More than mere hunger drives the man from BVD. La Mirabelle -- doomed little yellow plum -- was not merely the merchandising wizard's hobby. It was his passion, a million-dollar indulgence. He did it for those of us who hadn't had a decent meal in the grand tradition since the passing of the Great Soulé. At Kittay's command, the spacious suite at 45 East 58th Street, once La Rue, then Le Valois, was gutted and gilded, silked, tufted, brocaded, trompe l'oeiled and Louis Quatorzed. Staff was recruited, seduced, shanghaied from every hemisphere. Ex-King Umberto himself stepped into the kitchen of the Lisbon Ritz to say farewell to the chosen chef, Claude Richer.
Unhappily, a man could go bankrupt waiting for the fickle big-time eaters of the world to beat a path to his quatrefoil door. Great traditions perish undiscovered without word-of-mouth. One of the town's most formidable mouths is attached to the ubiquitous person of Marianne Van Renselaer Strong, the tiger lady of haute publicity, a Borgia to her enemies, SupermImi to her fans. Let Mimi issue a casting call, and watch the society page heavyweights -- old and parvenu -- come crawling out of the woodwork. The "Drop Deads," Mimi calls them.
The black-tie Dinner-in-the-Debris had the scent of Mimi's genius. With plaster still flying and walls only half shantunged, the London-born Kittay, who began as an office boy and made millions in skivvies, would be host to his gourmet chums, a panel of unofficial advisers and token investors, Gene Tunny, producer Fred Brisson, Baron Roy Andries de Groot, ophthalmologist Herbert Gould (founder of the Physicians' Wine and Food Society) and…Cary Grant. What city editor could resist? Cary Grant, tippling vintage Cruse in the fine French rubble.
Alas. Cary Grant failed to appear.
It was an evil omen, portent of disaster to come. Nothing gelled. "It was the worst, most expensive restaurant in the world," Dr. Gould now marvels. "It deserved a prize for that." All the freebied Drop Deads in town could not save it. The loyal Baron did his best, hailing La Mirabelle as "a truly great restaurant" in the January Esquire. De Groot's was a unique vision. The bronze quatrefoil doors had already closed.
If you've got a sick play, you send out for Abe Burrows. But who handles last rites on dead restaurants? Kittay turned things over totally to Claude Terrail, grand seigneur of Paris' famed Tour d'Argent. An imported decorator ripped out a fortune in faux Venetian palazzaria and swathed the cocktail lounge in bright chartreuse and royal blue. A slew of Dufys and Miros which Kittay had hanging around ($400,000 worth) went up in the dining room. ("If you've got them, flaunt them," a publicist purred.) A whole new cast took over the kitchen and dining room. On the Ides of March, La Seine was born.
"They gave us a dead horse and told us to bring it into the Preakness," says maitre d' Martin Decre.
General Manager Henry Ball shudders: "Everyone's fighting to get into La Seine." The names are dizzying: Parley, Roosevelt, Fairbanks, Burden, Loeb, Ribicoff, Mellon, Hoover (as in J. Edgar), the Duke and Duchess (one needn't ask which D&D). "Only the little room is open…the back room is closed to keep it really exclusive. That way they're fighting to get in. People are actually calling Claude in Paris begging for a table." Dr. Gould, whose involvement now is "purely emotional," reports: "I had the greatest dinner I ever had in my life in New York. The food does not belong this century."
Anonymity in reviewing restaurants is rarely a problem if one arrives quietly unannounced, suffers whatever joys and indignities, and pays the check. But Manhattan snob dining is a tight little world. Graduates of L'Academie Pavillon (where once M. Souléé spoiled me rotten) trade and spawn. Arbiter of priority at La Seine is Soulé's Pavillon alter ego, Martin Decré, more recently Mme. Henriette's mâitre d' at Côte Basque. Martin knows only too well what unkind words I have written about La Caravelle. Incestuous town. His brother co-owns that place. Martin instructs Marcel to make me happy, serve only doubles and, bon Dieu, not forget the petit fours. Objectivity is threatened. I order a double tomato juice on the rocks, determined to be stern, invulnerable to attack by macaroon, mousse or vintage Margaux.
La Seine has space, a wanton extravagance of space, space to make certain rival restaurateurs weep. Guests are invited to sip aperitifs in the large blue room before stepping through velvet drapes into the red, a First Year at Marienbad, decadently luxe, spankingly new, with carnations heaped in brandy snifters, arrogantly-spaced tables, comfortable Regency armchairs upholstered in red velvet, and lighting so kind you are lulled into thinking you can postpone your next face-lift another five years.
The crowd seems almost strictly Geritol, with a sprinkling of chesty, enamel-faced matrons en route to Saks via Edith Lances' corsetorium.
The menu is a la carte. You might call it "skillfully tailored" or "somewhat limited," depending on your mood and orientation. It changes with the seasons, but the cold table changes daily, and, given proper notice, a client's whim is the chef's demand. Prices are high. Of course, caviar is like yachts…if you have to ask how much ($12 a dollop) forget it. There is no Burgundy at less than $9 and only one Bordeaux at $8…an inevitable burden for a cellar collected at today's inflated prices. One recent lunch for two with a fine Montrachet and a demi-bouteille of Calon Segur ran $50 without tips…and the tab for a strictly non-alcoholic lunch for two was $22 plus.
But both lunches and a later dinner were almost flawless, skillfully and unobtrusively served, the food boldly seasoned, generous in portion and artfully garnished. Tender pink salmon is served with a pastry barquette brimming with salade Russe or a seeded tomato stuffed with cucumber under a lemony ribbon of mayonnaise, an exquisitely seasoned sauce gribiche on the side. Caneton Vasco da Gama ($8) is tender juicy duck and mushrooms in a sauce heady from green peppercorns, the same fresh Madagascar import that flavors the contre filet au poivre vert ($10), a tender aged boneless sirloin served with string beans (intensely green but a bit overcooked) and fat puffed potatoes, pommes soufflées. The quenelles de brochet ($6), airy dumplings of ground pike, egg white and cream, floating in a sublime lobster sauce, are unlike any I have ever tasted -- precise little logs, scarcely tasting at all of pike, but even so, quite splendid. The cold salmon mousse, with the tiniest minced punctuation of truffle, too rich to eat more than a spoonful, was served with a boldly flavored gelee. Never have I seen sole sliced quite so thin as for the delices de sole Dieppoise ($8), poached and served in a tart lemon butter sauce with a garnish of mushrooms, mussels and shrimp (tough). The sole and the famous Mediterranean loup de mer are flown in daily- also rascasse, the spiky tough-fleshed "scorpion" essential of a true Provencal bouillabaisse.
The surpreme de lemon sole ($4) is the chef's sublime invention; the filets are dipped in a secret batter, thin slices of almonds are embedded into the coating and the sole in then sautéed and served surrounded by a magnificent lemon-butter-wine sauce. Pierre Theye, formerly a chef aboard the U.S.S. France, refused to say how it's done.
To my taste, the man is a master of seasoning: everything is sharp, tart, boldly spicy, distinct. Even though the terrine of chicken livers Place des Voges ($2.75) was served a bit too cold, it was of excellent flavor, as was the ballottine of duck with pistachios ($3). Never was a hollandaise so superbly lemony nor a salad so heady with the accent of Dijon mustard.
Café filter is brought to the table in its handsome glass pot, more than enough for three or four refills, and with it, the petit fours. The pastry chef is obviously a candy man. He weaves fantasy baskets of sugar piled high with candy roses and stuffs dried fruit with fondant and marzipan. In season he dips strawberries in sugar frosting -- too sweet to eat, sheer overkill -- (but try his tiny mint tears at the door as you leave). The desserts are merely adequate, good but not special except for a spectacular rice pudding. The chocolate mousse looks better than it tastes…the Sacher torte has more interesting textures but is characteristically somewhat dry. A portion of brie served at lunch was perhaps a bit too cold but magnificently in its prime.
Granted, my judgment must be somewhat distorted by determined pampering. There was Dom Perignon chilling in an ice bucket at dinner, "for old time's sake." Martin insisted, rolling his eyes ceilingward and invoking the spirit of Soulé. But even sober I sensed an antic air…a kind of giddy joy, a pride in serving well…a throwback to a time when it wasn't so uncomfortable to be rich.
Perhaps time and expansion will throw everyone into a mood of tonier sobriety, or even perpetual grouches. It's been "spring training" for La Seine up to now. It will close in August and reopen after Labor Day with the large back dining room unlocked.
If Martin rules in the Soulé tradition, New York will have a new fortress of haute snobbism. It's not just "who you are," it's also "how often do you come." A house like this survives by catering to its pets: celebrities, power mongers, aristocrats and regulars.
As I've said before, the haute restaurant autocracy is a lovely masochistic Manhattan tradition. It is only unforgivable when it permits and even encourages rudeness to once-a-year splurgers from West End Avenue and arrogant condescension to the hapless lady from Kalamazoo.
When the revolution comes, won't we all be dining together anyway? At MacDonald's drive in, most likely: Eldridge Cleaver, Babe Paley and me.