March 12, 2018 | BITE: My Journal
The Revival of La Goulue
La Fricasée de Poulet “Gallus Brun” with a tarragon vinegar reduction is a lunch special at La Goulue.
I didn’t know La Goulue had closed eight years ago until I read in January that it was reopening on East 61st Street in an almost exact replica of the original. Upper East Side fans of its classic French bistro food and stage- set art deco allure left 5000 inquiries when the website opened to herald its return. Regulars, looking the same or better depending on their surgeons and dermatologists, were reclaiming their tables.
The front of the new digs on E.61st Street echoes the original. The door and the lace are the same.
Of course, I’d eaten at the original La Goulue, but not in the last two decades. I figured it was one of those snooty East Side places I needed to brave with a regular. My friend Harriette Rose Katz agreed to make a call. Harriette is the Goddess of Special Events. You don’t know how much you can spend on your 90th birthday, your wedding in Palm Beach, or your daughter’s bat mitzvah until you urge Harriette to “Go all out.”
When I see sweetbreads on a menu, I’ll always order them. Here they come with cauliflower and a hedge of greenery.
I rarely leave my office for lunch, but I’m eager to join Harriette’s table up front near the entrance and get a full immersion in the culture of lunch in this zip code. I’m early, so I get to watch the coat attendant arrange and rearrange her hangers several times. “Would you like to order something while you wait?” our server asks. And later, after I’ve finished two glasses of water and seen various arrival styles -- smiling, friendly, stern, defiant, searching the room for endorsement -- she approaches again: “Would you like some bread?”
Ahi tuna tartare with wasabi miso seasonings and coriander is the inevitable starter for my friend Harriette.
I’m surprised to see so many men in a place with this ladies-who-lunch feel. Yes, some are smartly suited and dapper. Designers perhaps, the well-married, Russian spies, walkers. But many are slobby: protruding stomachs in cotton pullovers announcing their arrival. The women are mixed too: of all ages and preservations, hair pulled back casually or freshly blown-out in everything from jeans and blazers to subdued chic.
A server passes freshly cut baguette and finds ends of the bread for both of us.
Harriette is wearing major eyelashes and diamonds, although maybe they could be merely daytime diamonds. “What do you think?” she asks of one woman’s Bakelite necklace.
“It doesn’t matter what anyone else is wearing,” I assure her. “No one can see anything but you.”
I’m not sure why the simple baguette the house serves is so good, but it is. It’s cut at the last minute. That’s crucial. We both ask the bread-server for ends and he digs into his basket to find two for her and one for me.
Harriette considers ordering her usual tuna tartare. “I can order something else so you can taste more things,” she offers.
Le steak tartare La Goulue is seasoned with capers, shallots, cornichons, egg yolks and herbs.
“No problem. Order what you want.” I insist. You’d think that no one ever heard the word mercury, the way New Yorkers favor tuna tartare. Not that I’m one to criticize. I order oblivious to equally alarming concepts like cholesterol and calories. At an early dinner here, one of my companions ordered tuna tartare to start and steak tartare to middle. Of course they are not closely related, not even kissing cousins. “Et bien sur!” as the menu has it: the steak tartare is classic with capers, shallots, little cornichon pickles and egg yolk. And the chopped tuna, Harriette’s favorite version in town now, is contemporary -- with wasabi, miso, fresh coriander and crispy tempura bits.
The crispy baked aged goat cheese and smoked duck potato tart is a voluptuous opener at lunch.
My baked aged goat cheese and smoked duck potato tart, crusty and delicious, is totally decadent and big enough for three to share. It could easily be lunch all by itself. I don’t really need another bite. But this is work so I must taste more. The chicken fricassee “Gallus Brun” au vinaigre and estragon, heritage dark meat only with mashed potatoes, is good enough. Along with organic Scottish salmon in a light jus, it would be perfect for someone who is afraid of a crispy duck leg with faro, or not sophisticated enough to confront the house’s iconic steak tartare. (Entrées $27 to $42)
Both of us are thrilled by the lush richness of the skate with capers and croutons, oozing lemon butter.
Harriette’s skate, classically served with capers and croutons oozing lemon butter, is marvelous, wildly rich, the Jayne Mansfield of skates I have encountered. “They didn’t have the skate on the dinner menu,” she reports, annoyed by the perversity. She was forced to order the branzino, “which I didn’t really like.” (Her review. I wasn’t there.)
We linger over an order of mignardies, cutting a few in half so we can taste each one.
Given my cliché prejudices, I expected the welcome to be icy and the service to be arrogant. But quite the opposite. There is one brief chill before a more clued-in greeter understood that I was meeting Madame Katz and gave me a choice of tables. But the staff is caring, sweet, even gossipy. The portions are huge. Plates are overflowing. And the arrivals pouring in are really just New Yorkers. Rikki Klieman and Bill Bratton wave. Judy Licht and Jerry Della Femina nod and smile as their coats are lifted away.
I imagine the citizens of zip code 10023 are different than those of us across town.
It is chaos at the door one Tuesday evening with the collision of arrivals and departures, the cloaking and the uncloaking in the minimal space in front of our table. I could ask to sit in the skylit back room but I’m not willing to miss any drama.
Dinner starts with cocktails and a plate of warm, cheese-filled gougeres.
Dinner is mostly wonderful, starting with the warm little gougeres. Who will eat the extra one? And the bread, yes, ends please. My arteries would be paralyzed instantly if I dare to finish the whole thick slice of velvety foie gras terrine I order. It’s wrapped in yellow fat and accompanied by toast and a Burgundy wine marmalade.
I must share this thick brick of foie gras with all my tablemates to protect my arteries from over-indulgence.
Flaky pastry balloons over the cassolette of snails with one small bit of foie gras in a stormy broth.
I trade two large chunks with my friend across the table. He passes me his little cassolette of petits gris snails and foie gras in a potent broth perfumed with tomato and tarragon. “It had just a small chunk of foie gras and I ate it,” he apologizes.
His wife does her best with the deep vat of onion soup. Harriette (I’m still letting her get the table) insists I try the tuna tartare even though I’ve tasted it four times already. “It’s different tonight,” she says. “Not as powerful.” Hmmm. Yes. I agree.
Gnocchi with slices of pata negro pig is a special appetizer of the evening.
The dorade, presented whole with its head intact in a tomatoey sauce vierge, smells suspiciously fishy to me. But then I’m not a dorade fan. “It’s fine,” Harriette assures me, tasting the fish’s cheeks. “That’s Dorade.” And the companion who ordered is not complaining.
A classic coq au vin served with mashed potatoes is another dinner special one cold March evening.
The four of us share thick, rare, meaty bites of the New York strip steak. The frites are not remarkable. The evening’s special coq au vin with mashed pomme de terre is not as pretty as mine was at Café Boulud last week, but it’s good enough. And I savor the plump little dumplings in my gnocchi with shards of ham from aristocratic black-foot pigs though I’m not sure this rugged meat does anything for the subtle pasta.
I wish I’d photographed the original salade folle. It was like a Faberge compared to this limp version.
If you’re fussy, you might want to go to La Goulue expecting less rather than the ne plus ultra. The former chef Antoine Camin, imported from the kitchen of Orsay is still getting the rhythm here. The salade folle of string beans and artichoke shavings, so like a Faberge at an early dinner, is a limp toss one evening a few weeks later when a full house may have overwhelmed the kitchen.
A citrus macaron rides in atop the exquisite lemon tart with Italian meringue .
And save room for dessert -- $13 (for ice cream or sorbet) to $18 (for a tray of pretty mignardises. There’s a roster of sweets the French honor as essentials: profiteroles, a milk chocolate mille-feuille, floating island, dark chocolate soufflé. The lemon tart with Italian meringue wears a citrus macaron on top. The tarte tatin and sometimes a mango tatin, are served warm.
The caramelized tarte tatin is served warm with crème fraîche from Vermont.
Did we order it? Did the kitchen send it as a gift? Suddenly, we are sharing a mango tart tatin.
One by one we veto dessert. “Too full.” “Ate too much.” “Not tonight.” And we plunge into the scrum of coat-shedders, coat-donners and coat-checkers. I clutch the business card of a floor walker with his personal cell number for the night I want to risk La Goulue without Harriette.
29 East 61st between Madison and Park Avenues. 212 988 8169. Lunch noon to 3 pm. Dinner Monday through Saturday 5:30 pm to 11 pm. Sunday to 10 pm.
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