The other night, I was having dinner at a hot new restaurant on the Lower East Side when the California chef, Jeremiah Tower, stopped by for a glass of champagne. As we observed the youthful crowd pouring through the door, Mr. Tower-who revolutionized American food with his California cuisine at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse before most of these people were born-suddenly said, “You know the restaurant I’d most like to go to in New York? La Grenouille.”
I was surprised. La Grenouille is one of the last remaining grand old bastions of French haute cuisine in New York. It opened in 1962, the year of the Cuban missile crisis and, as it happens, the birth of Ralph Fiennes and Axl Rose. Over the years, the rich, powerful and fashionable-from Richard Nixon to Gloria Swanson-have flocked to this opulent, flower-bedecked restaurant, vying for a table in the front room where they could see and be seen as they dined on such delicacies as frogs’ legs and Grand Marnier soufflés.
Mr. Towers and I made a date for lunch at La Grenouille the following week. “I hope they haven’t changed a thing,” he said.
The first person I recognized when I walked in was Arthur Schlesinger. He was probably there on opening day.
Mr. Tower was perched at the bar, nursing a glass of champagne. “I do think $18.50 for a glass of Pol Roger is a bit naughty,” he said. It was nearly half the price of the three-course prix fixe lunch ($45).
We settled ourselves at a table near the front door and surveyed the scene. The room, with its scarlet banquettes, mirrors, gold-brocade-covered walls and pink boudoir lamps, still sparkles. Owner Charles Masson’s flower arrangements are as magnificent as ever: huge sprays of quince blossoms and, on each table, a vase of roses. Barbara Cartland would be right at home here, and so was the dowager at the opposite table, who wore a white turban and was bedecked in so many pearls and diamonds that I was surprised she could hold her head up. “She’s having lunch with her jeweler from Cartier across the street,” whispered Mr. Tower, who recognized him. Scores of waiters and captains in black tie were posted around the room, professionals of a certain age who were not moonlighting actors and who didn’t tell you their names or call themselves “servers.”
The kitchen is run by British chef Ian Scollay, formerly of the Château de Bagnols in France and the Ritz and the Connaught in London. The menu is quite short, and many of the dishes have been served here since the restaurant first opened. Mr. Scollay has revisited some of the classics and added a few new things of his own, but mostly La Grenouille serves the sort of traditional haute cuisine that existed in the time of Escoffier. “This is how people once lived!” said Mr. Tower, and promptly ordered a bottle of Chassagne Montrachet.
We began with a chicken liver sausage that was mostly chicken meat, placed on a pool of sauce made with sherry vinegar, sage and sweet corn. A coarse country terrine was also excellent, albeit seasoned with a little too much liquor. The captain then brought over a Dover sole for our perusal, which he expertly boned in the old style and served with a rich, pungent mustard sauce. Roast chicken “grand’mère” was perfectly cooked, surrounded by pearl onions, smoked bacon, roast potatoes and artichokes. “It looks like an illustration for a cookbook,” said Mr. Tower. It tasted as good as it looked, too.
For dessert, we had a state-of-the-art soufflé, delicately perfumed with rosewater. The captain wheeled round the dessert trolley, which was laden with oeufs à la neige, chocolate mousse, fruit, tarts and cakes. We chose a walnut tart that tasted as though it had been made just hours before.
It was a wonderful lunch. “And no music,” noted Mr. Tower. “What a relief.”
I returned for dinner (prix fixe, $85) some days later. The evening crowd was very different from lunch. It included a husky man in a leather jacket who looked like a member of the Russian Mafia; a middle-aged woman clad in a gold “vest” (with nothing but a visible black bra underneath) and matching tight gold pants; a woman in a black velvet headband, sweater and pearls; and a man in a double-breasted suit with a rep tie and white mustache, who looked like an elderly version of Ronald Coleman.
“A little foie gras ‘royale’ with citrus,” the waiter announced as he set down a tiny pot under a citrus gelée and a small plate of thin, light pastry goujonettes. We finished this in seconds. I began with quenelles de brochet, which were the size of billiard balls and rather lumpen in appearance. They were served nakedly with basmati rice and a champagne sauce that lacked the character of the usual Nantua sauce, which typically has crayfish or lobster in it. Ravioli filled with lobster and tarragon in a lobster-bisque reduction were a little tough, but pleasant. But Mr. Scollay really came into his own with our main courses (and he is an expert at sauces, which are not over-reduced). Breast of Rouen duck with slices of seared foie gras, walnuts and quince was magnificent. It was accompanied by stuffed cabbage threaded with duck confit and a light duck jus infused with star anise and aged sherry vinegar. A faultless, boned and rolled saddle of lamb was stuffed with veal mousse and served pink with celery purée, wilted bitter greens and a small turnip stuffed with eggplant caviar.
We finished with a soufflé, of course, this time made with bits of crystallized ginger which gave it a nice crunch. To my surprise, there was no dessert trolley, and I wish I’d ordered a second soufflé (chocolate or raspberry) instead of the “warm” apple tart, which arrived cold on a plate taken from the refrigerator.
After she had finished dinner, a woman sitting near by, who was wearing a formal black dress and must have been in her 90′s, got up to leave. She was blind. The maitre d’ rushed over to help her and grabbed both her hands. The woman beamed. “Cha cha cha!” she sang.
He took up the refrain: “One, two, cha cha cha …. ” They cha-cha’d out of the restaurant and he helped her into her car.
I asked the waiter about her as I was leaving. “She comes in two or three times a week,” he said. “And every time we go out: ‘One, two, cha cha cha!’”
La Grenouille is a piece of history. And I agree with Jeremiah Tower: I hope they never change a thing.