October 29, 1973 | Vintage Insatiable
My Weekend Black Book for Lovers, Children and Gourmets
A Weekend for Lovers.
Imagine that all your modest, secret sexual fantasies have suddenly materialized in the living room. Scary? That’s exactly the delicious panic that overcomes a modestly disciplined gourmand upon first inhaling the fantasy of Zabar’s (2245 Broadway at 80th Street).
Some Sundays are safest confronted on the horizontal from under an ancient resurrected patchwork quilt while someone who loves you braves the flare of sunlight to bring home pumpernickel onion rolls. To do Zabar’s justice, you ought to lock the door and let loose a nature-ripened appetite to ad lib a picnic brunch. Certainly, any neighboring delicatessen or appetizing emporium could bundle together viands and smoked finny things, bialys and sweet butter…but nobody can do it with quite the depth of Zabar’s. The lover too distracted, too disoriented, too pressed to choose his own, may follow my sybaritic fantasy:
A quarter pound of Scotch salmon ($2.75, sliced), a small wheel of Reblochon (1.49 for 8 ounces), three quarters of a pound of Jarlsberg ($1.20), a log of Chevret ($1.79), half a dozen pumpernickel sesame rolls (10 cents each), some sweet butter (69 cents per half-pound), a jar of Hero greengage plum preserves (69 cents per 12 ounces), one exquisitely ripe mange (about $1 each), a giant pink grapefruit (59 cents for a huge one), a bagel or two for traditionalists (10 cents each), some Russian coffee café ($1.75 per pound), a pound of mocha-java ($1.59 per pound).
After the salmon, the sweet butter, the coffee cake, and the de-crumbing, after the New York Times… a nap, perhaps, and then a light supper, still on the horizontal… if I’m feeling like an adult, I like champagne and fresh strawberries in bed; if I’m feeling like a child, then rum raisin ice cream.
Orsinis’s (41 West 56th Street) is blatant bodytalk at noon, shadowy lovers’ lane after dark. Like an Italian lover, Orsini’s is unsubtly sexy, petulant, demanding…an irresistible con…a transparent liar, expensive. No wonder women court it, no wonder I adore it.
Orsini’s, like your hotly romantic lover, simply must not be taken too seriously. Don’t let the outrageous prices make you tense. Love and gnocchi are only a game. No one goes to Orsini’s for the food. One goes for the people, the mood. Downstairs at dinner is so Old Black Magic – red velvet, wrought iron, muted chandeliers, shaded candles – it is impossible to see who is tucked into the shadows. And that is sexy, too. Nothing is spared except, Grazie a dio, gyspy violins. Armando Orsini, solid and handsome Playboy Prince of Pasta, stalks his shadowed principality, kisses hands, kisses fingertips, kisses cheeks…
You don’t have to be a bold summer lover to appreciate Le Madrigal (216 East 53rd Street), and though it is not the exclusive extra-marital retreat for Manhattan lovers, it is ideal. It defies all lovers’-hideaway-clichés. There is not a shadowed ell, not a secluded corner, not a breath of mystery or intrigue. The room is small, open, with fresh, fanciful architectural definition, all in citrus wash – lemon, lime, orange. Madrigal is innocent. It is naïve. Nothing deceitful or even slightly wicked could possibly flourish here. And the tablecloths are discreetly ankle-length.
Co-owners Raymond Desgigot and Albert Teyssedou are incurable romantics. After all, they note, what is a madrigal but a poem or song of love? Raymond prides himself on subtlety and discretion in maters of extra-marital etiquette.
For a truly theatrical seductions, I choose the Four Seasons (99 East 52nd Street). The room makes you feel like you’ve arrived and conquered New York. Power is an infallible aphrodisiac. You command a table by the pool…order ahead from the menu that promises rare sensual delight, a sampler of the classic and the unholy whimsies of the season. For her a mousse of ham in a peach or avocado crepe. For him a brace of quail…something imaginative and masculine…a big, bold sensuous burgundy from their wine list, newly inflated but still more gentle than most.
Rainbow Room (30 Rockefeller Plaza) is true 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. 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 a natural frame for high celebration. The kitchen has its reverses and its occasional triumphs. If only the food were consistently glorious…if only the crowd weren’t quite so tacky. Still, in a room so close to heaven, I’m not sure such lapses really matter. Dining at the Rainbow Room could be a communion with the cosmos. It almost is.
Gael’s Weekend of Junk Food and Other Aberrations
My respect for the glories of French cuisine are unsurpassed, but I am a fool for junk food. Large portions fail to depress me. I love chestnuts, macaroons, gummy little gnocchi, sweetbreads, crunchy peanut butter, fresh lichees, and tart, definite seasoning. My favorite wine is Margaux but I love a fruity Mosel-blümchen, hokey rum drinks, New York tap water, canned grapefruit and diet cranberry juice (before they took away the cyclamates and left it tasting pruney).
I also love McDonald’s burgers. They are a bland ounce and a half, 100 per cent beef with a plop of catsup, mustard and pickle and a computed sprinkling of onions – all on a sesame bun. But the total performance is reliable. Their filet of fish sandwich (45 cents) is fluffy, the chocolate shake is chocolaty, and their hot apple pie is flaky, crisp and good. Mac says the secret of their fries is youth. They are never more than 7 minutes old, although there is no guarantee that a particular unit or counterman will dump senile fries in the garbage can per textbook. But from the way they taste, I wouldn’t be surprised if they really do. Mes compliments to the computer.
Mexican food is not quite junk and not quite gastronomy. I guess It’s an aberration. I satisfy my passion for enchiladas, tacos and chile rellenos at El Faro (823 Greenwich Street and 40 West 72nd Street) and when I feel like fighting the crown, settle in at El Parador (325 East 34th Street), the Lutèce of the Tex-Mex circuit.
I love chile, and I’m a fool for great chile, but haven’t yet found the Fahrenheit 451 chile parlor of my red-hot dreams. Send in your suggestions.
As for dessert: if I have only one life to live, let me live it next door to Baskin-Robbins and its incredible changing parade of 31 flavors – perfectly stable minds creak and cloud under the pressure of decision. But I keep coming back to English toffee, Mandarin chocolate and pralines and cream.
A Weekend with the Kids
I weep for the prematurely ossified palates, the paralyzed taste buds, of our hamburger-fixated young. Taste must be acquired. Indulge the kids by taking them to McDonald’s and Baskin-Robbins (see Junk Food, above), but do teach them about food at an inexpensive and good French restaurant like Résidence or Le Bec Fin. And definitely give them wine (you can dilute it with a bit of water). So what if they turn into winos; at least it might keep them from popping pills…I happen to be an expert on child-raising. Like most non-parents.
Absolutely obligatory for kids and visiting homefolks: Autopub in the lower chassis of the General Motors Building (Fifth Avenue and 59th Street). It is one step beyond Gerber’s mashed apricots, and there is not a gamble anywhere. It is All-American Most-Likely-to-Succeed Pap: steak, steak, steak and hamburgers, hot turkey sandwiches, bacon-lettuce-and-tomato. And the desserts: apple pie and the velvety pop voluptuousness of soft ice cream. But kids will be riveted into decorum by the automobiliana. Stash them in the “drive-in” movie room. There, if you’ve got a fussy eater on your hands, you might get to sneak a piece of meat into his mouth while he’s watching the film. Parents are advised to drink only – no use ruining your disposition that early in the day…
Molfetas (306 West 47th Street near Eighth Avenue) serves good Greek food at pre-war prices. Even finicky eaters may be willing to experiment with the exotica if they can choose it themselves from the cafeteria lineup – and if not, there’s always leg of lamb, well done.
Kids love Hawaii Kai (1638 Broadway between 50th and 51st Streets). Obviously Polynesian food was invented for children. Dripping with the South Seas décor…the gastronomic insult quotient is high here. Very small children may share a grown-up’s dinner at no additional charge; those over ten or thereabouts are urged to sup on appetizers (from $1.75 the plate). Entrées start at $3.75.
And The Dumpling House (17 Division Street) has extraordinary dumplings – what else? – and crisp, zesty scallion pancakes.
Mothers like: Chinese restaurants: “Anything goes.” The Great Outdoors: The Zoo Cafeteria and Bethesda Foundation Café… “Kids can run around between courses and be amused by freaks and seals.” Exotica, Japanese-style: Benihana…”It’s fast and like theater and they can see what goes into each dish.”
Kids tell me they like: the Autopub, the Cattleman and the computerburgers of McDonald’s. Looking at the Cattleman through misopedic eyes, it is impossible to see why any sane human over the age of twelve would brunch here. It is The Sunday Children’s Hour in this handsome balconied saloon. But kids are mesmerized by the sheriff, free badges, stage coach rides and enough French fries to stuff in their ears.
Gael’s Menu for a Gastronomic Binge
For me New York glamour is still…being kept by a Wall Street broker who takes me to brunch in the Palm Court of the Plaza (Fifth Avenue at 59th Street). So here we are, glowing in the soft pink light. Certainly I am disillusioned to see that the satin brocade love seats are actually, close-up, kelly green vinyl. Where are the Georgian silver coffee pots? Doesn’t anybody care about real marmalade or wrapping those pathetic mock brioches? At least keep them warm.
Still, it is the Plaza, my fantasy, and hooray! I am not too jaded to love it. The coffee is the best American coffee I’ve ever had in a New York restaurant – cup after cup poured promptly by the waiter without a reminder. The crowd is a microcosm of Upper Midtown Manhattan: tightly coiffed tourists, straight-arrow and probably not nearly as boring as they look, young lovers, a Geraldine Chaplin lookalike, hat manufacturers, honeymooners, husbands with wives not necessarily their own, a chic pair smoking his and hers cigars.
The $6.50 brunch – from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. – is proper and uptight, not even a little bit rash: poached egg Benedict, hot quiche Lorraine, scrambled eggs with bacon, sausages, or ham, an aristocratic corned beef hash, and chicken livers du jour. In addition, you may make your way to their cold buffet setup for a variety of salads, salmon, cream cheese…and more of whatever you can eat.
At Trattoria (45th Street entrance to the Pan Am building), the resident magician, Lorenzo Dolcino, the pasticceria wizard, makes zuppa Inglese that is the best I have ever tasted – wantonly rich, studded with fruit, scented with sweet liqueurs, paved with chocolate shavings. And there is the richest ice cream in town, especially the coffee, brilliantly flavored from Dolcino’s laboratory of imported potions, smartly sophisticated ices and his wicked dark and haunting tartufo, served, alas, too frozen to savor…let it thaw a bit.
You couldn’t have a gastronomic binge or even a weekend without pasta…I dream of the restaurant that calls itself PASTA! Not just a quick-lunch gimmick, but dedicated to the pasta faith, exploring the treasury of regional whim, everything cooked to order, properly al dente…offering not only slow-cooked sauces that brew all day but also those swift last-minute blendings of the very best oil and fresh-snipped herbs.
Until that dream is fulfilled, the Trattoria da Alfredo comes close…a tiny storefront miracle on Hudson and Bank Street. The pasta, ten ways, is properly al dente, with sauces of both long, slow melding and fast, last-minute subtlety. And on Saturday afternoon you’re apt to see a famous restaurateur on his day off sipping Burgundy with a girlfriend. And that is Jim Beard dining with gusto at the big round table in the window. There’s more of the same at the Caffé da Alfredo, 17 Perry Street (near Seventh Avenue South) – where pasta is served with respect.
France undiluted thrives at the Restaurant Lutèce (249 East 50th Street)…brilliant, eccentric, individual and alive. The menu in your hand is a dazzling graphic excursion…at night, in numbered editions, a la carte prices listed on the host’s carte only. Even the $11 price fixe (coffee, incredibly, 50 cents extra) lunch listing courts the jaded palate by brushing the clichés lightly and adding cold pike pâté in crust with watercress sauce, morels in cream, fleshy beef Wellington crôute…adventurous plats du jour, always a few fresh flights of fancy on the dessert table.
Lunch at Lutèce can be absolutely glorious, sense-reeling. The pâtés and pastry-wrapped packages are magnificent. Chef-owner Andre Soltner is a wizard with pastry. His sweetbreads in a carrot and onion puree are sublime, and recently he invented a sunshine tarte – sliced oranges on orange-spike crème patissière. And ode to Linus Pauling.
A real gastronomic binge must include a Chinese banquet. The place to go would be The Flower Drum, (856 Second Avenue near 46th Street), a restaurant dedicated to seasonal cuisine as well as the “universal preferences.” For our banquet for seven people, we informed owner Pao Peter Lee that we wanted a dish of the season, then something spicy – very spicy, truly spicy – and entrées served no more than one or two at a time, with an assortment of appetizers for openers. “Flounder for your seasonal dish,” he suggested, “then host spicy chicken…and one beef, one shrimp, one pork.” It sounded fatally vague to me. But he seemed excited, so we surrendered.
From that moment on, dinner was sheer dazzle. It had suspense, intrigue, climax, falling action and coda. Our imperial feast cost $70.80 plus tax. Minus the $17.50 bar bill, the check averaged less than $8 a person.
For the best country Chinese food in town: Hunam across the street (845 Second Avenue)…start with four cold delicacies. Then beef served with sharp fried watercress. The General Gau duckling and the sliced leg of lamb are a voluptuous and spicy mystery – is it really lamb, is it really duck? Hunamese alchemy. The turnip cakes are mild…the tripe is slightly rubbery but very good…the food here is hot, hotter – fiery. Ask for Michael Tong and get him to lead you to the volcano in prudent steps. Then plunge.
For overindulgence: Jim Beard’s cure is nothing but champagne for 24 hours. For a hangover, my cure is a glass of apple cider to start the day.
The dernier cru in hypochondriacal and digestive chic has always been…imported mineral water. However, when you wake in the night with a dry mouth, you can drink New York tap water out of an Evian bottle (although Badoit is the current chic fizzy one).