May 19, 1969 | Vintage Insatiable

La Caravelle: Insult á La Carte


         Someday a gourmet anthropologist will do a thesis on the Manhattan culture's painful rites of passage.  It will be called, "Coming of Age on West 55th Street: or, How the Ambitious Adolescent Attains Manhattan Manhood by Braving the Elegant Cruelty of Fashionable French Restaurant Snobisme."


         Oh, sure, you can be a steakhouse snob and never starve.  You can be king of the clan at your neighborhood chop-suey boite.  You can swing your weight around among the potato latkes at Ratner's.  But your tribal standing soars the day you can crack a genuine welcome in the great stone faces that guard the door of La Caravelle. A few are born to snobisme…sipping milk from Baccarat crystal at Le Pavillon during holidays from Choate…or teething on the flatware at "21”.


         But to the rest of us -- expatriates from the provinces, escapees from Erasmus High and Gary, Indiana -- there is the exquisite torture, the terror of the unknown.  Why do we endure it?  Why do we pursue it?  Why do we perform these daily exercises in masochism?  Rejection must be some kind of basic human need.  The French are masters of the fine art.  And New Yorkers are the quintessent victims.


         New York is a mecca for masochists.  It is the Atlantis of our masochist fantasies.  How could we live anywhere else?  We thrive on discomfort, frustration and scorn.  Unpolluted air would shrivel our lungs…our muscles would atrophy if we did not have our daily leaps to avoid the doggy dew…our psyches would be scarred if a cabby opened a door or a waiter said, to an untitled stranger, "I don't recommend the plat du jour, Monsieur; the veal is somewhat dry."


        Clammy with fear (and hope) of anticipated rejection, we phone La Caravelle to reserve a table.  Preferably a day in advance.  Or, aggressively, under a borrowed title: A table at one o'clock for the Princess Kiki de Guinzberg.  Not that such tactics always work.  Friends who phoned Thursday for Saturday lunch were sternly informed: "We don't know if we will have a table on Saturday."


         "If we didn't keep half, even three-quarters of the dining room for our people (…the people who made us) we'd be stupid," Caravelle co-owner Robert Meyzen has said.  "I don't care if you call three weeks ahead.  When I can have Mrs. Lytle Hull and Mrs. Burden, why should I take Mrs. Somebody from Kalamazoo?"


         But now -- by fluke or persistence -- we have a table.  Trembling in our Galanos, we stride (in our best imitation of Veruschka) through La Caravelle's narrow status alley toward a table in Outer Mongolia.  We don't mind.  Not really.  For hasn't our Bible, Woman's Wear Daily, suggested, "With a sense of the superb one can deliberately seek out the darkest corner in the room and make others seek you out…one can turn the Catsup Room from a liability into an asset'?


         We blow a kiss to Sol Hurok and wiggle a finger at John Diebold as we submerge ourselves in the next tyranny: the un-subtitled French menu.  I cannot imagine any Frenchman walking into a Paris restaurant and wrestling docilely with a menu in untranslated English.  But for masochists…what joy!  We fake it.  Order "le sirloin steak" or anything we happen to recognize.  Accept whatever mysterious concoction appears before us.  I learned French long ago because I have a pedantic approach to sensual pleasure and I love to eat well.  But there is no reason to assume that out $100,000 network executive or literary man-about-town is bilingual.  After a mumbled exchange with an uncomprehending captain, my sophisticated uncomprehending lunch guest was in a rage.  "This is not what I ordered," he stormed.  Unfortunately, it was.  He'd asked for volaille; the captain said, "Veau"; the client said yes, and voila…what he got was veal, not chicken.


         Just as we are lulled into a sense of cholesterol-clogged well-being…it wasn't as grim as anticipated…we are confronted with the ultimate ostentatious insult.  Surely Messieurs les proprietaires Meyzen and Decre could indulge their pets discretely.  A digestif on the house or even a magnum of champagne…we'd never know.  But then we would suffer not.  So we smile bravely, wracked with waves of painful envy, as trays of exquisite petits fours sail by us to sustain the starving in status row.  (Four of us recently dropped $59 between one and three at La Caravelle and didn't get near a crumb of macaroon.)  Well, one needs to be reminded periodically where one stands in the Manhattan caste system.  La Caravelle, incidentally, has not been blessed with beauty.  It is a small, dumpy, graceless room, inelegant, with insipid pastel murals and fresh flowers plopped into clumpy pottery pitchers.


         Here was how our masochist fantasy was realized at a recent dinner: M. Meyzen greeted us, led us past the status banquettes, as if to our table.  Abruptly he stopped, announced: "You will have a drink at the bar till your table is free."  It was not a question; it was command.  He wheeled and disappeared.  We were trapped.  There were half a dozen tables free, but perhaps not the particular table assigned to us…the seating is as rigid as a royal wedding.  So to the bar, a tiny uncomfortable crescent crowded into the middle of the dining room, claustrophobic and iced where it abuts the air-cooled wine racks.  "May I wait for my host at his table?" my friend once asked.  "No," came the word.  I hate bars.  I hate ladies at bars.  I hate blackmail.  I almost never drink before a fine French dinner…and the Kultur Maven's Campari and soda would have tasted better without a dash of intimidation. The bar check comes with your drink.  It must be paid, promptly, in cash, before you depart for your table…even if you are someone else's guest.  Dare we ask why?  Is evil in the mind of the beholder or the heart of the bookkeeper?


         By 9:30 the dinner crowd had thinned, but still there were too few captains, and even the waiters looked anxious as we sat nibbling menus for another half hour.  M. Meyzen noticed, too, and for a fleeting moment I thought he might be concerned.  But I was mistaken.


     At last the captain skated up, breathless, pleasant and properly interested in our order.  He even made suggestions.  Good ones.  But it took him a good 15 minutes to come up with the requested wine list.  The Kultur Maven (our resident Grape Nut) felt the '61 Chateau L'Angelus would have softened, given more breathing time.  Roger Fessageut is considered a master chef; by some, the greatest in New York.  "You never achieve perfection," Fessageut has said.  Even so, the unevenness of his kitchen's product is disappointing.  Moules à la moutarde, plump sweet mussels in a masterful mustard sauce, was a magnificent beginning, but the specialité, la mousse de brochet Havraise, a pike mousse in a rich white sauce, suffered from the vivid Pavillon memory of an elegant gossamer mousse of sole created by the former chef, Clement Grangier (gone on now to the greener shores of Campbell's Soup).  Le caneton smitane was tender, juicy, superbly flavored duck with a lovely sour-cream sauce but our sweetbread addict found le ris de veau au champagne gross and unappetizing.  It arrived in one enormous globe, nicely glazed in only one small spot…otherwise very white and anatomical. We ordered tiny string beans flown in from France (not on the menu) as salad, which was, curiously, served with the entrée instead of after…as insult to the wine as well as the wine-lover.


         Andre the waiter, a Pavillon alumnus, had discovered us.  Unloved wallflowers, we basked in his sunny care.  Keen on the efforts of the house's patissier, he insisted we taste the chocolate mousse, mocha almond cake and the gâteau St. Honoré -- all three were excellent.  The prix fixe $12 dinner, plus salad and coffee, wine, tips and tax, came to $50.


         The obligatory luncheon scene is more exclusive, ritualized and fraught with potential drama.  At Caravelle the crowd can be flashy high commerce and dowdily gentile ("Refugees from the River Club," my selective penny-pincher heiress chum assured me.)  Lunch is a must.  No one abstains.  Here they come.  The old, the lame and the blind.  One brittle grande dame in cast was practically carried to her table by an almost equally fragile antique chauffeur.


         I wait sedately, trying to look as if Averell Harriman had danced at my wedding.  Poor M. Decré…what could he do?  He knew I had arrived first.  He had already greeted me and was about to lead me away when a Baron stepped forward.  Decré was torn…but only for an instant.  "Please wait here," he said to me, dashing off with the Baron snarling at his heels.  More amused than miffed, I eventually arrived at a not unpleasant station in the rear.  The captain came promptly for our order, but we were not ready, and he did not reappear for more than 45 minutes, when out gentleman escort finally caught his eye.  The captain was not too enthusiastic about what he might find still left on the cold table and not overly interested in trotting out any precious specialties to tempt our eager-to-be-jaded palates.  The aisles are too narrow to roll the cart through, and at the rush peak waiters swivel and feint with the grace and balance of a corps de ballet.  Our captain brought a perfunctory two platters, then gracefully returned with a clean napkin to drape over the stain left by the poached salmon display -- artfully, as if all this were included in the $7.75 prix fixe lunch.


         A portion of Bayonne ham was huge and very good.  The celeri remoulade was rather ordinary.  And an order for oeuf mayonnaise brought an improperly boiled egg (green around the yolk's edge) in a mustard sauce…a very frugal beginning.


         Crabmeat gribiche was listed as an hors d'oeuvre…but I ordered it as entrée, an enormous generosity of fresh crabmeat served with a mayonnaise-like sauce (oil and vinegar beaten into a paste of hard-boiled egg yolks) flavored with chopped gherkins, capers and herbs…in this case, somewhat bland.  Le suprême de sole Doria proved to be a sweet and fragile sole dressed with curls of cucumber and served with a bouquet of spring vegetables.  A serving of roast veal from the cart, with champagne sauce, was somewhat dry.  But the cold roast lamb was tender, pink, mild and magnificently refreshing.


         Midway through lunch, the service became extraordinary.  Was someone spreading the rumor we were the Kennedy sisters dining with Ambassador Galbraith?  Or was it merely that the luncheon rush had ended?  Half a dozen waiters urged us to have a bit more sauce, another slice or veal, coffee, more coffee, fresh coffee.  The bread and butter pudding was decidedly ordinary and the sauce rather thin, but the pear tarte was a classic of haute pastry.  All this, one drink, a bottle of Meursault and rather generous tipping came to $59 for four.


         The food was good…occasionally great…but we left feeling somehow disappointed.  What was missing?

An absolute great meal can stagger the senses.  Some people don't get that knocked out over food.  Too puritanical, perhaps…or not that sensually tuned in to the art of eating.  But food and fine wines alone are not enough to banish the pangs of neglect or unknot the acid-sodden duodenum.  You need divine inspiration or a captain in a mellow mood to order truly well.  You need to be pampered.  You don't need to be a Baron or a Beautiful.  You need only to be a regular.


         Choose a restaurant.  Cultivate the host.  Take a crash course in French at Berlitz.  Memorize Larousse Gastronomique.  Lunch with big-name folk.  Tip unwisely and overwell.


         Or have you grown too attached to your congenital masochism?


         Kick me quick, garçon.  I haven't had a laugh all week.


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