Tuesday, September 13, 2016

La Grenouille

There are approximately 20,000 restaurants in New York City (including 6 with three Michelin Stars) and, during our first month as residents of New York State, the only one of them I visited was the New York Life cafeteria. The fact that this is a grievous oversight needs not be pointed out, and I worked diligently to fix it as my wedding anniversary approached in early September. Of course, I wanted our first real NYC dining excursion as locals to be special, but the sheer volume of options was a little intimidating until I decided to completely kick it old-school and chose La Grenouille (3 E. 52nd Street).

Back in the 1960s when continental French cuisine (the kind rhapsodized by the likes of Julia Child) was the epitome of fine dining in America, La Grenouille ("The Frog" en francais) was one of a small group of French gastronomy temples to hold sway in Manhattan, the others being Lutece, Quo Vadis, La Caravelle, Lafayette, and La Cote Basque.  Fast forward to 2016 and La Grenouille is the sole survivor of this group, still churning out souffles and Dover sole five days a week to patrons who have not yet grown weary of the cream and butter-laden cooking style that is no longer in vogue most other places.  If nothing else, the restaurant is living history that I wanted to experience firsthand in the event that it, too, disappears like its brethren before long.

In fact, it's something of a minor miracle that La Grenouille (the subject of enough drama to fill a telenova) has managed to stay around at all.  Originally founded by Charles Masson, Sr. (a disciple of Henri Soule, who's credited with establishing fine French dining on our side of the pond) and his wife Gisele in 1962, Charles Sr. passed away in 1975 and was succeeded by his sons, Charles Jr. and Philippe, who continued to run the restaurant with their mother's guidance until a rift between the brothers forced Charles Sr. out in 2014 (from all accounts, the incident appears to have been acrimonious).  Small accommodations made by the Massons in recent times to remove some of the stuffiness associated with the operation (the "no photo" policy was less enforced, English menu translations were added, a more casual dining room was built upstairs) apparently did nothing to defuse the familial angst and, although Gisele Masson passed in late 2014, the two brothers (who may very well not be on speaking terms) remain coy when questions about the current ownership arrangement are posed.

Of course, one can't sense all of this back-office angst in the dining room, an oasis of civility from the chaos of East 52nd Street outside.  Still, real estate costs a premium in Manhattan and the tables are tightly packed, as I discovered when I had to be loaded into my seat like a Mercury astronaut (fortunately, we didn't mind overhearing the conversations of the couples sitting mere inches away on either side of us, each oddly consisting of a very elderly gentleman accompanied by a decades-younger, attractive blonde wife/girlfriend).  When brainstorming words to describe the decor, "exuberant" is about the only thing that comes to mind, both in a good way (the elaborate flower arrangements, a tradition started by Charles Sr. and carried on over the years, are stunning) and a not-so-good way (gold fabric-covered walls).  The fancy table lamp that you see above eventually went out after I accidentally kicked the cord and a maitre d' had to climb under me to plug it back in (somehow, I can't envision this happening at a modern-day high-end restaurant - Thomas Keller would no doubt be appalled).  Negotiating corded light fixtures seemed of little concern to the other patrons, some of whom looked as if they might be close to enjoying their last meal (let's just say that the clientele skews older here).

Upon further reflection, I should find it really encouraging that the most loyal senior diners at La Grenouille are still with us even after regularly indulging in such unhealthy fare as the amazing marbled foie gras and fig terrine I chose for my appetizer, served with a fruit compote, some microgreens, toast points, and a couple drops of balsamic vinegar.  If you're looking to bolster an argument that haute French cuisine continues to have a place in the canon of American gastronomy, I present to you Exhibit A.

For the entree, Mrs. Hackknife opted for a pan-seared foie gras, whereas I demurred a little and chose the Quenelles de Brochet, a traditional dish from the Lyon region of France consisting of dumplings of cream, flour, eggs, and seafood (in this case, pike) that are poached and served in a rich sauce that typically contains crawfish (called a Nantua sauce), but had a champagne base here.  Each quenelle was topped with a generous dollop of black caviar and came with a side of white rice, a simple, yet elegant dish (although, at this point, I would have welcomed a vegetable of some sort).

La Grenouille's prix fixe menu only contains 3 courses (which doesn't seem like much at first, but it's enough when you're eating heavy French food), so dessert came next.  I was tempted to order the cheese selection or even one of the famous souffles (Mrs. H. got a pistachio souffle and it was eggy and ethereal and wonderful) - I eventually settled on the house's version of a tarte tatin, a roasted apple doused in caramel sauce and resting on a sweet pastry tart, served with a dehydrated apple crisp and a scoop of vanilla ice cream, another simple dish in concept/appearance that was expertly executed.   All told, the missus and I were really charmed by the experience at this venerable bastion of fine dining; no matter what happens with the restaurant moving forward, I regard our visit as the gateway to exploring all of the great grub (highfalutin and lowbrow alike) that NYC has to offer...

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