January 23, 2012 | BITE: My Journal
Born Again Christian at La Mangeoire
Chef Christian Delouvrier decides we must taste his exquisite foie gras. Photo: Gael Greene
Why am I back at La Mangeoire? After leaving it to neighborhood loyalists for most of its 35 years, surviving after legions of its Gallic peers and superiors faded away, such longevity in this cruelly fickle town might be reason enough to check in. Indeed, tourists just stumbling in unaware, finding an oasis so French and welcoming and not too expensive, consider it their secret find.
For me, it’s the arrival of Christian Delouvrier in the kitchen that has it flashing on my radar. Owner Gérard Donato brought the wandering chef in as a consultant to his Provençal menu in 2009. Of course I went to eat. A rustic bean and bacon soup tasted like vintage Delouvrier, and I got a frisson from a perfectly executed veau de blanquette that reminded me why this prime bland classic was not my dish. That wasn’t enough for me. Remembering the shy, unassuming toque’s triumphs in a career of dizzying highs and punishing lows, I longed to see him shake up the dowager a lot more.
Baby calamari caramelized on the plancha in an earthenware bowl. Photo: Gael Greene
“I’m just training the cooks,” Delouvrier confided in his modest way when I asked why he didn’t do more of his own dishes. But in 2011, the resident chef left and La Mangeoire closed for a quick facelift. It emerged with its country French exuberance a little more beige but still transporting, with great bursts of flowers in pots and in paintings, farm implements on the wall, and more space at the bar for an aperitif. On the menu, Provence has evolved into French Country and the “consultant” was now in charge. “Les Classiques de Christian Delouvrier” is printed on a section of dishes meant to serve two or three.
Tonight we’re five, including a French friend from Nice, parked at our insistence at a too-tiny round in the front room, sharing Niçoise olives, dipping crusts of bread into sensational anchovy oil. There’s a $32.50 three course prix fixe, but I can’t entice anyone to order it. Not even me. Delouvrier, expecting our French pal, rushes out to greet her, gasps when he spots me and urges us to try the foie gras and his chicken. I have heard about that chicken with its crackle of crust. “I had the best roast chicken of my life,” another French friend emailed me. “It was an affair to remember.”
The chef is proud of his crisp-skinned country chicken with fries. Photo: Gael Greene
What, we have not ordered the foie gras? Never mind. Suddenly, waiters surround us with five portions, blush pink under a tiara of blond fat – a perfection of poaching, almost sweet on the tongue. I put a small chunk on some toast. For a moment or two I imagine I am in France. I remember an amazing dinner long ago at Auch, being stuffed with foie three ways, by the chef André Daguin, self-styled Ambassador of Gascon cookery, father of our own Ariane. I rarely eat more than a square inch of it these days, and most likely it will be seared. Tonight, I am surrounded by foie, with no one to pass my plate to. I cannot stop.
Flowery explosions in the vase and on the wall at La Mangeoire.
Amazingly, when our appetizers belatedly arrive, I can still appreciate the appealing texture and flavors of son Nico’s “country style pâté,” served on a wooden platter with classic cornichon pickles and toast. Small plump calamari seared on the griddle sit on grilled tomato napped with basil and pine nut purée, rather a modest ménage for $16.50, but good enough. The Road Food Warrior is deeply offended by naked snails swimming in tomato and almond butter, a saucer of glop, definitely not an acceptable trade for the garlic butter onslaught his mouth was primed to expect from the menu’s Escargots de Bourgogne offering. I can’t see any joy in it either.
The photo is blurry but the braised rabbit is splendid. Photo: Gael Greene
For most of the main courses, $20.50 to $36.00, there is a choice of a smaller portion – $15.50 to $30, an option I’d like to see more often around town. I might have advised Nico never to order pasta in a French restaurant: it’s soft and bland. But that was his mood. And the vaunted chicken has somehow been left in the oven too long. It’s supposed to come with lettuce but that’s gone astray. But the steak with peppercorn cream sauce is without flaw. With it, I’m sipping a pleasant Croze Hermitage, at $48, that we chose because our French friend serves it at home. I long for some béarnaise sauce to dip the marvelous fries in but I don’t ask because I knew I’d get it and enough already. I’d be back for the fragrant rabbit leg stewed in white wine, tomato, mushroom and tarragon ragout served with a rich cauliflower gratin. That is if I weren’t planning to return anyway for the macaroni gratin. It’s just a side, only $8.50, but it’s my dream mac’n’cheese – penne glued in a cheesy crust but not overwhelmed by goop, properly stuck to the bottom of its oval dish to allow scraping.
A side portion of macaroni looms large in its perfection. Photo: Gael Greene
I’m still obsessing about the chef’s Gascon duck and vegetable stews that seduced us at Les Célèbrités in the ‘90s and the mythic honey-orange lacquered duck he painted with cumin and coriander, a legacy to his days under the moody and demanding Alain Senderens at L’Archestrate and The Maurice in the Parker Meridien.
“Where is your cassoulet?” I asked him last week, urging him to show off the thrilling moves he conjured stepping into the shoes of the embattled Gray Kunz at Lespinasse in l998. I remembered sensational baby pig on a stubble of cassoulet beans, the confident audacity of lamb rack and saddle boldly touched with Chartreuse and coffee and veal in a gargantuan chunk, wondrously moist with cèpes and pistachio-studded sweet breads. I wanted it all.
Another view of the new interior.
“I need certain equipment to do suckling pig,” he responded. “We used to sauté it in duck fat. We have to make the kitchen larger.” Meanwhile, he is planning a cassoulet of Castelnaudary, with lamb and pork, pork sausage and tarbais beans. “The beans grow around corn stalks and have a special flavor. I just bought an 11 lb. sack for $90 from Ariane Daguin at D’Artagnan.”
Pears layered with almond paste in a classic poire bordaloue tarte. Photo: Gael Greene
Now the five of us are focused on dessert. Sorbets, of course, the requisite palate cleanser, though not perfect tonight. I am not a rice pudding fan, but I could become one tasting this, warm with caramel sauce. And nothing is more classic and rarely seen these days than a tarte bordaloue – pear and almond paste in a puddle of crème anglaise.
“You didn’t taste my coq au vin,” the chef complains as we say good night. “And you have to try the chicken when it’s perfect.” Well, I’m coming back for the cassoulet, so I’ll bring friends. I have a soft spot from chronicling this man’s drama, from Born Again Christian at Lespinasse, to exile when his kitchen at Alain Ducasse at the Essex House lost a star. And the little black cloud that haunted him when he couldn’t save David Bouley’s failing Secession. With the boss’s blessing he is bringing new energy to a middle-aged survivor for all those senior citizens and middle aged regulars who love it. Next, the cassoulet.
1008 Second Avenue. 212 759 7086. Lunch Monday through Friday noon to 2:30 pm. Dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 pm. Friday and Saturday till 11. Sunday till 10 pm. Brunch Sunday 11:30 am till 2:30 pm.
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