“The world was full of evolution … with music as a background for emotion and a great deal of eating as an excitement.” Reading this quote, which is printed on the menu of Gertrude’s, you would probably think the author was Frank McCourt, rather than Gertrude Stein, whose prose typically runs more to sentences that seem to go round and round, heavy on gerunds if not adjectives. The reason for naming this new Upper East Side restaurant Gertrude’s is somewhat obscure. Why not just as well name it after her companion Alice B. Toklas, who, after all, did the cooking during the almost 40 years they were together, and even wrote a book on the subject?
To enter the restaurant, which is in a pretty town house just off Madison Avenue, you walk down a few steps into a rather cramped, wood-paneled room which has banquettes and, on warm evenings, a couple of tables outside in the pocket courtyard. On a recent night, the room was packed with businessmen, trophy wives (“and dumped trophy wives,” as a friend put it), models and their dates, many of whom were having cocktails around the small bar. I tried to imagine Gertrude, in her sandals and rough-hewn clothes, her face like a Roman emperor, tugging the mustachioed Alice behind her, making a sweep through this crowd.
Tucked away in the back on the ground floor is an unexpectedly large, comfortable room with a skylight and a carved stone fireplace, oriental carpets, sofas and tables set far apart. A little too much of the interior decorator is in evidence to make this the setting for a Gertrude Stein salon, however, and she would have blanched at the art-by-the-yard hanging on the tasteful olive green walls, which includes a couple of etchings made from photographs of her and Alice. (One of the couple in Provence is on the cover of the menu.)
Upstairs there is another, smaller dining room with walls covered with green chinoiserie and more paintings, hung at discreet distances from each other, not all together like hers were: floor to ceiling, Matisse on Picasso on Derain on Juan Gris.
“This place feels so very 50’s,” commented a friend who came to Gertrude’s with me for lunch one day, as we listened to the crooning “I Love Paris in the Springtime” music that was being piped into the rooms. “They even have hair spray in the bathroom.”
Gertrude’s is co-owned by Howard Stein (no relation), proprietor of the supper club Au Bar and the dance club System. The chef Laurent Manrique was formerly at Peacock Alley at the Waldorf. His cooking is contemporary French drawn from his native Gascogne and the Basque region, and it is light and often deft. I couldn’t help but wonder, though, when we were handed our menus and I noticed that the chef’s wine selection of the day was a hefty $95. Isn’t the chef’s choice supposed to be a bargain? One of the cheapest wines on the list was Jolys, which my husband ordered, in honor, he said, of Maria and Eugene Jolas, publishers of a magazine and friends of Gertrude Stein’s. It was delicious.
There is a lot about the food at Gertrude’s that I am sure the writer would have liked, starting with a rich, delicate soup of the day made from chestnuts, and a terrine of cassoulet: duck confit, beans, sausage and foie gras. Ravioli stuffed with foie gras were good, too, served in a light Parmesan broth with asparagus and wild mushrooms. This was a better choice than the lobster ravioli, which were bland (and I must admit to a prejudice in favor of lobster in its purer forms-boiled, grilled or in a salad). Fresh, snowy chunks of crab meat served with a colorful garnish of diced beets, grapefruit and mâche were delicious, however, as were the oysters, topped with caviar and nestling on a bed of greens. Too bad the tuna rillettes were just a cut above deli tuna salad, served on eggplant comfit.
As we looked through the open doors of the upstairs dining room, we could see right into a restaurant on the same level across the street. I remembered a concert I had once been to in SoHo, where, as we sat in the dark listening to a Tibetan gong recital, a young woman entered her loft across the street and turned on the lights. For the next hour, she went about her business unaware that 40 pairs of eyes were watching her every movement as she undressed and went to bed.
The main courses we tried included a wonderful rare magret of duck, and a veal chop that was a little overcooked but came with an interesting combination of caramelized fennel, grapes and chorizo. A special of hare in deep, dark red wine sauce, subtly flavored with dark chocolate, was exceptional, as was the monkfish Basque-style, with prosciutto crisps and a fricassee of mixed peppers. But at lunch one day, the black risotto was mushy and the seafood fricassee served on it simply muddied the flavors. A piece of striped bass came in a pleasantly light lemon and tomato bouillon with potatoes and zucchini, but it, too, was overcooked.
Desserts included a strange tart made with pieces of citrus fruit arranged like a fruit salad on a pastry shell with grapefruit sorbet and passion fruit sauce. Pear brioche with prune Armagnac ice cream was too sweet, and a scent of cheap perfume pervaded the fruit gazpacho, which, with the fruit cut into tiny, floating cubes, looked like a mosaic tile floor. The sorbet with it, also flavored with orange water, tasted like cologne. The warm, gooey flourless chocolate cake, de rigueur on every menu in New York these days, it seems, was very good, however.
My husband made the error one evening of ordering what was listed as a “fromage special.” He had expected a plate of assorted French cheeses, which we would all share. Instead, a mottled pinkish slab that looked as though it were made of marble was set down in front of him. He took a taste and called our waiter over for an explanation. It turned out to be Robuchon, put in the robot-coupe with figs, pine nuts and pink peppercorns. I wondered if the chef, before conceiving this dish, had been experimenting with one of Alice B. Toklas’ famous hash brownies.