Dining out with Moira Hodgson

Has Tribeca’s Victory Cry Faded

To a Voice From Another Room?

When Karen and David Waltuck opened Chanterelle in a Soho storefront 24 years ago, they were pioneers, bringing haute cuisine downtown. And their style was utterly different from uptown places of similar caliber, such as La Grenouille or La Côte Basque. The pale yellow dining room was as austere as a Quaker meeting house, and the menu covers were designed by some of the major artists who dined there (among them Ellsworth Kelly, Merce Cunningham, Virgil Thomson and Roy Lichtenstein). The food, cooked by Mr. Waltuck, who was then only 24 years old, was solidly grounded in the French classics, yet was modern and innovative. The wine list was impeccable. Prices were high, but even Virgil Thomson-who couldn’t bear to part with a dime-was undeterred and ate there regularly.

Fifteenyearsago, Chanterelle moved even further downtown,to larger premises in Tribeca’s 19th-century Mercantile Exchange Building. But the food never changed course. Mr. Waltuck’s approach over the years was serious, even monastic. While other chefs were posing for fashion magazines or doing cooking shows on TV, he stayed in the kitchen, and his wife looked after the front of the house, creating the immense flower arrangements that were the focal point of the spare, apricot-colored dining room. While other restaurants came and went like the season’s latest fashions in shoes, Chanterelle’s reputation for quality remained unblemished.

So when a friend told me recently that the food at Chanterelle had gone down, I was stunned. He and I met there for dinner on a Monday night at the end of August, joined by another friend who happened to be fresh back from El Bulli in Spain, the restaurant run by the eccentric and brilliant chef Ferran Adria. Chanterelle’s hostess seated us at a table below a towering display of Easter lilies. They were wilting, and their scent was so overwhelming I began to sneeze. “What an odd choice of flowers to have around food,” said the friend who’d been to Spain. “When we sat down to dinner at El Bulli, they brought over a block of stone with a rose and an aeresol spray on it. You smelled the rose and then you spritzed your tongue.”

Indeed. Chanterelle is more down to earth. “No soft-shell crabs today,” said the waiter brightly when he appeared with the menus. “They arrived dead.”

“I assume the striped bass has hair on its chest,” said my friend, looking at the menu.

A Monday night in August was perhaps not the fairest time to review a restaurant. But there are no discounts here for the dog days. The other customers had the expectant air of tourists who’ve come to New York hoping for the meal of their dreams, and were wondering whether they were going to get their money’s worth: $84 for a three-course dinner, not including wine.

The sommelier, Roger Dagorn, looks like a bank manager in a Laurel and Hardy movie. There are over 5,000 bottles on the wine list, many from unusual and out-of-the-way small producers. Mr. Dagorn is a restaurant owner’s dream of a sommelier. He seemed to be in charge of the whole place and is, in fact, the maitre d’. Nothing escaped his eye-and when it came to the mournful task of picking a wine from a list that runs short in the two-figure range, he couldn’t have been more helpful, directing us to cheaper but still excellent wines. So far, I thought, so good: The service and wines at Chanterelle are as great as they ever were.

But the food, alas, is not. Eating here reminded me of the comment made by a wine connoisseur who had invited me to taste some bottles of great wine that had been poorly stored. After the first sip it faded on the palate, becoming, as he put it, “Like a voice from another room.”

Many of the dishes I tasted over two visits were like a voice from another room. A prime example is one of Mr. Waltuck’s most famous and much-imitated creations, his grilled seafood sausage that’s stuffed with shrimp, lobster, scallops and pine nuts and is served in a sherry vinegar beurre blanc. I can still remember the first time I tasted it: It was a revelation. Now, however, it was bland. Tossed squid and vegetable spaghetti with roasted tomato vinaigrette and green olives tasted flat. Zucchini blossoms were stuffed with a rubbery mixture of chicken and black truffles.

The problem continued with many of the main courses, which were not bad, just ordinary. Lamb with Moroccan spices and a gâteau of lamb shank lacked sparkle, as did the beef sirloin. Steamed chicken arrived in thick wedges in a bowl with sweet corn broth, corn flan and herb butter. The waiter poured a delicious, strongly flavored consommé into the bowl, but it failed to wake up the blandness of the meat. The corn flan, however, was a wonder, creamy and delicate. The artichokes, not the seafood, were the stars of a striped bass and shellfish barigoule. The porgy, with a nicely crisped skin, hit it off with the summery sweet-corn coulis it reclined upon. It was perfectly pleasant. But this was not cooking of the level I expected from David Waltuck.

In the past, Mr. Waltuck’s food has been cleverly thought out, using traditional ingredients and taking them a step further. Remember the diced pig’s feet with poached cod and Manila clams, or the beef filets with oysters and wild mushrooms? I didn’t see anything in that league. One dish that came close was a lovely, classic jellied tomato consommé. But now Mr. Waltuck played too fast and loose with it. I wanted to get rid of the dots of sauce, the shrimp, the concassée of tomatoes, the caviar and the chervil and concentrate on the wonderful soup.

Chanterelle’s cheese course is first-rate but adds another $17.50 per person to your bill if you substitute it for the dessert course. The desserts are superb and include a luscious, molten chocolate fig pudding with brandied fig ice cream, and blueberry clafouti with an amazing, dense coconut cream-cheese ice cream. And huckleberry fig tart under a sugared lattice of pastry with fig-leaf ice cream was heavenly.

Chanterelle has three-star prices, and it should be a three-star restaurant. Soon it will be truffle season. So please, Chanterelle, shine up for fall. I want to come back here and celebrate.