December 31, 1979 | Vintage Insatiable
The Daring Young Man on Grand Street 

 

Chanterelle was a beacon of light on dingy Grand Street in 1979.

     It's like a mirage…a stage set…a teasing dream. Black streets desolate and littered against the shadowy cast-iron facades on the outer edge of SoHo. Suddenly, a cube of light: a tall storefront magnetically aglow. On the door is written Chanterelle. Inside, a studied elegance. Soaring columns and wooden wainscoting, a blizzard of white linen against gray carpet, a great fan of stately flowers, birds of paradise. A stylish Sally Bowles gets up from a handsome writing desk to greet you, and hangs your wrap in a tall carved armoire.

     If you did not already suspect a serious drama about to unfold (big balloon glasses, splendid bread, a ramekin of sweet butter are all cues), the menu would confirm it. Drawing by Marisol. On the right is the $30 seven-course dinner. For feebler appetites, the a la carte is on the left. Chef David Waltuck is 24, and he is in love with the mythic Fernand Point's fabled Pyramide. The Pyramide, it's three stars tarnished, is not as brilliant as it was, and David Waltuck is not yet as brilliant as he intends to be. But when he is good, Chanterelle is astonishing. And now, while the wine license is pending, you can bring a fine bottle or two (from a cellar cache stocked at a pittance, perhaps, or at least reasonably tagged from a wine merchant). For when the license comes through, dinner for two could run $100.

     Chanterelle was instantly impressive. But with a full house -- SoHo crowd in raggedy chic, a quartet from Dean & DeLuca, including a chef in stained whites -- the kitchen limped along. A fricassee of seafood in delicate sea-urchin cream was slightly overcooked. Scallops, flecked with lime peel and vegetables julienne, humiliated by too long a poaching, arrived in a broken sauce. And the intermission between courses dragged on so long that my companion grew antsy, tipsy, and sodden with bread, butter, and despair.

     "The chef is alone in the kitchen," our waiter confided. "We are only two weeks old," the stylish brunette apologized. "Everyone seems to have arrived at exactly the same moment." It was impossible to guess if it was the chef's philosophy or the chaotic timing that had doomed the seafood.

      Even so, the splendor of his ambitious prix fixe could not be denied. Perhaps the raw salmon might have been sliced thinner, in more aristocratic style. But the oxtail terrine was a triumph of taste and texture, classically garnished. The fish fricassee swam in a delicious sauce. Salmis of duck Eisenhart, named for a friend of the house, was served on two plates -- the breast sliced and extremely rare, accompanied by scalloped turnips, sautéed zucchini, and braised little white onions in a red-wine-and-duck liver sauce; the leg roasted crisp, juicy and pink. There were perfect greens tossed in a zesty vinaigrette and four kinds of cheese from the superlative larder of Dean & DeLuca. Then tart grapefruit sherbet and a tray of goodies -- crisp palmiers, candied grapefruit peel, and glorious chocolate truffles, bitter and dark.

     Two weeks later only three tables were taken. A chill draft leaked through the wainscoting. A rather noisy blower warmed up the room. But the dinner was close to perfection. I floated home in a euphoria of discovery. Imagine, with all the restaurants of SoHo that just miss or don't bother to try, in the iron valley of Manhattan…to find a talented chef with wings of ambition. Imagine a salad of decent confit of duck with ribbons of endive and slivers of scallion in a fine vinaigrette. Creamy herb-scented fish soup, its fish dumpling afloat with a crunch of pine nuts. Gently cooked lobster navarin in a haunting sauce perfumed with cream. Poached sirloin garnished with green sauce, a whole leek, and turned turnips -- an imaginative notion sabotaged by a failure of seasonings. Again, perfect salad. Again, exquisite cheeses: vacherin, Pont l'Eveque, crotin de Chavignol, and a froth of fresh chevre. Slightly snowy pomegranate ice and a little tray of confections. From the a la carte list, a splendid mille-feuille of gently poached oysters spiked with garlic and anchovy in cream, and perfectly cooked chicken in a tasty sauce scented with morels and chives. Ripe pears in a tea sabayon (another inspired notion gone slightly awry -- too much sugar). And all this from a menu written, refreshingly…in English.

     If I'd written at that moment, this would be an unqualified rave. But a third visit put Chanterelle in clear perspective. The truth is, David Waltuck is experimenting as he goes along. His own taste is not fully developed. How else to explain serving a gritty, frozen slab of something optimistically called hazelnut ice cream? His quail eggs were overwhelmed by a red-wine butter made from a wine that reduced to an ammonia aftertaste. The sauce of his sweetbreads with crepes had an after-bite too. Delicious barquettes of buttery spinach and mussels in a creamy tomato-tinged nectar needed a napping of sauce to bring all the elements together. And the chopped tomato garnishing a fine fish terrine wanted olive oil and acid for balance, not walnut oil.

 

It was just Karen and David Waltuck, a dishwasher and two waiters at the beginning.

     Still, most of his instincts are admirable. And with his wife, Karen, an émigré from the high-fashion world, he has turned a tacky Crest-toothpaste bodega and cuchifritos stand into a handsome setting for serious dining.

     Chanterelle is the fruit of the Waltucks' consuming obsession. He had always cooked, but he studied marine biology, "just long enough to know it was the last thing I wanted to do." Six months wandering Europe, eating, exploring the great markets, brought him to the Pyramide in Vienne, just south of Lyon, a career epiphany. Back in New York with no experience at all, he got a job as a cook at the Empire Diner, then did a year at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park and became night saucier and banquet cook at Tavern on the Green. A second year at the CIA was "too stultifying," so he came back to New York and Karen, got a job at La Petite Ferme as sous-chef, and began to plot for the day he would be on his own. All last winter, in long johns, the Waltucks hunted for space till they found this corner on Greene and Grand. They sold shares to raise the $110,000 it took to open the doors. And for a time David and a dishwasher did everything alone. Now he has a second chef. The menu changes weekly, and when the door is locked on Sunday, David comes in to experiment with new dishes for the upcoming weeks. He gets his ideas from what he reads and hears and eats. Sometimes he dreams them too. Two weeks ago he tasted a vegetable sausage at Dodin-Bouffant. The next week he did his own variation: oyster sausage with a sublime watercress cream.

     I wish this review were a rhapsody of discovery and celebration. It almost is. But Waltuck is young. He needs to taste more so he'll know when a sauce is bizarre or a dessert doesn't work. Still, he is already so good, and what he and Karen do is so exciting and unique in the neighborhood, that moneyed SoHo will gamble with him, and the less discriminating may not notice his stumbles. Will you gamble too?

Chanterelle 89 Grand Street, 966 6960 (Now moved of course.)

Insatiable, The Book, Bby Gael Greene









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