November 11, 1968 | Vintage Insatiable
Paley’s Preserve: The Ground Floor
The CBS Building is brown is beautiful is a sober monument to taste in the Manhattan grid of chrome, compromise and architecture by committee. Eero Saarinen drew it but the details became a family affair. CBS president Frank Stanton and board chairman William Paley fussed over glass tints and elevator buttons. When it came to the family kitchen, it was clear form the start, one could not install a Chock Full O’Nuts in the nave of the cathedral.
Thus The Ground Floor is, above all, appropriately grand. It is slick, rich, calculated, spare, intimidating. It is Contemporary Wasp. You would hate to break open a roll for fear it would scatter unprogrammed crumbs. It is understatedly snob. There is no Bronx phone directory. Manhattan, of course, Brooklyn, yes. Even Queens. But no Bronx. You sense this slight to the Bronx is no accident. Nothing here is accident. Armies of interior designers have measured, computed, engineered. Even the sugar bowl is part of the statement. Granite plays against rosewood. Naked globes like upside down brandy snifters set in steel honeycombs make up patterns on the tablecloth. The house flower could only be…a red carnation, masculine in upright rosewood casket. Shiny black matchbooks wear stark portraits by Irving Penn of nuts and clams. All elements measured, designed, engineered…no detail too minor. The quarter-round molding that borders the powder room carpet is gold…but not just plain gold…florentined gold. Some draftsman spent maybe weeks at the drawing board calculating that touch.
The Ground Floor is a perfect room to end an affair in. The tables are far enough apart to announce the break in a firm voice, and the ambiance is stern enough to discourage sloppy emotionalism.
Not too many Beautiful People get this far west before curtain time. There is no one o’clock flutter of Dr. Lazlo’s “girls.” Even Babe Paley is less than prudently faithful. But Boss Paley mingles with everyday folk in the dining room. Leonard Lyons moves through the grill, antennae clicking off the celebrities du jour – Donald Pleasence, Sloan Simpson, an author or two drinking breakfast. And good grief! Bob Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman tieless, unjacketed, grizzled gray locks to the shoulder, Ben Franklin specs…the oldest hippie in the world. Mostly, though, the grill is lined with youngish executives expense-accounting each other. Restrained, subdued: That is not a bar to get sloppy drunk in…not a room to unlax in.
But wait. Just one year ago The Ground Floor’s computer went berserk. Straw bread baskets breached the stainless steel integrity of each rosewood table. Copper pots appeared in the exposed unclutter of kitchen. And a painting was affixed to one wall. It was a Stella, to be sure – not exactly nostalgic or blood-warming, but still, the virginity of granite had been violated. A new management had decided The Ground Floor lacked…soul.
Soul to Charles Chevillot, number two son in a long line of distinguished inn keepers, means bread baskets, linen table runners, Baccarat crystal…”but the price is insane…so we save it for special guests.” He ordered demitasse for espresso. And if all goes well, he may one day buy saucers to match and spoons that fit. The slick black Irving Penn menu has been retired – “It felt cold” – for conventional stock, warmer, printed daily in italic script…”Not very CBS at all,” Chevillot notes proudly. The menu has been drastically simplified, with the emphasis on French classics, and is positively Spartan after the haute pretensions of The Ground Floor in its earlier incarnation. Entrees range from $5.25 for foie de veau sauté au raisin to $16.00 for chateaubriand with Béarnaise (for 2). A new addition is boneless trout stuffed with mousse of salmon ($6) and veal chop in paper ($7.50). There is also a $6.25 three-course prix fixe lunch or dinner menu du jour, plus the sensitive young Frenchman’s newest social service project: the $3 “silent” breakfast. Help yourself to juice, fruit, croissant and the New York Times as mute waiter pours coffee. For a dollar more, order kippers, finnan haddie or corned beef hash. Don’t even open your mouth. Just point.
Chevillot sails across his domain like a hyperthyroid Fred Astaire but he has a way to go before reaching his self-styled nirvana where folks come to The Ground Floor for the food first and the architecture second. Soul is inconsistent. The food can be excellent and unbelievably pedestrian. The service is alternately impeccable and distracted.
Dover sole, for instance, was perfectly poached, a somewhat stingy serving of Hollandaise properly fluffy, and quenelles of chicken though not strictly classic (the chicken was slivered rather than ground) was above reproach. But a shell of seafood au gratin had curdled, the lobster was tough and swordfish seemed unnecessarily dry. Salade Ground Floor sounded promising. How disappointing to get a $4 plate with three quadrants of bib lettuce, 2 halves of hard-boiled egg, some quarters of mealy tomato (at the season’s height) and an ounce each of chicken and ham fingers in an excellent dressing. An hors d’oeuvre plate was colorful but banal: half a less-than-sheltered sardine, a dollop of shredded carrot, two radishes (one unwashed), a slice of salami, two unmatched halves of cucumber slices and half a hard-boiled egg with an unpleasantly strong mayonnaise, and part of an anchovy. (You could do at least that well in the neglected fridge of the average Manhattan bachelor.) There is an unusual generosity of truffles…lemons are fluted (inexpertly). Someone cares for the eye and there is talent in the kitchen. But whoever has talent has only two hands and the esthetic soul is somewhat nearsighted. An oenophilic friend assures me the wine list is impressive for so young a house and the prices are only the usual outrage. The triple markups on some lesser bottles actually make the tag for precious labels seem almost a bargain.
Service starts out poised and gracious but deteriorates rapidly, as the room fills. Discipline breaks down. Eyes grow glazed. Plates are left sitting far too long and wine, unpoured. An order of string beans is never brought but appears on the bill. Asked for two forks with one salad, a non-English speaking-waiter divides the salad between two plates. The charge is for two salads, excellent salads by the way. The cheese platter is a work of art and it was fascinating to watch a non-French waiter painstakingly manicure the white rind from a brie before serving it. The captain watched too, mouth agape. Perhaps some will be amused to ask for the carte du vins and draw a blank, then a cheery, “Oh, you mean the wine list.” A pox on the anti-discrimination in employment. I like French waiters in French restaurants. It’s dreary to order poire cardinal and be scolded by a waiter who pronounces it peer.
There is no such contretemps at Mr. Paley’s other restaurant, that unpretentious snack bar in the Paley Park on 53rd off Fifth. The waterfall may not mask the jackhammer grind but who cares. Here you can start the affair you will end at The Ground Floor. Franks are only 35 cents and Coke, root beer or Fresca is served in lettuce green paper cups – ambiance by nature with an assist from neighboring incinerators.