July 31, 1989 | Vintage Insatiable

Adrienne: Swiss Watch

        Nobody cooks like Gray Kunz. Not in New York. No one who’s ever fed me. He is a gifted original, animated by his mentor, the mythic Fredy Girardet, yet with his own brilliant palette, his own subtle signature. He is infatuated with the perfumes of the Far East – cardamom and lemongrass and chrysanthemum tea – but love never blinds him. His kitchen is unmistakably French.

        I cannot recall another circlet of salmon as elegant as his, not merely pink at the heart but delicately gelled, evenly tremulous, with a chic chive tie around its waist. He has a trick for baking lobster – slow, slow, slow – and a master’s hand with sweetbreads. His are firm and soft and crusty and sit on a disk of fresh morels with pick-up sticks of asparagus, spring-green and white, so young they taste like sprouts. 

        Is there still a curse on hotel dining? Next time I look up from dabbing the last drop of nectar from my passion-fruit soufflés (a duo baked in their shells and anchored in marzipan-cookie rings… I must eat them too), I expect to see the Peninsula Hotel’s Adrienne teeming. The word-of-mouth Teletype is already clicking. 

        Few Swiss seem moved to abandon their island of tranquility, the mountains, the money, the chocolate. But Kunz defies his chromosomes. Five years ago, he left Girardet’s exalted kitchen in Crissier, outside Lausanne, for the Plume, in Hong Kong’s Regent Hotel. Last fall, he crisscrossed America, scouting a fertile turf to settle on. Then the Peninsula beckoned. It must have seemed tailor-made: a Hong-Kong-owned hostelry with a Swiss sensibility in the quicksilver of New York. 

        If the Peninsula were American, Kunz’s arrival would have been trumpeted months ahead. If it were French, the house would have toasted his reign the week it began. But with its classic Swiss reserve, the blond, apple-cheeked Kunz (he just looks like a collegiate gymnast; he’s 34) has been toiling backstage, unsung, twenty hours a day since February. 

        Giant futuristic machinery is being lugged into place as he gears up the kitchen to handle Adrienne at breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus a traditional menu in the adjoining, less expensive bistro, as well as catering and feeding a staff of 250 each day. “If the staff eats well, they are more loyal,” Kunz reasons, discovering in the united colors of Peninsula scouts to provide him with ethnic-shopping hints. 

        Imagine a Chinatown merchant’s shock as a blond barbarian walks in asking for tangerine peel in fluent Cantonese. Much to his joy, Kunz is finding exotica he took for granted in Hong Kong – the citric Philippine fruit calamansi on Canal Street and a rainbow of lentils in an Indian shop on 32nd street. 

    I could tell about the tears that were shed in the sequential efforts to build a grand hotel in the shell of the old Gotham. I could talk about the hasty scuttling of the infant Maxim’s de Paris and how the displaced chef, Jean Michel Diot, went on to Provencal sorcery at the Park Bistro. But that’s another story. The same lush mauve-and-taupe carpet leads you up two flights to Adrienne, where changes are so subtle, they may register subliminally – chintz replacing velvet, the ceiling brighter, the night lights low.

        Candles in gilded Art Nouveau stands are reflected in fragile elongated stemware and period-look silver, and bold explosions of lilies and roses stand guard. A not-too-greedy wine list offers lovely country reds for budgeters – Cahors, Corbieres, Madiran. Too bad all the windows along Fifth Avenue are set aside for smokers. 

        Ignore the tidbits sent out to “amuse your mouth” while ordering. Surprisingly mundane, they give no hint of astonishments to come. Order a la carte (entrées $19.50 to $35 at dinner, $18.50 and $19.50 at lunch; pretheater dinner $42), or let Kunz orchestrate a $55 tasting – four courses in generous portions and a duo of desserts at a rather friendly price. 

        At the moment, Kunz’s heart is breaking. The trickle of guests in the dining room doesn’t understand his salmon with its magical braising and puddle of champagne-watercress butter. That tide will turn when the food obsessed flock to discover what he does with thin tongues of sea bass in a calamansi marinade with small balls of apple, avocado, and caviar, or glazed rock oysters with caramelized shallot and chervil, or smoked salmon bouquets paired with crabmeat hidden in petals of radicchio. 

        We ask to share a soup. Each gets a taste in a demitasse – voluptuous crab bisque with a tarragon raviolini afloat one night, truffle-touched creamy velouté with snippets of snow pea pods the next. Kunz has a unique vegetable vernacular. The crunch is ubiquitous, the color intense. Slant-cut, cubed, minced in julienne or threads or mirepoix, they may be raw or barely blanched yet never register as undercooked. 

        He does have a flaw. Hyperactivity. Too many sauces, too many diversions on every plate. I long for a change of pace, an interlude of simplicity. One evening, the tiger prawns are tough and utterly unseasoned, overly dependent on the sweet-pepper-and-lemongrass sauce for flavor. I suppose Kunz’s seared foie gras on a bed of candied endive in red wine could be crustier. The crisped leek and ginger (inspired by Chinese-fried wonton) is good but not shiver-provoking. And veal with saffron pappardelle, fluted celery root, and celery leaves can be criticized only because it falls a notch below notions that soar. 

        His slow-baked lobster partners exquisite scallops, grilled on one side – a heady mix of char and sweetness – as if he’d used a sun-block with SPF 35. And the sauce mingles essence of shell with butter, port, brandy and hot chilis. Those Indian lentils and spring vegetables add savor to moist young chicken. Kunz cuts the pompano just so, fries it on one side only (“lightly, lightly, almost raw”), serves it crispy side up with ribbons of daikon in red-wine vinegar and tiny dots of vegetable in a cabbage wrap. Grilled silver snapper, surrounded by a curry-and-cardamom sabayon, wears a vegetable cloak. Juicy grilled pigeon of exceptional flavor sits in a cream-and-shallot-enriched stock with stir-fried vegetable nuggets. Tangerine oil may be the secret note in the remoulade of a “cold” seafood dish, perhaps lukewarm salmon and prawns.

        If you’re an old friend  – Aurora’s chef Gerard Pangaud is across the room – or a recognized critic or just clever enough to order the tasting, the chef’s whim determines dessert. Strawberries in strawberry-champagne coulis with almond-studded ice cream. Triangles of crisp feuilleté layering lemon-tangy cubes of banana on a pool of passion-fruit-touched caramel. A brilliant construction of gingered Florentine (almond-lace) cookies, bitter chocolate, tangerine, and kumquat. Refreshing granités of Bordeaux and poached pear. Or sublime soup of chrysanthemum blossoms with pistachio ice cream and thin slivers of plum – edible poetry.

        At this point, the dazzling goody plate may seem superfluous. Don’t be silly. Admire the butterflies with pistachio eyes and almond wing markings. But sample lemon and lime tartlets, chocolate truffles riding chocolate skateboards, little Florentine cuplets holding a bite of rum-soaked cake and a single raspberry. Our captain insists that the decaf cappuccino is the best in town. I’m too dazed to investigate.

        Up to a few nights ago, Adrienne was virtually a private dining room, with tenants at perhaps four or five tables. But the hordes may be about to descend. If the crew is ready, this could be a swift leap to the summit for Gray Kunz.

The Peninsula 2 West 55th Street 212 903 3918.

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