January 22, 1973 | Vintage Insatiable
The High and The Flighty
“…Are real New Yorkers getting hooked on Rainbow Room speed? A festival air lingers even with all ethnic armies in retreat…”
Incandescence. Cool blue jeweled bridges shimmering like the skeleton of a zircon-studded iguana. The sleek lumbering giants of Oz spanned by black liquid mirror. True magic, spine-melting magic…as evocative of innocent romance as gardenias. Walking into the Rainbow Room, 65 flights into the sky, is to ride the ghost of the Ile de France. Pause at the top of the grass-green stairs where once Joan Crawford posed and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson mingled with mere mortals and movie stars in obligatory black tie. Now there stands an aging drum majorette in miniskirt and keen white plastic boots and a floppy white hat. She looks as if she excused herself to go to the powder room three years ago and just got back from retouching her eye shadow.
What a spectacular room. Fresh and green at your toe, all crystal vibration above, nostalgia of chrome and Art Deco, and beyond…that great sea of sky-scraped ozone. What natural frame for high celebration, to toast the newlywed Snowdons or salute “Funny Girl” Streisand or execute opening night rites for Burton’s Hamlet and Zero’s Fiddler. But Elsa Maxwell is gone. Vanished, too, the $3.50 dinner. And where once Bea Lillie clowned on the revolving dance floor, the Rainbow Room now pampers newlyweds from New Jersey, conventioneers, the great unjaded out-of-towner, petulant teenagers, and too, too solid Fraus dressed mother-of-the-bride. There is one now, in Windsor-pink satin come completely unzipped. How to lure the elusive night-town-wary native back to the tourist-polluted-troposphere?
They try…oh, how the Rainbow Room does try, staging one festival after another. Bagpipes and Yorkshire pudding. A blessing of gnocchi and velvet polenta. Five variations on gazpacho. And this week the Fortnight of Greece. All the flavors of the Hellenic isles and the siren bouzouki. Oompa, January 18 to February 4. Five dancing waiters. Six imported chefs. Forty-seven Greek wines. Free worry beads for all. And a triple strand for the perpetrators of this bacchanal: Brody Corporation’s Peter Aschkenasy and the resident choreographer, managing director Tony May.
Together they battle our town’s basest bigotry: the fallout of cultural insecurity that keeps New Yorkers away. “I’d never been to the Rainbow Room myself,” confesses Aschkenasy, a New Yorker born. “No one I knew went there either.” What was the cure? As a graduate of the Renaissance-in-Central-Park under T.P.F. Hoving, Aschkenasy reached for a happening -- something undeniably cultural. A food event. Let the imperiled native rendezvous with his ancestry.
The first ethnic seduction was spectacularly tame, the British Fortnight…perhaps even fatally sedate. The menu was high imported whimsy. The Prince of Wales, a London Buck and the Princess Mary under “libations,” and soused mackerel, My Lord Lumley’s Soup, crimped turbot and oyster sauce, Spatchcock Chicken, lemon posset, and devils on horseback, chocolate flummery and brown-bread ice cream—vanilla, Luv, with polite little flecks of pumpernickel. Bagpipers wailed and a fancy major-domo imported from London had to be taught to carve the beef. Toward the end of the soggy fortnight, the Rainbow Room was like the Empire…deserted, just a few random diners sampling smooth kipper pâté and creamy oyster pudding, one brave couple on the dance floor redeeming the boogaloo.
Next came an ethnic time bomb, a two-week celebration of La Cucina Italiana in all its regional splendor and diversity. The music bruised. The pace was snail’s. The imported chefs were near collapse, the house booked to capacity. The food reached absolute highs and terrible lows, as director Tony May frankly confesses. Still, for a fortnight, the Rainbow Room was the most exciting Italian restaurant in town, daring an ecstasy of pasta and entrées of reach if not of fulfillment. Aschkenasy talked wistfully of extending the fortnight for a year. And then it was over. The kitchen became loosely Continental again with a few Italian hangovers. The Rumanian Government was bidding for a Fortnight. “Then there’s Ireland,” Aschkenasy mused. “We can do this for any country that has a cuisine.” Ah, there’s the rub.
The food of Spain at best stirs lesser enthusiasm. Still, Spain’s regional kitchens have distinctive personalities and last October, for a fortnight, the imported pot at the end of the Rainbow simmered with adventurous tastes of Castilla old and Castilla new, Andalucía, Valencia, Aragon and Navarra. Spain’s Melia hotels sent their cocineros. Twenty-six tapas -- a Spanish smorgasbord of appetite stirrers -- were served with apértifs. And the extras! It was like a GIT excursion tour -- fashion shows with Sunday brunch, cooking class at Saturday lunch, and free sherry and wine tastings every evening. Again, the food was dizzyingly uneven, promising adventure, faltering too often in the execution. And it was foolishly cavalier to offer Saturday diners a taste of food simmered before our eyes by the handsome faculty of the International School of Cooking. Their quarter-of-an-hour soup made the house’s version taste like five minutes. Their stuffed pepper was a prince beside the kitchen’s anemic pretender. And their paella was alive, the house’s a forlorn still-life.
Well, now management has these ethnic flirtations down to an imprecise but workable science. Britain was thrown together in five weeks. The salute to Greece began to jell last May. The key is promotion verging on philanthropy…barter and hustle. Everybody gets a piece of the action: Olympic Airways, Arista Olives, Epirotiki Cruise Lines, and the Greek National Tourist Office. The dancing waiters will rest their feet at the Salisbury Hotel. The menu is pocked with advertisements of the Rainbow’s gratitude. Partisans, imperialists, exiles and revolutionaries may picket but the crème de la crème of this town’s Greek-American community was poised in support. Alas, the Greek ambassador was obliged to show face at a Washington reception for Vice President Agnew that very same night, but a plane was standing by to whisk him north in time to join Johnny Unitas, Maria Callas, John Cassavetes, George Maharis and, if the fates were kind, Aristotle Onassis, opening night.
Each day generated a new crisis. “Shall I rent a spit or buy one?” May brooded. At least the Greeks were bringing their own coffee pots. Will Americans eat sausage of innards? Don’t mention the innards. Greeks like to throw dishes. Give them carnations. Carnations in January? How about daises? “These people have got to throw something,” May observed with trans-ethnic empathy. Rhodes has offered dancing waiters and a pair of rare Dama-Dama deer named Atlas and Rhoda for the Central Park Zoo. “Rhoda is a darling but tremendously shy.” Mayor Lindsay accepts but the Agriculture Department insists the deer undergo quarantine, 60 days in Hamburg, 30 days in Clifton, N.J. Rhodes is insulted. They cable: “Don’t believe prior story. Will have to cancel deer, Mayor and Mayor’s friends.” “I don’t care about the Mayor,” says Tony May, “but I hope they won’t cancel the deer. If they do, we serve venison.”
There is perhaps more oompa than gastronomic brilliance in this celebration, a comment on the Greek kitchen, I suspect rather than a retreat in the Rainbow Room’s ambition. And the tariff is up to $13.25, though there are 47 Greek wines -- possibly more than have ever been assembled under one roof anywhere -- and the captains have sniffed and sipped so they can lead innocents to the pleasanter potions, reserving the turpentiny retsina for those who know and adore it. Rather than risk regional exploration, May has prudently focused on “just the best.” Familiar fare was promised in exquisite incarnation and specialties rarely ventured in New York’s resident Greek kitchens. Easter soup and Aegean fish chowder, marinated grilled silver fish -- slightly bigger than whitebait -- quail pilaf and artichokes à la Constantinople, stolen chicken en papillote, baby squid stuffed with rice and pine nuts, small fired red mullet to eat with your hands -- there is no other ways.”
Even now Aschkenasy is thinking German and Scandinavian. “I want to do a Chinese Fortnight. I know our kitchen isn’t equipped, but I’ll equip it. I’ve already talked to my friends in the White House. ‘Get me chefs from Peking,’ I asked them. They agree it’s a cultural event. But the press treats it commercial: What is the difference between Sol Hurok bringing in the Rumanian Ballet and us bringing in Rumanian chefs?” “We are bringing ballet too,” May agrees. “The chefs are dancing with their pots and pans.”
Are genuine trademark New Yorkers getting hooked on the Rainbow Room speed? A festival air lingers even with all ethnic armies in retreat. The great old ship sails through a clear cold December night. The crew seems addled, the passengers fiercely tacky, but the sea-sky is spectacular. If you’re bored, the strolling troubadours are music. If the conversation is compelling, they are noise. The service can be elegant, professional. But tonight our captain has the air of a man stoned…perpetually disoriented, yet blissfully cheerful, and slightly thrown by our decision to choose the wine first and then find food to complement it. The wine list is studded with power, age and pedigree -- not as greedy in price as some -- but inflated since fall, some bottles higher by 25 per cent. The captain shifts from one foot to another demanding a fast decision. A ’66 Richebourg of the Romanée-Conti is a bargain at $25 (the ’69 is already retailing at $32 and up), but madness as it doubles the cost of the $11.75 dinner. Still, in a room so close to heaven, why not drink with the gods?
“I’d be happy here just eating celery sticks,” cries my friend Felicia, the Sensuous Housewife of West End Avenue. But then comes a stern and inelegant watercress soup. The menu’s aspirations assure you there really is a kitchen down there (not just a single cook thawing flash-frozen gourmet creations in a microwave oven, as one suspects increasingly about town). But the grand plan is simply not realized. I doubt that a turtle has been within five feet of the boula-boula soup, but it is tasty and the snails are generously sauced in a lustily garlicked butter. The braised celery is impeccable, neither mushy nor stringy nor bitter, and the lamb is beautifully rare as ordered, scented with rosemary…lukewarm, alas. The pastry can be soul-stirring, but the pâté of duck tastes of congealed fat in a soggy proletarian crust, and the sweetbreads, smartly flavored with lemon and capers, are a disgrace -- tough, sinewy critters, either by pedigree or from the lack of grooming or simply from being cooked too far in advance.
Rainbow Room loyalists are early diners. By ten the clatter and strum designed to numb the tourist psyche has stilled. The near-empty room regains its dignity. How beautiful it is empty, just as some women look better naked while others look best dressed. From here even the World Trade Center assumes less threatening proportions.
Dining at the Rainbow Room could be a communion with the cosmos. It almost is.
The Rainbow Room, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, PL 7-9090. Seven days 5-1 (dinner); weekends noon-3 (lunch). American Express. Carte Blanch, Diners Club, Master Charge.
Up From Another High
Love is till the best game in town. And man in love is absolutely beautiful. I am not sure if the object of his passion really matters. Let him love rocks or young girls or ophthalmology or a guy named George. A ration of consummation transforms.
And André Surmain loves his life. Antique motor cars, Majorca, sailing, his family…his name, his triumphs, adventure, but not necessarily the incessant detail of running New York’s most consistently pleasing French restaurant -- Lutèce. A few weeks ago Surmain gathered fourteen friends and champions to mark his 52nd birthday -- gentlemen in black tie, women decorously bared and brilliantly painted, all palates keen in great expectation. After the tease of champagne and the fresh foie gras in brioche, after pointedly refusing lobster à l’américaine and one of the house’s voluptuous inventions -- a pastry package of veal and sweetbreads and brain -- after the ’55 La Tâche and the ’49 Lafite-Rothschild and an exquisite chestnut Vacherin in counterpoint with a nectar of Yquem, came the non-surprise: Surmain had sold Lutèce to his sorcerer-chef-partner, André Soltner.
“Everyone thinks I’m crazy,” Surmain brooded. But only for a moment. Exit in triumph. The irascible maverick, champion…and lover. Crazy? Or the sanest man in town?
Once before Surmain sold away the core of his existence -- the family’s thriving cosmetic business, Aziza, alchemists of the perfume made with cognac. “I thought I was selling my life. I went bananas,” Surmain recalled. But this winsome Lutèce, France undiluted, was ahead. It began with the narrow townhouse at 249 East 50th Street and James Beard’s cooking school. Beard and Surmain made pâtés to sell at his wife Nancy Surmain’s boutique -- nice little pâtés at princely prices. Then in 1961 came a few tables, an open garden and a young Alsatian chef in the tiny kitchen. And the most staggering prices in town. The critics were not kind. No wonder André is still almost gracelessly defensive, refighting old battles he long ago won. Now the credits are rolling. Let it be noted in the gastronomic yearbook: the vision of Lutèce is André Surmain’s.
Surmain has been restless for years. He bought himself a farm in Majorca and spent moths there, leaving Soltner increasingly on his own. Lutèce thrives, and now it is Soltner’s, with the treasury of wines Surmain once fondled like jewels -- and priced accordingly. Still the miracle of East 50th Street.
Friday, December 15, was Surmain’s last night as host of Lutèce. In a sleek, ink-blue blazer of the Real Club Náutica de Palma de Mallorca, André said farewell. At 11:30 he kissed a few cheeks and left. Next morning he gathered chewing gum, peanut butter, back issues of Mad magazine and English muffins for his family in Majorca.
“Gather your rosebuds, André.”
He nodded. “And mushrooms and strawberries.”