Dining out with Moira Hodgson

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Bastion of French Haute-Cuisine

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Inspires Nostalgia, Revelation

Americans have always had a hearty dislike for the French, even before Dominique de Villepin came along. So I shouldn’t have been so surprised when, in the name of doing their bit for the Iraq war, people started boycotting French cheese and wine, and even New York’s French restaurants. This seemed so ridiculous that I decided it was time to revisit one of the grand old bastions of French haute cuisine , La Caravelle, which has survived on West 55th Street for over four decades.

Troy Dupuy, the chef for the past two years, is a star. I’m amazed that he’s not plastered over all the food magazines, with a TV show of his own, a line of products and a series of cookbooks to his name. His food is wonderful. Our lunch was the best meal I’ve had since I ate at Alain Ducasse a few weeks ago-and a lot cheaper, too. Dinner at La Caravelle is expensive-a prixe fixe of $72-but lunch, for $38, is a bargain.

It was lunchtime on a chilly, damp afternoon when I arrived, and the dining room was less than half full. It may have been gloomy outside, but inside, the murals of Paris on Bastille Day by Jean Pagès (a student of Raoul Dufy) still looked as fresh as ever, and the pink banquettes and soft lighting made the place glow. I felt I was in a time warp. The maître d’, Andre Ihuellou, has been here since the beginning-and to this day wears black tie rather than some designer Mao jacket. The bartender, Adalberto Alonso, a veteran of 38 years, wears black tie too, even though the crowd for cocktails is trendy and young (the restaurant was once a speakeasy, so the bar is hidden away in the back, next to the kitchen).

The friends I was meeting for lunch were already seated in the middle of the dining room when I arrived. One of them, a man who no longer lives in the city, used to come here once a week in the 60’s and 70’s, so this was a nostalgic visit for him. “I was at this very table when Jackie told Joe and Rose Kennedy she was going to marry Ari,” he said. “Joe was in a wheelchair. He didn’t look at all pleased.”

When La Caravelle opened in 1960, it drew a rich, powerful and fashionable clientele that included Joseph Kennedy, Ava Gardner and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Looking around the room that afternoon, I didn’t see any famous faces, but several tables were occupied by older men with much younger women. One of the young women was drinking martinis-the lunchtime cocktail of choice in the 60’s, when it would have been accompanied by a cigarette. At another table, a small group of business colleagues asked for four bottles of wine to go with their lunch and proceeded, in a surprisingly orderly fashion, to drink them all.

“Do you think they’re drinking French wines?” asked my friend. He had been to a dinner party at Le Cirque the previous evening where one of the guests had waved away the wines offered, proclaiming: “I hate the French-I’m sticking to American.” He then drank bourbon throughout the meal.

La Caravelle opened in the autumn when Kennedy was President and Khruschev banged his shoe on the table at the United Nations. For the next 20 years, it rode high on its reputation as the place to be seen, complete with a hierarchy of tables. But by the 80’s, old-style French cooking was going out of style and the restaurant began to go downhill. At that time I asked the owner, the late Robert Meyzen, what he thought about nouvelle cuisine.

“It’s like women’s liberation,” he replied. “Tomorrow, everyone will have forgotten about it.”

Well, they didn’t. So when the current owners, Rita and André Jammet-a warm and friendly French couple-took over in 1988, they set about modernizing the menu. The food was very good, but at the time I missed the hors d’oeuvres trolley and the drama of the captain’s tableside carving. The Jammets later brought them back and divided the menu into two sections, old and new. Today, the classics include quenelles de brochette, crisp roast duck with cranberries for two, and grilled Dover sole. Among the new-and inventive-dishes are roast pheasant with lily bulbs, and Arctic char with celeriac and grapefruit.

The hors d’oeuvre trolley, with a glistening selection that included eggplant roulade, tuna niçoise made with strips of rare tuna, smoked salmon, Taylor bay scallops in their shells and pristine spears of asparagus, was so good that my friend didn’t miss the céleri rémoulade and the string bean salad he had loved so much in the old days.

One of Mr. Dupuy’s signature dishes is a first course of marinated tuna and gravlax layered like a Napoleon with different kinds of seaweed and dill and topped with miniature cress (the kind we used to grow on blotting paper when I was a child) that’s wrapped in a paper-thin slice of radish. It was surrounded by strips of smoked salmon and a vinaigrette made with mango and a sweet Japanese rice vinegar. The crosnes confit, a bulbous vegetable that looks like a small Jerusalem artichoke and is sold in Chinatown, was also first-rate. It came with an intense truffle vinaigrette and delicate cooked radishes.

The former Caravelle regular insisted on ordering the crabmeat salad, which he remembered fondly. It was, as he said, perfect, made with moist lumps of crab tossed in a fines herbes dressing and loaded with cognac that you could smell across the table. He followed this with another Caravelle classic, the famous quenelles de brochette sauce Nantua (pike dumplings with lobster sauce). They were bigger than they used to be, light and airy, floating like zeppelins on their bright pink lobster cream sauce. They reminded us of those photographs in old French cookbooks, where they’re set out on silver serving trays, surrounded by mirrors, platters of smoked salmon and caviar. Also on the retro side of the menu is a thick, buttery foie gras terrine in a Sauternes gelée, paired with marinated turnips.

“We may have fond memories of these dishes,” said my other dining companion. “But no one under 35 will have had this food, ever! For them, it won’t come as nostalgia, but as a revelation.” Which may explain why so many young, hip people are coming here again.

But Mr. Dupuy’s modern cooking is a revelation, too. The seared yellowtail is perfect, its richness cut with a citrus glaze, and it comes with the best Japanese eggplant I’ve ever tasted. The swordfish is cut thick like a filet mignon, darkened with spices and topped with sea urchins. It sits on a bed of spaghetti squash surrounded by a rich, foamy sea urchin sauce.

Of course, we wound up the meal with a traditional Grand Marnier soufflé, updated by pastry chef Jill Rose with a confit of orange rind that you spoon on. Also excellent was the chocolate trio with pistachio-mint ice cream, and the passion fruit chiboust with cashew crust, and the toasted macadamia nut parfait with pineapple-ginger sherbet. We all loved the salted pineapple tuiles.

Francophobes will be missing a treat if they boycott this place. And by the way: Despite his name, Mr. Dupuy-a tall, broad-shouldered man with steady blue eyes who looks as though he stepped out of an ad for the Marines-is not from France at all, but from Baton Rouge.

Dining out with Moira Hodgson