French Restaurants

February 9th, 2016 § 2 comments § permalink

HG is very fond of French restaurants but hates over rich, over composed, exuberantly expensive haute cuisine. HG despises tasting menus that turn meals into marathons and leave HG feeling stuffed and queasy. In France, HG likes simple bourgeois cooking (Found, alas, in a diminishing number of bistros) and brasserie staples like oysters and grillades. (HG/BSK loved the seafood at Le Bocal and Boulingrin during a recent visit to Rheims. In Paris, Le Stella remains a favorite for plateau de fruits de mer and racks of lamb). HG recalls with nostalgia New York of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s when there were numerous very cheap and very satisfying French bistros. HG was inaugurated into French dining during the World War Two years when HG’s late, beloved sister Beulah Naomi would lunch with adolescent HG at Larre’s in the West 50’s. Very cheap. Fifty cents bought a four course meal (Plus salad). Tables were filled with French teachers and Francophone refugees. HG later learned that a distinguished trio of artists–Marcel Duchamp, Robert Motherwell and Andre Breton–dined there daily. HG and his sister would also eat at the modestly priced Charles a la Pommes Souffle. As the name indicates, the restaurant specialized in delicious crisp and airy potato puffs. They are no longer on New York menus and in very few Paris restaurants. They demand total attention while cooking and are labor intensive. The West 40’s in the Theater District had numerous French bistros. Only one, Chez Napoleon, remains. Happily, it offers true grand mere cuisine including one of HG’s favorite dishes, Cervelles Meuniere–calf brains sautéed in brown butter with capers. During HG’s college days (CCNY–1946-1950) and journalist days (1950-1955) HG confined French dining to the very cheap, very robust bistros on 10th and 11th Avenues in the West 50’s. The ocean liners were still docking on the West Side Piers and these restaurants catered to French, English and Dutch crews. A big meal cost about three dollars and featured lots of innards like liver, kidneys, hearts, gizzards and tete de veau. It was in these rough and ready joints that HG cultivated a taste for dishes not favored by mainstream America. As HG’s finances improved in the mid-’50s and the ’60s, HG favored the delightful (Long closed) Fleur de Lis on West 69th Street (It was here on a hot summer night in 1963 that HG and BSK dined on their wedding night. The temperature was soaring and HG finished dinner smelling like a large garlic clove. Made BSK question her marital choice). During their residency on the Upper West Side, HG/BSK ate frequently (when not consuming Chinese food) at Fleur de LIs. HG’s favorite meal–a dozen escargots, frog legs meuniefre, camembert, creme caramel, red wine–cost about ten dollars. Once a month, HG lunched at what HG considered (and still does) the best French restaurant in the world, Le Pavillon. Curiously, for many years the two best French restaurants were not in France–Le Pavillon in New York and the Connaught Restaurant in London. Henri Soule ran Le Pavillon with Napoleonic imperiousness and rigorous attention to detail. HG’s dining companion was often the late Theodore Kheel, the distinguished lawyer and labor arbitrator. Soule opened the restaurant in 1941. He died in 1966. The restaurant closed in 1971 but it was only a shadow of itself after his death. One of HG’s regrets is that due to pregnancy and other circumstances, BSK never dined at Le Pavillon with HG. Dining at Soule’s with the love of HG’s life would have been a sublime experience.


Fresh and Simple Lunch at Cookshop

July 8th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Was it Lucius Beebe (or Oscar Wilde) who said (and HG paraphrases): “My tastes are simple. I like only the very best.” ? HG agrees (in part). HG deplores over elaborate, over sauced, fussed over food. Through the years HG dined at many temples of high cuisine (Le Pavillon, Lutece, La Cote Basque, Le Bernardin in New York; Connaught Restaurant and Savoy Grill in London; the once glorious Laperouse in Paris). Even in these vaunted places, HG ordered simple dishes (mixed grill at the Connaught; grilled sole at the Savoy and roast duck with turnips at Pavillon). HG may be accused of favoritism and family pride, but HG’s ideal of dining is Cookshop, the restaurant run by HG’s daughter, Victoria Freeman,and her husband, chef Marc Meyer. It is located on Tenth Avenue in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood and is always filled with a lively, good looking crowd. The restaurant has been in the forefront of the farm-to-table, locavore movement. Meyer treats his superior ingredients with restraint and imagination. A tip from HG. Settle down with a glass of chilled rose (from Slovenia, surprisingly). Have some radishes with herbed butter and sea salt. Follow with roasted asparagus (sauce gribiche). Then, share a Hudson Valley Chicken Breast Salad. This is not the usual mayonnaise-drenched mess. The menu describes it this way: “Chicken, arugula, cucumbers, sliced carrots, radish, spiced walnut, golden raisin, sherry vinaigrette.” Crunchy with summery flavors and hints of salt and sweetness. HG shrugs off charges of nepotism. Can one imagine a better summer lunch? (An afterthought: Alexander Lobrano, the Paris-based food writer for the New York Times and many other publications and the author of the best guide to Paris dining, Hungry For Paris, dined at Cookshop while visiting New York. He expressed a wish that Paris should have more restaurants like Cookshop).


Unfairly Unpopular Eels

July 2nd, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

HG has had an interest in eels ever since HG learned that Freud, an HG hero, spent a youthful year researching the snake-like sea creature. The appearance of eels tend to turn off a great number of folks; but, they are nutritious, delicious and in Japan, where unagi is a favorite food, they are lauded as being an aid to vitality and longevity (the maternal grandfather of Exquiiste Maiko — HG’s Japanese daughter-in-law and favorite home chef — lived to be 100 and ate eel almost every day). HG enjoys unagi sushi at Shohko Cafe, the very good Japanese restaurant in Santa Fe. HG used to obtain unagi at Whole Foods and enjoy it as part of a sashimi platter. HG also liked to top a bowl of rice with much sliced unagi. Alas, Whole Foods no longer carries unagi and HG can’t find a good online source. However, the best eel dish HG ever experienced was at yesteryear’s great French restaurant, Henri Soule’s Le Pavillon. Soule served lightly smoked filets of eel with whipped cream spiked with lots of freshly grated, strong horse radish. Divine. Eel remains popular with London’s working class who enjoy jellied eels and patronize some of the city’s few remaining eel-and-pie restaurants. HG fears that this eel dish may be a specialized English taste like mushy peas, Marmite and the chip butty.


Putting on the Ritz

February 1st, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

HG has never enjoyed pricey, upscale, high cuisine restaurants. In many decades of dining, only four have given HG pleasure commensurate with the expenditure. One, Le Pavillon, in New York is long gone, but memories of their fillets of smoked eel topped with a horseradish-infused whipped cream will linger on the HG palate forever. Another, the Connaught Hotel Restaurant in London offered the quintessential civilized English dining experience — perfect Dover Sole (de-boned at the table), Stilton and Port to finish (with a cigar service for those who indulged – and HG did just that). Alas, the Connaught has changed so much that it is unrecognizable. Two, both in New York, are alive and well. One is Le Bernardin and the other is the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building. Le Bernardin is flawless, simply the best seafood in the world prepared with flair and imagination. Fabulous wine list supervised by a renowned sommelier. Very, very expensive but not insane. Lunch Prix Fixe is $72 (three courses) and Dinner Prix Fixe is $127 (four courses). Tasting menu is more extravagant — $237 with paired wines. HG was a frequent diner at the Four Seasons during HG’s New York career. The Pool Room is the most beautiful restaurant space in the world. Curiously, New York big shots never ate there. They chose the more austere Grill Room. Menu is the same in both rooms. The Four Seasons used to be expensive but affordable for tax deductible meals. Now, the prices have gone through the roof. An appetizer of Spaghetti with Poached Egg and Black Truffles is $75. Grilled shrimp appetizer is $38. Venison, lamb chops, bison and steak are about $75. If you want to sample Four Seasons cuisine without going broke, take a seat at the bar. The Bar Menu is delicious and affordable (comparatively).

London Memories and Grace Notes

May 5th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Best restaurant in the world was the restaurant in London’s Connaught Hotel (it was right up there with Le Pavillion under the reign of Henri Soule).

The Connaught Dining Room

HG gathers that the cuisine at the Connaught has changed but HG likes to think about it during its glory days. HG and BSK always lunched there during visits to London. Superb smoked salmon sliced paper thin and served with brown bread, butter, capers, etc. (HG once remarked on the perfect slicing. A captain explained: “James has been slicing salmon here for 37 years”). A mixed grill with souffle potatoes or perfectly de-boned, grilled dover sole with savory butter sauce. Stilton and port to finish.

Once, the HG/BSK table wasn’t ready as per their reservation. HG and BSK were ushered into a lovely chintz and old oak ante room. With graceful apologies we were offered glasses of chilled, dry sherry (on the house, of course).

Another London favorite was J. Sheekey, the seafood restaurant in the theater district. More casual than the Connaught and the perfect place for oysters and grilled fish. Once, a waitperson spilled a drink at the HG/BSK table. The wet table cloth was whisked away and replaced by a new one. Once more, graceful apologies ensued and (with a flourish) a bottle of very good, gratis champagne appeared. Nice memories of English grace and generosity.

Quack Quack

January 14th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

New York Times had a story on the duck lunch at David Chang’s Ssam Bar and the “duckavore” dinner at Wong in the West Village. Duckalicious. The descriptions of the ducky delicacies were so riveting and appetizing that HG was tempted to leave for The Big Apple post haste. However, HG stayed put and ransacked his memory for tasty webbed foot treats.

Best duck dish ever was the braised duck with olives at the late Le Pavillon. Crisp and juicy, the abundant richness of duck fat cut by the sting of the olives. A runner up was the crackling Peking duck at the Peking Duck House in New York’s Chinatown. When in Paris, HG often indulges in the ubiquitous duck confit; however, the best HG has ever tasted came not from Paris, but was found behind the counter of Oyama, the great French-oriented charcuterie and cheese shop located in Vancouver’s Public Market on Granville Island. In Chinatown (both in New York and Vancouver), HG often does a simple (and cheap) lunch of barbecued duck and pork plus a bowl of rice and pot of tea.

During their ten years of residence on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, HG and BSK had a tradition of late Sunday dinner a deux (little ones safely snoozing). The duo devoured a rotisserie barbecued duck from the Bretton Woods Butcher on W. 86th Street accompanied by a salad of sliced orange, sweet onion and avocado. Then, a crusty baguette, runny brie. Two bottles of red wine. A nice way to close the weekend.

Yes, Sunday was a day of indulgence in HG and BSK’s rent controlled paradise. The day began with a breakfast of Zabar’s smoked salmon, sable, scallion cream cheese, bagels and bialys. The fat Sunday Times on the table. It was all worked off with long bike rides in Central Park. SJ strapped to HG’s back. Little Miss LR in a kiddie seat. Peaches, The Wonder Dog, racing along on a leash. Happy memories of food, fun and family — a ducky time, indeed.

French. Haute, And, Not So Haute.

December 23rd, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Nice article in the current Bon Appetit on La Grenouille, last of the Old Guard of Manhattan East Side French restaurants (Le Pavillon, La Cote Basque, Lutece, La Caravelle: All gone along with their white tablecloths, deft waiters and distinguished maitres d’s). La Grenouille isn’t giving the food away: The three course prix fixe is $98. After wine, tax, service (and some supplements) dinner for two can easily escalate to $500. HG gathers that some tax loophole guys and their much younger lady escorts eat there four or five times a week. To the barricades, citizens!!

In years past, HG ate at Pavillon once a month (all HG could afford). Food was superb (not over elaborate). There some affordable bottles of wine. Henri Soule ran the room with imperious snap. It was like dining with Napoleon.

For the most part, HG’s French venues during his younger years were the rough and ready bistros on Tenth and Eleventh Avenues. They catered to the crews of the SS Ile De France and other French ocean liners. They were also popular with the dining staffs of the English and Dutch liners. For about three bucks you got an appetizer (celeriac remoulade, mushrooms a la Grecque, leeks vinaigrette, pickled herring); main dish (various vinous and garlicky meat stews, matelote of stewed eel, garlic sausage with white beans, hache parmentier); dessert (rice pudding or creme caramel). Plus a pitcher of house red wine and plenty of not so bad bread. If feeling flush, HG added a cheese course of Camembert and Roquefort. At the end of the meal, HG and his current lady friend puffed Gitanes and felt like compatriots of Malraux, Camus and the Free French General LeClerc.

Memories of Le Pavillon

June 19th, 2011 § 2 comments § permalink

Henri Soule’s Le Pavillon on 57th and Park in New York was the best restaurant in the world and HG has never seen it surpassed. The combination of Soule’s imperious attention to every detail, the great (and relatively simple) food, the comforting lighting, the glamorous crowd, the gentle and efficient service—-all created a joyous experience.

Some memorable dishes: Fillets of smoked eel topped with whipped cream infused with freshly grated horseradish. Duck with olives. Lump crab meat gratin. Souffle potatoes. Steak au poivre. Sweetbreads in puff pastry. Spring asparagus with Hollandaise. A simple grilled ribsteak with a cornucopia of wild mushrooms. Poule a Pot (which HG shared at lunch with labor mediator Theodore Kheel). Marrons au Mont Blanc (a mini mountain of pureed candied chestnuts topped with sweet, whipped cream).

Must stop. HG has tears in his eyes.

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