprigs of green everywhere. Every dish is a major statement, a lapidary creation. I don’t mind it when it works, as in the crusty sardine Tatin with its anchovy zest and in the terrine of garlic confit in chicken aspic with a vibrant herb salad. But squid seems lost in its brandade swamp. Spring-smart asparagus is destroyed by being shaved to splinters just to make a pretty mold with Parmesan and truffles. The sloppy melt of artichoke bavaroise is a disaster. As for the socca tartlets promised, this fabulous street food in Nice is scarcely noticeable as tiny chickpea pancakes the size of a quarter. 

        The house’s mythic steak tartare is still on the menu, and the familiar Dover sole, perfectly cooked, now rides beside broccoli purée and eggplant caviar. And the pleasures of the truffled potato salad, herb-filled cannelloni, that perfect sole, and lovely lavender créme brûlée make me reluctant to dismiss a chef with so much ambition just because he’s off-base half the time. 

        The house is in anarchy the night we return, surprised, it seems, by unexpected guests on a Sunday night. There are not enough waiters, and even the hostess is boning sole and clearing plates. Five of us are parked at a table just big enough for three. We ask to have the white-wine glasses removed, and the red-wine glasses disappear. I try not to think how many hands spent how many minutes arranging every item on each plate. I let myself be seduced by the nuttiness of puff pastry sporting tricolor sweet-pepper rounds with painstakingly scalloped edges and a clever shock of scattered coarse sea salt. 

        We are pleased with the risotto fussily confined in a Parmesan shell, and I, for one, have more than my share of the Roquefort-cumin sauce on the mushroom-hazelnut ravioli. But rouget, bass, and cod are all boring and too cooked. 

        Amazingly, Gonzalez and his sous have time to paint each dessert plate in thin brushstrokes of chocolate. Bunnies for the sorbets. An intricate pattern like the henna’d hand of a Moroccan bride for the parfait of caramel and candied carrots. But just when I think I’m ready to forgive his trespasses, he goes bonkers -- spooning red-fruit tartare on an herb salad. Yes, tarragon, basil, and cilantro. This guy must get up before dawn to have so much time to plot such mischief. 

Jean Lafitte, 68 West 58th Street  (751-2323). Lunch, Monday through Friday noon to 3 p.m.; dinner, Monday through Saturday 5:30 to 11:30 p.m. A.E., M.C., V.