November 4, 1974 | Vintage Insatiable
Love in Hungrier the Second Time Around
The falling leaves drift by the window – the autumn leaves of red and gold… The city vibrates with autumn’s new beginnings. But alas, courtship at table is trickier the second time around. The price tag on advanced romance is staggering.
“Where can I take a woman for good food in a pleasant, possibly romantic atmosphere – with wine – for less than the front grill of a Rolls-Royce?” the Kultur Maven wants to know. The Kultur Maven and his wife separated a few months ago. Now each is dancing off on a fine romantic bender. And the protocols of dining out single are somewhat tarnished. The Kultur Maven’s mouth is used to The Best. As I am the Kultur Maven’s second best friend (he being his first), naturally he asks me.
My advice has not been too helpful. For I have been living in the past, frozen in amber, adrift in a dream world… convinced that gastronomic seduction must be available at a price - $25 for two, surely with half a bottle of wine. Now I see that seduction à la carte is not quite so simple for refurbished bachelors in their prime. The suave autumn Romeo does not slide gracefully into the grungy little ethnic haunts where once he courted carefree, frugally, fresh out of college. Two decades of ripened savoir-faire are bursting to be harvested. He will save the Szechuan savvy and the little sashimi bars for long weekends later. First mating encounters call for some smooth, some wow.
It’s no challenge to name a dozen dim retreats for illicit nutritional foreplay. But table games the second time around are nothing like the furtive rituals of the married philanderer. Certain urgencies and wickednesses have dissipated. There is no need to cross the moat of Château Henry IV for Dom Pérignon at shadowy lunches in the Alrae Hotel. No more out-of-the-way, under-the-tablecloth clutchings in the 37th Street Hideaway. No more second-story Arabic restaurants. Or clandestine excursions to hot-sheet motels with only an olive in the room-service martini for sustenance. The Cheater never blinks at dropping $60 for a stolen dinner for two. He can put it on his credit card. The company pays. It’s rest and recreation. An occasional extravagance.
But the newly liberated bachelor may play at gastronomic seduction five nights a week. And no matter how high his income bracket, no matter how lofty his professional status, there are certain financial inevitables of contemporary divorce. Everybody feels poorer. No one will ever be that innocent again.
Fired by the challenge, I have been collecting counsel from seasoned playboys of depth and status. Bachelor #1 likes Marchi’s for Italian home-style dining on East 31st Street, and the Casa Brasil “because you don’t have much menu choice… no decisions to distract from the romantic dialogue.” Oenophilic bachelor #2 favors Caliban, a dusky neighborhood pub-and-grill with certain gastronomic aspirations and a superlative wine card at gentle prices. Bachelor #3, more into charisma than cuisine, “snows their impressionable little minds without exactly charming their greedy little tummies”* at P.J. Clarke’s, where he is known and rushed to a table ahead of the line. Bachelor #4 claims great mileage from anthropological reversal. He takes Midwestern ingénues to Ratner’s for potato pancakes and gefilte fish. “Ratner’s is scarcely candlelight romantic,” he admits, “but sour cream has its own ambience.” He also does field trips to the Parkway Restaurant for Rumanian stew and mushroom-and-barley soup. “I never saw this before,” lisped one culturally stirred post-deb heiress from Kalamazoo. “Melted butter on the table.” Bachelor #4 smiled indulgently. “That, my child, is chicken fat.”
*Yes, this narrative creaks with sexist overtones. Sorry, Sisters. The movement apparently has yet to affect the economics of preliminary courtship. Not one of these vintage (mostly alimony-torn) bachelors had encountered a woman liberated enough to suggest they split the check.
For me, the crucial element in a great romantic evening at table is… the man. Perhaps, if some solipsistic candor is not excessive here it’s the me I see reflected in his eyes. And no doubt a little candlelight does help. One libido’s aphrodisiac might be another’s soporific. Shall there be cozy corners, mirrors, a violin astroll, ticky-tack piano, a jukebox, muted chatter? Do all those pedestrian oils of Venetian canals tame the ardor? Is serious art too distracting? Does a lace tablecloth help? For sheer unfiltered eroticism I recall burned chicken and a great ’55 Bordeaux in a shack on a Bucks County lake, hot-and-sour soup at four in the afternoon in the deserted Flower Drum, clumsy “gourmet” aspiration in a silly East Hampton discotheque. I shiver, even now, remembering.
Collecting leads from obsessed epicures, penny pinchers, incurable romantics, and the town’s most determined survivalists, I am off in search of romantic dining at a gentle price. The news is discouraging.
La Rotisserie symbolizes how modest a measure of excellence stirs cheer in these harsh times. La Rotisserie doesn’t do much, but mostly it does that well. The rack of lamb – six rare little chops – is something of a marvel at $5. And all fantasy dreams of the perfect French fry are answered by the house’s thin, crisp, bone-dry rendition. This is not la grande cuisine. It’s mostly splendid short-order cooking. From the giant open grill bathed in a hot orange glow comes excellent boudin (crusty charred blood sausage), $3.50; steak or hamburger, beef or lamb on a spike (one evening it was gristly and overdone), $4.50, and simple roast baby chicken, $3.50, dry and listlessly sauced at one early fall dinner but almost always impeccable at lunch. Pig’s feet on the original menu have retreated into oblivion, and a flat, heavy fish stew has been wisely excised too. New offerings include choucroute or boeuf bourguignon, both at $4.50, and roast lamb or suckling pig (for four or more) on special order.
There are scattered flaws. Velvety brains in salad confetti’d with the red and green of pimiento and bell pepper need some accent – mustard, perhaps – in the vinaigrette. The onion soup is too timid under its fine salty cheese mantle. And now that fresh celery root is back in the markets, perhaps the house will sacrifice the convenience of buying canned. Desserts are mere afterthoughts, though what a joy to find raspberries in autumn. The menu has been promising the chef’s special apple tart for months, but even in mid-October, height of the apple harvest, Jean-Claude Martin had yet to find an apple to please him
Yet the Rotisserie is serious and authentic, with attractive French waitresses wishing you “bon appetit” as you bite into the rough perfection of parsley-studded ham ($1.30) in jelly, fresh, crunchy with bits of shallot, followed by the plat du jour, tender roast veal served with noodles fresh and delicate enough to be homemade $4.50. There are good country wines at $5 and $6 and wine in pitcher, $4 or $2.25, making it no trick at all to feed two for less than $25. Unhappily, the room is simply not romantic. At night it’s practically no man’s land. Chef-proprietor Martin has warmed the vast, awkward space with fresh flowers, spindle dividers, orange tablecloths, animal skins, the stern heads of steers in zinc, and spectacular giant copper kettles. If it’s intimacy you need, or intimations, you must bring your own.
153 East 52nd Street
The kitchen of Tre Amici has infinitely greater finesse than a purist might expect from what look like singles mating rituals at the bar and around the piano. And the dining room is not really romantic, but it is… clean and not garish, the lighting discreetly dim here, fitfully harsh there. On a weekday night there are beautiful Bloomingdale’s Saturday people in their custom-cut blue jeans nibbling veal piccata. But late one Friday (no table free before 9:45), the crowd was very weighty. Each woman wore two or three hairdos, one piled on top of another, and as the observant bachelor beside me noted: “There are more diamond pinky rings per pinky as far as the eye can see up to the horizon.” He was quick to notice a floral inconsistency – fresh crysanthemums on every other table. And he asked the waiter to bring flowers, please. The waiter, who looked like Peter Bogdanovich moonlighting, shrugged. And brought.
Prices are steep here and would instantly shatter the budget, except that portions are leviathan. The bachelor of class and substance can – must – suggest sharing three or four courses without seeming chintzy, order half a bottle of a decent red wine, and emerge not far over the budget. “Why did you let us order so much?” a blowsy blonde scolded the Bogdanovich impersonator. “Put all this in a doggy bag,” she commanded. He frowned. “Not all in the same doggy bag.” He returned with a brace of take-home sacks for her.
Two might easily divide fine, elegant stuffed mushrooms, rich spaghetti carbonara ($5.25 – it needed more parmigiana), a tender cross section of bass ($6.95) in very salty tomato sauce, served with soggy but satisfying fried zucchini and potato croquette, share a half bottle of Barolo and dessert with espresso and tip for $26.40. Nothing is too skimpy to divide. There are tender clams posilipo in a zesty red sauce or baked clams blandly blanketed with onions, pimiento, and crisp bacon. Cannelloni has more character inside than most, and a rough, primitive sauce. Pollo alla rustica ($6.75), chicken with sausage in a pool of buttery oil with lemon and garlic, is excellent. The man next to me was in love with a blonde who was in love with a $16 lobster. There are wonderfully rich homemade pastries too – a zaftig napoleon and a hermaphrodite delicacy, half rum cake, half napoleon with chocolate in the middle.
1294 Third Avenue
“Zing” went all the appropriate strings walking into Monks Court. If George Sand responded, then how can I resist: exultations of Chopin fill the candlelit town house stripped to brick bones and sedately illuminated with vaguely medieval sconces. Lovers nuzzle in seeming bliss on the balcony with its racks of wine and books (at eye level, Cozzens, Twain, and Gore Vidal). The Monks are young and amiable. Skeins on the wax-encrusted wine bottle before your eyes are a tapestry of a thousand romantic overtures, prologues, consummations. Not a beloved cliché is missing.
If only the food were less drearily mundane. The mood is so promising, the style so pleasing. Young Monk brings a crusty loaf of bread, two crisp McIntosh apples, and cheeses on a wooden board – prickly pepper cheese, Jarlsberg, oniony cheddar, or a creamy fluff with a kick of herb and garlic. Then a bowl of salad to serve yourself – fair greens and a nest of carrot shreds. No need then to order the house’s proletarian pâté or unremarkable lentil soup. And with drinkable red wine in a crock, $4 – the white is faintly sweet, faintly awful – two may dine for $25 to $30. “Our Very Special” duck, $8, one half crisp and edible, the other stringy, definitely not, is served with cherries and a homely sauce after a brisk flaming ignited by our own candle (it immediately flickered out in embarrassment). No need to be harsh with the veal stew, $6.50 – it was acceptable – or veal scallops aux chanterelles (actually pleasant little canned straw mushrooms from Hong Kong), $8.25. But the cassoulet, $6.25, is not a cassoulet, with a few rounds of sausage, gristly pork tenderloin, and white beans in a tomato-oriented sauce. And my fork (which our frugal monk returned to the table, used, three times) bent backwards in a futile attempts to penetrate the ungiving, tasteless meat of a giant pig’s foot. Fork pressed into an approximation of its original angle, I ignored the hopeless pig to concentrate on its very tasty sauerkraut nest.
Well, it is romantic. Especially as hands touch accidentally over raclette, a melted blanket of cheese that must be scraped from the plate to eat with boiled potato and tart little pickles. When two people struggle together, it brings them closer. The wine list is leprous – ragged, torn, crossed off, with prices in Roman numerals and apparently no half bottles. Desserts are sweet, enough for two – apple strudel, very pleasant apple compote, and lemony sherbet spiked with bad champagne to spoil it.
244 East 51st Street
Lovers love the Horn of Plenty. There they sit, filling the handsome garden and duplex (once the Sayat Nova) with its discreet lighting, recorded rock, and cozy corners – lovers of every possible gender. The hostess tonight is a Kewpie-doll blonde out of Cabaret, painted in a style female impersonators mimic so well. There may be a wait (reservations for six or more only), but the bar is comfortable. Minutes later, a table. The bartender wishes you “a nice dinner” by name. Very impressive. And the pastry table sends shock waves of sweet-tooth nostalgia. What sinful abundance. It looks like the Memphis ladies’ church bake sale.
The help is young, denimed, solicitous, passing homemade corn bread (sometimes warm, sometimes not), warning that if you order pork chitlins – “the castaway from Mr. Pig turned into a gourmet’s delight,” the menu promises – you can’t send them back if you’re disappointed, and asking, “Is everything all right?” Well, it isn’t.
Even the mistiness of new love and the tingle of erotic anticipation do not dull the professional palate to reality. The cream of chicken soup is too thick; the potato leek, too thin. Baked clams are unpleasantly gummy. Beef stroganoff just barely outclasses frozen. There is a faint taste of scorch in the black-eyed peas and in an otherwise unremarkable chicken curry, served with tasteless, sticky rice. And there are tough salad greens in what taste like crass commercial dressings. But the corn-bread-stuffed pork chop is fine American folk art, and the fried chicken is almost good. The fruit cobblers are sloppy and sweet. But the pecan pie is quite admirable – slightly caramelized along the crust, with a blob of real whipped cream.
Epicures who take their mouths seriously will be crabby about the Horn of Plenty’s food. After all, there are some who consider themselves serious food critics who do not appreciate the appeal of the Big Mac. But at the price (dinner for two can fit the $25 budget without strain) and in the context, I have a feeling most New Yorkers – courting or clear-eyed – would like it.
Horn of Plenty, 91 Charles Street, 212 242 0636
You can go home again. Two restaurants I have celebrated in the past are only slightly ragged around the edges. With subtle juggling, two non-roaring appetites can be fed at close to the minimum.
Adam’s Rib can be crowded and noisy, but it has that stamp of genteel, worn elegance I find romantic. And its greatest gift for haute oenomaniacal foreplay: you can bring your own wine. That means wine-savvy bachelors in their prime will be pouring Pétrus ’61 or teen-aged Hermitage nurtured in their cellars, to sip with Eve’s Rib ($7.95), deep, blushing, tender beef served with somewhat abused mushrooms, a gluey yet satisfying quadrant of Yorkshire pudding, impeccable baked potato, and not the Caesar of Caesar salads, but a pleasant Caesar.With seconds, too. Bread “baked in our oven” is Pepperidge, nothing like a great home-kneaded loaf, but still, a personal favorite. And the waiter will pass with sour cream, chives, and an offering of horseradish sauce. “Take some,” he says. “It’s a dessert in itself.” All for the price of the rib. There are non-carnivorous possibilities too, and a pedestrian streak, not worth $9.95.
23 East 74th Street
The Mitteleuropean Gemutlichkeit of the Duck Joint is somewhat tarnished by the fallout of popularity: frenetic, uneven service, noise, and, perhaps, overconfidence. There are raw vegetables to dip, and hot garlic bread, on the house, but the bread is stale, not toasted through, not garlicky enough. Roast duckling is served very crisp, as Americans prefer it, but the ugly duckling is braised, a disgrace, and one night simply inedible. As the waiter removed the unsavory carcass, he groaned. “You should have ordered it roasted,” he said. Well, the goose is good, the garnishes are filling, there are specialties of Vienna and Prague as well as goose and duck, and wine in carafe at $3.25. Perhaps it’s been as long since hosts Paul and Aja Steindler tasted the braised duck as I. If their hands were sterner and their mouths more demanding, most of the flaws could be eliminated at once.
1382 First Avenue
Where is the gem of nutritional foreplay at a reasonable price? Is there some perfect candlelit retreat waiting to be discovered? Help. Write. Till you do, you will find me at Trattoria da’ Alfredo. The Kultur Maven and I share custody of our favorite storefront pavilion for sublime dining at the gentlest price. You bring your own wine; the pastas, the stuffed vegetables, the frittata and thin sliced beef served raw with mayonnaise, the fresh fruit and crisp Dacquoise, are lovely.
The room is pleasant, if not classically romantic, and the check may arrive without your asking, a not-so-subtle hint to clear the way for the next sitting. This harsh gesture may be hazardous to lingering seduction, but timely perhaps, if two eager strangers are fumbling for a graceful exit to the next plateau.
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