December 8, 2014 | BITE: My Journal
La Mangeoire: Au Revoir Christian (CLOSED)
I always order the whole chicken hoping to get leftovers for my salad the next day.
It’s Chef Christian Delouvrier’s last hurrah on Second Avenue. That’s not to say it’s necessarily the end of glory for La Mangeoire. And I’m not suggesting there are no more triumphs possible in Delouvrier’s unusually up-and-down career path. I’m just here to warn those of you who love to eat well. If you long for wonderful, old-fashioned French country cooking -- if you’re a fan of La Mangeoire in its recent Renaissance with Delouvrier as its sun king – you need to move fast.
At La Mangeoire as executive chef, Christian has been the working chef in a tiny kitchen.
The chef has announced he is leaving the kitchen December 23rd to devote himself to consulting -- that vague, ominously non-specific profession of who-knows-what. No one can promise the new chef stepping into his shoes will live up to the challenge.
“Heard you were coming,” Delouvrier says, “so I made a few cassoulets.”
I treated myself to dinner twice at La Mangeoire last week. On Wednesday I came with regulars who brought their own vintage white and red Burgundies. “When I heard you were coming I made a few portions of cassoulet,” Delouvrier greeted me.
This is the chef’s full-blown lamb and pork Castelnaudary cassoulet for two or three or even four.
A proud son of Gascony (local pride seems to go with the zip code), the chef favors a cassoulet of Castelnaudary with lamb and pork, pork sausage and expensive tarbais beans. Tonight’s had chunks of duck and a mix of beans under a proper gravel of crumbs. I shared it with a nephew who’d never tasted cassoulet before, perhaps never heard of it. I remembered last winter I had to persuade Delouvrier to do cassoulet in the bitter chill of January, rather than waiting to make it as a February special. And then it became an item to promote. The best cassoulet in town for me. I recall a giant treasure terrine with enough to serve four or five at a table of the publicists’ guests.
The crumbed egg is perfect but the frisée is strangely dry and the lardons too delicate.
I ate too much toast with dabs of herbed olive oil and too many tiny olives while waiting for the starters. Then alas, I was disappointed in Wednesday’s fries, and also the frisée salad – the poached egg quivered exquisitely, but the scratchy greens were strangely arid. I don’t want bacon wisps, I want lardons you can bite into.
The charcuterie platter might seem redundant if you’re having cassoulet but perfect before the poulet.
We shared our hosts’ “Planche Campagnarde,” -- fine house pâté, smoked duck breast, saucisson sec and fabulous chicken liver mousse, piled on more grilled country bread, with mustard and just a dab of céleri rémoulade. I love céleri rémoulade. It could be a starter, perhaps with an oeuf au mayonnaise, but nothing is quite that simple here.
I suspect the calamari with tomato confit is a hangover from the restaurant’s Riviera menu.
Tonight’s snails were especially lush and tender in their rich tomatoey garlic butter, force fed by virgins from Burgundy I suppose. Sometimes I start with the calamari a la plancha with tomato confit and pine nut purée (a holdover from the Riviera days, I suspect). Fortunately, Delouvrier’s fresh foie gras -- so delicately poached and pink it makes you think you are in France -- does not overlap with cassoulet season. (Just a thought for one’s arteries.)
Christian’s delicately poached foie gras reminds me of great indulgence on the road in France.
On Friday, I’m back with two other friends, one a food world pal who, like me, remembers Christian from his tortured days as chef de cuisine at Le Parker Meridien when Alain Senderens, then the mercurial chef of L’Archestrate, would slam him in public. Once, under a particularly brutal attack, I saw Christian cry. (Click here for my 1981 Vintage Insatiable, “More Confessions of a Sensualist” and scroll down to read about my first tastes in The Maurice, brand new, still unfinished in the new hotel. It doesn’t even mention Christian, just the astonishing dishes emerging from the kitchen, while Senderens lunches at a nearby table.)
A rich side of crusty macaroni might overkill if you’re sharing cassoulet but you only live once.
Delouvrier stayed on at the Maurice for eight years after the hotel severed ties with Senderens. (Thomas Keller worked for him there.) Then in 1991, he moved to three stars at brashly over-the-top Les Céleébrités in the Essex House. There it was possible to share two orders of crushed potatoes laced with butter and buried in a rubble of black truffles, after a warm lobster salad with red bliss potatoes and yet more truffles. (Click here to read “The Sweet Smell of Excess.”)
There are a series of small rooms, beige now in the rehab, with some of the accessories pruned.
That was a recession year of fierce downscaling by most New Yorkers, but at dinner one night in the $5 million jewel box of a room with a well-heeled pal treating, we had truffles every which way and not one, but two duck dishes -- a rustic Gascon braise of duck legs and magret plus the mythic honey-orange-spice lacquered duck Apicius “borrowed” from the Senderens repertoire.
Remembering the chef reduced to tears by a raging Alain Senderens, it’s nice to see him happy.
In the 90s, the Swiss chef Gray Kunz was golden. He knocked our socks off in the very starchy Lespinasse at the St. Regis. Then he offended the wrong people and was forced to exit. Delouvrier moved in. There, I wrote, Christian discovered depths he never knew he had. Quickly, he scored four stars from the Times. (Click here to read my “Lespinasse Encore: Born-Again Christian.”) When Lespinasse closed in 2003, there was talk of two places -- an upscale DeLouvrier and a more modest Terre, but both fell through. That was when Ducasse called him to take over the range at Alain Ducasse, his four-star kitchen at the Essex House.
For a while he was a chef-partner at two La Goulues in Florida.
But when the restaurant lost a Times star, Ducasse threw him out. Delouvrier settled awhile at The Carlyle, cooked as a partner at La Goulue in Bal Harbour and Boca Raton, lighted briefly at Brasserie Ruhlmann in Chicago and then was executive chef at David Bouley’s Secession. In 2009 he signed on as a consultant at La Mangroire, an east side bistro that had been pleasing its regulars for most of its 35 years, without drawing fussy gourmands.
The cauliflower gratin is almost as rich and goopy as the macaroni.
“I’m just training the cooks,” Christian said then, with his usual unassuming modesty. Then in 2011 the resident chef left. The vintage bistro closed for a quick facelift, reemerging a little less yellow, a little more beige, stripped of some of its exuberance -- copper here and there, many colorful paintings, but beaucoup fewer tchotchkes. The menu was no longer dedicated to the Riviera cooking of owner Gerard Donato’s memories. It was now “French Country Cooking” by our Gascon toque, with a section of dishes for 3 or 4 called “Family Style.” (Click here to read La Mangeoire Redux)
The whole roasted chicken stops by your table for oohing and aahing, then goes away to be carved.
Last Friday I had called ahead to order a whole roasted chicken, remembering Delouvrier had said he could only do one or two at a time in the small kitchen’s oven. When we first saw that burnished bird, it came on top of fat fries with Boston lettuce on top to dress with a cascade of buttery chicken fat. Apparently too many customers complained that’s not how they wanted their fries.
I asked for tonight’s fries extra brown, and they are. Impossible to stop eating, with or sans ketchup.
So now the chicken arrives whole and gorgeous for a star turn. You gasp or nod and then the waiter carries it to a counter next to the coat closet and carves it. The fries come in their own glass bowl -- extra brown tonight, as I requested, difficult to stop eating. I order mustard for dipping. “Do you mind if I ask for ketchup?” one of my companions asks. “I don’t want to embarrass you. You know how the French look down on us for ketchup.”
“Ha. I see you have your ketchup,” the chef cries as he walks by spying two little timbales of telltale red.
A first-timer at La Mangeoire insists we try the peas with pearl onion and chanterelles.
The chicken had not spent a minute too long in the fire. It was juicy in its crispy skin, ever-so-slightly pink at the bone. A side of cauliflower gratin was glossed with cream and melted cheese. I’d never had the peas before -- green peas with pearl onions and chanterelles -- a delicate toss. Since all three of us were dark meat lovers, we ordered the braised rabbit leg, just in case the whole bird was not enough. Stewed in white wine with tomato and tarragon mustard sauce, the rabbit joint was moist and savory.
I like the pear tart with almond paste, a version of the classic bourdaloue. A bite or two is enough.
When dessert seems essential, I’ve been happy to share a pear tart with almond paste, the tarte au citron or a coupe Gasconne (prune ice cream with Armagnac and marinated prunes). But on both evenings last week, none of us could even contemplate dessert. The chef was not to be denied. He sent out a small unremarkable profiterole for each of us. One last goodbye.
Owner Gerard Donato’s vintage bistro got a great burst of energy from Chef Christian Delouvrier.
1008 Second Avenue between 54th and 53rd Street. 212 759 7086. Monday to Thursday noon to 10 pm. Friday noon to 10:30 pm. Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 pm. Sunday 11 am to 4 pm, dinner 5:30 to 9:30 pm.
Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.
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