24 August 2013

Lost City Asks, "Who Goes to La Grenouille?"

It took me 25 years of living in New York to get to La Grenouille. Now that I've been, I will be back many times. It easily established itself within five minutes as one of my favorite New York restaurants. There's some sort of magic going on in that beautifully lit, flower-strewn place—a combination of lighting, service, decor, food, conversation and company—that makes life good for the couple hours you're in there. Unlike most of the hot new restaurants today, La Grenouille sends me away becalmed, happy and satisfied. I don't mind spending $100 there on a dinner with that payoff.

Here is my Eater column:

Who Goes There? La Grenouille
Is 52nd Street New York's most civilized street? Yes, there are long stretches of soulless office buildings on the one-time Swing Street. But over on the east edge, near the U.N., you have the dignified Le Perigord. Near Fifth Avenue, in the Seagram Building, is magisterial yet modern The Four Seasons. And on either side of Fifth Avenue, there is the cosmopolitan '21' Club and the elegant, ebullientLa Grenouille.
I had been thinking of writing up La Grenouille early on in the life of this column. It was somewhat forlorn and forgotten back then, one of the last standing soldiers in what was once a regiment of fine, old-school French restaurants in Midtown Manhattan, and largely forgotten by au courant diners. But then The New York Times re-reviewed favorably in 2009, and the old girl was jolted back into relevance. It didn't need any help attracting customers. It still doesn't. On a recent weekday night, it fairly throbbed with life. Every diner looked in the pink, fairly glowing with health in the amber glow of the dining room's many sconces and tableside lamps. Huge floral arrangements exploded in every corner. The hall buzzed with conversation and satisfied consumption. Was there a happier room in Manhattan? I doubted it.
I don't know if I've ever received service as effortlessly attentive as I did that night. I was greeted within five seconds of swinging open the door. My coat was dispatched within 15 seconds. I lost count of how many times I was addressed by my surname. My slightly early presence noted in the reservation book, I spent a lovely five minutes at the small front bar, sipping one of the best Martinis I'd had in months, before I was ushered to my table. It was a good table, too, one that probably should have been awarded to a regular or bigwig. But they gave it to me.
The restaurant's staff has that knack, only learned through long experience, of being available, but not too available. They are helpful in their menu suggestions, but not overwhelming or patronizing. They are servile, but not obsequious. They are polite and professional, but not haughty. They work with ease, but are not casual. It's all about balance, and they've found it.
Le Grenouille's dress code only requires that men wear a jacket now, but many of the regulars go the whole nine yards anyway. The clientele is largely composed of New York's well-heeled, but you get people of all sorts and all ages. Some have obviously been there many times; others are obviously there for a special occasion. Half the room was under 40, which is saying something for a place that's been around a half century.
The food, in my opinion, is top notch, and—this being a French restaurant—served with surprising rapidity. The frogs legs, the wild-mushroom risotto, the sweetbreads, the Dover sole, the kidneys with mustard and Cognac all arrived with due speed. I hate to denigrate any of many wonderful restaurants I've been to over the past five years, but it was without a doubt the best meal I've eaten in service of this column. I lingered for quite some time. No one rushed me. I was thankful for that. I was in no hurry to rejoin the outside world.
—Brooks of Sheffield

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