April 14, 1980 | Vintage Insatiable

That Old Côte Basque Magic

        "…After just four weeks, the restaurant is decidedly Rachou's arena.  The clichés of L'Academie Pavillon are fading…"

        Once La Côte Basque shimmered, precious jewel of the legendary restaurateur Henri Soulé.  "My Pavillon pour les pauvres," he would call it.  His sweet "philanthropy" for the "poor."  Then a fatal rage over some union insult robbed him of one last glorious tripes à la mode de Caen.  And in the fourteen years since his death, his longtime companion and successor, Mme. Henriette, had grown fragile.  The house's luster had sadly dimmed.

        How could chef Jean-Jacques Rachou resist?  Restless in the tiny confines of his wildly successful Lavandou, he decided six months ago to plunge his savings and sizable credit into the challenge- to restore a frumpy old beauty and transform the dungeon kitchen below into a gleaming modern miracle.

        All one week in early March the artist Bernard Lamotte had been watching the bustle of carpet layers and painters at Côte Basque.  Thirty-two years ago Lamotte had painted the sunny murals framed in dark wood and radiant with light to give Soulé's pampered rich the illusion of dining alfresco at the port of St.-Jean-de-Luz.  Now, intoxicated, Lamotte ran out for tubes of color and, using a plate as a palette, began to brush new figures into his murals…people and mules, chimney smoke and swirling wind.  "Come see what I've done," he cried, summoning Rachou and his team from the kitchen.  They gathered in front of the bar.  On a building beside the sea Lamotte had long ago lettered: RESTAURANT COTE BASQUE, HENRI SOULE.  Now the legend read: JEAN-JACQUES RACHOU.  Bernard Lamotte, longtime intimate of Soulé's, without asking…without warning…had changed the name.  What a moment.  "I was not planning to do it," Lamotte said.  "A hand was guiding my hand."  So, the ghost is still there.  Benevolent ghost now, considering the fierce ego the lovable martinet exercised.

        But in fact, after just four weeks, La Côte Basque is already decidedly Rachou's arena.  Perhaps it will be months before the kitchen crew is comfortable and fully on the mark, as Jean-Jacques himself observes.  And the dining room under mâitre d'hôtel Joseph Reyers- late of Le Cirque by way of L'Hermitage, Le Lavandou, and La Caravelle- is on the way to ultra-spiffiness with time out now for occasional gaucherie.  But the clichés of L'Academie Pavillon, the Henri Soulé prep school that created the image of fine French feeding in Manhattan, are fading.  New Yorkers who adore Le Lavandou will appreciate the lush extravagance of Rachou's sensibility, his decorative accents…his irrepressible excess.

         At Le Lavandou, Rachou was an architect manqué, building skyscrapers of garnish atop garnish atop mousses atop fishes atop grassy vegetable beds.  Now he is a painter, using beurre blanc and demiglace as his media, drawing astonishing flowers and feathers in the sauce beside pastry caisson transporting delicately poached scallops in a gentle pistou.  And he is a sculptor, fashioning scarlet butterflies out of lobster shells, reprising his trademark disk of egg white with its miniature beach scene- sailboat, gulls, and palm tress in tiniest 'commas of black olive.  Pure dazzle.

        At times the food itself mirrors the dazzle.  Gently poached paupiettes of sole studded with truffles ($3.50 extra on the $32 dinner), crowned with truffle on kiwi, are served on a turf of spinach in a chive-and-sorrel-touched beurre blanc, and it works- textures, tart against sweet, everything.  What a joy to find slightly rare quail ($5.50 extra) inside its pastry wrap served with grapes in truffle-dotted perigourdine.  Rachou nuzzles a dozen fat snails under threads of leek in a beurre blanc spiked with garlic and Ricard, a notion worthy of the house's new cassolettes with proud silver snails crouched as handles.  The charcutier flown in from France is hitting his stride now, with a tasty prune-studded chicken terrine and another of sweetbreads like velvet.  But there is no sauce that sings, no invention to move a serious epicure to tears.  And too often the exquisite frippery of decoration tempts the mouth to a flavorless creation.  Baby salmon stuffed with a scallop mousse under a jellied picket fence of carrot and turnip logs, breathtakingly beautiful and perfectly cooked, is surprisingly tasteless.  Many of the seafood dishes are flat.  But a delicious green sauce adds zest to the lobster, crab, and lotte in a half-moon of jelly, wearing a flower cut out of truffle.

        The $17.50 lunch is understandably simple.  Till now the noon hour has been less crowded, giving the staff time and space for such lost graces as keeping sauces warm on the side and offering seconds.  A sampler of hors d'oeuvre ($3.50 extra) is a meal in itself -- bits of two terrines and a duo of seafood sausages, cold lobster, asparagus tips, shreds of celery root, half a hard-boiled egg dripping cocktail sauce and adorned with a radish flower.  The waiter then does a soft-shoe, offering a trio of sauces…mayonnaise, green sauce, vinaigrette.  Scallops are poached in a court bouillon and served with a tangle of carrot and celery, beurre blanc offered.  But the roast baby chicken with raisins is a pitiful imposter of what a roast chicken once was here.  This one manages to be both pink at the bone and dry in the breast.

        Comes the twilight, though, and Rachou dedicates his most ambitious creativity to dinner.  The day's bounty of the sea and market is arranged on the cold table, along with a triumvirate of lovely fish sausages- mousse of sea scallop and watercress, pompano with shrimp and saffron, and sole truffled and studded with smoked salmon.  These are nine extravagances listed under "Les Spécialités du Patron"- all cost extra.  La truffe en feuilletage Lucullus ($18 extra on the $32 pix fixe), crab and lobster salade cressonnette ($6.50), la terrine de crabe ($4.50), les pomponettes de truffe surprise ($10.50) plus other flights of luxury.

        The fish man has stuffed English sole with oysters.  Salmon is stuffed too and braised in red wine.  Bass is baked in a soufflé with chive butter.  Steak at $6.50 extra is an undistinguished cut of beef in a sauce that not even five peppers can lift from mediocrity.  A similar sauce does nothing for kidneys chopped into pale-greige chunklets resembling cat food.  A better choice is rack of lamb, three delicious chops, "rare" as requested, in shiny gold panties.  The duck is a classic, crisp-roasted without sacrificing juiciness inside, presented whole.  When an enchanted gourmand asks for more, a second whole duck arrives.  ("As long as I have duck left, I do that," Rachou explains.)  Cucumber and morels ride atop succulent noisettes of veal in a fine perigourdine, but the spongy wild mushrooms are dry.  They need sauce.  The sauce needs them.  A ragout of lobster and shrimp is cooked without fault, and without thrills.  Still, the silken sweetbreads in a heady Madeira sauce, with grapes and a toss of wild mushrooms, are sublime.

        Three desserts are baked by Délices la Côte Basque- a pink cassis cake for the Sweet Sixteen of the richest girl in town, chocolate cake without oomph, a rather pleasing confection of almonds, chocolate, and mocha cream.  And there are wonderful fruit tarts, delicious cherry clafouti (a custardy mush), delicate soufflés ($4 extra)- intense strawberry, a bit too sweet, and pear with apricot and peach preserves for a saucy overkill I happen to enjoy.

        In time, Jean-Jacques Rachou will get a tighter rein on the details.  Spinach puree will hide no unsightly strings.  No one will dare spoon uncooked sherry into the bisque or simmer lobster bits to rubber.  Tired broccoli must be banned, and the baby-chicken dilemma may eventually be solved.  The wine cellar must be organized.  Prices are high, and the list is stingy with information about shippers and vintages.

        Happily, the haute snobbism of the old days is only a memory now.  Soon, one hopes, certain dining-room confusion will fade, and waiters will learn to serve those giant dinner plates- all the rage of France's nouvelle cuisinastes- without letting them hang two inches over the edge of the table.  And maybe…no guarantee…maybe one day Jean-Jacques will realize that more is too much.  The charm of those outrageously grand plates lies in the way they frame edible still lifes.  Vegetables should not be heaped to the edge in the mad profusion of a suburban salad bar.  One night recently there was not one vegetable but five -- celery-root puree with a tiny love tomato, wilted broccoli gratin, almond-studded potato croquette, puree of carrot in rosette, and puree of spinach.  A few evenings later, it was sublime endive and a potato carved into a wooden shoe stuffed with tomato- on almost every entrée, whether the flavors complemented or not.  At lunch, delicate poached scallops were unhappily matched with wild rice.  Time will tell.

        But already M. Soulé's lost pets are trailing home.  Women's Wear is stationed outside, snapping Jacqueline Onassis come to lunch with her mother, while, inside, William Buckley shares a banquette with Brooke Astor.  There is butter in the air and that old electricity.  The restaurant is jumping.  The soft glow is kind to the aging epidermi.  A measure of magic is back at Cote Basque.

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