June 8, 1998 | Insatiable Critic
 Morel High Ground

        It’s Friday in Tribeca, warm and humid, but Montrachet looks like matinee day on Broadway. Is this crowd a splinter caucus of the AARP? A pride of Grey Panthers? When Drew Nieporent planted his first entrepreneurial venture on this can’t-get-there-from-here one-way stretch of West Broadway a dozen years ago, chef-restaurateur Jasper White of Boston advised him that the way to make lunch hot was to do it once a week. It seemed worth a try.

        As promised, the Fridays-only lunch at Montrachet has become a small club: The downtown DAR meets Silicon Alley. Regulars come resolved to drink only a glass of wine, surrender to a bottle, and often don’t go back to the office. It’s easier to snag a cab now that the Bubble Lounge and a handful of new feeding hostels have sprouted in the stretch between here and El Teddy’s. Indeed, the pocket of real estate once known as DeNiroville for the growing film-and-feast empire Nieporent shares with the actor and assorted investors is stubbled with newcomers. And in his darker moments, Nieporent imagines he can see into the bakery window of his arch-nemesis, David Bouley, Montrachet’s very first chef and now the West Broadway Pain-handler. Indeed, half a dozen gifted chefs have rotated in and out of the kitchen, importing joy, more or less. The current incumbent, Rémi Lauvand, filched from Tropica (after solid stints with Gérard Pangaud and Le Cirque), brings a pleasant whiff of France downtown.

        There’s just enough cream in the champagne sauce of the warmed oysters with caviar to evoke memories of undiluted Escoffier in the prime of Le Grenouille, where Nieporent once was a captain and Lauvand a sous-chef. I feel the same déjà vu in the voluptuousness of melted foie gras and in a toss of farfalle and snails with parsley coulis and white port. His classic training informs the perfection of sweetbreads served with carrots and morels in a very contemporary Parmesan jus, and the precise cooking of lobster paired with cabbage perfumed with lobster-roe-infused amontillado sauce. If I couldn’t deduct the $22 taxi fare, I’d gladly take the subway back for another taste of blush-rare salmon crusted with chopped truffle, porcini dust, and brioche crumbs, poised over baby fennel, infant turnips, and wild mushrooms.

        How does Nieporent juggle a dozen ventures at a time? The brain never sleeps. He’s always a cell-phone call away. Anytime we meet, he compulsively recites every critical line I’ve ever written. Now he points out for the tenth time the art that hangs on Montrachet’s once-naked walls. The limping air conditioner seems to be fixed. And his black-shirted dining-room crew (“We’ve been called fascists and defrocked monks”) serves with easy authority, whether or not the boss is in sight. As with any French family inn, the savvy crew is likely to be backed up by Drew’s mother tending the books, even washing the front window.

        Before we have time to order, the sommelier pours a warm-up taste of Morgon. I might look to Spain, Chile, or Australia on a wine list when I want a bargain, to California or Oregon if I have foreigners in tow. In France, I prefer Bordeaux, but if the name of the place is Montrachet, I feel it’s a sacrilege to order anything but Burgundy. The sommelier’s nominee, a $45 Monthelie, is mellow and ready to drink. (He must have me pegged at $45. That’s the price of the Marsannay, his choice a week later.) Midway through dinner, the company’s roving wine director, Daniel Johnnes, drops in to work the room. He gives a copy of his wine guide to a trio of oenophilic tourists. I overhear him playing concierge, advising the visitors to take the Staten Island ferry for a stirring view of the Statue of Liberty.

        Dinner begins as it should (preferably after we’ve ordered) with classic three-star élan -- a small offering from the chef, a crunch of fatty and delicious calf’s foot one night, tiny bay scallops with girolles another. What once was an $18 prix fixe is now $34. Tonight, it offers sprightly arugula salad with Parmesan, risotto nuggeted with wild mushrooms, and a dessert of crème brûlée. There’s a $42 menu, too (vegetable terrine, pan-seared duck with spinach and pancetta, pear-tart Tatin). But Montrachet fans tend to order à la carte dinner entrées, $24 to $32, and usually want a Burgundy that matches. Spring brings soft-shell crabs, of course, morels, asparagus, and the first cold soups of the season -- a corn chowder with chunks of lobster. Or an elegant clear soup of corn, carrots, and tomatoes in tomato water. Verjus, the juice of green grapes, is too acidy on the rabbit salad at dinner one night but properly tempered with walnut oil at lunch a few weeks later.

        If you’re hooked on the gummy texture of gnocchi, as I am, you’ll agree there’s nothing wrong with these browned nubbins and mushrooms under slats of summer truffle that a little salt and pepper can’t cure. But too much salt mars the veal chop. An endive, pear, walnut, and Roquefort salad is best eaten with eyes closed, to avoid seeing how the vinaigrette discolors the leaf. The vegetable terrine needs something to wake it up, as does listless John Dory. Duck breast ought to be rare, not medium-gray as this otherwise flavorful bird is.

        The un-pompous respect for wine that makes this very American place seem slightly French prompts me to order a portion of cheese so that the four of us can do justice to the last few ounces of our Burgundy. And to hell with cholesterol. We’ll have dessert too: wine granité with fresh plums and a sensational mascarpone-custard napoleon with slivered sweet cherries at lunch; chocolate-truffle torte, passion-fruit Bavarian, or apple-cinnamon soup with currant sorbet at dinner.

        At the moment, the staff is bracing for a week of $19.98 lunches, a rite of spring dreamed up by Joe Baum and Tim Zagat as a gesture of hospitality to the 1992 Democratic Convention. Dozens of spots still playing the discount-lunch game will extend the $19.98 special through the summer. As a mouth for hire, I’m too busy tasting to stick to the budget myself, but I have the notes of a cousin who used last year’s lunches to court his roommate, now his wife. He left his job as a CPA for chef’s training. She’s a fledgling food connoisseur in tribute to his passion. Given their tight budget, they might never have ventured to Felidia except for the $19.97 lunch: “We were amazed. Huge portions, so many choices, even table-side service.” At Nadaman Hakubai at the Kitano Hotel, they were impressed that the five or six exquisite little dishes on the $19.97 special closely mimicked the $80 kaiseki tasting.

        Indeed, the two of them, Mitch and Allison, were so intrigued by Nobu’s $19.97 lunch, they came back one night, said, “Omakase -- let the chef decide,” and treated themselves to a $300 dinner. It seems that all “I Love NY” lunches are not created equal. They dismissed the Gotham Bar and Grill lunch as stingy, with only two entrée choices compared with Felidia’s seven or the eight entrées at Gramercy Tavern. Told the Gotham has added a sampling of three wines by the glass for $19.98, my cousin proved to be a cynical New Yorker after only five years of breathing our air: “Yeah. So lunch just went up another $20 -- if we take the sampling.”

        Determined to snare a table at Union Square Cafe, Mitch sent for a restaurant-week participant list a month in advance from the New York Convention & Visitors Bureau, but even before it arrived, he was on the phone. Told the house books 30 days in advance and the first day was already sold out, he put his phone on redial at nine the next morning and scored a triumph. “It’s probably too late to get anything at Daniel,” he mourned. “There aren’t that many tables, because they only give the noon seating. Not that I blame him.” He’s weighing the possibility of Peter Luger’s (three courses starring a prime-rib sandwich, normally $13.95) against Sparks (three courses starring sliced steak, normally $27.95). As for Aureole, he’ll bide his time, since the $19.98 runs year-round.

        For every tourist soothed by a summer bargain, the savvy restaurateur hooks another obsessed foodie to butter up his kitchen future.

Montrachet, 239 West Broadway, near White Street 212 219 2777