23 December 2009

The Times Does Right By La Grenouille

La Grenouille is the last of the great French restaurants that cropped up in New York before and after World War II. The rest, Le Pavillon, Lutèce, La Caravelle, La Côte Basque, Lespinasse, have all died. (Le Veau d'Or is still around, but I think it would even admit that it is no match for La Grenouille.) And yet, the restaurant gets no respect, no attention. Until today. Sam Sifton wrote—I don't want to call it a review—more an homage to the grand old lady of French cuisine in today's New York Times. This notice nearly made me cry, the tone of respect and appreciation was so sincere and heartfelt. Every New York culinary institution should be so extolled as precious and irreplaceable. Read:

LA GRENOUILLE turned 47 on Saturday, the last great French restaurant in New York. As on its birth night, there was snow outside the old stable at 3 East 52nd Street, and this made the soft, glittering light of the brocaded interior seem all the more inviting, the flowers towering out of the corners all the more welcoming, the sheer elegance of the place all the more arresting, important, rare.

The decline of great French cooking in New York has been a subject of discussion among the food-obsessed for decades, since at least the closing of Le Pavillon in 1971. In the last decade the talk has turned funereal, with the demise of Lutèce, La Caravelle, La Côte Basque, Lespinasse.

Brasserie cooking survives in New York, even flourishes under old mirrors and subway tile. We will always have steak frites.

But the quiet opulence of the traditional haute cuisine that was first brought to New York by Henri Soulé for the World’s Fair in 1939 and which flourished at his Pavillon and other restaurants in the years that followed? The whole marvelous Tom Wolfe scene of it: blanquette de veau and Beaumes-de-Venise, and ladies in finery beside gentlemen in soft cashmere jackets and rolled silk ties? C’est fini!

A series of recent meals at La Grenouille suggests that isn’t so. Not so long as Charles Masson, who has run it since 1975, greets his customers at the door, quiet and French and welcoming. Not so long as people can take a seat on a scarlet banquette at his restaurant, sit beneath a spray of flowers and eat sumptuous food out of Escoffier. It has been this way since his father, also named Charles, opened the restaurant in 1962 with his wife, Gisèle.

The crowd is amazing. There are city patricians, upscale travelers, romantics celebrating anniversaries, cads with escort-service friends, priests drinking Burgundy and spooning soup past their dog collars. There is jewelry everywhere, evidence of plastic surgery.

There are Thackeray characters come to life in a modern age. Some have spent too much time in the sun, doing nothing much more than turning the pages of a book. Others, eyes darting back and forth, examine the restaurant and chart customers as handicappers do horses at Belmont: Are the flowers less resplendent than in years past? Perhaps, ever so slightly, yes. Is the carpet threadbare? Not in the least, though those waiters may qualify! Is that a daughter or lover in the corner with that old lion? Oh, please. Have the Montrachet to start?

Back in the kitchen, the executive chef, Matthew Tropeano, spoons forcemeat pike into simmering broth. He naps the result with sauce and gives the plates to waiters who have known no other service. They present their customers a paragon of quenelles de brochet in the Lyonnaise style, a textbook example of classic French cuisine.

The dish is executed perfectly, a kind of beige-on-beige masterpiece devoid of irony or deconstructionist camp. (Only those without heart would call it gefilte fish.) It is delicious without being overwhelming, without being much more than ethereal pike, light as mist, buttery rice, a shellfish cream sauce with just a hint of nutmeg, a dab of American caviar. It is wonderful to eat at La Grenouille.

The revelations start early. A waiter brings an amuse-bouche, perhaps more perfunctorily than is currently normal in most New York restaurants. He neither issues a greeting nor attempts to make the action dramatic.

“This is a split pea soup,” he says. The offering is roughly four spoonfuls’ worth. Each is a cloud of magnificent flavor — salt that raises the vegetal from its depths, cream that makes it buoyant. It lingers on the tongue. The tiny dish expands the mind.

It also concentrates its focus. For there will be no lemon grass foam to confuse matters on the menu of La Grenouille this evening, no huckleberry confit or magret sliders.

This is a classic French restaurant (with classically high prices; a three-course prix fixe dinner starts at $95). Its strength is still, as Bryan Miller wrote in The New York Times almost 20 years ago, the excellence of its stocks, the basis of its magnificent sauces.

Begin your meal with sweetbreads, then. They are the thymus gland of a calf, two lobes separated by a soft tube of flesh. (Someone always asks!) Here they are trimmed in the manner of miniature chicken breasts, then sautéed until crisp, leaving a creamy interior.

Accompanied by a small bit of demi-glace made piney with rosemary, they provide an instant view of a world in which plenty is not nearly so important as quality — a world in which the point is to experience small, rich pleasures, one by one by one.

In that line, there is also foie gras, of course, fattened duck liver seared beautifully and served with port, melting velvet in the mouth. There is a magnificent country terrine, studded with pistachios and served blessedly at the temperature of the room, so that it spreads easily and caresses the tongue.

On a brisk winter evening, you might begin with risotto, now served with buttery wild mushrooms, each grain separate and pliant and rich.

A slightly rakish salmon tartare arrives piled on a large and perfect blini with more of that American caviar on top to heighten the experience. (Ravioli with lobster and tarragon achieves a similar effect, plus cream.)

And a simple endive salad highlights the bitter sweetness of the green, then sweetens it with slick pear, chalky walnut, the rough, salty excellence of Roquefort cheese.

For main dishes, there are those quenelles. Also frogs’ legs sautéed in butter with parsley and garlic, a nod to the restaurant’s name (in France, une grenouille is a frog). The legs are delicate, flavorful, addictive and impossible even in this luxe setting to finish with knife and fork. (The waiter will bring you a finger bowl when you are done.) There is an excellent plate of veal kidneys, sautéed in a flash of Cognac until just browned around the exterior, served with a thick, piquant mustard sauce. There is another of sirloin, crimson beef dominoes on a plate, with creamy pommes boulangère.

There are beef oxtails of uncommon excellence, braised until sticky in red wine, a dish the late Pat Buckley once said she would choose as her last on Earth.

And for those experiencing the restaurant for the first time, or returning to it for the first time in ages, there is Dover sole. Named for the English port in which it was first popularized, Dover sole is slightly less bathmat-shaped than its relative the flounder. It is prized by diners for close-grained sweet flavor, and by restaurants for ease of filleting, which is why it’s so often done tableside.

Here, grilled and then sauced with butter, and served with soft, golden mustard sauce, it achieves a kind of transfiguration: France brought to Midtown, a vacation in a bite. It’ll change the color of your mood ring.

Let us stay happy through the end of this meal. Wise diners will, as they order the sole, also ask for the preparation of a soufflé for dessert, perhaps the one scented with Grand Marnier. (The unwise will ask for tarte Tatin and receive a wan example in return.)

During the winter of 1997, when La Grenouille was just 35, Ruth Reichl wrote in the restaurant’s most recent review in these pages that it was not for nothing that a parade of soufflés crosses the dining room each evening. “I don’t think there is a better soufflé in New York,” she wrote, and awarded three stars.

That is still the case. It is a magic-trick dessert, a dreamlike concoction from the night kitchen: perfection unsullied. And it stands, in its way, for the importance of La Grenouille. This is the bastion now. It is worth the expense to put on your best and experience it. It is part of why you are here.

1 comment:

Teresa Nielsen Hayden said...

Okay. You've convinced me. I'll go.