Time Has Been Kind
To West Side Granddaddy
A casually dressed, middle-aged couple (she in a bulky sweater, he in an open-necked shirt and jacket) rose from their table after an early dinner. The waiter, who was not some young moonlighting actor wearing a T-shirt but an old-time professional in black tie, gently pulled back their chairs. The woman turned around and gave him a hug. “Next time we’ll bring Oliver,” she said and then threw her hands up in the air. “He’s this tall! Last time you saw him, remember, he was in here,” she said, patting her stomach.
My companion sighed and looked over at the mural behind them, where Howard Chandler Christy’s famous naked wood nymphs were cavorting happily in the grass under apple blossoms, just as they’ve done for over 60 years. “Those girls never grow any older,” he said.
Nor, it seems, does Café des Artistes, which opened in 1917, during the First World War, on the ground floor of the landmark studio building on West 67th Street near Central Park. Time has not always been kind to the city’s historic restaurants, regardless of the long list of celebrities who frequented them (and whose signed photographs often hang on the walls). You can only pity those poor tourists, hoping the sight of someone famous might redeem a bad, expensive meal served by a rude waiter.
Café des Artistes, on the other hand, has not only kept its luster (and its roster), it has another thing going for it. It feels very much of the neighborhood. I’ve been coming here since 1975, when it was taken over by the indomitable George Lang, whose wife Jenifer is now the managing director. I always liked the fact that the customers-like the food-are such a mix. Mr. Lang, who also resurrected Gundel in his native Hungary a few years ago, fashioned Café des Artistes along the lines of a grand old Hungarian café or a restaurant like La Coupole. You can come in for a plate of oysters and a glass of wine or steak frites, or sit at the bar after a concert and share some excessive Hungarian/Viennese desserts.
A dessert buffet is set up in the middle of the mahogany-paneled front room, which is lined with a row of dark-green banquettes and lead-paned windows giving onto the street, the sills laden with flowering plants. Up a few steps is an inner dining room with booths, a three-sided mahogany bar hung with low lights and set with racks of hard-boiled eggs and bowls of nuts. Here there’s a small portrait of the rakish-looking Christy, who had a studio in the building and apparently liked to sleep with his models every bit as much as drawing them. The lighting is soft (a bit pin-pointy over your eyes if you sit on the front room’s banquette), and between the beautiful murals (there are six of them, including The Fountain of Youth ) are mirrors, which give a feeling of space. Across the vestibule from the main restaurant, in a former office, there’s another bar called the Parlor that serves drinks, coffee and desserts and some dinner dishes from the main restaurant.
Three months ago, Thomas Ferlesch, an Austrian who was Café des Artistes’ chef for the past 12 years, left to open his own restaurant, Thomas Beisl, opposite the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The new chef, Ari Nieminen, who is from Finland, previously cooked at the Firebird. The menu remains pretty much the same as it has been over the years, with the addition of seasonal dishes. And if you’re tired of restaurants where you find yourself staring at the ingredients on your plate and trying to figure out what they are, or plowing your way through “comfort food” that is anything but comforting to the digestion, then this menu is for you.
The perennial classics include salmon five ways: hot and cold smoked, poached, gravlax and tartare. It makes a pleasant first course or even a main dish at lunch. The steak tartare is perfectly seasoned with plenty of spices and capers and comes with four relishes nestled in small endive leaves. You can also start with half a dozen briny oysters or a crisp endive salad with grapes, walnuts and crumbled Stilton. The fricassee of snails is wonderful: It comes with a dark, garlicky vidalia onion soubise, cooked cherry tomatoes that add hints of acidity and sweetness, and is topped with three baton-shaped garlic brioche croutons. The asparagus vinaigrette would be better if it weren’t chilled from the refrigerator. (And isn’t it a bit early for asparagus? Or have we forgotten there was once a season? I still find it strange eating it during the winter.)
One of the cleverest dishes on the menu is a schnitzel made with sturgeon. New Yorkers are accustomed to eating their sturgeon plain and smoked, usually on a Sunday morning. Here it comes fried in a thin coating of bread crumbs, served with cucumber vinaigrette, parsley potatoes and rémoulade. It’s a terrific combination. The veal tonnato served at lunch is a disappointment. A mess to look at, it’s flopped down on a bed of arugula and painted with squiggles of tuna and caper mayonnaise. To boot, it doesn’t have much taste.
Dover sole, accompanied by fondant potato and asparagus, is brought up to date with a garnish of fried sliced lemon, which adds a nice, sharp contrast to the rich, brown butter sauce. Duck comes two ways: The pan-seared breast is tender and rare, the leg a velvety crisp confit. Kumquats, shiitake mushrooms and kasha work nicely with the dish, but for some reason asparagus has been added, and it doesn’t go with the rest at all. But Café des Artistes does a great pot au feu, served with the traditional condiments in little dishes-coarse sea salt, cornichons, mustards, horseradish cream and toasts for the marrow, which you spoon out of the bones. The broth is excellent. “This is total soul food,” exclaimed my friend, who was feeling pretty ecstatic anyway because we’d just been to a wonderful concert. The veal chop, however, is less successful, with carrots, cabbage and a smoky sauce that tastes burned.
The wine list is short and well chosen, with interesting low-priced bottles, such as the wonderfully named St. Innocent, Temperance Hill, a very good pinot noir from Oregon for $37.
Desserts are lavish and rich. They include perfect, creamy crème brûlée in three flavors-lavender, chocolate and regular-and an orange savarin, which is like a rich pound cake with apricots. I didn’t find the hot fudge Napoleon (sprinkled with powdered sugar and served with berries) very exciting, although my companion finished the whole thing. The Ilona Torte, a rich concoction of chocolate and walnuts, was created by Mr. Lang. When he wrote the recipe for the dish 20 years ago, he included this note: “One slice of it will bring temporary happiness, which is more than we get from most things these days.” Little did he know then how much we could all use a slice of that torte now.