November 2, 1970 | Vintage Insatiable
Restaurant Associates: Twilight of the Gods
A really spectacular resurrection is immeasurably enhanced by a properly bloody crucifixion and a class wake.
This was a class wake.
It was the wake of Trimalchian excess at Stonehenge Inn in the sylvan countryside of Connecticut. Conspirators, both foe and friend, disciples all, came to say farewell to their ex-leader, Joseph H. Baum, deposed and exiled prince of the mighty feeding empire, Restaurant Associates Industries, Inc.
The groaning board of late summer was laid with the celebrated inventions of Stonehenge host Albert Stockli, self-exiled former executive chef for RA: fine quiche Lorraine, his fabled shrimp in beer batter sauced with fruit puree, bundnerfleisch - all this to tease the palate - then cream soup flecked with cucumber, pickled salmon and sauerkraut, followed by quenelles of pike stuffed with crabmeat in lobster sauce, then baby pheasant - corn-stuffed, polenta-accessorized - and corn on the cob in escort… a redundance of richesse that inspired one sensitive reveler to remark: “Albert always did need Joe to keep him in line.” After the frozen gateau St. Honoré, the company roasted Joe Baum in the self-conscious sadomasochistic style of Americans honoring their masters.
This was the man whose ego, taste, drive, showmanship and capacity to terrorize and ingratiate had set a new style in American restaurants. This man’s passion for excellence and authenticity (for better, for worse, and sometime fatal), his thirst to set New York on its ear, had taken Restaurant Associates from a drowsy little company that ran a few counters and cafeterias and airport buffets in 1950 to today’s high-styled, highly-imitated glamour feeding chain that runs the Four Seasons, the Forum of the Twelve Caesars, the Fountain Café, Mamma Leone’s, Charley O’s, the cross-pollinating Zum Zums…a tiny sampling of the Byzantine network of restaurants in motels, museums, air terminals, dormitories, factory lunchrooms, philanthropists’ dining rooms, executive suites, conference retreats, parks and stadiums.*
The mighty $100-million keeper of bed and board had fallen to its knees by the end of the sixties. Lofty earnings predictions for 1968 that failed to materialize, thruways that went the wrong way, urban development that failed to develop, strikes and treachery on the cocoa market, a depressed economy and some disastrous mistakes had led to rocking losses: $1.3 million in the first quarter of 1970 alone.
The stock had slipped from a euphoric high of 47¼ in 1978 to a low of 4. Excellence and showmanship could not bail them out. Creativity became an unseemly extravagance. Money men, not food men, were making the decisions. Restaurant Associates shifted its focus from class to mass. Especially untenable, management decided was creativity at Joe Baum’s price: $75,000 a year, plus $50,000 in expenses, stock options, special research funds and the key to a Park Avenue Apartment. And now Joe Baum was out. Indeed, when RA issued its interoffice chart of executive command, dated May, 1970, his name had utterly vanished.
There was a fortune to be recouped hawking Zum Zum in the ball parks. All new wild flights of fancy were canceled. Old flights, tried and true, would do. Rumor hinted retreat, but the company vowed to keep the Four Seasons open. Of course the seasons might blur a bit, evolve slowly. It cost $7000 in overtime just to change from fall to winter, with traditional four seasons drama, over a Sunday. Flowers would not be forced to bloom merely to mesh with the rigid timing of the vernal equinox. Does anyone notice whether a waiter’s cummerbund is spring bud green or fall maple red?
The long, gradual, unrelenting trauma of Joe Baum’s amputation without anesthesia from RA operations symbolized the firms undivided dedication to new triumphs of mediocrity and self-imitation. “There will never another Four Seasons in our time,” said Richard Blumenthal, Baum’s successor as president of the restaurant division. From interim limbo Joe Baum responded: “Never say there will never be.”
Even so, it’s hard to imagine a rerun of the fifties. How green we were. What innocents. How easily wowed. And how green was RA, chance offspring of the Wechsler Coffee Co. and Abraham Wechsler’s willingness to accept half a cafeteria chain in lieu of money owed, At 25, son-in-law Jerome Brody, Bus Ad, Dartmouth, one year out of the Air Force, was its president. He hired Baum from Schine Hotels to run the firm’s first real restaurant, The Newarker in Newark Airport. Baum hired a flexible Swiss chef named Albert Stockli and merchandised heartiness - oysters so big you ate them with a knife and fork, the three-clawed lobster, fiery tableside pyrotechnics - to compensate for a tiny kitchen. “You got snow-blindness from the glare of the empty tablecloths, “ Jerry Brody recalls. The Newarker lost $25,000 the first year. Three plane crashes closed Newark Airport. Once Baum arrived at the Newarker just as an airline executive group was about to be served baked Alaska in the shape of an airplane - flambée. In a rare gesture of incendiary restraint he held back the match.
When Rockefeller Center offered an unpromising space in the U.S. Rubber Building - “a dumb truck bay,” Jerry Brody recalls – it was a chance to break the Union News’s near- monopoly in catering. RA took it. They hoped to feed the local Caesars of the communication industry. Designer William Pahlmann sold twelve bigger-than-life-size seventeenth century portraits of the imperial Caesars by one Camillo Procaccini to RA for a mere $6,000. The Roman die was cast. Baum, Brody, and wives went to Rome, Pompeii, Milan…collecting recipes, haunting museums and studying memorabilia of the Empire. The tableware was made in Milan. The brass-and-copper service plate with its inset medallions of Bacchus cost $50, an unheard-of luxury in restaurants. Bacchus was specifically to smile, not leer. Baum was a stickler for such nuances. Two years of classical studies went into the Forum. Latin scholars lectured the staff and lent academic scrutiny to the menu Latin. Stockli read Apicius, the Julia Child of ancient Rome. The staff was assigned to read Robert Graves and Gilbert Highet. James Beard, the company guru, gave a course on varied bottlings of the grape. Forum director Alan Lewis, a Cornell restaurant school classmate of Baum’s, furnished his own apartment in updated Roman decadence. The four-page menu, bound with a gold-wax-sealed purple faille ribbon quoted Catullus…offered “Provocatives,” “A Harvest From the Seas and Rivers,” “Sumptuous Dishes from All the Empire, “ “Birds –Wild and Otherwise Baked in Clay Under the Fiery Ashes,” “Epicurean Trophies of the Hunt” and hearty laughs. Flames leapt madly…a la Nero, of course…but there was an extra 10 per cent capacity built into the air conditioning system to compensate.
The Four Seasons, a theme suggested by some haiku Baum was reading (in interludes between Highet, Graves and Apicius and under the influence of Elizabeth Gordon, the ex-House Beautiful editor who introduced shibui, the concept of restrained elegance to America) was already on architect Philip Johnson’s drawing board. “Every Wednesday for two years Joe and I had lunch with Johnson, debating every detail,“ Jerry Brody recalls. Originally, Brody says, Seagram President Samuel Bronfman had hired Charles Luckman to design his building and had paid him a preliminary $10,000 retainer. From Paris, Bronfman’s daughter, Phyllis Lambert, protested, offering to pay Daddy back the $10,000 herself. Daddy was indulgent. And Phyllis Lambert came home. Through her insistence, Mies Van der Rohe did the Bronfman monument. Mrs. Lambert brought the Picasso stage curtain that hangs between grill and Pool Room. And from that moment on, it was contemporary class all the way. As a haberdasher once rose to the Presidency, the Cecil B. De Mille of class feeding (so his press agent styled Baum) rose to his Miesian space with its Miro tapestries, the Lippold stalactites, Eero Saarinen’s vanity chairs in the ladies’ room.
Everything would change with the seasons - uniforms, trees, graphics, the color of the typewriter ribbons, even the upholstery of the banquettes - and, of course, the food, grandly, extravagantly seasonal: the first raspberries, the rarest oysters, the most costly primeurs, the first grouse from the Queen’s hunt. An Oregon farmer grew nubbin carrots: the Four Seasons bought his entire crop. There were company greenhouse in New Jersey and an herb house that finally fell victim to aphids. Composer John Cage, an amateur mycologist, gathered rare mushrooms. There was a Cuban artist who did nothing but carve vegetables to grace the rolling carts, centerpieces and corsages for private dinners. The original budget for the Four Seasons and the Brasserie was $2.5 million. Costs reached $4.5 million. The Four Seasons never made money. Old man Wechsler, coffee vendor turned feed baron, was affable about this flaw. “Joe is a perfectionist,” he told the New Yorker’s Geoffrey Hellman. “Our margin of profit is smaller here than it might be.” Wechsler, Brody suggests, could afford to be magnanimous. “He never put up a penny. Bronfman built the stores. We were always hocking out souls to get a few dollars in there.”
La Fonda Del Sol was another class store: design by Alexander Girard, uniforms by Rudi Gernreich, research by the RA first team. “We were like the backfield at Notre Dame in those early days, “ publicist Philip Miles, now at Longchamps, recalls. “We’d all sit around tasting and kibitzing. It was kind of gung-ho. We went to every South American country, eating everything. I sweated through that trip…I spent my nights in the john. It wasn’t till we hit Peru that I recovered.” La Fonda was fiercely, perhaps, fatally, authentic. Elena Zelayeta, the blind specialist in Latin American food, taught cooks to make tamales. Joe Baum drove the staff to his own subjective perfection …berating the service of a shrimp salad: the tomatoes were placed wrong, and the shrimp weren’t attractive. “It just isn’t beautiful,” he scolded La Fonda director James Tsighis.
“What is beautiful?” Tsighis asked.
“Well Jim, I dont mean it hasn’t got good tits.” La Fonda broke budgets too and was slow to make profits, but the newly purchased Mama Leone’s was a goldmine to subsidize creative extravagance.
With all that glamour and so little cash there was only one thing to do. In 1961 RA went public, selling 245.000 shares at $11 each. “What a euphoria,” Brody recalls. In France he pulled off what seemed “the superdeal of all time for Divonne-Les-Bains, a gambling resort.” Alan Lewis, now the executive hand at Longchamps, was dispatched to Divonne, where he startled the chef by demanding to know why there was no blood in the coq au vin…”Nobody uses blood in coq au vin anymore,” Lewis conceded, “but I wanted him to know he wasn’t dealing with just a fat Jew from New York.” There were plans to run Le Western, a steakhouse in Paris, for Time Inc. “I felt we could conquer the world, “Brody recalls. The Pan Am trio - Trattoria, Charlie Brown’s Ale & Chop House and Zum Zum –were a disappointment for Brody. “Pan Am, unlike Seagram and Time Inc., wouldn’t get involved in the planning. They didn’t give a damn.” The money ran out with the scheme unfinished. Plans for “The Pearl of the Orient” on top of the building had to be abandoned.
While Brody wooed landlords and shopped for space, Baum invented, turned into reality and ran a disciplined shop. The unannounced arrival of Baum, a pudgy Little Caesar - a pussycat in a tiger suit, observes onetime RA ad writer Dan Greenburg - gave men un-seasonal sweats. Baum sometimes invited his ad agency collaborator George Lois along, “Lets go break balls,” he would say,” Lois recalls. Once Lois watched him walk into the Forum, glance around and turn to the director. “What’s wrong with the consommé?” Baum asked. Lois was impressed. “How did you know there was something wrong with the consommé?” he asked.
“There’s always something wrong with the consommé,” Baum replied.
The George Lois-Ron Holland-Joe Baum creative relationship was eventually to become so symbiotic it was hard to pinpoint who created what about Charley O’s Bar & Grill & Bar. But the day adman Lois became a millionaire, partner Holland recalls, “He spent five minutes celebrating and three hours hanging photo blowups of journeymen drinkers and teetotalers on the walls of Charley O’s.” Holland’s first session with Baum as ogre was typical. “I brought in the Charley O ads, “ Holland recalls. “He looked them over and said nothing. Finally, I had to ask, ‘What do you think?’
He snarled, “I don’t care…run this ----.’”
Once Holland got so mad at Baum, he shouted, “I hope you die,” Lois quickly edited, “a rich man.”
“To work for Joe Baum was the closest thing to hell,” one RA executive notes. “He took men and excised their backbone.” “He ruled with terror,” says another. Joe Baum’s friends and admirers admit: “It was a constant love-hate thing…love born of respect, hate reflecting fear.” “As enchanting, as adorable, as reasonable as he is in personal life, in business he can become an absolute monster.”
Though what Baum created was grandly intimidating, his theme was simplicity: eliminate phony Frenchities; dispense with sommeliers and the maitre d’hotel; update cuisine classics. Style was crucial. The style of pouring wine at the Forum is different from the style of pouring at the Four Seasons. His obsession for image and detail was so compelling he staged and rehearsed the staff in casual ad libs for profilist Geoffrey Hellman’s visit to RA headquarters. He surrounded himself with free-lance consultants on retainer: Beard, Mimi Sheraton, even Julia Child, who perfected a feuilletage of game for a dinner of the Tastevin. He was sensitive to criticism from the gastronomic establishment and would spend thousands on a gourmet society dinner, monopolizing kitchen and crew for months on needless tastings and full-dress rehearsals. George Lang, then Four Seasons director, now vice-president in charge of special products, recalls spending a year on a dinner so splendid it cost $100 a plate, though the society paid $50. Baum’s overseas research expeditions were costly too, but, by a foodman’s standards, entirely justified. There were endless memos and purchases. Five and a half days in Copenhagen produced a thirteen-page single-spaced memo filled with “specific observations related to RA activities,” including discovery of “the Greenland hut…an igloo of ice cream with awful chocolate sauce over it and sparklers that burn to a certain point, setting off an American flag which pops, runs up a tiny flagpole…horrible…we must learn how to do this.” In Paris, another memo noted, Baum visited Coq Hardi with Tavern-on-the-Green in mind…decided a garden needs “too many hydrangeas”…found a sauce “that really sticks to asparagus…check your own use”…bought $65 worth of cookbooks…and danced the twist at St. Hilaire with Marlene Dietrich.
The company’s French senator-partner at Divonne-les-Bains had a secretary, Mademoiselle Gray. Jerry Brody wanted to marry her. Father-in-law Wechsler was, family and observers report, “quite emotional.” Brody was given 24 hours to clean out his desk. He claims Wechsler offered to give up RA if Brody could find money backer…that financing was arranged, but Wechsler backed down, saying his wife had talked him out of selling. Brody sold his RA shares to buy Gallagher’s Steak House, cornerstone of his new mini-empire. Baum became RA president. Now the surviving son-in-law, James Slater, went shopping for management help. He brought in Waldorf Systems Inc. Waldorf’s chairman, Martin Brody (no relation), former owner of the Rain or Shine Food Box, an industrial feeder in Newark, became RA board chairman. The new Mr. Brody is a man who admits modestly, “I eat plain.”
Waldorf had options to boost its stock options holdings to 50 per cent by 1966. As liaison man in the interim, RA designated Richard Blumenthal, an alumnus of the Hawaiian Room and the World’s Fair Festival of Gas, more recently a food and beverage controller. By 1967 Blumenthal was a vice-president. A year later he was president of the restaurant division, in charge of “running the stores.” Baum, shorn of restaurant control, had been demoted “up” to what Wechsler’s daughter, the former Mrs. Jerry Brody, describes as “northing more than interior decorator.” In 1967-68 RA was Midas. Brody, with his executive vice-president Lawrence Fleisher (attorney for the National Basketball Players Association) predicted gross sales of $100 million, 50 per cent more that ’67 volume. RA (then known as R&WA) had acquired Barricini Candy Company, with factories and 128 retail stores…Treadway Inns’ 31 units…and Al Green Enterprises, a huge Michigan in-flight and plant feeder. It was committed to run a chain of 300 Citgo Villages and Big Alice Country Kitchens, which were being built by Cities Service along interstate highways. Alice’s Wonderful Kitchens, with Lewis Carollisms - Queen of Hearts Fruit Tarts and Mad Hatter Burgers - were to open across New England in what had been International House of Pancakes units run by RA. Spats opened behind the Empire State Building. The company was thriving at airports and recreation areas, running its own credit card plan; it has its eyes in the giant feeding complex of the World Trade Center.
Then everything that could go wrong, did. The new candymakers found themselves in the middle of “the worst cocoa market in history.” Ford went on strike, a blow to the Michigan operation. The second day of their service at Baltimore’s friendship Airport, the terminal was closed by strike. Treadway put $5 million into a unit in the Binghamton, New York, urban development area and urban renewal was three years behind. In Atlanta the prototype Citgo Village opened…and the highway went the other way. Truck drivers did not understand the Wonderful Alice concept…”Fleisher’s folly,” Fleisher concedes. And Spats failed to draw traffic at night. The excitement over food stocks had driven RA’s stock to new highs. Now it suffered in the market’s disenchantment with the franchise game. Even the highly publicized fall of the Four Seasons Nursing Corporation- no connection - reflected unfavorably. In 1968 the company grossed $98 million, but income dropped. In 1969 it grossed $110 million and lost $720,560. In the first quarter of 1970, losses hit $1.3 million. But tightening has stemmed the outflow; the second quarter loss was cut to $100,000.
Barricini was sold. Alice’s Wonderful Kitchens were stripped and leased back to the International House of Pancakes. Citgo was in litigation. Spats was sold. To raise cash, five of the busiest Zum Zums were sold. The public relations department was retired and director Roger Martin fired. Everywhere expenses were curbed.
At the Four Seasons, some of the penny-pinching already shows. The carpets are dirty and there are holes in tablecloths. There are no flowers for weeks at a time. The staff has been trimmed, pages fired, wine prices hiked, menus revised. The tightening began so early and was so effective, the Four Season has its biggest June, July and August ever and “barring an atomic bomb may make a profit for the first time ever,” Blumenthal predicts. Dick Blumenthal is 34 years old, plump and sardonic, benign until you mention Steak and Brew, competitor Larry Ellman’s runamuck bestseller. “It gets my fur up…if I give you a pitcher of beer, you’ll excuse my meat. Ha. How about Capon and Coke? Or how about Mackerel and Malted?” Blumenthal’s more cosmopolitan associates are quick to note his provincialism, his conventional Rockland County suburban sprawl, his uni-lingual tongue, his lack of travel abroad. But one notes, “He is incredibly bright, clever in judgment of people, not hampered by knowledge. He has the kind of humor people get immediately…incredible cunning covered with a lot of fat tissue, a blend of Lucretia Borgia and Machiavelli…with a twelve-foot hedge of blood in his wake. In spite or because of all this, I predict he will be at the top of his profession in three or four years.” Blumenthal brings along his pet underling and alter ego, Tom Margittai, director of restaurant operations, but interrupts him frequently as they outline the future of RA’s class feeding.
La Fonda Del Sol was closed in September for a pre-frontal lobotomy. It will reopen at Christmas, sharing its space with a bank, featuring a Charley O stand-up bar and lunch counter, Tex-Mex menu. Braniff bought most of the folk art. The giant broiling wall was gone. “It was beautiful, but you needed 80 chickens going at once to make it look good.”
Restaurant America at Kennedy International Arrivals recently replaced the company’s original European concept. Attached shops selling American-made edibles are planned…”Making more money with existing facilities” is a Blumenthal design, i.e., a bakeshop attached to the RA-run Publick House in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, where “we do the best sticky buns and pumpkin biscuits.” Trattoria will promote more carry-out. And Zum Zum, with a small fleet of trucks (“You’ll recognize us by our helmets,” Blumenthal quips) will offer platters for the holidays.
The Tower Suite has passed its prime, Blumenthal says. No definite plans yet for a new look. Hungry Charley is the great chop-meat hope. There is something known as the Hungry Charley Development Group, with two HCs, already promoting “penny loaf sandwiches” for 99 cents and beer-steamed hot dogs and heroic Hungries at $1.09, in New Haven and Cambridge, one more planned soon for the New York University area. Hungry’s is student staffed to sweeten corporate image, with campus posters and wooden tables “in to which initials may be carved.”
“We live in a time when the philistines sit in the driver’s seat,” an executive of RA complains. “Not only is excellence frowned upon, it’s spat upon. Witness: Joe Baum. To be artistic is a dirty word…to even have satisfaction in what you’re doing is a form of necrophilia. If you are a professional food man, forget it…the present restaurant generation is comprised of real estate men, financiers and promoters.” Yet even mid-tirade, he had to admit: “In the worst economic times Blumenthal did better than Baum did…still, how long can you keep tightening and cutting?”
We’ve heard about the executive suite as abattoir. “Joe’s talents could have been used by RA without humiliating him,” one insider suggests. “But in this business you kill your own mother and you do it quietly.” Wechsler’s daughter, the ex-Mrs. Brody, now Grace Forrest, fought vainly to reverse the anti-Baum tide, protesting: “You’re killing him and stamping on his grave. They’re not food men,” Grace Forrest says. “They should be running Howard Johnson’s”…then, reconsidering. “They should be so lucky.”
Friends couldn’t quite look Joe Baum in the eye one recent afternoon as he sat in the red velvet corner booth of Quo Vadis, nibbling broiled bass, sipping a noble Ausone with his brie…fragile, slight after his attack of peritonitis…vulnerable. He spoke softly... discreet unfinished sentences…sentimental, dramatic, at times near tears. Only a hint of the resurrection.
Did anyone guess that Joseph Baum would ascend to the 101st story of the World Trade Center, assigned to dream, plot, design restaurants to feed it’s giant population…twenty or more restaurants and snack bars, high class cart service, an estimated $10 million in eating facilities?
Three weeks later it was announced: WTC executive director Guy Tozzoli - a fan of Charlie Brown’s and Le Madrigal - said it would consult, at $125,000 a year, and the Port Authority would farm out the feeding package. Baum had come up with a piece of the plum RA had once sighted for itself but could not finance today.
Joe Baum, risen at 50, presents himself as graciously benevolent. “I hope RA makes a lot of money,” he says. “I’m still a stockholder, you know.”
De Gustibus Est Aflame!
The Forum of the Twelve Caesars is cursed. Its misfortune is simply that we take it far too seriously. The Forum is fun, but is it funny? The creator insists he intended an imperial put-on…early black humor, Fifties Imperial Division. “Could anyone possibly think I was serious?” asks Joe Baum, the Forum’s founding artificer, quoting from the menu. “ ‘Sirloin in a red wine, marrow and onions - a Gallic recipe Julius Collected While There on Business.’”
The menu’s bright harvest of wit non est disputandum: “Fiddler Crap Lump a la Nero…Flaming of Course - $7.50.” “Epigrams of Venison, Sauce Vitae - $6.50” “Pheasant of the Golden House on a Silver Shield in Gilded Plumage Roasted with an Exquisite Sauce, Serves Two- $17.50” and the fanciful advisory, “Since the local “Sumptuous Laws” have limited the netting of the Pink Flamingo, Lark, Thrush, etcetera-more than the usual number of days are required for out netmen to accomplish their task.”
The intention was to offer excellent food sauced with wit. But at these prices there simply is no joke. And more often than not the kitchen disappoints or staggers at its mighty task. We recline on one elbow in the bosky dim, ears aglow from the hiccupping holocaust of the West 48th Street crematory, and wonder is the joke isn’t on us… succumbing to the pomp and pamper and theatrical conflagration, then dispensing a wad of cash for the privilege of being laughed at.
The room has not worn well. It looks shabby in the dim, the Fortuny brocade faded; the painted Imperials with their Rory Calhoun pouts look less distinguished than ever, A drink is served in a cracked glass. But the table appointments are extraordinary, still today unsurpassed in splendor... the silver salt stand with its team of elephants, the Bacchus service plate inspired by the Great Pallas Athene Dish in the Hildesheim collection, the copper casseroles with food finials, the handsome rectangular dinner plates, the ridiculous, marvelous, gladiator-helmet wine coolers and the oversized flatware, fork to the right of the knife - “an expression of heartiness”- and the carved Florentine demitasse spoons (irresistible to light-fingered collectors) - one pattern bears a portrait of the mother-suckling wolf that befriended Romulus and Remus. Everything is outsize here: double-size coffee cups and exaggerated goblets; two-ounce drinks. The giant knife-and-fork oysters appear as “oysters of Hercules,” and the three clawed lobster is revisited. The Forum is definitely a man’s club. The attendance is almost exclusively masculine at lunch - with a hearty sprinkling of communications Caesars such as Time Inc.’s James Linen and Andrew Heiskell, Cosmopolitan’s George Walsh, television’s Frank Stanton. But at dinner, too, men far outnumber women.
The menu, overlooking wit, is quite extraordinary, with depth and imagination almost never encountered in the town’s French smuggeries. Instead of struggling too find something appealing, one frets at settling on one of a dozen tempting pleasures: venison or pheasant, wild boar, stuffed trout, chestnut-and-sausage stuffed chicken on tomato risotto, sole with figs and toasted almonds. Alas, it doesn’t always work. While the kitchen manages to send out most dishes properly sizzling, cruelly heated sauces wear an ugly skin. The rack of pork, glazed in amber sugar with ginger apple slices ($6.25) is bone dry, and the cutlet of wild boar ($7.50) might well have been slain for some early Caesar and left to tenderize in its marinade for some centuries, so macerated was it and otherwise abused in the re-warming. Tiny frogs’ legs sautéed in hazelnut butter ($5.95) at lunch had absolutely no hint of hazelnut and were dry. At another lunch the boiled beef ($5.50) was a barbaric specimen with rib bones in huge boiled vegetables (dirty celery) and a strange magnificence of accessories: applesauce, commercial horseradish, pickled watermelon and preserved fruits. Served with a pentangle of minced additions, the gazpacho was a listless thick puree, underseasoned, as were Cleopatra’s love apples ($1.75), tiny sautéed tomatoes, and the barley -such an interesting thought with the rare, tender slices of baby lamb ($5.25). Perhaps the Caesars of the communications world have high blood pressure and Chef Claude Richer, from the Lisbon Ritz by way of the ill-fated Mirabelle, is cruel to be kind.
And he does have his triumphs. At lunch: mussels Romulus ($2.75) in a piquant rémoulade, handsome on a silver shell…a sublime mustard cream with foie gras in an unnaturally green artichoke ($3.75)…tender mountain brook trout Tiberius, “in herbs and Etruscan wine” ($6.25)…handsome, tasty pate of boar with plum sauce ($2.95)…a superb Caesar salad ($4.25) - if not here, then where? And at dinner: the “wild fowl of Samos” ($5.95) - merely a capon with sherried tomatoes, lusty with flavorful juices beneath its toasty cheese mantle. Duckling served with a meringue and oranges ($7.25) was a crisp, worthy bird. Best of the hors d’oeuvre one night were roast bacon and herb-baked clams ($3.25) and an odd but pleasing ramekin Lucanian – bits of lamb, sausage, dill and bread crumbs ($2.25), wonderfully reminiscent of my grandmother Celia’s baked lamb. With dinner, a splendid Grands Echezeaux ’64 ($20), seven drinks, $1.75 cover, a glass of 1890 port and one cognac, the tab for six with tax and tips was $164.25. A superb white Beaune, Clos-des-Mouches ’67 ($12), one drink, $1.50 cover, and tips brought a three-course lunch for two to $50. Another lunch for two, with a fruity white Villa Antinori by the glass (3 glasses as $5.25) cost $30.65.
Desserts are a final gaudy, opulent excess. True, there is a dreary, dry cake, the fraudulently sung Nubian chocolate roll ($1.50); a miniature cheesecake with one big berry on top ($1.75 at dinner), and a reasonably sedate strawberry ambrosia ($1.95) - and a bit of ice, a bit of mousse, some berries. But the crown of chestnuts ($2.25) is an equally vulgar Melba-cream-meringue edifice constructed before your very eyes. As for “Frivolities-Aflame!”…our captain neatly incinerated two sets of crepes simultaneously.
The Forum’s excesses are clearly a mirror of our own. Mea culpa.
57 West 48th Street, 757-3450.
Charley Go Bragh
Charley O’s Bar & Grill & Bar, as the familiar logo booms, is an absolutely maaah-vaaah-lis baaa - as they say in Elegant Irish. But unfortunately I can never properly appreciate it because I am utterly unmoved by Irish cooking…serious drinking men give me instant anxiety attacks…and I shall never be me, comfortably me, standing or sitting at a bar. Ah, Gael, me girl, andyiusuch a liberated woman. But even so encumbered, it’s easy to see what’s so maaah-vaaah-lis about Charley O’s.
The room has a very classy authenticity, as if Rockefeller Center has been built around it…an elegant saloon (a John Lindsay victory ritual, too) all billiard green and frosted glass, with restrained leaded-glass chandeliers. And the bar must be a winner. It is jammed at all the conventional imbibing hours…five deep in attractive young men and exotic frails (clearly not so frail as me) and rarely deserted even in between. Even as old-fashioned girls can’t object to ankling up to the mahogany lunch counter in their plastic crinkly laceups. There are daily specials, man-sized sandwiches, help-yourself pickled cucumber…shrimp, soused shrimp, clams and oysters priced by the piece, and coffee for a nickel…to be digested on the vertical or taken to a nearby table.
In the dining room at a table selected by a sometimes surely receptionist, lunch entrees are mostly $3.95 for hash, braised veal knuckle, pot roast, stews, braised lamb shoulder or steak-and-kidney pie; slightly higher at dinner. I shall never appreciate a boiled potato (unless it is a tiny red new potato, boiled in its skin, rolled in parsley and butter). And I feel I’m being punished if lamb stew is set before me gristly and gray in its pool of gray broth - even if the dumpling is light and fluffy. Steamed finnan haddie is another homey import of elusive charm. And one recent evening the grilled salmon steak ($5.25) was too long baked and the corned beef and cabbage ($4.75) tasted pre-sliced and dry. But a slice of prime-rib roast ($7.50) was rare and tender and accompanied by boxty pudding (a kind of poor relation to the New York version known as potato kugel). And the sirloin ($8.50) was top steak house sirloin, admirably grilled.
A round of crusty warm bread is brought to the table. “My chef decided to have all seafood appetizers,” says the mythical Charley O. I told him, “Maaah-vaaah-lis, as long as one of them is pigs’ knuckles.” The knuckles are great, the rough textured country pâté ($1.25) is fresh, well seasoned. Soused shrimp ($3.25) are heady from their onion marmalade…though once, alas, they were sadly tough. The clam soup (95 cents) is a robust porridge, as is Charley’s bean soup (95 cents). Something subversive has happened to the whiskey cream pie ($1.15)…it’s oversweet and sluggish. A pleasant primitive is the hot apple pie ($1.25)…better still a rich creamy chocolate mousse cake ($1.15).
I still love Charley O’s Merciful Brunch. Especially the porridge, honey and cream, the fruit studded barmback and Irish milk punch.
By the way- I once got a dinner check from Charley O’s, machine totaled, with an eight-dollar overcharge, quickly corrected on protest. I don’t mention this to condemn Charley O’s…only to say it has reminded me to check addition everywhere since.
33 East 48th Street, 582-71741.
Doom at the Top
The Tower Suite in the baneful cumulus atop Time Inc. is dinner in your rich uncle’s penthouse minus old Uncle’s snores, belches and boring reminiscences. Tonight tall, tail coated Seamus with his ringing Old Abbey elocution is our butler, Helen our butterfly-pinafored maid, and John our footman. Ten years ago in the Tower’s innocence, out trio was more unctuous. Socialism (sigh) has made such gruesome inroads. “Mr. Forst and ladies, “ Seamus begins, reciting the entrees with spectacular inflection.
Before us appeared the Tower Suite’s Lilliputian canapés. Until Manhattan’s Japanese feeding invasion, no one handled vegetables as such precious gems. (A dozen little old ladies with permanently curled hands stuff grapes and cherry tomatoes and artichoke hearts with anchovy mousse, curried chicken or tiny dilled shrimp, RA’s Dick Blumenthal confides.) The mélange is followed by another - an excess of bits and snippets even for this smorgasbord fancier. hors d’oeuvre varié: a pâté with plum sauce, a spiced beef salad, a dollop of ham mousse topped with watermelon pickle, some beans-and-onion salad, a chunk of grapefruit...rather a motley collection. Next, fine full-bodied consommé or sweet puree of peach soup with slices floating.
The lamb chops were impressively dapper in their pastry crust with pleasant duxelles of mushroom, but the meat was overdone, the crust burned. Roast beef was average - not the best, not the worst. The striped bass was baked with fennel till dry. A nicely seasoned crumb-stuffed tomato and celery mimosa were tepid. The salad was topped with a pleasant, mild tarragon-scented dressing. From a small wine list, the Kultur Maven chose Chateau Nénin ’64 ($9.50), s soft first cru Pomerol with a bouquet that promises more than the taste delivers. For dessert: poached pears with vanilla cream, a creamy pineapple mousse with bits of pineapple (canned, I fear) and Melba sauce or a fantasy fruit tart assembled before your eyes by Helen. First, a pillow of whipped cream into a crisp tart shell, then a quadrant each of fresh blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and strawberries. Perfect. And coffee, in formal penthouse style.
In its tender years, the Tower Suite served a nine-course dinner for $8.50. Now they have dropped the fish course and that most memorable conceit, the tart sorbet to clear the palate. Slightly more proletarian, dinner is now $11.50. Sunday brunch at $7.50 is still grandly baroque, and bounteous enough to paralyze a Victorian trencherman.
The days of the rich uncle’s penthouse concept are numbered. Till the pinafores and tails are retired in a smashing victory for Democracy (I must be for it because I couldn’t possibly be against it), the Tower Suite is still ideal for enchanting sheltered in-laws, teenagers, the hopelessly in love and out-of-town clients from Saginaw.
111 West 50th Street, JU 6-2100,
When you think how long it took for the calzone and the knish to really make inroads in the non-ethnic quarters of town, the surging inevitability of the Zum Zum wurst must see climatic. RA owns and operates eight lookalike wurstoria in Manhattan neighborhoods both ethnic and neuter, four out of town; five more are franchise-owned but RA-run. The first Zum Zum - the Pan Am [building] prototype- smoked its own many-splendored wurst before you eyes in a glass-doored oven. That classy extravagance has been lost in the proliferation, but the basic appeal survives: the pristine butcher-shop white tiles and chopblock counter, the copper fittings in the open kitchen, the kegs of beer - hell (light) and dunkel (dark) - the snappy orange-and-wurst brown graphics, and impressive range of sausagery, caraway studded rye rolls -certainly the classiest hot dog bun in town - and such admirable attention to detail as a mustard-and-dill butter spread on the raisin bread of the cheese and charcuterie Dagwood.
The fraulein behind the counter is usually authentic, German-speaking preferably, generally polite, occasionally even puppy-warm and intime, in her baggy Mother Hubbard held together by a Zum Zum promo button: “I raised Hell with my analyst,” or “I raised Hell with my broker.” “Ein franke kumme, bitte schon,” one cries. And a superior all-beef, gently garlicked frank arrives in its thoroughbred bun, smothered with sauerkraut on a tin plate (45 cents). The cucumber dill salad (35 cents) is a rather high-priced version of half-pickled cukes. German potato salad - mushy and bacon-flavored- comes cold or tepid (35 cents). There are robust peasant soups (40 cents), a daily hot plate special ($1.60), cold wurst platters ($1.45), and sandwiches 70 cents and up; hot dogs are 45 cents and 50 cents. Zum’s excellent charcuterie is available to take home by the pound from $1.20 and up. And Zums are into breakfast, with the usual wake-up fare plus hot schinkenroll (ham) with apfel butter…pfanncakes and bratwurst omelet.
There are 29 species of Zum Zum sausage - Bierwurst, Fleischwurst, Plockwurst, Schinkenwurst, Touristenwurst (sic!), Kalbsbratwurst, and on and on. If the management would make its “Definitive Glossary of Zum Zum Sausages” available at the counter, perhaps the timid liverwurst hounds and fans of the turkey and roast beef sandwiches would risk the journey to the brave new world of unknown wurst.
Ah, Zum Zum…to think they almost called it Mach Schnell.
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