February 21, 1983 | Vintage Insatiable
Shooting for Stars at The Polo

        For those of us drawn time and again to chef Roger Vergé's beautiful old stone-mill inn so showered with Michelin stars, it's as if the perfumes of Mougins and the South of France have been magically transported to the Polo Restaurant, on Madison Avenue. And what an odd setting. The Westbury Hotel's old Polo Bar is all spiffed up, subdued, and clubby, with its brass polo mallets to grasp at the door, a pleasant length of dark paneling, toast-and-red paisley banquettes, brass hurricane lamps, horse prints in measured clusters…and Vergé's protégé at the Moulin de Mougins, Patrice Boëly, as the number-one whisk.

        Escoffier knows, our town has tangled with nouvelle cuisine -- we're up to our eyebrows in kiwi. So it's exciting to discover another nuance, a certain Vergé signature -- the pickled fruits and vegetables that pop up in unexpected places, a trace of coconut milk in a gossamer froth of spinach soup, the stunning asymmetrical collage of lamb's lettuce and berries that graces a garnish, a raspberry Rorschach blot on the plate below a nectarine tart. No, it's not instant perfection. The eye's astonishment is not always matched by the mouth's joy. But there are enough dazzlers emerging from the Polo's kitchen after ten weeks of this new incarnation to fill the house with that special breed of anonymous rich New Yorkers claiming their neighborhood turf…and clearly pleased with the buttery elegance.

        A fast lunch in December beguiles and bemuses. Tasting tender medallions of lobster in a warm "salade" with fresh fruit and blanched vegetables in a sedate, thin beurre blanc, as well as a paillard of salmon (so barely cooked it is close to sashimi) in an almost pure butter bath, makes me think I've encountered genius or a joke. Dinner some weeks later rules out both possibilities. This attempt is serious -- and uneven. Dinner begins with the happily obligatory amuses-bouche -- the little offerings with aperitifs: first, a dab of sea urchin, salmon mousse in fleurette, two tiny overlapping triangles of salami on crisped disks of toast; then, wide, almost transparently thin ribbons of salmon, bass, and turbot "cooked" in lime and dill, absolutely sparkling under a scattered crunch of carrot and radish shavings and served with black bread and a molded swan of sweet butter. The salmon terrine looks like an aristocratic seven-layer cake -- leaves of salmon and sorrel pressed between levels of fine white sole-and-scallop mousse, served with a pungent fluff of horseradish-spiked cream. Sole cleverly sparked with spicy tomato purée comes framed with a pastry so raw it tastes like fat. But a chicken-and-duck pâté with hazelnuts is wrapped more appealingly and served with a heavenly tart Cumberland sauce. Between courses, tangy lime ice in a puddle of vodka with julienne of fresh mint refreshes palates scarcely jaded, but so what? Frankly, it would please more as a splendid finale, but our table of sybarites, trained to excess, fails to protest.

        Our waiter, a longtime Polo Bar veteran not yet fully broken to the Polo's new track, flings plates and drops a menu over my friend's head, sliding it down his nose. One of us orders "la crème canalou" -- that sublime spinach soup. "It's seven heaven," the waiter cries. As a quartet assembles to deliver entrées under silver domes, he calls, "Okay, get your cameras ready…one, two, three, snap." Domes rise all at once in hysterical parody of a nouvelle ceremony that is often a giggle anyway.

        Fingers of sole and plump warmed oysters and crayfish on a bed of spinach float in a soup bowl of rich, flavorful cream -- a celestial triumph. But all other entrées, exquisitely garnished with perfect dabs and nubbins of vegetables, all impeccably poached, sautéed, or roasted, are strangely listless…flat and unseasoned…sweetbreads, duck, turbotin -- all. A fillet of vapid salmon flanked with bitter avocado is tucked uinder a meaningless roof of puff pastry -- elements united without reason. Still, hopes ride high. After all, sweet moments are legendary at the Moulin de Mougins.

        Our waiter, as full of gossip as gaffes, must now be persuaded to bring the dessert menu. Doling pastry from the rolling chariot must be simpler. To make amends he drizzles crème anglaise on everything and then forgets that final grace -- pretty cookies, cream puffs, and candied strawberries.

        And that's the way it goes now: schizophrenic service. At some tables, a model of dignity and snap. At others, slapstick or utter neglect. Ask for water and you get Evian, poured to half-mast in a balloon goblet as if it were vintage wine. Ask for "New York water, please." A comedy of errors ensues. Once it took so long they could have sent out to borrow some from the Carlyle. At a second dinner, it is a struggle to get white wine poured. The palate-clearing ice never appears. The full house creates painful cacophony. Lunch is more tranquil.

        And the kitchen continues to be fitful. The triumphs: An intoxicating puddle of cream-enriched broth with several rounds of lobster (ever so slightly tough) and perfect vegetables. Lovely mousseline of lobster, one night's lush special. Intensely rich cold cream soup chockablock with bits of asparagus. The warm salads that vary with the market. Tenderest bass wrapped in lettuce, served with tasty wild mushrooms. Alas, the duck is not really rare, not very tender (though chestnuts in cabbage warp are wonderful). Pompano tastes less than impeccably fresh, its fennel sauce timid. A venison terrine is sadly bland (much as I love the pickled turnip hidden within). Liver, served rare, as requested, is good at lunch. And the foie gras of the salade Mikado is superb, though the bouquet of fruits and vegetables -- snow peas, mushrooms, avocado, grapefruit, little frizzles of lettuce and radicchio - could use a bit more of the soft-spoken vinaigrette.

        Though this à la carte excursion (entrées $15 to $21 at lunch, $19 to $24 at dinner) may run $100 to $125 for two after dark, the sweet final moments do have a way of soothing. The stinging verity of raspberries in a lush custard gratin is an inspired version of  a confection most restaurants oversweeten. Here the berries' acid explodes in your mouth. The melting tang of a lemon tart is equally thrilling. Hazelnut fluff, slightly overcooked lemon soufflé, nectarine tart, smooth sorbets (their fruit too often blurred by an excess of sugar), and a racy raspberry Bavarian are good enough. But the praline ice cream dressed up with quills of toasted almond to look like a porcupine is wonderful. And a little meringue swan stuffed with lush poufs of custard and whipped cream is a delicious conceit floating on a sea of melted honey ice cream in a ring of raspberries and candied violets.

        It would be naïve to imagine that the full splendor of the Moulin de Mougins is already in flower here, but the buds are blooming. Already the fickle chic are hovering. A few nights ago, fashion penitents for whom W.W.D. is a bible were here…she in whiteface and knickers, he in hard-rock motley, a duo especially iridescent among the tweed and flannel and black crêperie of this Zip Code. Word is about. The Polo has pleased the local gentry. Once the chef has time to relax, to taste and rethink, to edit and master the special quirks and delights of our local flora and fauna, it's fair to imagine he may grow surer and the Polo more brilliant.

        Westbury Hotel, 15 East 69th Street 212 545-9141

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