When asked the secret of her good looks, the actress Katharine Hepburn was once quoted as saying, “You see before you the result of a lifetime of eating chocolates,” adding that sometimes she ate as much as a pound a day. There are handmade chocolates at Payard Patisserie and Bistro, and éclairs, and gâteaux Saint-Honoré, financiers, fruit tarts, rum babas, napoleons, croissants, mousses and soufflés-and they are being put away by slender, impeccably dressed women, their crocodile handbags tucked neatly under the table, their conversation slipping back and forth easily from English to French.
I arrived for dinner on a recent night with friends from Amsterdam, where I had just spend a week and where, thanks to the city’s years as part of the Napoleonic empire, there seemed to be almost as many patisseries as in Paris (and plenty of bicycles to ward off the effects of all that butter and sugar). Payard, on the Upper East Side (personal trainer rather than bicycle territory), is owned by François Payard, the former pastry chef of Daniel, along with that restaurant’s chef-owner, Daniel Boulud. Mr. Payard’s hand is evident the minute you start on your first course-asparagus-which comes with a citrus tart that is almost like dessert. And only a genius of a patissier could have devised the feathery light torte that consists of goat cheese brie layered with potatoes and toasted walnuts in puff pastry.
Payard, which opened last fall, was designed by David Rockwell and combines a Belle Époque French pastry shop and cafe with a bistro. The cafe is charming, with little tables, wrought-iron chairs and wood-and-glass display cases stuffed with pastries and cakes. The bistro, which is in the back, has a molded ceiling two stories high, and mahogany walls decorated with large mirrors and amber handblown lamps. The first time I was there, I sat downstairs, which was fun but incredibly noisy. Upstairs there is a balcony, which is quieter, but it’s Siberia.
I was expecting to find good food at Payard, but I was surprised by the poor service. It is disconcerting to lose your waitress in the middle of dinner, without so much as a by-your-leave, as happened the first time I was there (she seemed to be having an off night, and was abrupt and forgetful, so I was actually quite relieved when she was replaced by a young man who was at least efficient). But with my Amsterdam friends we sat upstairs. And we sat and sat. The wait between our first and second course seemed endless.
“The service here reminds me of that restaurant we went to in Amsterdam, the Five Flies,” said my husband, a trifle hyperbolically as, waiting in vain for a waiter, he refilled our glasses with wine. He told our Dutch friends, who were just a little testy at the criticism of their native restaurants, how at this expensive tourist place the waitress slopped soup all over the wide rim of the bowl, mopped it up with a napkin, sending bits flying all over the place, and knocked over a glass of red wine, which I caught in the air like a football. (When I had asked if there was anything on the impenetrable menu suitable for children, the waiter suggested sweetbreads. Maybe he thought they were sweet.) “You should invent a new category when you review restaurants,” my husband added. “So far I give this place three flies for service.”
“You’re being unfair,” I protested. A while later our waiter reappeared, took the bottle of wine from the table and emptied it with a backhand into our glasses.
“Well, maybe two flies,” I said.
But the food at Payard was certainly spectacular. Enormous care has been taken to get everything right, and the dishes are beautifully presented. I began with a warm salad of skate on green lentils tossed in a ginger-scallion vinaigrette. It was extraordinary, as was the squid, stuffed with brandade and served with arugula in a lemony dressing. The crab salad was also good, very fresh, with greens in a blood orange dressing.
Two other seafood dishes were wonderful: juicy sautéed scallops paired with savoy cabbage and trumpet mushrooms, the whole dish brought together with a delicate curry-chive jus; and roast monkfish with artichokes barigoule.
Since Payard is a bistro, it serves steak, a good sirloin with peppercorns and french fries. The fries were square-cut, crisp on the outside, light and soft within. They were great, and we got a side order for the table. (The haricots verts tossed in butter and garlic are also terrific.) I loved the venison, too, roasted rare and served with quince chutney and dauphine potatoes.
For $15, you get a grand tasting of the cakes you see when you come through the front door, and grand they are. We wiped the plate clean. You don’t want to miss the carrot cake on the menu, either. Carrot cake at the health food store was never like this, light as air and topped with orange blossom meringue and two windowpanes of spun sugar. I’m sure Katherine Hepburn would have put away several helpings of the warm bittersweet chocolate soufflé with pistachio ice cream, and the creamy cappuccino of chocolate and mascarpone sorbet.
I wondered what the personal trainers of the women in the restaurant, who looked like the chicken-without-the-skin and salad-without-dressing brigade, were going to have to say when they saw their customers the next morning. Then I thought of Sophia Loren, who did for pasta what Katharine Hepburn did for chocolate. When she was asked her secret, she replied, “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.”
Payard Patisserie and Bistro
1032 Lexington Avenue, at East 73rd Street
Noise level: High
Wine list: Good and reasonably priced
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Main courses lunch $19 to $22, dinner $19 to $25
Lunch: Monday to Saturday 11:30 A.M. to 2 P.M.
Dinner: Sunday to Friday 6 P.M. to 10:30 P.M., Saturday to 11 P.M.
Tea: Monday to Saturday 3:30 P.M. to 5 P.M.
* – Good
* * – Very good
* * * – Excellent
* * * * – Outstanding
No star – Poor