April 28, 1975 | Vintage Insatiable

How They Ate In Pompei Before The Lava Flowed

        Decadence never goes out of style. It simply convolutes into greater surrealism. Rome burns… fiddlers play. Empires teeter…there's no room at the orgy. As Noah pulled up the gangplank and the torrents began to fall, there were probably a few diehards still playing gin rummy or picnicking on imported smoked salmon. As children we sunned at the beach while millions went hungry. Grown up, we debate the relative grandeurs of a '53 Margaux and a '55 Palmer behind a montage of the swollen bellies of Biaîra and Bangladesh. Still, I really feel uneasy spending $197 for dinner for two at the Palace.

        Morally, the Palace is an outrage. If only it were a disaster… if only my mouth were not so numbed with joy. The advance man boasted that the Palace would be the most expensive restaurant in town… a $50 prix-fixe dinner, wines priced for an emperor, cognacs so rare a mere sip would cost $40. Such ridiculous pretension was an amusing escalation from a practiced carnie-hand like Frank Valenza, who has been begging to "let us seduce you" with Bloody Mary soup and lemon melting moments at his Proof of the Pudding. Cynics anticipated superficial pomp. Now all cynicism fades in this setting of quite remarkable taste, in the glory of splendid detail, in the shock of the kitchen's brilliance.
        Oh, there are problems. The chef is a fitful Wunderkind
now a divine alchemist, now a vaudeville magician, even (though rarely) a careless trickster. And no one can predict what he will do with a full house. The dining room is a prep school for a cadre of rotating waiters. There is no escaping a sense that style and taste are still evolving. The Palace could use a few weeks in Philadelphia. But even so after two and a half weeks of manic triumph and despair in by-invitation-only tryouts - there were nights when no one came, smiles froze, waiters jumped the ship - the unlisted telephone number was released, and well-heeled sybarites found themselves giggling at the gaffes and reeling in the epicurean dazzle.
        The Sovereign apartment house, at the eastern edge of 59th Street, is a sedate setting for the Palace, mostly because almost no one lives there. Keeps the human clutter at a minimum. The entrance is a gentle underreach… no doorman, no splash… restraint in brown canvas. Inside, beige temperance, pastel flowered carpet, graceful love seats, silk-upholstered armchairs. There are ivory rosebuds with petals edged in coral, and baby's breath in crystal and silver cachepots, silver candlesticks, and real candles… decades slip away in the incandescence of perfect lighting. The slender, elegant woman greeting you is Bibbi Valenza. Her husband gave her a quarter of a million dollars and she put all this together. He will tell you. Even if you fail to ask.
        There is only a scattering of diners
sixteen mouths to indulge tonight. "Yi, yi, yi nights like this," Frank Valenza moans.

        "It took Lutèce years to start making money," a sympathetic gourmand comforts him.

        "Yes, but André Surmain has a rich wife," responds Valenza.

        Except for some fiercely banal paintings, the details are exquisite: crystal stemware, faceted like diamonds (not ideal for fine wines, but voluptuous to the hand, a pleasure to the eye); gold-rimmed china; a splendid dessert and coffee service, flowered with forget-me-nots; a silver trolley that cost slightly more than a Cadillac. At first it's all a blur of gleam and shimmer as you are led around the tier that surrounds center stage -- the Royal Table, set for eight, canopied and curtained like a four-poster bed, but as yet unclaimed by any king (although seven moguls of common blood recently spent $1,500 for dinner.)
        There is an opéra bouffe maître d'hôtel doll. Someone has wound his key a bit too tight. His gestures are preposterous as he describes the offerings of L'escriteau, very fancy French for "menu." Everything is written in the original Old French," he explains, hands flying away as if he were fingering a flute. This is not the classic New York snobisme. He has the grace to grin… to match you giggle for giggle as it becomes intoxicatingly clear that you are about to embark on an eighth-course adventure.

        Will you have caviar - a gift of détente from Russia - firm and sweet? Lobster and artichoke hearts in a nutty vinaigrette? Oysters flecked with caviar? Graviaks - salmon "cooked" in a dill marinade (splendid one night, horrid the next)? That just to begin. After soup comes a second "small" entrée - bay scallops; oysters scented with Pernod or champagne; zéphyr de sole catalane; soft-shell crabs in caviar butter - or, not to be missed, a truly magnificent rendition of swordfish - darne d'espadon grillée - silken and moist. Next, the roasts. The rack of veal is a miracle of texture; rack of lamb is butter soft and rose red; and the capon, truffled from here to there, is served with a fine sauce suprême. And these are merely the menu's truffled offerings. Chef Claude Bailis and Valenza urge Palace clients to order all dinners in advance from a roster of spectaculars sur commande. "My bouillabaisse will astound you," Bailis boasts.
        The waiters and captains are whirling and wheeling uncertainly. A captain-coach whispers his catechism to an apprentice: "Present that tray. Light that fire. Fish forks to madame. Steak knife to monsieur."
        There is a glass of Lafite-Rothschild left abandoned by the guests at the corner table. A waiter walks off sipping it. But the most dissonant note is Proof of the Pudding and Palace proprietor Frank Valenza himself. As an actor Valenza spent more time waiting on tables than onstage. One day an analyst persuaded him to channel his ego's hunger into a fish-and-chips joint. He acquiesced, created and starred in Proof of the Pudding. But he had visions of truffles. He and Bibbi made a pilgrimage to France, did all the gourmandical detours, courted the Michelin superstars, enlisted chef Claude Bailis  (formerly of Lutèce and Laurent), a dreamy artist for whom Pudding chef Richard Burns provides the executive mind. Valenza stands there now wowed by his own creation, all camouflaged ambition and one shirt sleeve handing out. That ingeniousness is appealing. The passion for perfection is remarkable. But he might learn not to pronounce foie gras "faux gwas."

        Rough-edged as the service may be, all the haute touches are there. You are addressed by name, not once but a dozen times. At the tiniest subliminal sign one has finished, the plate is whisked away. No wine glass is ever permitted to be less than half full. (But the perfect crusty roll, baked to Palace specifications by Interbaco, once gone is never replaced.) A great dinner is theater. The pace is measured. Here it is vintage Eugene O'Neill -- too-long interludes to drink too much wine at absurd prices. "Can these figures be quoted in francs?" my companion asks. Half a bottle of Pouilly-Fumé, $11, vanishes much too swiftly as the seduction starts: firm, perfect Scotch salmon rolled around crème fraîche, set into a flaky pastry boat, with two little hills of caviar. Four thin rounds of silken beef -- raw, almost sweet, under a wondrous mustard source. An accompanying lemon half is pitted and cored and scored so a ribbon of peel makes a queue like a pig's tail -- what delicious nonsense, but how careless that no one sanded away the Sunkist label.

        Soup's on; magnificent cream of mussel with threads of saffron and tiny bay scallops poached gently to delicate perfection, and a too-thick lobster bisque with cognac-flamed lobster and truffle bits lurking in its smurky depths. A clipper ship sculpted in toast and glazed to a ceramic sheen rides the presentation tray of the third course: a large gathering of plumpest snails, cloaked in a zestily aromatic sauce; and angel hair, thinnest pasta, tossed with truffles and lobster roe, an inspired marriage that simply doesn't work. (The same pasta in a double truffle bath -- purée of white truffle sauce flecked with julienne of black truffle -- is a triumph at a later dinner for four).
        Next, a silken lemon ice on a slick of cassis in a frosted compote to clear the palate for aristocratic côte de boeuf, rare and tender, served with a Madeira-scented sauce with dumplings of chicken and white truffle afloat -- all of this opulently garnished with a whole peeled tomato wearing a blossom of thin squash slices, mounded with truffle "pollen" and artichoke heart, crisply al dente, filled with morels. And served with asparagus tips. Too much. Too much.
        I'm slightly smashed now from joy and excess and a $35 bottle of Léoville-Lascases '62, but game for salad, bibb lettuce with thin spikes of celery, leeks, and fennel (a bit overdressed) and then cheese: Parmesan, goat, Brie, and my favorite triple crème, Explorateur, with crisp white Bremner wafers…toasted for heaven's sake, toasted. Now a double volley of mousses, an oval of chocolate, another of strawberry…an inch of apple tart, a scraggly triangle of almond, and Lilliputian pastries by Bonté, evoking memories of sweet madness in Lyon and Roanne. These wickedly irresistible miniatures arrive on a wheelbarrow constructed of sugar, and there are petits fours in a basket that is not wicker but pastry, wound round with sugar roses. Feeling very silly now as a cart arrives with brandies, cognacs, digestifs, offered by the house…"If there is anything you want but do not see, just ask." Fresh-squeezed orange juice. Emeralds. A Havana cigar. Warren Beatty. I'm too overwhelmed by the offer to respond.
        Reviving a bit over the check, of course. It is presented in duplicate on heavy stock, $161.50 including tax, plus tips already allotted: $5 for the maître d', $22 for the waiter, $7 for the captain, $2 for the wine steward…a total of 24 per cent…$197.50. The obligatory 24 per cent is sure to rile even the Palace's big spenders. They'll need a warning on the menu. Or better yet, Valenza might brazenly adjust the prix fixe to $65 and set an elegant policy of no tipping at all.

        Frank Valenza's magnificent obsession has hatched a wobbly little miracle. But I shudder, imagining how graces might fall victim to overnight success…if indeed there are 50 hedonists rich or fatly-expense-accounted enough to ride out the tariff here. For now, anyway, it is reassuring to observe how dedicated the Valenzas are to perfection. One demanding voluptuary's complaint about butter curls in melting ice water brought tub butter in bricks to each table the very next evening; and a hint that pink reservation slips in a glass at the table were "rather tacky" sent Bibbi Valenza off in search of silver place-card holders. Oh, the Valenzas are serious, friends.

        Time to answer the question. Is dinner at the Palace worth $197? Is a hunk of metal on wheels worth $11,000? Will you pay $40 for roses? I have paid $7 for 27 prunes in Armagnac-spiked syrup. It cost billions to put a man on the moon. The Palace offers that wondrous sense of delicious excess guaranteed to tease the gourmand into a frenzy of expectation and desire.
        So creep past the shuttered thrift shops, the pale green geodesic dome, the girders of the bridge to Queens, to where the Sovereign apartment house looms dark as sleep. You can almost imagine it is the year 2010:
        Only sixteen New Yorkers are rich enough to dine on real food, while far away, ratted into heatless, lightless ghettos, the poor eat soylent green.

420 East 5th Street, 355-5152. Open for dinner only, Monday through Saturday 6-10 p.m.

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