October 29, 1990 | Vintage Insatiable

        The Insider’s stomach-oriented tour of Lyon demands a stop at the dowdy little café where the town’s chefs assemble at dawn after market. “You must order the pig’s feet and tripe and the fried sardines,” our host, Paul Bocuse, instructed. But of course. Later, doubled over with regret, we arrived at Chez Lea for lunch, as scheduled. “Fernet Branca is an instant cure,” someone suggested. Evil, mysterious dark potion. It smelled like iodine. Bravely, I downed it. And fifteen minutes later, feeling brand new, we settled in for lunch…more tripe, absolument.
        Nostalgic about that delicious madness, I looked forward to the Chefs Cuisiniers Club. Exactly what our town needs, I thought: a late-night hangout for toques at rest, brainchild of Aureole’s Charles Palmer, the Water Club’s Rick Moonen, and Frank Crispo, late of Andiamo! -- all veterans of La Côte Basque. What a draw it would be for New York’s obsessed foodniks and chef groupies who think that grazing an inch from the whisking fore arm of Alfred Portale or Daniel Boulud is hotter than bumping into Clint Eastwood or even being accidentally stepped on by Gabriel Byrne.

        I was right. The food-crazed are coming. And yes, there is tripe, herb-braised innards in a spicy tomato sauce on penne, plus luscious grilled baby chicken on a warm bean salad, zesty “butcher’s tender” (a cut of beef that’s not tender but tasty) in red-wine sauce with potato cake, and perfectly cooked cod with roasted vegetables in a fragrant bouillon.
Palmer pops in after work, pleased to see David Burke (who took over his range at the River Café), Larry Forgione (of An American Place), Mondrian’s Tom Colicchio. When he’s not camped at the big chef’s table with Jean-Georges Vongerichten (Lafayette), TriBeCa Grill’s Don Pintabona, and Le Cirque’s Daniel Boulud, Tom Valenti (Alison on Dominick) is happy just to sip a beer at the bar, leafing through a Japanese food magazine form the house library. Gray Kunz, of Adrienne in the Peninsula, treating his kitchen team to late supper, is thrilled to run into Wolfgang Puck and Forgione.

        “By the time Jean Michel Diot (of Park Bistro) arrived with his wife, the table for eight had grown to twelve,” Kunz reports. Montrachet’s Debra Ponzek, with beau Bobby Flay (ex-Miracle Grill and, any minute, at the Mesa Grill), finds it “relaxed, good food, good value” (entrées $12 to $17) as she snacks on oysters.
        A few chefs find it stodgy, not much fun, too serious. The late-night whisks who hang out at Au Bar or Lucky Strike complain that “it’s no fun without girls.” Perhaps when word gets around about the men’s-locker-room at the bar, the ratio will change.
        As for us, the fans, we come latish, hoping to spy our idols, not necessarily recognizing them out of their whites. About eleven or so, the lights dim, the music cranks up -- Sinatra gives way to Louis Prima and Keely Smith -- and the host runs around warning folks to move their cars as the tow truck swings into action. (Recently, both Moonen and Palmer almost got towed, reports a restaurateur who stops by three times a week to check the bulletin board for “cooks to steal.”)

        We are happily savoring the rich saffroned soup filled with shellfish (portions are huge), layered potato cake frosted with a melt of goat cheese, velvety fennel-cured salmon at exactly the right temperature, and toasted crostini with a smooth, tangy chicken-liver pureé edged in basil oil.
        Everything is served on giant plates -- nothing matches -- gifts of Wedgwood, Royal Doulton, Lenox, Villeroy & Boch, all thrilled to get the showcase. Even the simple salad in balsamic vinaigrette is good. The warm frisée with pancetta and a mild Caesar dressing could be friskier, and the lamb stew is boring. But let’s assume Trinidad-born chef Peter Assue, who worked with Palmer at Aureole and the River Café, can take the heat of criticism. As Valenti notes, he’s got three demanding bosses and “a bitch of a clientele.”
        The room is long and bright and crowded, not exactly cozy, spare except for the menus of great chefs -- Georges Blanc, Bocuse, a final memory from Alain Chapel. The service is good, and New World Red is a fine wine discovery at just $17. The fresh-fruit tart tastes not quite finished, the crème brûlée is good, not great, but the warm caramelized banana crumble is sublime.

        A few Saturdays ago, there were hurricane rains, and the bar was strangely quiet. “What do you think about the Coffee Shop?” Palmer asked a departing customer. “Is it fun? Should we go?”
        “Absolutely,” I said. And off they went.

 36 East 22nd Street.      

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