La Côte Basque Reinvents
Famed Cassoulet Survives
The red neon sign on the side of the building still reads La Côte Basque, but the lavish flowers arrangements and sunny murals of seaside towns are gone. In their place comes a Belle Epoque brasserie with new black leather banquettes and waiters in bistro aprons instead of black tie. In March 2004, after 45 years, La Côte Basque’s chef and owner, Jean-Jacques Rachou, closed what was one of New York’s last remaining bastions of French haute cuisine. The time had come, he decided, for a more casual place with less expensive food and a younger clientele.
On a recent evening at Brasserie LCB, I was eating a pig’s trotter stuffed with apple and foie gras when Jean-Claude Baker, owner of the popular bistro Chez Josephine, was shown to the next table along the banquette. I told him that La Côte Basque was the first great French restaurant I’d been to and that I was sad to see it go.
“Times have changed, darling,” said Mr. Baker. “Nowadays, people come in and all they want is 10 appetizers and two bottles of Dom Perignon. They don’t want to sit through a big meal.”
Well, we were sitting through a big meal. One of my friends had ordered choucroute Alsacienne, delivered with a flourish under a silver cloche. If you thought you couldn’t possibly eat choucroute in this weather, I urge you to change your mind and try this. It’s made with the most delicate pickled cabbage, topped with an array of delicious sausages-so good we kept passing the plate back and forth around the table. (Andre Soltner, of Lutèce, now closed, is credited with the recipe.)
The new brasserie menu is not so different from La Côte Basque, with dishes such as M. Rachou’s signature cassoulet (in midsummer, no less, but it’s so good, who cares?), ris de veau and Dover sole. Daily specials include such stalwarts as filet de boeuf en croute perigourdine and pot au feu. And, of course, there’s onion soup, tripe and plateau de fruits de mer.
At the next table, Mr. Baker and his friends were settling in to a pretty big meal too, by the looks of things. They started off with generous slabs of foie gras terrine served with pineapple chutney and a golden sauternes jelly. “Fabulous!” he said.
I agreed. I’d tasted it just a few nights before. On that occasion, with a stab of nostalgia, I’d introduced my companion to quenelles de brochet, soft pillows of pike mousse served with creamy lobster and saffron sauces. I’d tried that dish for the first time many years ago at La Côte Basque (until a couple of months ago, the other place for quenelles was across the street at La Caravelle, another great French restaurant that has closed this year).
It’s no accident that Brasserie LCB reminds me of Bofinger, one of my favorite brasseries in Paris. M. Rachou told me that he’d had it in mind when he decided to reinvent his restaurant to appeal to a younger, broader public. The room, now presided over by a majolica heron instead of the elaborate flower arrangement of past, is painted ochre and decorated with canvas medallions of cartoons from the 1890’s. There’s a zinc bar in the front, a mosaic floor and brass lamps. But the room’s too bright. “Would you mind turning down the lights?” asked one of my friends, who’d never had to do that at La Côte Basque.
But the ambiance is relaxed and friendly: Men are dressed in open-necked shirts; there are even people in jeans. It’s a new experience for the waiters-courtly, old-school professionals-some of whom have worked for M. Rachou for over 20 years (he could strike terror into the hearts of those novices who couldn’t tell a belon from a bluepoint). M. Rachou himself greets his customers in the dining room, many of whom are friends. Tall and outgoing, with an expansive smile, he’s just shy of 70, an age when he might have retired to Florida, like many of his previous customers. M. Rachou was a mentor to many young American chefs who passed through his kitchen doors from culinary school, and his current chef de cuisine, Xavier Mayonove, worked at La Côte Basque before moving on to his last post at Picholine.
“Waiter!” called Mr. Baker. “Could you please turn down the lights?” They were dimmed yet again.
The food is hit or miss. Steak tartare was a disappointment, as densely packed as a short-order hamburger patty, and it was underseasoned. But the French fries that were sitting in a napkin by my plate were marvelous. The kitchen turns out a fine crab cake too, piled high inside a crunchy breading, topped with a small salad and surrounded by sweet shrimp in a lemony sauce. The frisée salad, topped with lardons, croutons and a poached egg, could not be bettered. Nor could the honey-glazed roast duck, done in the old style, with a paper-crisp skin and cherry Grand Marnier sauce made with sour cherries. But red snapper with tomatoes and olives was stringy and dry. “My mother cooks fish like that,” commented the friend eating it. “She says it’s just to be safe!”
Meanwhile, Mr. Baker and his friends were having steaks slathered with béarnaise sauce. “Delicious!” declared Mr. Baker. “But don’t look-I like my steak well done!” He raised his hand, “Waiter! Could you please turn the lights down a little more?”
They were dimmed a third time. “That’s better.”
It was indeed, and we were by now all ready for dessert. Within minutes we were exchanging plates across our tables. There was a whopping napoleon layered with cream; vanilla crème brûlée under a crisp layer of burnt sugar; isles flottantes like gigantic icebergs, criss-crossed with spun caramel; profiteroles filled with vanilla ice cream and topped with a shiny layer of hot chocolate sauce; spoonfuls of chocolate mousse; a dark, tall chocolate layer cake; and, of course, Grand Marnier soufflé. Mr. Baker’s came with vanilla sauce; we had ordered ours with raspberry. “Ah! That’s how I should have had it,” he said after a taste. “It brings it alive. Isn’t this fun!” he added.
La Côte Basque may have gone, but its spirit lives on.