March 10, 1980 | Vintage Insatiable
Eight Wonderful Dinners: The Sensualist at Table
Centuries from now Venusian archaeologists digging in the rubble of Manhattan will find shards of old Cuisinarts and rusted truffle tins and then melted, twisted hulks of electric pasta machines - relics of a civilization that prattled endlessly about what to feed its stomach…and how…and where. Invasion, the sinking dollar, whether to revive the draft: Such petty problems are set aside as we debate where we shall take dinner.
"Do you ever feel guilty about exaggerating the importance of mere dining?" a reporter once asked. And I answered, with clear conscience, "Never." Frankly, next to certain of my obsessed, food-fixated friends, I seem almost frivolous. With my passion for Fritos. And my birthday cake from Baskin-Robbins. Willing to use commercial mayonnaise. Ready to insult aesthetic sensibilities at unsung, untested tables in the line of duty.
Restaurant critic. There are few cities in America where what I do could be such a lark. Still, I envy my most obsessed gastronomic playmates because they get to eat in their favorite restaurants again and again and again, forging exquisite loyalties to our town's most brilliant chefs while the Insatiable Critic is doomed by profession to move on relentlessly in search of new Wunderkinder. Still, I cherish my favorites. And if I were free to go anywhere I pleased tonight, here's where you'd find me:
Dodin-Bouffant. Every day Robert and Karen Pritsker play with cuisinary fireworks. And once in a while they get burned. But cooking is like love. Great adventure is worth any risk. Sometimes you just have to leap off the cliff not knowing if there's a featherbed or a rocky gorge below. At the very moment, my first choice, Dodin-Bouffant, is the most exciting French restaurant in town. In too many of New York's "great" classic French restaurants you can fall asleep over a $100 dinner. But a yawn hasn't been spied here…ever. Stolid and classic in Boston, the Pritskers are blossoming with great derring-do in their spare and elegant little Manhattan townhouse. She is tightly wound and seems arrogant, as insecure people often do. He is boyish and adorable and trigger-tempered. Rare is the dishwasher who last more than two weeks.
At 10 A.M. they skim the stock that simmers away all night and start the pain de mie, architecture for their divine bread-and-butter pudding. They preserve sour cherries, candy their own kumquats, change the bread every time they find a better bakery, woo secret sources for fresh herbs, improvise, experiment. At dusk she moves into the dining room, thin and wan and authoritative with a loyal, efficient, uninspired crew. She greets the well-dressed urban gourmands. And the food that comes off the dumbwaiters is mostly magnificent. Prices are inching up: Complete dinners are $32 to $37. Prices are climbing too on the intelligent, careful wine list. A check for two easily runs $125. The flaw is a tendency to reduce stocks to a numbing intensity and at times to overwhelm a delicate viande with a garnish so aggressive it could stand on its own and do Swan Lake.
But, dear purists, if you don't leap for the highs, then you live with the blahs. The highs at Dodin-Bouffant last month included, among the hors d'oeuvre: timbale of gossamer brains in a garlicky buttered croustade on a tart, herb-scented slick of sauce; fresh pea soup with a knavish float of peppery-hot aioli-rouille that your spoon swirls at whim into the creamy pea-sweetness, an inspired imprudence that makes the marrow-bearing crouton redundant unless you second my credo that too much of a good thing is barely enough; briny Cotuit oysters in a warm beurre blanc with grated radish; delicious vegetable sausage rolled in hazelnut flour and sautéed; sweetbread salad with honey-scented vinaigrette in a fragrant rice ring.
Sweetbreads as an entrée are stuffed with spinach and wrapped in a morel-studded crepe. Tender, rare calf's liver is crumbled with a crunch of black mustard seed, sautéed rare, and served in a bondage of chive-string lacings. Lamb steak is rare in garlic cream and served with zucchini in spaghetti-like strands. I have a great weakness for olives. And there are some zingy beauties on a puff pastry escorting a rather bland and skimpy magret of duck, its taste lost in a wallop of over-reduced sauce. A perfect bouquet of Bibb is drowned in its vinaigrette, alas, but frets vanish with the arrival of the rich, almond-studded chocolate cake and that supernal pudding, with a scent of anisette and aristocratic fruit lurking everywhere. If you can't resist hazelnut ice cream or a pastry tulip of banana ice cream with caramelized hazelnuts and caramel crème anglaise…well, why should you resist? I wouldn't.
405 East 58th Street. 212 751 2790
The Palace. How extraordinary that the Palace survives, thrives, is - yes, it truly is - more wonderful than ever: dizzy, witty, outrageous. In the bitter ashes of a highly publicized Chapter XI proceeding, as owner Frank Valenza struggles to juggle his debts, an astonishing young wraith named Michel Fitoussi goes on creating delicate dazzle in the kitchen. The prix fixe is $95, but a frugal duo ended the evening paying a preposterous $335- only by pinching greenbacks (ordering from the right side of a wine list that makes armed robbery look like a misdemeanor). If simple ostentation is not enough, there's also a $150 gala menu. The Palace is decadent, yes, but let each choose his own decadence. Mine is indulging my senses. And the Palace does it with delicious excess: seven courses plus a parade of desserts and delirious encores of sugary goodies brilliantly presented with stupefying pièces montées - sculptures in pasta, lard, lobster shells, pastry, pulled sugar, both silly and beautiful.
And instead of salt, he uses caviar. It never rains. It pours. Caviar by the dollop, served in a carved-lard octopus. Caviar oozing out of a roulade of Scotch salmon with two poufs of crème fraîche in a crisp pastry barquette. Caviar crowning a hillock of steak tartare laced with lobster on an artichoke bottom in a pool of green sauce with rose petals afloat - sweet scooplets to catch stray eggs and be devoured, scooplet, sauce, and all. Caviar meant to mimic papaya seeds in an experiment gathering crabmeat, papaya, and a too fruity olive oil with red dots of lobster roe - parentheses of snow-pea pods for color. Caviar, just a sputter, on the silken lobster quenelle pillows atop impeccably poached oysters in a sauce spiked with Noilly Prat. No wonder Frank Valenza can't afford his alimony.
Fitoussi's foie gras is a miracle - seared crisp without, melting rose within. Just-tepid lobster makes a sublime salad with walnut oil, artichoke bottoms, and a flutter of truffle. The mussel soup is not the numbing astonishment it once was. But a kind's ransom of truffle is sliced before your eyes for a consommé Charles X with intimations of the life force itself. Cheveux d'ange Vieille Venise tasted like angel-hair pasta in Campbell's tomato soup to me, but the same homemade noodles are also done with cêpes, morels, and foie gras, a tasty madness you might get the kitchen to substitute.
When there is pompano in the market, Fitoussi cooks it in salt. It was the single most exquisite dish of an impressive parade recently - the fish itself sweet and fresh, a tinge of salt clinging to the edges; the cooking, perfection: the sauce, a delicate, unobstrusive complement. After a silken lemon ice with a splash of vodka comes the roast beef, lamb, veal - garnished with vegetables. No one does a better duck than this crisp, lacquered beauty with its measured layer of fat and rose-pink flesh, grapefruit segments in acid counterpoint. The salad is proud. So are the cheeses and a mille-feuille of whipped Roquefort that must be at least tasted. There is usually something perfect or exotic in the fruit basket that cannot be resisted. Then a trimuvirate of desserts, tartlets, and truffles.
Dinner is a ceremony in a fussily elegant setting, the crowd a curious mix of Texans, conspicuous consumers, and young disciples of Lucullus. It helps to take a stroll midway. The staff is warm and friendly, sometimes a bit too chummy, but still a welcome relief from classic French hauteur. If the IRS would give tax credits for liver depletion, I for one would dine here once a month.
420 East 59th Street. 212 355 5150
Lutèce. For more than a decade Lutèce has been the best French restaurant in town. Dodin-Bouffant is more thrilling, the Palace theatrical and grand. But André Soltner is a master chef, seasoned and sure, endlessly honored, endearingly modest, dedicated to perfection. And he never stops experimenting. In the fall Soltner returned from a taste epiphany at Freddy Girardet's restaurant outside Lausanne and began to do daring tricks of his own. Just barely cooked rouget flown in fresh from the fish market at Rungis, outside Paris, appeared on the plat du jour at Lutèce. And Lutèce faithful thrilled to taste French scallops with bright blushing coral. Flying high on his trajectory of invention, André began to indulge habitués with dégustation dinners - small portions of several dishes, a pastiche of exquisite tastes and textures.
But there's a rub. Everyone at the table must order the tasting. For now, ten tasting tables a night are all André can juggle. Who are the chosen? Well, chicness is unknown at Lutèce. Beautiful People do not assemble in this small and understated townhouse to see and be seen. The faces are singularly unrotogravured. Serious eaters are serious about Lutèce. They book days…weeks…in advance. No one gets a table at the last minute. Not even restaurant critics. Maddening. But admirable. One couple has had a standing reservation every Monday night. In six years they have not eaten the same dinner twice. For such loyalists, André does his $40 dégustation dinners. And out in the far corners of the cheerfully spiffy garden the transient gastronomes are yawning in doldrums over the menu.
Frankly, I hadn't looked at a menu here in years. What I want to eat is whatever André Soltner has dreamed up that day: That is the secret adventure at Lutèce, ordering the plats du jour. Occasionally a plat limps. Homey chicken soup ($5.25) was a whit too homey. Pheasant livers and sweetbreads ($8.75) in salad need a more aristocratic dressing - a splash of walnut oil or a dose of sherry vinegar. And he should ban those slivered string beans. One evening medallions of lobster ($9.75) were too chewy, though cleverly ringed with turnip half-moons in a haunting saffron-scented cream from the master saucier.
You don't have to be a pet to taste daily-changing fare as delightful as a recent ragout of lotte, sole and salmon ($8.75) in a sauce thickened with watercress purée and swirled with a coral cream. Or the varying feuilletées ($9) - Black Forest mushrooms one night, melting nubbins of calf's foot on the next. Briny Belon oysters ($9) are gently poached and swim on a nest of vegetables julienne glazed with a hint of curry. Fingers of bass ($9) float in a magnificent red-wine sauce with marrow and a feather of dill. And venison ($18.75) is lightly marinated and sautéed or served in peppery hot civet. Recently I tasted the single best squab ($18) of my life - rare and subtly gamy with threads of celery root and rather punky spätzle. Desserts are seriously seductive here too. Though I long for old passions - André's stunning sunshine orange tart and his ethereal hot apple charlotte - a recent Bavarian ($5.25) was a many splendored blitz of pear. There is often rich chocolate buttercream cake ($5.25), wonderfully tart lemon sucées ($5.25), parfait glace…mango, a knockout.
Flash-in-the-pan genius is epidemic. And success has a way of corrupting. Not André. He carries on as if he were auditioning for the Meilleur Ouvrier de France, the honor he won twelve years ago. And loving it.
249 East 50th Street. 212 752 2225
Le Plaisir. If life were fair, we'd all be thin and rich, and at the age of 40 every woman would develop a peach-glow aura. Le Plaisir, with its light that blushes away a decade, is a cozy alternative. From the table hopping and kissy-pouty cheek grazing, you might get a scent of chic in the air. But minus the usual tension. "We're just the neighborhood beanery," says Stephen Spector. The beans being lima, of course…even in the cassoulet, because Le Plaisir is dedicated to the nouvelle cuisine - witty and pretty and delicious, easily $100 for two.
Japaese-born, French-trained Masataka Kaboyashi is endlessly creative, playing with color, texture; precise, careful cooking; the shock of unlikely flourishes: a fresh fig mousse, timbale of red-pepper purée, a sauce of winter greens.
Let no gourmand pass through life without tasting this homemade pasta, studded with truffles and bits of cèpes in cream. At the moment the house is foie gras-crazed. Masa sautées it and lets it ride on near raw spinach with matchsticks of raw mushroom; layers it with veal, morels scattered; scatters cubes of half-cooked foie gras on a luxurious navarin of lobster ($5 extra on the $28.50 prix fixe). There are plump snails in an herb-flecked cream with hearts of artichoke to start. And raw salmon in lime with a rain of its roe in warm leek sauce. Among the entrées: striped bass with oysters and caviar in a fragile beurre blanc; nutty filets of sweetbread on pillows of cèpe in a ring of green noodles with noodle-cut cucumber; herb-scented lamb with that red-pepper timbale. And game from the owner's Griggstown, New Jersey, bird farm.
Salad is a toss of splendid greens in a crème fraîche-enriched dressing served with cheese…most recently, an oval of silken ewe's milk. Desserts are less than voluptuous ("We're working on desserts," Spector confides), but the sorbets are smooth, intense, and wonderful: cranberry recently; fierce, fresh New Zealand currant; and intense green kiwi, with leaves and a fresh berry or two like a belated Christmas gift.
969 Lexington Avenue near 70th Street. 212 734 9430
The Four Seasons. My love affair with the Four Seasons has had only fleeting moments of coolness. Feeling coddled and at home in this soaring canyon of steel and marble - this intimidating, coldly elegant, stark, and mannered theater - has symbolized feeling good in my skin, at one with the awesome power of New York. Sadly down-at-the-heels for a time, the Four Seasons, under the dynamic reign of Paul Kovi and Tom Margittai, is not only rescued and restored ($12,000 just to launder the shimmering chain curtains)…it is truly reborn. Great gospel has been written about the status imperatives of Lunch in the Bar with its artful grill, its passionate devotion to vegetables, its consummate slaw and chocolate millefeuille. Enough.
It's evening now. And dinner in the Pool Room is dangerously, deliciously romantic. (Two, carried away, could spend $125 easily). The space sets the mood: a certain isolation of each table. A snap of service…the dashing Oreste, a fantasy majordomo. That the kitchen has its flat-footed moments probably helps. Cuisinary perfection could distract from love.
The Four Seasons' celebrated classic, battered shrimp with mustard fruits ($11.50), seems a bit dowdy today, batter crumbling, shrimp too cooked. The mallard-duck civet ($8.50) is tough, swathed in a cheerless sauce in its tiny ramekin. The tomato cast of the sauce on both partridge and quail (with a thrill of fresh gooseberries) is not to my taste.
And yet if chef Seppi Renggli were cooking for me everyday till my liver's Armageddon, I'd never be bored. He is brilliantly creative. For "The Winter Foursome," a seasonal feast-by-invitation for house faithful ($95 per person), Seppi and chef Christian Albin rolled barely poached oysters with caviar in lettuce, offered an intoxication of pheasant essence with pea-size quenelle as an alternative to the palate-clearing sorbet, and created a moist, rich game terrine with juniper sauce - dazzle that ought to go on the menu. Till it does, there is gently marinated salmon with dill sauce ($8.75), clams baked with a mantle of herb-flecked almonds ($7.25), and an exquisite salad of pheasant ($13) with greens worthy of a still life and a whiplash of black-olive purée on a crackle of crouton. If you want fish undercooked, you'd better say so. Epigrammes of wild boar ($19.50) are essentially moist little pork cutlets, irresistible linguistically, if not for the enchantment of their creamy Gorgonzola polenta.
The pool needs to be cleaned. The menu could be pruned of its French affectations. The fancy cake ($4.75) has gotten too fancy, but the chocolate velvet ($4.75) is as intensely wicked as ever, and the sorbets ($3.55) are sublime - chocolate for the gambit, definitely mango. And the wine list is a document of adventure and erudition, though far from the gentle touch it once was.
99 East 52nd Street between Park ad Lexington Avenues. 212 754 9494
Shun Lee Palace. It is more difficult to get a great meal at the Shun Lee Palace than it was last spring, before I singled it out as the best Chinese restaurant in town. I could cry. It helps if you know Michael Tong or Ed, the captain. They are coddling Shun Lee regulars, as always. But the onetime razzle-dazzle is flawed now. Never for a moment has the smooth and silky director Tong wavered in his vow to keep Shun Lee best. But the crowds have been brutal, demanding…the kitchen often overtaxed, new staffers raw. Customers arrive snarling, "Show me." The silver-and-white chinoiserie is growing shabby,
One evening I ordered ribbons of fish in my favorite fiery crunch of Hunan sauce ($9.75) and got something faintly reminiscent of that searing garlicky gingered stew. At a recent late-night supper in a room emptying for the night, the famous silken Hunan lamb with scallions ($9.50) had no taste at all except heat. And the dumplings ($3.25) were bland. But shreds of gently poached chicken ($6.25) were swirled in a sublime nuttiness of sesame and peanut with a fierce pepper blast for a finale. Barbequed sweet-and-sour soup ($1.85), a jungle of the classic ingredients, danced a fine balance between heat, acidity, and spiciness…a mellow accent of coriander. Subtle fish fillets ($9.75) with the candy-sweetness of fresh water chestnuts and snow peas in wine were played off against the same fillets in the gingery Hunan hot sauce.
What will happen to Shun Lee Palace? Time will tell.
155 East 55th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues. 212 371 8844
Trattoria de Alfredo. Yes, it is noisy. Yes the tables are tiny and pressed as close as anchovies in a tin. Yes, I get whipped by the arctic breeze each time the door swings open. That's your sleeve lady, trailing in my cacciucco as you will me to vacate this table. And if I weren't a house pet, the waiter might give me a rush act. But my critical faculties turn to Jell-O at Trattoria da Alfredo, this pleasantly cluttered little storefront on the corner of Hudson and Bank Streets. I'm in tune with Alfredo's priorities. Pasta, mostly pasta. Vegetables honored by fast blanching and zesty sauces. Irresistible fish soup. Sublime desserts. That's it. The house stocks Pelligrino water. Bring your own wine.
Every day there's an entrée or two. I ignore them. Except for Alfredo's stuffed chicken ($9.50). I'd rather have pasta, garlicky broccoli salad with anchovy ($3.25), stuffed mushrooms ($3), or whole artichoke ($2.75) in oily, herb-scented broth. Stronzata di verdure miste ($6.75) is a platter of crisply al dente vegetables with thick disks of cotechino to douse in Alfredo's earthy green sauce…fine for two to share. Spaghetti al pesto in season ($4.50) is the pasta of choice. Tortellini della nonna ($4.50) are plump little pasta packages in cream with peas and prosciutto. Four out of five times the cacciucco di pesce livornese ($7.25) just-cooked fish in an herb-flecked broth heady with tomato, flirts with perfection. But the shrimp and scallops are usually overdone, and sometimes this soup is dishwater-blah.
The truth is the Trattoria needs an ego boost. The Parmesan doesn't taste like Parmesan anymore. The bread isn't always fresh. Each delicious leaf in the arugula salad is sopping wet and limp as a noodle. A pork chop ($9) was tough and dry. The stuffed trout ($9) was overcooked - cool on its ice-cold plate. And the scrawny little snails ($3.50) are effete in an agitation of marsala, cream, cognac, and whatnot. There used to be splendid fruit and mellow Italian cheese. Not anymore. But Gino Cofacci’s splendid crunch of hazelnut dacquoise ($2.25) with its silken ooze of mocha cream is a finale worth reserving ahead. So is the magnificent rich chocolate cake ($2.25). Alfredo is infinitely dashing. But if he'd linger in the kitchen more, snooping and tasting, my favorite storefront hangout could be restored to earlier glory.
90 Bank Street at Hudson. 212 929 4400
The Palm. The Palm caters to my lingering fantasy that life will be like the movies. It is everything a celluloid junkie could want a steakhouse to be: smoky, noisy, crowded, tough, a dispensary for trenchermen, full of memories of old newspaper row. There is sawdust on the floor. Our waiter is a 35-year veteran and not bored yet. The maître d'hôtel is dat guy ovah dayuh, and he couldn't care less who you are, though dinner for two may run $75. Serious carnivores in suburban car coats and big deals from the garment center crowd the aisle waiting for a table to break.
In a recent roundup of New York's great steakhouses, the Palm rated as my favorite-though the best slab of sirloin I tasted was served at Palm Too, across the street, and the best meat in a sweep of nine contenders was served at Spark's. They are cozier places to O.D. on protein. But mostly the giant lobsters ($32) are tasty and tender. And more often than not, the prime sirloin ($15.50) is aged perfection. Shrimp are $1.30 each, five to a serving, too cold and too cooked. Clams casino ($5.50) are a tragic mistake. The salad ($3) with it's Roquefort overkill is a primitive joy, but something a few weeks ago was amiss with the lamb chops ($15). Even the usually divine crisp fried onion threads ($4) were a bit soggy. Still, the cottage fries ($3) were splendid. It was hard to stop eating the hashed-browns ($3) - probably the best in town. The filet mignon ($16) was an amazingly tender giant, and the sirloin was juicy, tender, and rare. As I sipped a virile and boring Barbera, my raised consciousness saw - for the first time- that most of the women in the famous caricatures on the wall are naked. Suddenly everyone seemed a bit feral. Oh dear. Lost innocence.
837 Second Avenue near 45th Street. 212 599 9192
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