Imagine a rose rooted in cement, full-blown and heady with perfume. It couldn’t happen. That’s how I feel about Le Plaisir. The orphaned Claude’s -- noisily heralded restaurant debut of the year -- rudely abandoned, ravaged, disinherited, re-dubbed Le Plaisir. How brave. How foolish. Not even a cockeyed optimist with treacle for brains could have guessed that Le Plasir would emerge from its stormy, doomed infancy…one of the great joys of Manhattan dining.
This was the handsome peach-glow cloister created for Claude Bails, moody and brilliant exiled chef of the Palace. And here Claude stirred his celestial nectar of scallop and plumped his prepubescent game birds while, alas…the clients fidgeted at the strangled pace and a fragile few went berserk.
Hunger makes even stranger bedfellows than politics, and none were as unhappily wed as Claude and his moneymen. Stephen Spector and his partner, Peter Josten, were born for tonier pursuits. Neither was meant to be a restaurateur. Josten is a Lehman, a Wall Street analyst most properly. Spector is a well-meaning dilettante whose impulsive and eclectic dabbling has led him from real estate to art to raising game birds -- specifically, aristocratic quail bred to please the chefs of New York’s best restaurants. Which is how Spector’s fortunes became tangled with Claude’s. How green they were. And stubborn.
Good word of mouth filled the house almost at once, but sunny innocence and exuberance soon blossomed into paranoia and insult. One winter day Claude walked out. He took his pots, his refrigerator, his name, and his seemingly fatal passion for perfection. There were mumblings of mutiny in the kitchen. The house was booked. The keepers of the purse strings were dazed if not a bit hysterical. Who could replace the dazzling Claude?
The Japanese sous-chef, Masataka Kobayasha, trained in France, had followed Claude from Laurent to the Palace and coolly met the awesome challenge here those first transitional days after Claude’s exit. He had the skill but lacked the confidence to carry it alone. Consultant Barbara Kafka moved in to find a new chef…revise the menu…restore morale.
Jean Pierre Lauret, a dropout from Le Coup de Fusil was lured back from France. And the two chefs were asked to work in tandem. as equals. a highly unorthodox arrangement. But to everyone’s surprise, and delight, it seems to work.
Kafka has a notion. Masa is inspired. He borrows an idea from Jean Pierre. Voilà! Escalope de saumon cru aux poireaux. There is a tasting. Spector, not so green after all, hysteria calmed, edits. And here it is on the new menu for summer: raw salmon “cooked” for a few minutes in lime juice on a pool of white-wine sauce thickened with a purée of leek. And now Jean Pierre has a notion…
Walking into Le Plaisir après Claude, not expecting much. The air smells less buttery. Or do I imagine it? Nice to be flattered again by Zim-Lerner’s calculated love-pat lighting and peach chintz blush. Julian, co-patron of the now defunct Hermitage (chichi one day, bye-bye the next), commands the dining room. Strike a jangling nerve and Spector still giggles. Oh, dear. Good butter still offered in the shape of a bird, but the bread is soggy. Then…shazaam. The air is alive with sensual shock. Hors d’oeuvre arrive, four dazzling still-lifes -- splendid Technicolor, a mingle of perfumes, a contrast of textures: eight perfect mussels, eight rounds of barely poached sea scallop, encircling a hill of slivered vegetables -- carrot, celery, artichoke heart, and string bean -- the mussels in a thin glaze scented with walnut and mustard cream, the scallops on a pool of lemon-spiked purée.
Seafood sausage -- bits of shrimp and scallop marinated overnight in a brunoise of carrot, celery, shallot, and crisp-sautéed spinach -- afloat on a perfect beurre blanc. Fast-seared duck liver, gossamer on a nest of wilted spinach, with a truffle-speckled sauce. Perfectly poached oysters with a drizzle of beurre blanc and a frisson of buttery vegetable dice. Rare. Everything is rare. Lightly cooked -– poached, seared, or simmered to the second of just cooked -- tender, bursting with a voluptuous natural sweetness.
This is the Japanese sensibility of the nouvelle cuisine, splendidly executed. The rich, sublime, often dizzying lushness of classic grande French cooking is traded for a sophisticated intellectual purity. In some kitchens the trade is a sacrifice. Complexity vanishes. Misunderstood and misinterpreted, nothing could be sillier, nothing more flat. But at its best, the nouvelle cuisine’s orchestration of textures and colours teases the eye and astonishes the mouth.
Happily, the idiom is almost nature for Masa. It’s in his bones. And Jean Pierre studied for a time with the creative genius Michel Guérard, and the metaphors of the new cooking fascinate him. So this is accomplished nouvelle cuisine, on a level with the best of New York. And if the sauces do not sing, at least they hum on key.
Among the hors d’oeurve there is a vegetable terrine set on a lake of fresh tomato purée, homemade pasta with truffles, and a silken hot asparagus timbale in a sauce scented with parsley and chervil. New for summer: cold cucumber soup and, replacing the hot duck liver, a cold pâté of salmon and foie gras en croûte.
Winter’s magnificently mounted lobster with shrimp quenelles on a cabbage leaf is served cold for the season with a creamy vinaigrette spiked with juniper and a mousse of watercress ($4 extra). Scallops on a julienne of endive in cream, a favorite liaison of Michel Guérard’s is purer here, less lush, with a crispness of vegetable-- not caramelized, as in the master’s hand. Sole is wrapped around salmon mousse and served on wilted spinach with a toss of julienne leeks and a sauce of the poaching essence, reduced wine, shallots, and cream. And there is a spectacular fillet of red snapper in a red-wine sauce with a garnish of beef marrow and cèpes -- marrow against cèpes, a provocation of textures.
Fresh figs garnish rosy-pink breast of duck. There is a navarin of veal, quickly sautéed, with exquisitely turned vegetables; fillet of beef with truffles for the only-beef-will-do crowd; baby quail from Spector’s New Jersey bird farm, with its own haunting little herb-scented custard; and basil-scented lamb ($2.50 extra). The $28.50 prix fixe includes an aristocratic toss of greens with scallion and carrot in julienne, corolle or fresh goat cheese, dessert, and coffee too.
There are flaws and misunderstandings. Too much nutmeg in the herb flan. For my eye, the unmatched proletarian radishes add no grace to the sole. I’d try a tomato sculpted into the shape of a rose. Sauces that hum make me long for a coloratura. Le Plaisir’s fine red snapper makes me nostalgic for the soul-stirring Troisgros rendition that inspired it. And the desserts that sound so wonderful are not as voluptuous as I want desert to be, though the caramelized apple is delicious in its tart, buttery glaze and fig sorbet is a celestial notion. White chocolate is the season’s new whimsy. Here it’s a pristine oval of mousse sitting in a pool of dark chocolate. And the kitchen does a prim soufflé of the day and frozen soufflés too – chocolate and raspberry.
Someday, perhaps, Le Plaisir will buy an espresso machine. Alas, the ideal balance of service -- professional, graceful, friendly but not too -- has yet to be achieved. With wine from a list that is intelligent and priced in the spirit of these increasingly outrageous times (a few $9 choices are available), dinner for two could run $85 to $100 but that obscene inflation is epidemic in our town.
To think that only five months ago Claude’s disillusioned champions, chastened critics, cynics, realists, even treacle-brained optimists -- all had consigned this yet-to-be-rechristened eatery to mediocrity if not demise. So what we have on upper Lexington is something of a miracle, cuisinary magic wrought by a few passionate professionals and a duo of stubborn amateurs. From the ashes…Le Plaisir, a glorious revival.
Le Plaisir, 969 Lexington Avenue, near 70th Street; 734-9430.
Note: As for the peripatetic Claude, he has bought the crisply stylish burgundy, chrome and mirrored space at 205 East 81st Street vacated by the recently defunct Celine. He opened the new Claude’s June 11 with his own butter birds, the ambrosial scallop soup, and variations on ideas celebrants of his cooking will recognize at once.
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