Playing the Celebrity Lunch Game
“I don’t care who they are,” pooh-poohed M. Jacques Tiffeau, leering cozily at the dazzling frozen-in-silicone blonde two banquettes south.
“You look so well, Jacques.” The blonde beamed, a radiance of pampered epidermis. “I saw your picture ---“
“The one in Screw,” deadpanned Jacques.
“The one where you had your clothes on,” she purred. “You look so well.”
Who is that?
“Hmmm...What’s her name, rich lady...I don’t give a ---- who they are. Hello. Hello. Hello.” Crocodile smile. Tiffeau le Sauvage, Seventh Avenue’s prophetic and dogmatic frockmacher, speeds a sardonic ax-murderer’s smile across the room to the industry’s Dowager Queen of Flack, Eleanor Lambert. “Oh, you are in luck. Here comes what’s her name. That rich old lady.... Woodward. Woolworth. The shaky one. Oh, today you have the cream of the cream. You see that old movie star... now she does the Compoz commercial. And well... look who is sitting with John Fairchild. Monsieur Cardin. And Mme. Alphand. Don’t you think she looks like a manicurist? And that one over there...she must be some whore in the garment business. I never remember the name. I don’t give a ---- who is here. When I finish, I put always my shadows---“ He pats a pocketful of aviator goggles. ”I say, ‘Put on your shadows, Tiffeau, and run’ I come here like it is my little pension.”
Mais certainement. Within the erratic permissiveness of the Internal Revenue Code, M. Tiffeau may regard La Grenouille as his little boardinghouse lunch spa. But the once (so briefly) tranquil pension has become the undisputed clubhouse of the Seventh Avenue Mafia, their society molls and haute chumming pols. Publisher Fairchild recalls Rockefeller, Nixon and Bobby Kennedy lunching one noon at strategically separate tables far from their usual knish-calzone circuit. “The front room of Restaurant X is getting to resemble the throne room of the Byzantine court,” the EYE of Women’sWear Daily remarked recently. “Only the jugglers are missing.”
WWD keeps a firm clawhold on its prestige lily pad at la Grenouille (obliquely, “the frogpond,”), documenting the Byzantine soap opera, now worshipful, now petulant, now shrilly irreverent, scolding the dowagers “in their safe little dresses, anchored with safe little status pins,” fanning the flames of revolution against all restaurant pants barriers, snipping at the bear-huntress Carol de Portage in her black vinyl and jewels, documenting the precious excesses of Lulu de la “Brillo hair” and the Vicomte de Rosiere, EYED patting his wife “affectionately on the South Forty.”
On this side of the poverty line, where the daily $9.25 prix fixe lunch (plus tax, tips, Bullshot, Pouilly Fuisse, M.Marc for a comb-out and a recuperative afternoon with Miss Craig) would disintegrate the budget, we can nibble at our cottage cheese on Hollywood diet bread over WWD’s One Man’s Family, the Pop “lunch bunch.” Incest, innocence, impotence and ignominy... the plot lines kink and ravel.
Here is Tony Snowdon munching raw hamburger...Luis Estevez, who “knits his own suits on rainy evenings”... the Rainers at separate tables, Grace calling across the room that homey lament: “I ran out of money”...a certain determined lady designer demanding a table closer to the Duchess of Windsor...that memorable Saturday Babe Paley and her Ba had the imagination to lunch with their very own husbands...Clifton Daniel “apparently assigned to wooing the advertisers” vis a vis Bonwit’s grand old gal Mildred...not one but two ex-Mrs. James Van Alens...Vala Byfield with her diamond as big as an oeuf en gelée...the ubiquitous Obolensky, Ethel, Merle, Lyn and Estee, and all the dauphins of Seventh Avenue.
And who has been banished to the Catsup Room? Siberia. Mercilessly, WWD names names. From the great heartland of Out, we sip our vintage tomato juice and devour sweet assassination. “The only people who will object to a table in the Catsup Room are still climbing,” owner Charles Masson observes. Of course, two Catsup exilings in a row could shake anyone’s confidence. M. Masson once put two blacks he didn’t know from Adam Clayton Powell at a highly strategic banquette...just to prove that the rules of the status game get reinvented every day.
We build castles in Spain. Then one fateful day we decide to move in. Dinner at La Grenouille. How gauche. Nobody has dinner at La Grenouille. The lunch bunch dines after dark at La Seine or the Running Footman or at their own fiendishly chic little supper parties. The Frogpond at twilight is mostly a beaded-sequin no-name crowd.
So many nobodies. And still the pond is jumping at the 8:30 table turnover. The mirrors, spaced to camouflage the narrow confines, echo the now legendary magnificence of flowers and multiply the sense of population explosion in its fatal final hour. Like Klein’s on Columbus Day.
Some highly serious scholars of the haute cuisine consider La Grenouille the best French restaurant in New York: Guidesters Henri Gault and Christian Millau, who make a living sniffing corks and blistering pretenders to great gastronomy, rank Grenouille among the top 20 French restaurants in the world. This deadeye duo romped through two helpings of gigot and beans, their judgment undiluted by a few curses over a wet ashtray. (M. Masson shudders to think how many petits cataclysmes might have soured their enthusiasms: a dirty glass, a torn napkin, a greasy salt shaker, a dirty fingernail. “It takes so little...”
I have never had a dazzlingly great dinner at La Grenouille. The room is sedately handsome. There are no flowers anywhere like Masson’s great heaps of anemones, daisies and pale roses at their absolute prime. It is easy to believe he spends $36,000 a year just on this one passion. The service is pleasant enough, and cheerful, if not always efficient or properly attentive. And the food is good. Sometimes very good...but nothing to devastate the senses, nothing to send you reeling with a sweet intoxication. I shudder to contemplate the state of fashion-society’s liver were it otherwise. But for my non-expenses-account $50, I hope to dine more voluptuously.
And so to the Catsup Room. To the farthest corner...if the table were one inch farther north, we would be steaming in the stock pots. As it is, two anemones and a rose are caught in the rakish shag of one gentleman escort, and an unfettered bosom at the next table threatens to engulf the Kultur Maven’s elbow. Not that he complains. The angle of my corner dictates that I simply cannot raise my wineglass in a natural bend of elbow and hope to encounter my lips. La Grenouille is notorious for ending all arguments over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The answer is: room for two more. It is partly, M. Masson confides, a financial imperative...”We have the lowest profit margin of any restaurant in town.” It is also an aesthetic imperative. The ladies love it. “Atmosphere is primordial,” he suggests. “There is nothing more dreary that a restaurant so spaced out. You feel you are in a place of...how you say?...worship. The ladies tell me they are exhilarated after lunch here. There is a warmth. The warmth is contagious.”
Unhappily, there is no room for elegant service in a contagion ward. Discipline breaks down. The rolling cart simply cannot roll. There is no room to sauce or flame or carve at table. That makes everything seem, at least, less special. It should not affect the temperature of food...but on this night the little necks Corsini were served lukewarm and tough; and tender slices of kidney in a magnificent cream sauce, gently scented with mustard, lost an edge of excellence in a snafu of miscoordination. In the confusion the wrong white wine was chilled...replaced...and the wine ordered, a Muscadet…was served tepid. A Grands Echézeaux deserved time to breathe at any price, but at $18 a bottle, it took two requests, spaced over twenty minutes, before our captain worked the uncorking into his schedule. We nibbled nervously at soggy rolls.
To start the $13.75 prix fixe dinner, there is caviar or foie gras ($12 and $10 extra), smoked salmon ($2.25) or smoked trout ($1.35), ham of Bayonne, a smooth paté du chef and a rich pistachio-and-truffle-studded terrine. Our captain celebrated “le chiox des hors d’oeuvre” as “the best.” And it was...a brilliant sampler of tastes and textures...tender shrimp in a prom-pink sauce, lovely striped bass with a zinged-up mayonnaise, cucumber in a lightly tart parsleyed vinaigrette, nutty céleri rémoulade, a smidgen of somewhat grainy pate, and a sharply tart salade Niçiose. From the immobilized rolling wagon came the plat du jour,filet of beef Perigourdine, scarlet, juicy, butter-soft in a satiny blend of reduced brown sauce, Madeira and minced truffles. The kidneys, less hot than they should be, were served with excellent braised celery. And the Bing cherry-jeweled duck was good, neither over-crispy nor soggy, with mounds of wild rice.
Dessert service was graceless. The waiter parked a saucer of floating island and another of Mont Blanc at the far edge of the table with an advisory that he was off in search of plum tart. He immediately became enmeshed in four other crises. “The Tart. The Tart.” Ohmmff. A smile of remembrance. The pastry was impressive, though ever-so-slightly scorched. The Mont Blanc was a miraculous mountain of sweetened chestnut puree and whipped cream. I found the ratio of island to sauce a disappointment.
Perhaps the climate would be warmer south of Siberia...favorite fantasy of my paranoia. M. Tiffeau, an utter stranger, is game. “You had better make the reservation,” I say meekly. “Ha, Just ask for Tiffeau’s stable.”
It is his accent. I ask for Tiffeau’s table. The air is heady with lemon and electric with potential drama. Like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Tiffeau and the goad of Byzantium, John Fairchild, hold claim on the two corner banquettes...east for Tiffeau, west for JBF. On the cart, the filet of beef again, with puree of spinach. The sexagenarian at the next table rejects that flately: “That’s the same thing they give you in care packages,” he informs the captain.
Enter Jacques. Seconds before he reaches the table, the waiter stations his aperitif: martini on the rocks in a Baccarat balloon goblet. Banish the baguettes...bring on toasted ovals of petit pain. Tiffeau orders his favorite Bordeaux, Chateau Petreus -- not the ’53 listed on the wine card at $50, but the ’62, a bargain at $25. He will have cheese soufflé. He wants mollet in the middle...a soft-boiled egg. M. Masson himself is summoned to hear the specifications.
Tiffeau peels the gelée from his poached egg hors d’oeuvre...”Gelée is like a ruffle on a dress...put there only to hide some terrible mistake.” My salade Niçiose is splendid but ignored as Tiffeau tears into the cast of characters, “Eat well, Mr. So-and-So,” he calls behind a muffling hand, with a wicked lurch of eyebrow in the direction of producer Fred Brisson. “His show is going to be a disaster. I’ve made three bets already. Who cares about Chanel?”
“ I never bring anyone here for business,” Tiffeau assures me. “It’s like talking through the peephole. Most of them have nothing to say to each other anyway, except...”How beautiful you look today.” He drops his fork. “The soufflé is too cooked...and what happened to my mollet?” I gulp. I have just eaten it. For the sake of research, Tiffeau agrees to order dessert. The plum tart is mushy...”But what a pastry.” The chocolate mousse is a deep dark chocolaty confection, though I prefer a heavier texture. The whipped cream is curiously anemic, but the Grand Marnier sauce, spectacular. Tiffeau makes no apologies. His pension is the best in New York...”and maybe in the world.”
At the door is Charles Masson, a handsome, virile, emotional man, consumed with detail, a study in controlled energy. A graduate of L’Academie Pavillon and a veteran of the American Export Lines, descendant of a hotel family...”I was born peeling potatoes,” he says. Between lunch and dinner, he jogs at the New York Athletic Club, then stops at his other favorite restaurant, Horn & Hardart...”You’re not going to believe me...I like the Yankee bean soup.” Once he refused an interview; “I prefer to remain a small underground restaurant.” Now he is gracious and warm. “I have spoken to the soufflé man,” he assures Tiffeau. “I found him making a chocolate birthday cake for tonight and I told him no...no...a birthday cake must be gay...it must be white with pink piping.”
“I love that man,” marvels Tiffeau. “He cares so much.”
M.Masson is a charmer, devoted and sincere. But One Man’s family just isn’t mine. Byzantium is more glorious from afar.
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