November 25, 1968 | Vintage Insatiable
The Quintessential Soulé Food
Henri Soulé was the headmaster of America's prep school in haute cuisine, fabled Le Pavillon. Two generations of expatriate Frenchmen-captains, waiters and sauciers- did advanced studies in arrogance, ambiance and aspic with the mercurial master, then went on to stud the side streets of Manhattan with Pavillon offshoots: La Caravelle, La Grenouille, Lafayette, Le Mistral, a dozen more. Only one descendent was directly blessed. That was the Côte Basque. It was his own, his 55th Street "philanthropy," "Pavillon for the poor."
In circles where eating is an art, an obsession, a sublimation, a status game, Soulé was the recognized master. It was only after he died when in a rage of pride and stubbornness (the fatal union snarl) that another dimension was revealed; Henri Soulé the lover. A fat man with pasty face, owl eyes, unnatural grace, this romantic hero! Many had assumed and some had written that the ubiquitous Mme. Henriette silently toting l'addition at the Pavillon cashbox was Mme. Soulé. But non. Now, from the darker shores of Bayonne came the wife who had refused to suffer la vie Manhattan. She came to claim her inheritance. Secretly bohemian in life, strictly bourgeois in death, this Henri. Le Pavillon went to the highest bidders. But sentiment was served with the purchase of Côte Basque by Henriette. "I wish to keep the name of Henri alive," she said.
Only she is permitted to invoke the magic of the Soulé name.
It is there on the canopy. The Pavillon spirit is there too. Not merely in the cellar with its half share of the Soulé wine hoard. Not only in the food which can rise to Pavillon hautesse. It is in the air. Electricity. Drama. A tension, as if something special were about to happen, not just another dreary duck in orange sauce but the original duck in the quintessential orange sauce.
Waiters hop to. Bus boys on petit pain patrol look alert. Madame's eyes glaze as her radar sweeps the room. The ambiance is unmistakably familiar now that M. Martin, Soulé's deputy for a quarter-century, has come out of a premature retirement, calm, cynical, much-too-knowing, with a Soulé instinct for the courtly gesture: champagne or a brandy for an old friend of the house. Martin's red face blushes scarlet as bodies swing through the revolving door per appointment and are ushered to tables as if they were being led before the Queen and not merely to a red velour banquette in a room that is discreetly lit and perfect in a dear, warm, corny way.
You are seated at once. You are not required to paper the bar with green for a prescribed period before earning a table. And you are not permitted to make a reservation for a table that doesn't exist. There is a table. It is yours. You need not fear that the unexpected arrival of Rudi Nureyev or Charles Revson will usurp your table. Silly. Charles Revson wouldn't be caught dead at that table.
Ah, there's the rub. Côte Basque will put you in your place. It may be disheartening to be reminded of who you are and worse, who you are not. You are not Pat Lawford. You are not Bill Blass. You are definitely not Sol Hurok, nor, ha, the Duchess or Windsor. You are not even Pat Nixon. Your fiancé, once known as the Sheik of Fleet Street, did not propose to you at that very table? Then you are not Margaret Truman Daniel.
Henri Soulé did not invent the tyranny of the fine French restaurant. But he was a virtuoso of the tyrannical style. He knew only too well…should Eugenia Sheppard look up from her cold stiped bass and fail to see 22 familiar faces -- never mind the fabled glory of your sauce gribiche -- Eugenia might get an itchy feeling she'd wandered into the wrong restaurant. So crucial to survival is snob-seating protocol that an extra table will be lugged from out back and set up in an aisle to accommodate somebody really momentous, somebody like Amanda Burden. You need not be born to restaurant royalty, however, money, power, a cunning press agent, even just regular attendance, will do.
There is no Larousse Guide to Table Status either. Nor is there any logic to the game. Some of the most pleasant tables are tucked into Siberia, while the pets in status row get numbed by traffic, buffeted by dessert carts or whipped by passing sables. So, Siberian exile would scarcely matter to a man of emotional equanimity, were it not that the excellence of service is similarly distributed, comme il faut. Well, my dear, you cannot let an untried galoot slop billi bi on the Duchess’s Givenchy. Let him find his equilibrium sloshing the masses, it's the same superb quénelles eminence wherever you sit but hostile is hostile. Nothing can curdle the joy of a fine turbot in a perfect hollandaise more quickly than a sullen captain (fill-in for an absentee), disinterested, uninformed and vengeful when you catch him in an error. I've been royaled and I've been Siberiaed. It's like eating in two different restaurants. Only a special pet is likely to get a conspiratorial whisper from Madame: "Don't eat the rice today." Not even everyday pets get cookies. The first time I saw a complimentary macaroon at La Côte Basque was at lunch with Craig Claiborne. No one will bring you salad either, unless you ask, at which point the average everyday paranoid may feel like leaping off the trompe l'oeil terrace into the trompe l'oeil harbor of St. Jean de Luz.
Obviously, not everyone comes here to eat. Those embalmed-alive ladies on the Beautiful People lunching circuit nibble at omelettes and pay the $8 tab without a murmur. The lunch menu is drastically limited- and, sometimes highly uninspiring. If you haven't a chance to survey the cold table, demand an inventory of what's there: great things are done daily to seafood and vegetables: the cold striped bass with green sauce or sauce gribiche, crabmeat salad, salade niçoise, celerie remoulade. For gourmands, jaded or otherwise: oeuf á la gelée to start, hors d'oeuvre varies as entrée (if you have specific preferences, be specifically demanding).
The prix fixe dinner is $12.50 plus 60 cents for coffee but drinks, wine and $4 supplement for certain Pavillon specialties can send the check soaring. Don't settle for lamp chops. If you're parting with $50 to feed two, make sure the chef stands on his ear. Don't be rushed. Or intimidated. Try poularde poêléc crème a l'oseille or lobster au porto or the incredible quénelles éminence- ethereal dumplings of pike and sole in lobster-studded champagne sauce. Chef Pierre La Verne was the Pavillon fish chef under Clement Grangier (since gone on to the greener pastures of Campbell's Soup) and learned his lessons well. You may order a soufflé or soufflé-stuffed crepes (à la Pavillon) for $2.75 extra if you're nostalgic for the Soulé era, but you do just as well on the rolling cart: oeufs á la neige, Scotch pudding (Pavillon regulars were great pudding addicts) and sometimes, marrons au mont blanc- a purée of chestnuts with whipped cream. The strawberry tart is an inevitable but the pâtissier recently did something sensational with blueberries -- piled them in a tart, ungelatinous, non-overcooked state on a shell of crisp pastry, a pure experience of blueberry. Watch for other non-cliché breakouts.
Henri Soulé used to bemoan his own indispensability. "When you go to the doctor, you do not want to be treated by the nurse," he said. And it was true: Le Pavillon drooped, receipts dropped, whenever he was away. It would be the ultimate tribute to Soulé if both houses faded out of fashion and into mediocrity.
But the Côte Basque has not faded. Madame runs a tight shop. "My little adding machine," the estate's executor calls her. She may lack Soule's ferocity and Martin, Soulé's authority. But La Côte Basque still bears a Soulé stamp. For terrible-tempered Papa Henri was not only a perfectionist, a professional, a proud and stubborn man. He was also a hypnotist. The electric tension, the drama of arrogance and acceptance, the sense-salivating activators…all were woven into our hypnotic trance, and I'd like to believe in the lasting power of post-hypnotic suggestion.
5 East 55th Street.
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