A Prayer for Champagne in Spring: The Relais & Chateaux Dîner des Grands Chefs

11 6347022321241350001640675 32 rlas1 20120416 rm 018 A Prayer for Champagne in Spring: The Relais & Chateaux Dîner des Grands Chefs

Elizabeth Olsen, home gourmand

While it’s not particularly our forte, The Observer fasted on Monday. Mostly fasted, rather. It was a religious holiday of sorts, indeed more of a pilgrimage, for which we practiced the ancient art of self-denial. Relais & Chateaux’s Dîner des Grands Chefs was our evening’s sacrosanct destination, and we intended to arrive with a pilgrim-pure palate.

As we approached Gotham Hall’s regal colonnade, we were beginning to feel slightly faint. Swaying ever so slightly in our heels, we dashed upstairs, past the congested red carpet, for some sustenance, which, before we could object, came in the form of a flute of 1999 Cuvée Louise Pommery Champagne. We weren’t alone in our pre-sunset indulgence: after a lap around the room, we noticed 25 empty bottles of bubbly neatly (and proudly) displayed at the bar. But a few minutes later, the tally was trente-cinq. At that point, we stopped counting.
The room, a balcony above the former bank-floor at Gotham Hall, had a decidedly Parisian scent: tobacco, liberally, if not effectively, doused in floral perfume. It was heavenly.

As we walked around the space, an ever-so-slightly misplaced spotlight blinded us momentarily. Lost, sightless in this cocktail Zion! As our optic nerve relaxed, little shadows remained on our retina. Were we swimming in a black-tie vat of vintage Champagne? No, sadly not. We promptly accepted a beet-and-goat-cheese canapé to re-moor.

Among the bilingual crowd, Michael and Elyse Newhouse, Greta Gerwig, Debbie Bancroft, chef Daniel Boulud (in his double-breasted chef’s jacket) and various francophilic foodies congregated around the various bars.

We spotted model Coco Rocha from across the room, standing, statuesque, with her husband, James Conran. “I do!” Ms. Rocha exclaimed when we asked who reigned over the kitchen in their household. “I clean,” Mr. Conran admitted. “We just moved into a new house, and she’s like deathly afraid of turning the oven on. She would sacrifice me to the flame. I think she has a good life insurance policy on me,” he joked, with manifest adoration and a knowing nod in his wife’s direction. “The first thing I ever made was broiled salmon,” Ms. Rocha divulged, but admitted a deep-seated love of pierogis.

Elizabeth Olsen soon appeared wearing a floor-length dress in authoritative red. “It’s Valentino. They were really nice and let me borrow a dress for the night,” she said. The efflorescing actress confessed that she was a natural in the kitchen. “I love cooking. I’ve never taken classes,” she told The Observer. “I always make my own recipes, I never follow recipes. I’m literally collecting all the different tools in my kitchen: for every Christmas and every birthday I get a new tool, and it’s really exciting and satisfying.”

Her most recent additions? “I just got the two things I was really looking for, which was a mandolin and one of those blenders that also heats up and makes soup at the same time.”

An omnivore, Ms. Olsen professed her gastro creed. “I just think everyone needs to do everything in moderation and try a little bit of everything.” She gestured to a friend who had accompanied her for the evening. “She doesn’t eat pork because she thinks pigs are too cute.” To be sure, her friend was flush with porcine fondness. “I really want a teacup piggy. Like a 20-pounder,” she declared.

Following the already tottering crowd downstairs, The Observer felt we had been transported to some féerique woodland bower. Each table was garnished with a towering cherry blossom centerpiece, vines and ivy crawling throughout. Encircling the tables, 45 master chefs were already hard at work, preparing 15 individual menus for the eager group.

Just as we were finding our seat, we noticed Gillian Miniter at a neighboring table. Watching the chefs execute their craft, we asked Ms. Miniter if she was a capable cook herself. “You know, I have to be honest, I have not cooked in a long time, and I’ll tell you why,” she began. “I used to be a cook and I used to be into cooking, but I’m married to a man who’s not interested. So I would prepare a meal, and he would say, ‘Yeah, it was O.K., I’d rather go out.’ So, guess what, I make him a cup of tea like once a month, and it’s a big deal!” Our kind of cuisinier!

The theme of the meal was Springtime in New York, and The Observer could verily taste the seasonal motif throughout. After more champagne (bien sûr!) a lobster agrodolce was served, followed by pan-seared Maine scallops.

During a brief lull in the gastronomic action (sauciers were saucing, seafood was sautéing, and Champagne flutes were, as ever, chiming), we spoke with master chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. We were curious to know M. Vongerichten’s thoughts on foraging, a new gastro trend in which chefs gather their ingredients from the wild. “I love it!” he said of the movement. “I was tweeting about it this weekend,” he added, producing his cellphone from the folds of his chef’s coat to show us photos of the various flora he had collected. We tried to picture the towering god of gastronomy, back stooped, picking through shrubbery, but our imagination failed.

As we found our seat, veal filet with bitter caramel and endive tatin were being served. The evening was topped off with a selection of fine American cheese, chocolate mousse and a glass of Porto Rozès from 1947.
Profoundly satiated, The Observer finished our last heavenly glass of Champagne (the port lacked that divine pneumatic sparkle) and bid au revoir to our tablemates. Turning around just before we left the space, we couldn’t help but smile as waiters returned to fill the flutes of guests requiring one final dram of the golden draught.

This, and nothing else, is love, we thought as we walked out into the balmy night.