When a friend of mine said recently that she’d like to go to one of my “downtown places,” I didn’t think trendy restaurants full of models and bellowing disco music would be quite her thing. Instead, I thought of Chanterelle. It was several years since I had last dined there, just after it moved from a modest SoHo storefront to larger premises in a converted commercial building in TriBeCa. Along with Montrachet, Chanterelle was one of the first downtown restaurants serving haute cuisine. The setting, although luxurious, was understated-even a bit arty-and very different from an equivalent place uptown.
My husband and I arrived early so we would be there when my friend arrived. She was late and came in out of breath, having been dumped by a taxi in west SoHo, where she got lost until a friendly policeman stopped the traffic and guided her across Canal Street.
Chanterelle’s large, long dining room is spare and elegant, with bare apricot-colored walls, six immense windows looking onto the street, tables with white linen placed far apart and high, stamped-tin ceilings from which hang three massive bronze chandeliers. The main decorative feature is Karen Waltuck’s flower arrangement at one end of the dining room, a giant spray of autumn leaves, lilies and hydrangeas. As you would expect in a restaurant of this caliber, the wine list is superb, if a little pricey, and the service is impeccable. The menu, which currently has a painting on the cover by the artist Terry Winter, is written in an elaborate curlicue script that would keep a handwriting analyst busy for days.
“The more American things are, the less danger you have of coming across a brown sauce,” the composer Virgil Thomson once remarked.
David Waltuck, who opened Chanterelle with his wife Karen on a remote corner in SoHo in the late 70’s, was one of Thomson’s favorite chefs. There was little danger of brown sauce at Chanterelle, where he was a regular customer even though it was expensive and he didn’t like to spend money. He celebrated his birthdays there and one of his favorite dishes, which is still on the menu today, was the grilled seafood sausage. Last November, Thomson’s centenary was celebrated in New York City, and among the various tributes and excerpts of his music were piano portraits of Thomson’s friends-one of which was of the Waltucks, played by Gerald Busby.
Grilled seafood sausage is now on menus in restaurants all over town, but Mr. Waltuck’s version was the first I ever tasted. When I tried the same dish the other night, it was as good as ever, delicate and light, stuffed with chunks of shrimp and scallops. Pemaquid oysters, gently warmed through and returned to their shells on a bed of lightly cooked cabbage in a cream sauce and topped with caviar, is another Chanterelle signature dish that has stood the test of time. My friend had ordered ravioli, and she was looking like a sailor who has just found land. It was a wonderful dish, the delicate pillows of dough stuffed with winter squash and served with an earthy ragout of wild hare and porcini. I also loved the rich, pink terrine of peppered foie gras studded with raisins, and the warm lobster, served on a bed of greens and sprinkled with white truffles.
Mr. Waltuck’s food is cleverly thought out, and he takes traditional dishes a step further. I liked the idea of putting a diced pig’s foot (an item you seldom see even in bistros these days) on poached cod served in a broth with manila clams, a riff on a traditional Portuguese dish. Beef filets were served rare with oysters and wild mushrooms, a combination that sounded strange but worked, as did the more conventional rack of lamb, rare and tender in a cumin salt crust. Striped bass in a crisp crust that kept the fish moist, arrived on a vibrant sauce made with red verjus, along with creamed leeks. (We had been reading in the paper that day about verjus-the juice of green grapes-an old-time, newly revived ingredient that Americans will be adding to their kitchen cupboards soon, I’m sure.)
Chanterelle has a good cheese plate, as I remember, but we didn’t have room. Instead, we pressed on to desserts, which were spectacular. Since we had forgone the cheese plate, we ordered the quince cheesecake instead, which came with a sort of fried wonton filled with goat cheese and an apricot sorbet. The chocolate surprise was good, too, a sponge shell sprinkled with powdered sugar and filled with gooey dark chocolate. There was also a trio of pear desserts, including a delicious pear sorbet, and a refreshing cranberry soup with apple cranberry ice cream that would make the perfect ending to a Thanksgiving dinner.
Virgil Thomson prided himself on his Thanksgiving dinner. He was a great cook and often used to say he’d rather talk about food than music: “People are much more interested in food.” For Thanksgiving, he liked to make wild turkey with wild rice and braised celery. Instead of cranberry sauce-which he dismissed as “pure foolishness”-he gave us plums with framboise . When he carved the turkey, which he did skillfully, he hid the “oyster.” It was the best part, he said, when he realized I had noticed what he had done. “And I’m keeping it for myself.”
With coffee at Chanterelle, you get an impressive array of petits fours, including almonds dipped in dark chocolate that reminded me of the Rice Krispies treats we used to make when I was a child, only a hundred times better. When I asked for a doggie bag for the remaining petits fours and chocolate truffles, I seriously meant to share them when I got them home. But the next day, like Thomson with the oyster, I ate them myself. My son still hadn’t finished his candy from Halloween, so that was my excuse.
2 Harrison Street, at Hudson Street, 966-6960
Noise Level: Low
Wine List: Excellent
Credit Cards: All major
Price Range: Lunch main courses $18.50 to $24, prix fixe $35; dinner prix fixe $75 and $89
Lunch: Tuesday to Saturday noon to 2:30 P.M.
Dinner: Monday to Saturday 5:30 P.M. to 11 P.M.
** Very Good
No Star Poor