October 12, 1998 | Insatiable Critic
 Unfinished Symphony
        At last. The perfect place to take Mom and Dad to dinner. A place to be Mom and not feel like an imposter at Lilith Fair or the dowdy headmistress at a fabfest of chattery Brit fashion mercenaries. Indeed, La Fourchette is out-of-time, beyond trendiness -- a mirage in that remarkably unexploited stretch of Manhattan where Gracie Mansion sits like a bourgeois country house overlooking the East River. No one goes to the farthest reaches of First Avenue for serious dining.

        "Are you crazy?" chef Marc Murphy asked proprietor Abraham Merchant when he learned the address of the swank, high-priced dining spot the Pakistani-born restaurateur proposed to ride to white-tablecloth glory. "People said I was crazy to open on First and 62nd," replied the force behind Merchants, now a trio of New York restaurants. Murphy wanted a stage to strut his act. Could this be it?

        A teenage graduate of Peter Kump's cooking school and make-or-break tutorials with chef-mentor David Pasternack (now at Picholine), Murphy worked every station in eighteen months at Miravile in Paris. A brief stint with Alain Ducasse led to Le Cirque and finally top toque at Cellar in the Sky, where he earned a rave from me but still felt invisible.
I arrive expecting a modest neighborhood bistro. Where is this mammon-forsaken place, I mutter, stepping out of the cab at yet another soaring new apartment tower. No numbers . . . no name . . . oh, so subtle . . . it's on the awning . . . but here, this window, these linen Roman shades . . . might be a restaurant. Past the curved windbreak of translucent glass woven with brass, into the bar and lounge, with its lofty ceiling and extravagance of burnished wood -- on into the custard and toasty glow of the dining room, or to the tented glass-wrapped pavilion in the garden. Smart. Warm. Surprisingly beautiful. What a shock. A cocoon for grown-ups (designed by Charles Peter Swerz and Pia Prevost) with food as elegant and sophisticated as the setting.

        The tiny amuse-bouche of pungently oiled octopus, tuna, and sprouts signals the chef's ambition. As does the menu math, entrées aggressively priced from $25 to $34, the chef's-tasting prix fixe at $75 or $115 with a different wine for each of five courses. The little-girl-from-Detroit in me is appalled. But my go-for-broke New Yorker thinks no big deal. The two of us can eat and drink for less than my next pair of Manolo Blahniks. And I am instantly enslaved by the wanton luxe of the smashed Yukon-gold potato with white-truffle-steeped olive oil under flutters of summer truffles, another tiny gift from the kitchen -- give me a dozen as an encore and I'll call it my dinner.

        Everything about La Fourchette exudes confidence and speaks of grand ambition. The elusive signage. The money spent on gold leaf and walls rubbed to look like gently worn leather; the columns and murals that evoke Roman frescoes outside Pompeii. The quality of the nuts at the bar. The carefully chosen piano interlude when the reservationist puts you on hold -- ditz that she is, first saying yes, then no, then yes, then maybe. The resident sommelier once you can get her attention. The layered and user-friendly wine list. The chef's rigorous abstinence from painted sauce streaks and copycat scatterings of herbs, spice smithereens, mushroom dust, and choking clouds of powdered sugar. Just giant plates and handsome deep bowls with pristine rims. Hallelujah. Tempting cheeses served with walnuts and grapes. The marvelous little crème brûlée perfumed with lemon that precedes dessert. The haute Gallic gesture of proper tartlettes and candy doodads. The impressive coda of house-made caramels, at first grudgingly tasted, then swept away into pockets and purses. Is Murphy the next rage? You might bet on it if you happen to order luscious mussel-curry soup with parsley-flecked whipped cream or the grilled calamari stuffed with shrimp and braising greens, followed by a smartly sauced daurade in lemon-parsley buerre blanc or one night's special sturgeon -- vividly flavored, tremulously just-cooked. He wraps seared nubbins of rare, boned squab in bright-green cabbage packages. His roasted chicken with onion compote and wild mushrooms is both delightfully crusty and moist. Stuffed baby eggplant, haricots verts, and sautéed potato accompany flavor-rich double lamb chops. The robust braised short ribs with bone marrow easily survive being paired with a rather pedestrian filet. And the tangy citric edge of passion-fruit coulis surrounding the tropical-fruit napoleon is the perfect finale. The quartet of veteran tasters at my table is nodding and clucking as obsessed food people do, tickled by the possibility that we are witness to the first dawn of a new star.

        But alas, that fantasy is premature. The chef's been fussing and editing in the kitchen barely a month, and there are fumbles. Almost all fish is overcooked (and not just for those who ask for it "rarish" or "underdone"). I much prefer warm foie gras crustily seared and deglazed with something acid. Murphy likes it grilled, but his is soft and wimpy. The "crispy" sweetbreads are not crispy at all. Scallops with marrow don't thrill me, nor does asparagus in a fluff of ch`evre mousse. Brunch at $25 for three courses and a chance to gaze at the greenery in the garden room is a good buy but too sedate. I can't imagine anything on the uninspired late-night menu that would satisfy my midnight ragings. I start to wonder if this chef has excellent skills and a provocative intellect but somehow lacks a real passion for eating. Perhaps he's just being cautious.

        Murphy continues to noodle and fuss. This week he is revising the salmon, substituting veal-prosciutto-sage-stuffed agnolotti in porcini whiskey for the fettucine and adding Chilean sea bass on grilled onions with foie gras ravioli in oxtail consommé. La Fourchette is certainly worth an excursion east from Park or Fifth. The neighborhood gentry are already coming back, grateful for bold pioneers with the audacity to try for something serious and classic on this neglected edge of the map. "I can't wait till the first snow," one customer told Murphy. "How wonderful it will be to take an elevator here instead of trying to find a taxi for Le Cirque."

La Fourchette, 1608 First Avenue, between 83rd and 84th Streets 212 249 5924


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