September 10, 1979 | Vintage Insatiable
Cuisine From A Marriage
How innocently it begins. He does exotic omelets. She is celebrated for her blueberry pie. He moves on to meltingly tender veal shanks with polenta. She turns out a shimmering oeuf en gelée and does all her own pasta -- by hand. “You two are so good you ought to open a restaurant,” their friends say. Thank heaven most of us resist the temptation.
And thank Julia Child and her butcher...Karen and Bob Pritsker did not. The fruit of their ambition and their passionate gastromania is Dodin-Bouffant, a cloister of highly personal and creative culinary wizardry on East 58th Street. Seven months old, Dodin-Bouffant gets better all the time. The fits of brilliance are more constant. The flubs are fleeting and fewer. If the youthful Pritskers can marshal their talent and fanatic dedication to overcome mere human frailty, they might soon be among the most celebrated restaurateurs in town.
But, once, Dodin-Bouffant came close to destroying them. That was in Boston, where their love affair with glorious food began. Born in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, he had a law degree but had never practiced. She came from Westchester, daughter of a Broadway impresario, and worked in advertising. Cooking was a hobby -- a civilized amusement for a Saturday. “Then one day we went to Julia Child’s butcher,” Bob recalls. “There was a lot of fanaticism at that counter, a lot of intensity. I’d never seen anything like it.”
The fanaticism was contagious. The Pritskers taught themselves to cook from books. As a hobby almost, they began to cater dinners for the Newton-Wellesley crowd. Then, having listened to the wily snake and tasted the forbidden apple, they opened the first Dodin-Bouffant, dedicated to the awesome perfection pursued by the gourmand hero of The Passionate Epicure, a novel by Marcel Rouff. (Why Dodin-Bouffant? customers asked. “Chez Pritsker just sounds too tacky,” Karen explained.) They were going to show a stodgily provincial Boston what dining ought to be -- not merely great sauces but black-tie service, crystal goblets, fresh-grown herbs. Bob went to market each day as the chefs do in France. From noon to midnight, they cooked together.
In the summer of ’76 they drove through France, fueling imagination -- falling out of Alain Chapel’s stunned by sublime excess, mesmerized by the sweet madness of the Troisgros kitchen. Home again, they fired the maître d’hôtel and installed Karen in the dining room. Boston did not always suffer their ambition gently. A few critics felt patronized. Some found Karen arrogant. There was public name-calling, media scandal, a lawsuit, and finally...a separation. “If the restaurant hadn’t destroyed the marriage, the marriage would have destroyed the restaurant,” commented Boston Karen found the magazine’s gossipy dissection of the city’s haute gastronomy scene so cruel and intimate, “there was nothing left for me in Boston.” magazine in 1977.
The Pritskers reconciled. Bob sold the Boston Dodin-Bouffant and they moved to New York with a plan to import New England oysters. But the restaurant virus is rugged. Dormant for a time, it never really dies. The healed marriage felt strong enough to survive another try. It took a year to find the right location -- a narrow East Side townhouse. Seven scarring, stormy months went into renovation. Karen hung the mirrors herself. They picked sour cherries as workmen played New York construction games. Bob raged, fired, and hired; raged and walked the dogs in Central Park. Then, in mid-January, Dodin-Bouffant opened.
The stalkers of cuisinary bulletins, first to sniff the rumors of greatness, tripped down the slightly treacherous stone steps to the clumsily arranged wind-tunnel entrance below ground. Inside they found a stylish vestiary, hot-red and purple windflowers, and a door open to a dream kitchen where Bob might look up from a casserole with his ingenuous smile. Then upstairs into a narrow salon of quiet elegance and, at first anyways, some fits and starts, promise and promises fulfilled. By spring, Dodin-Bouffant was flourishing with an image all its own.
Go to Le Lavandou for excess. Chantilly is for classicists and the blue-blooded golden oldies who need to be recognized. To see and be seen, it’s Le Relais, I suppose, by day and Elaine’s after ten. For serious great food without chic or show, Lutèce remains a mecca for gourmands. And those are the same discriminating mouths drawn to Dodin-Bouffant. The menu changes every day. Prices are serious, the complete dinner determined by the entrée’s price tag ($30 to $34, only salad is extra)...and only teetotalers should expect to get away with less than $100 for two. Some eyes will find the setting smartly understated with its pale-blue banquettes, cool chromed chairs, and sedately papered walls quite bare. Some will feel it severe, unduly prim. Exquisite flowers -- gracefully arched tulips or plump pink roses -- beside a bottle of wine reflected in an oval mirror, and the voluptuous display of Karen’s beautiful desserts, are the only relief from pale blue and beige. Gently lit faces and Dodin-Bouffant’s splendid food hold the stage.
Very quickly the plot is clear. Every nuance of the table says perfection is the theme: the excellent sweet butter in its covered crock, crusty bread of superior pedigree, an offering of rich rillettes with crisp pork cracklings, or, in spring, a mousseline of avocado, and Karen herself, explaining the notions of the day -- soft-shelled crabs marinated in milk with shallots and herbs and a tomato-spiked hollandaise...mousseline of scallops afloat in a pool of beurre blanc...poached chicken with melon. So difficult to choose.
At its best -- butters mingling with the earthy scent of wine and the deep tidal perfumes “disturbing and bracing as an ocean wind,” in the words of Marcel Rouff, the kitchen dedicated to his spirit would please old Dodin-Bouffant himself. The Pritskers perform wondrous sorcery with innards. She has a special sensibility for calf’s brains: They may appear as gossamer fritters with “griottes” -- pickled red cherries. Or poached in a peppery court bouillon that is reduced, then enhanced with mustard and cream, garnished with a crunch of grated carrot. Or as a silken island in a zesty red-wine matelote.
Equally irresistible are his hors d’oeuvre: delicately cooked lotte, sold locally as belly fish, in a fragile batter, flecked with scallion. Skate, a strange sea creature, just cooked, graced with browned butter and a fall of sour cherries. Haunting potage of celery root. There is always a tartelette, vehicle for a gathering of wild mushrooms one night, a fluffy custard layered with onion and orange another, a pile of melting herbed nubbins of marrow on a third. The oysters are big and briny Cotuits, meticulously poached, plump satin, variously garnished- with radish perhaps, or little clouds of scallop mousseline, or a saffron-scented sauce. By far their most stunning invention is lamb salad, rose pink and tender. Slices of the saddle are served still warm on green tongues of arugula in a subtle vinaigrette. With it comes a tiny hill of flageolets, purée of celery root, and something sharp and strange...purée of radish. And the scattered seeds that crack on your tooth are black mustard. In the writing, this may sounds like a three-ring circus; in the mouth, it is dazzle and it works.
In Boston, Dodin-Bouffant was textbook classic...boringly classic, critics occasionally complained. Here there is never a boring moment. The nouvelle cuisine and their growth have liberated the Pritskers. But what they do is mostly original and strikingly personal, indeed, even at times eccentric. The details are exquisite. Fresh currants in the chill of winter, imported form New Zealand to grace the maigret de canard -- rare duck breast in a cassis-scented, vinegar-spiked sauce. With the venison...candied orange slices in a delicate batter. “I lie awake at night planning menus,” Karen confides. “I ask myself, what could we do with venison that would be different?” It is obvious in the way Bob Pritsker leads a visitor into the walk-in refrigerator, to admire a rabbit or show off a small hedge of fresh herbs, that he is happily obsessed -- “meilleur ouvrier of Pawtucket,” as one pleased client observed. He can get so caught up in an idea -- scallops in a feuilletage -- that he forgets to put it on the day’s menu and then broods when no one orders his creation.
Not everything works. Sole is overwhelmed in a liaison with smoked salmon. Last winter’s venison, so brilliantly garnished, was macerated beyond redemption. And a veal chop en crepine- cooked in a caul- was served so rare it was, quite frankly, uncooked (though that may have been an attempt to indulge my confessed preference for undercooking while I never make reservations in my own name, the Pritskers recognized me from the bgeinning- part of their “homework”). But there are always sublime sweetbreads in some delicious incarnation,with cèpes in a pastry wrap, or napped with chive-flecked hollandaise; duck masterfully presented; saddle of lamb for two or three- with a larding of turnip or artichoke heart; and, sometimes, a tasty individual ballottine of chicken. String beans are crisply al dente, sometimes overly so. Vegetables are meticulously carved, and sparingly cooked, as in a purée of almost raw spinach with just a taste of butter and no cream at all.
The mouth is so often dazzled that the flaws fail to register. But it would be unfair to suggest a consistent level of perfection is even close. The service is uneven; some captains...clumsy or unsure. The kitchen occasionally slows and stalls in the fever of a full house. The glorious bread is at times over-toasted...and once eaten, not replaced. The rillettes are better one night than the next. And sometimes there is no offering at all. The tartelette crust is often tough. If perfection is the theme, then poached chicken should be skinned...melon balls should be perfect orbs. Glorious hors d’oeuvre cry for full-size plates. A mousseline of scallops is such ethereal fluff it has no taste at all. And some menu covers are grease-stained. Blame it on the rillettes. I’ve stained at least three-menus myself.
The spectacular desserts are not always as pleasing to the mouth as to the eye. A handsome blueberry clafoutis is flawed by insipid berries. And génoise rarely moves me. Even so, the desserts by Karen (there is often an angry red burn on her hand as testimony) are a happy respite from New York French-restaurant cliché. There is pineapple-lime frozen soufflé -- smartly tart; kiwi and orange in sabayon; a dark, grown-up chocolate cake; successful sucées; almond pithiviers and an exquisite bread-and-butter pudding with caramelized apricots and a splash of crème anglaise. With the coffee come her homemade cookies, shortbread, little puff-pastry nothings, and cream puffs with a crackling roof of caramel.
For a new cellar in town, the wine list is remarkable, with good bottles that are ready to drink at gentle mark-ups. Louis Latour’s Montagny, a nice balance of fruit and oak, is $14. And there are pleasant wines at $8 and $9, plus a separate list of treasures at $30 and up.
Some clients complain that Karen is haughty as ever. I sense a tight coil of tension, shyness perhaps, or a certain discomfort that provides a defensive irony in her manner that may seem arrogant. Off-guard, relaxed, at play, she is a charmer. And Bob, so amiable and adorable in his spattered whites, is the tyrannical temper when crossed. All this is to say they are not Barbie and Ken playing restaurant. As the menu notes...”Being ‘Dodin-Bouffant’ is not easy.”
But the Pritskers have just returned from a glorious month’s frolic in the truffle fields of France, with an inspirational detour to Fredy Girardet outside Lausanne. And electrifying new notions are already thrilling their loyal claque. Cold tomato soup with purple basil and a float of zucchini-and-onion custard. Saucisson of vegetables in hazelnut butter. Mignons of duck in a thyme-scented dumpling napped with bordelaise. Veal, cured as if it were salmon -- with sugar, salt, onion, a dash of saltpeter, plus juniper berries -- served with a coriander-kissed tomato-onion marmalade. A still life among the new hors d’oeuvre is artichoke custard on the vegetable’s heart with a necklace of poached leaves in green tarragon sauce. Two brilliant new salads: calf’s brains with a mousse of spinach in crème fraîche, lemon thyme, and capers; and sweetbreads tossed with sautéed walnuts, roasted shallots, and slivered Swiss shard, served on red-leaf lettuce.
Frustrated in their quest for vegetables as tender as those of France, they have already fired three produce suppliers since their return and now buy vegetables retail, hoping somehow perfection will seek them out. Heaven knows what bliss they’ll be committing next in our gourmand hero’s name.
405 East 58th Street. 751 2790.
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