I did a terrible thing this morning,” said M. as she sat down at the table near the front of the dining room at Destinée. “I took some of Oscar’s medicine.”
“Who’s Oscar?” I asked.
“Don’t you remember?” she said, pulling out a small bottle of pills and placing them on the table in front of me. “The ginger cat you told us to get 15 years ago. He has to take pills to stimulate his appetite, and I mistook them for my thyroid medicine.”
I looked at the bottle. It had a bright green top on which was printed a collection of blobs. Upon closer inspection, I discerned a bird, crossed out, a dog, crossed out, and a cat, which was not crossed out.
“See?” she said. “It’s clearly marked. But I missed it. I am so hungry that all morning I have literally been chewing the side of my mouth.”
The waiter put a basket of small baguettes on the table. She took one and began to devour it. Next to us on the banquette, two elderly women with perfectly coifed silver hair were having lunch with one of their daughters, who sat opposite them.
“Look at that hair color!” whispered M. “They got it right. They all look so sweet,” she added. “But I was listening before you arrived. They’re full of gibes.”
You can overhear everything in Destinée, a chic new French place that opened a few months ago on the Upper East Side in what was formerly Le Pistou. The long, narrow, rather noisy room (it has wood floors) is understated and attractive, with cream-colored walls, large flower arrangements and soft, flattering lighting. It’s no coincidence that the customers are the same group (most of whom live around the corner on Park Avenue) who show up at La Côte Basque: the women in Chanel and velvet headbands or dashing hats, the men in well-cut British suits. The host at Destinée, Christophe Lhopitault, was maître d’hôtel there (and also at the short-lived CT). Chef Jean-Yves Schillinger is a Frenchman; he recently moved to New York from Colmar in Alsace, where his family owned the two-star Restaurant Schillinger, which was destroyed by a fire in 1995, killing his father.
M. and I were having a late lunch and the couple to my left, one of whom was a well-known art gallery owner, were already on dessert. As the waiter brought over the plates, a bearded face with cascading hair, more appropriate in a biblical setting than among the Gucci loafers and blazers of Destinée, peered out from behind a tall vase of calla lilies that stood on a pillar separating the new banquette from ours. He stared lustily at the desserts until he caught my eye and quickly looked away.
Mr. Schillinger’s food is startlingly beautiful. It has simplified itself little since the first time I came to Destinée, when several dishes were as overdressed as some of the patrons (like the 6-foot-tall blonde in a pink Chanel suit who was a dead ringer for Dennis Rodman). But now, not only did the food look good, it was less fussy and much more focused. M. ordered mussel soup and I had the mixed hors d’oeuvres. (I was sure the soup wouldn’t be enough for her after Oscar’s pill.)
The waiter put a large glass platter down in front of me. The spread included, among other things, slices of delicious foie gras, coarse country pâté, herring, smoked salmon roulade stuffed with crab, tomato and tuna tartare. The dowager on my right, who was doing very nicely herself with a large plate of roast chicken, looked shocked. “And that’s only her starter!” she hissed.
M. lost no time in helping me with the hors d’oeuvres, which we finished. Her soup was good, too, delicate and creamy, laced with chives. “It’s wonderful,” said M. “But it only has four mussels in it.” She dug in with her spoon. “Wait! No, five.”
On a previous occasion, I had the hand-cut salmon tartare, which was also excellent, mixed with herbs, topped with caviar and encircled with diamond-shaped pieces of cucumber and a quail egg in its shell. The duck foie gras, which was rich and buttery, was served in a peach. Sliced scallops were served around a salad of porcini mushrooms, topped with a caviar vinaigrette.
For her main course, M. had monkfish, tender and juicy chunks cooked with bacon lardons and leeks, and served in a deep, rich red wine sauce. I had bass cooked in a crust so the skin was crispy, topped with a Parmesan cracker. Both these dishes were far superior to anything I’d had on my first visit, when I had found the main courses a bit overwrought.
For dessert, we had a tart of caramelized apricots on a light, spongy crust with pistachio ice cream. We shared it, and when we were done, went on to share another delight, a shiny dark-chocolate dome with crème brûlée inside, served with vanilla ice cream and toasted pine nuts. (At dinner, they also have good soufflés.) I wondered what the waiter thought as he saw M., an elegant woman in a sharp black suit and diamond earrings, finish everything on her plate as though she hadn’t eaten for a week.
At the end of lunch, one of the dowagers next to us, sporting an enormous black onyx pin on the lapel of her beige suit, opened her crocodile purse and took out a small Ziploc plastic bag. She carefully unzipped it and extracted a dried-out wishbone. Holding it in the crook of her little finger, she cracked the bone with her daughter. “I got the wish!” said the old lady, holding up the long piece triumphantly.
“She always does,” replied her daughter with a sigh.
M. leaned across the table. “If I were you,” she said, perhaps feeling the effect of Oscar’s pills mixed with a couple of glasses of white wine, “I’d wish for another pin just like the one you are wearing.”
“Thank you,” said the woman looking pleased. “I had the gold put on myself.”
134 East 61st Street
Dress: Chanel suits
Noise level: Fine
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Main courses lunch $14 to $23, dinner prix fixe $42, six-course tasting menu $65
Lunch: Monday to Saturday noon to 2:30 P.M.
Dinner: Monday to Friday 5:30 P.M. to 10:30 P.M., Saturday to 11:30 P.M.
* – Good
* * – Very good
* * * – Excellent
* * * – Outstanding
No star – Poor