31 October 2006

Time Machine at 60th and Lex

In my recent visits to Le Veau d'Or and Gino's, I noticed there's a bit of a time warp around the vicinity of 60th Street and Lexington Avenue. One would think this busy crossroads of commerce would have steamrolled flat all signs of the past long ago. But the opposite is true. For about a hundred-year radius around the crossing of E. 60th and Lex, a Lady Who Lunches could be transported in time from 1955 to today, stand at the intersection's southwest corner, and recognize plenty of landmarks.

"There's Le Veau d'Or, just where I remember it. I wonder if Robert is still there? And, around the corner, Gino's is still open. Same riotous wallpaper, I see. And across the street, the old Subway In, the glaring neon sign still untouched. The girls and I would sometimes go there for a nightcap in our college days. And, of course, there's Bloomie's. What would New York be without Bloomie's."

Longstanding landmark businesses are rare enough these days, but four cheek-by-jowl with one another? All the area needs is a shoe shine stand and a checker cab stop.

30 October 2006

Steve Cuozzo: Gino's Hates You

Popped in Gino's, the one-of-a-kind red sauce antiquity on Lex near Bloomie's, the other night after a show. I went because the New York Post's Steve Cuozzo—the sour pot-stirrer of the restaurant world—reported it would be closing after 50 or so years because of a labor dispute.

Well, the Italo-Slavic staff of Gino's don't like Mr. Cuozzo so good. "You read that?" said maitre'd Mario said as he pawed over the night's receipts and noted them in a warped old leather ledger that I'm sure the wrong eyes have never gazed upon. "He should maybe call before he writes things. You see this. They print a retraction today." He tossed me the Post. The correction was mixed into Page Six, of all places. Sure enough, it said the labor dispute had been settled and Gino's was safe.

Well, that's good, because I like the place. It's so weird and clannish, how could I not? Where the hell did they get that Moscow-red wallpaper with the dancing zebras, anyway? Straight out of El Morocco. Was that sort of decor ever popular? And who came up with the Zebra theme? Gino, I suppose. Odd mascot for an Eye-Tral-Yon place that still serves all the classic southern dishes, one that was around when Americans ate spaghetti and macaroni, not pasta.

The clientele looked happy. And a bit rumpled. These are not New York's beautiful people. They are those wonderful New Yorkers who take little care in keeping up appearances or keeping up with times, and are strangely cool because of it. They're cosmo-schlubs. Everyone says hi, staff to diner, diner to staff. A woman, sharp of heel and rich of make-up, guards the coat check. A man monopolized the wooden phone booth. (How I love restaurant phone booths.) Bruno, the bartender, does not smile, and makes drinks the way a butcher tenderizes meat. Not many of the help seemly strictly Italian. They're mutts. Probably a bit of Albanian in there, Croatian, Corsican, who knows?

A woman passes by, gives Mario a kiss. "That ledger, that's what I'd like to get a peek in," she jokes. Me, too. Maybe Cuozzo's address is in there.

29 October 2006

L'Age D'Or

I've been reading David Kamp's entertaining history of gormet eating in America over the past 75 years or now, "The United States of Arugula," and was fascinated by a footnote that said a little bistro named Le Veau D'Or on E. 60th Street was the last known vestige of the great flourishing of French restaurants that sprung up in Manhattan in the years after World War II. Last vestige? My kind of thing. I determined to make a pilgrimage.

The owner of Le Veau D'Or worked directly under Henri Soule, the stubborn, exacting owner of Le Pavillion, the first of the boites to bring French haute cuisine to dumb old canned-corn America. From that restaurant was born a host of storied children, including Le Cote Basque, La Caravelle and many other "Le"s and "La"s. All gone now, exact this tiny enclave, tucked next to a Chase Bank, around the corner from Bloomingdale's. According to the head waiter—more on him later—the menu hasn't changed since 1937, when the restaurant opened. And according to Camp, the decor hasn't changed either.

I made a reservation for 6 PM. I thought I would have to. This turned out to be a misapprehension. I arrived at the correct address at the appointed hour and realized I had passed by the place a million times and just assumed it was an anonymous, slightly decrepit, French dump of dubious reputation; one of those places you see year after year and never comtemplate entering, for various reasons—you never see it written up; no one ever recommends it; there are curtains in the window, forever drawn, preventing you from seeing what the inside looks like, etc. Well, here I was. It didn't look promising, dim and dusty. But history called, so in I went.

Not a soul. Seated, that is. Two men standing. A grand old man, bald as a billiard ball, jaw of granite, in black suit and grey waitcoat, who greated me. This turned out to be Robert Treboux, the owner, and the fabled last link to Soule in New York. The other, slightly younger, with slicked-back silver hair, glasses and a hangdog air of faded dignity, was the head waiter. There was also a sole busboy. This was the staff.

I was told I could sit anywhere and chose a four-top toward the back, so I could survey the restaurant at my leisure. It could have been 1937. Red leather banquets. Oil paintings, including one of a lamb tucked sweetly in bed. Pictures of old France. French street signs. Pink tableclothes with a white overlay set at a diagonal. A cozy little wooden bar toward the front backed by a huge mirror. An unused coat check near the door. In short, the look and layout of a Franco-American dining den during the glorious, post-war days of New York.

No music played. Time stood still, or, rather, creeped by. I looked at the menu. All the bygone classics: Beer Bourgonoine, Coq au Vin, Cassoulet, Escargot, French Onion Soup. No nods to the changing times and tastes. Other guests trickled in, obviously regulars. No one younger than I. They chatted with Treboux. How was his foot? I noticed a cast. Gout? "Not good," he said. Someone mentioned his birthday was coming up. "I'm going to be 82," he huffed. "Isn't that terrible?"

The wine list was a challenge. No wine names or makers, just varietals. The prices were not bad, so I decided to get a bottle. I asked the waiter to recommend either the Cote du Rhone or the Bordeaux. Of course, he affirmed the Bordeaux to be better. He came back with a bottle and said, sotto voce, that it wasn't on the list and was better than the bottle he was supposed to give me. It was indeed good. Nothing special, but for a $25 Bordeaux, quite a pleasing accompaniment to the dinner.

I chose the Bourgonoine. I felt I should stick to one of the traditional meals. The menu prices, while expensive on the surface, where actually great deals, since they all included an appetizer and a dessert. The old bill of fare arrangement. I began with French onion soup and ended with a crepe stuffed with creamy ice dream and topped with hot caramel, ladled from a coppery pot set upon my table. Grade? Probably a C+. The beef was a bit chewy, the soup a tad greasy and everything bespoke of a lack of care. But definitely servicable, and, given the atmophere, old world charm, decor and whispers of history, I was pretty much in heaven. It was a place to love and cherish. They did what they believed in. They thought they had hit the mark back in 1937 and didn't see any reason to alter the model.

In 1968, the New York Times gave four stars to only seven restaurants. They were: La Caravelle, Lafayette, La Grenouille, Le Veau d' Or, Peter Luger, Quo Vadis and Shun Lee Dynasty.

I pumped the laconic, but friendly waiter for info. He told me the owner was ill and would probably have to retire next year. Then, the place would close. "His daughter is not interested in carrying on." What if a new owner could be found? "I wouldn't want to work here anymore. After he [Treboux] is gone, I will leave."

On the way out, I ventured to talk to Treboux, who was seated at the bar. I held up Camp's book and said, "I've been reading about you."

"Ah! I didn't have very nice things to say about Soule."

"Well, if he wasn't a nice man, he wasn't a nice man."

"I worked for him for five years."

"And now you're the last to carry on the tradition of Soule and Le Pavillion."

"Well, I don't know about that. We try."

"I heard your birthday is coming up soon."

"Yes. I don't know if that is a reason for celebration."

"Well, Happy Birthday."


Henri Soule. Julia Child. Craig Claiborne. James Beard. Pierre Franey. Jacques Pepin. Here was a man who knew them all, alone in his restaurant, stolidly upholding a chapter in New York culinary history. I said goodnight.

17 October 2006

Hats Off!

New York City should have one of every kind of business, no matter how archaic or obscure. That's why we're here. If we don't have room for a glover, blacksmith, steamfitter, cobbler, hooper, chimney sweep and Balkan restaurant, what good are we?

And so it's good news that the fading world of hatters now has another shop in its ranks. And not only a shop, but the best in the biz, Worth & Worth—an enterprise once though dead as a doornail when in 2000, after 80 years, it put up the shutters on its Madison and 43rd Street space, unable to meet a $14,000 rent hike. It was gone for a year and a half when Orlando Palacios, a super-suave latino California native who had been designing its hat line, decided to bring it back to life, working out of a small showroom on 55th and 6th. But you had to be a detective to find the place! They didn't advertise, and if you weren't on the mailing list or knew a hat man in the know (good luck these days!), you thought the store was still extinct.

That will all change now. Worth & Worth is finally venturing out into the world of the living again. It will open up a 57th Street storefront on Nov. 2, it's stenciled, fourth-floor window easily spied from the sidewalk. Now all can access its beautiful line of handmade panamas, fedoras, fur hats, trilbys, hamburgs, derbys and wool and linen caps.

So go and buy a hat and keep the place in business! Make the city more attractive. Your haircut isn't as impressive as you think—put a hat on it. Worth & Worth's hats are better made than your head will ever be.

15 October 2006

I Wanna Be Sedated

CBGB's closes tonight for good.

To make sure the last night feels as inauthentic edgeless as possible, television crews are perched out on the Bowery, talking in the squarest terms possible about how the building behind them is a piece of rock and roll history. It's enough to make you side with the callow, punkish poseurs hooting on the sidewalk behind them.

The joint coaxed one of its era's legends, Patti Smith, to play the final show. The owner still wants to move the place to Las Vegas, where culture goes to lose its soul. Better just to let it die and have the building become part of New York walking tours.

Rest in peace, young rockers.

Old Dog, New Tricks, No Dice

The constant commerical expansion in New York City not only displaces great old businesses with new worse ones, it breeds bad habits in the few old school stores that remain.

Take Fratelli's, the ravioli and Italian goods store on Court Street in my Brooklyn neighborhood. For years, before Carroll Gardens burst wide open, it served up the best in Italian meats, cheeses, fresh pasta and prepared food. It's olive vats were the best in the area. It was a cramped, unfancy store, but clean, friendly and always crowded.

But then the owners started looking around, envying the success of the restaurants and cafes on Smith Street. So it shut down for a few months and reopened with an ugly, red neon sign with stretched up the side of the building that said "Fratelli's Cafe." Inside, cafe seating dominated the front section of the expanded space, with faux Italian art on the walls. There was a menu of trendy panini and such. The foodstuffs—the things that had made Fratelli great in the first place—were shoved to the back. And the olive vats were gone. Instead, olives were prepackaged in plastic containers. Freedom of olive choice was gone.

The place was now anodyne and anonymous. It had no character. And I never saw it crowded again. I think people were suspicious that it had become a fraudulent version of itself, that it was a manquee Italian food store, not the real thing. The owners didn't understand: people wanted Fratelli's for what it did well, what it knew backwards and forwards. They didn't want it to be a cafe—something it didn't know how to do. So they went to Caputo Fine Foods and other places that still stuck to tradition and didn't try to be something they're not.

I passed by the other day. There's a signs outside Fratelli's that says "For Rent."

13 October 2006

Gertel's Still There—For Now

In New York, there are two kinds of storied establishments. There are the ones that know full well that they are cherished mainstays and revel in it, boasting to anyone who will listen and hanging up framed articles that agree with the assessment. And then there are the shops and restaurants who may know that they are bastions of history and mercantile greatness, but would never say so, and seem to hate it or become embarrassed when you bring the subject up.

Gertel's bakery on Hester Street is one of the latter. If the staff has an inkling that people would actually care that they are closing up shop soon, they don't let on. "Last great Kosher bakery in the Lower East Side? Home of superlative challah and tuna-and-egg sandwiches? Sure. What of it? And why are you carrying on so?"

I swung by the bakery ("Bakers of Reputation" the faded sign says outside) in a panic the other day, afraid that they had already closed. No, they're still open, but the staff doesn't seem to know or care when their last day of business is. "They haven't told us," one shrugged.

I found an old interview with Gertel's chief baker Israel Moskowits on the internet. Here are a few bits:

Q: Do you have any favorite dishes?
A: I don’t care, whatever you have to make, I make. My hobby’s baking.

Q: So you love your job?
A: Yes. [pause] As long as they pay me, I love it.

Q: So what do you like eating the most?
A: Oh, I don’t like cake.

Classic. There's no seating anymore. The area once filled with tables and chair is now crowded with metal baking racks stuffed with fresh challah and greasy wax paper. But the tuna-and-egg is still great. And I bought a challah for old times sake.

So Gertel's is still there for now, if you want to take one more look. The staff won't care if you do, but do it anyone. You'll thank yourself.

10 October 2006

Lost Mansion Found

Hey, New York history buffs: Ever heard of the Denison-White Mansion?

Me neither. But, whatever it is, it's being saved, turned into a community center with 95 surrounding low-income apartments. It's in the Longwood section of the Bronx, a boxy, two-story, white thing, long since abandoned, surrouded by vines and garbage.

Can't find out much about it. It's not in the Encyclopedia of New York City. Charles Denison, however, was a representative from Pennsylvania, a Democrat elected to the Thirty-eighth, Thirty-ninth, and Fortieth Congresses and served from 1863 until his death in 1867. That gave him 17 years to live in the mansion, which he built in 1850. After that, his son-in-law Samuel White moved in. Why these Pennsylvanians had a swell place in the Bronx, I don't know. And how the home survived 156 years, I also can't figure.

The developers are going to call the place Cedars. Lotsa cedars in the Bronx, are there?

06 October 2006

Tuna and Egg on Rye to Go

OK, this post really hurts.

Gertel's, the frozen-in-time classic kosher bakery on Hester Street, is closing.

What the hell is to become of New York? Must the housing boom squeeze every last drop of character out of the city before anyone sits up and cries out, "Where the fuck did the city go?" Must Hollywood start complaining there are no "New Yorky" locations to shoot on anymore? Does "21" have to shut down before Republicans notice that things are going to hell? Does Bloomberg care about anything except smoking and trans-fats, like some busybody schoolmarm? Second-hand smoke and calories aren't killing our city. Development is! Or, should I call it Counter-development? That's what it is in my opinion.

I used to go to Gertel's a lot when my wife and I were first dating and I lived on Eldridge on the Lower East Side. I was busy discovering what was left of the old Jewish community back then: Katz's, Gus' Pickles, Yonah Schimmel's, Kossar's Bialys, Bernstein-on-Essex chinese restaurant and various cheese, fabric, and appetizing stores. Gertel's made the best half-egg-salad, half-tuna-salad sandwich (a Jewish cuisine classic) I have ever tasted. Having lunch there was a no-nonsense affair on unfancy tables and chairs and all the more wonderful for it. They were also famous for the rugelach.

The regelach is retailed around the city and will continue. But you won't be able to go to the source anymore. According to Curbed, the Chinese buyer of Gertel's plans to build an—wait for it—eight-story condo on the site. May the site be haunted by the ghosts of Kosher bakers and drive out all would-be buyers. And may those to DO buy never, never, ever, ever again in their whole life until they DIE chomp their teeth down on a decent sandwich.

04 October 2006

Environment Hater Killed by Environment Killer

Now, I know it's not particularly good form to gloat over someone's death. But the Oct. 2 demise of former Idaho Congresswoman and right wing nut job Helen P. Chenoweth-Hage reeks so much of poetic justic, I just can't pass it up.

This was the gladhander who hated the EPA so much she had "endangered-salmon bakes," in which she served canned salmon and ripped the EPA ban on fishing Idaho's wild salmon. She claimed EPA helicopters were menacing her state's decent, honest ranchers. She mocked the Agency by saying white males should be listed among its protected species (nice bit of racism, that) and said the South had a good State's Right issue back when in the Civil War (more choice racism). She made a point, however, to say she was against slavery. And we all know only a racist would go out of their way to make that point. It's like feeling a need to clarify your stand on arson.

Anyway, this worthy died the way all anti-environmentalists would die, if Dante was in charge of things. She rolled over in a gas-guzzling SUV. Gosh. I guess those thing aren't that safe after all.

03 October 2006

Not All Coliseums Last

For whatever reason, the New York Sun has the rest of the Gotham press corps beat on the Death of Independant Book Stores beat. A couple weeks back, the conservative daily was first with the news that Gotham Book Mart was again in danger (a New York Times story if I ever saw one). Today, it reports that Coliseum Books on 42nd Street has filed for bankrupcy.

Like Gotham Book Mart, Coliseum had a close shave in the early 00's, losing its longtime base off Columbus Circle. And like the Mart, it defied expectations and rose again, phoenix-like, at a new location in 2003.

The shop hasn't closed—yet. But it doesn't look good. Bankruptcy documents filed in the southern district of New York say the store's board of directors will voluntarily seek to "wind-down the company's affairs." The Sun said it couldn't reach owners George Leibson and Irwin Hersch for comment. This is no surprise. Anyone who's ever talked to them knows the duo as among the crankiest booksellers is a city full of cranky booksellers. (Remember this: book stores owners like BOOKS, not people who read books.)

I was never a Coliseum habitue. But I never like to see an indy book store go. New York bereft of idiosyncratic, one-of-a-kind book mongers is just a plain stupid idea.