dinner at la grenouille

our dinner on saturday night was a somewhat different event. we dressed ourselves up and headed out for a pre-dinner cocktail at the king cole bar in the st. regis hotel. it was quite a lively scene in there at 8pm, with a lot of men in suits and young ladies dressed to the nines. the most noise came from a group of gals out for some “sex and the city” style fun...perhaps a bachelorette evening...with lots of martinis, camera flashes and off-the-shoulder outfits. we finished our kir royales and strolled across town to la grenouille.

the scene inside the door there was equally lively. the second seating guests were all jammed into the bar waiting for their tables. the room was timeless “french restaurant” with red velvet banquettes, mirrored walls and gold leaf everywhere. the flowers were as promised: sumptuous, skyscraping and delightful. after a brief wait, we were escorted to our table. we were tucked into a corner of the room, seated next to one another on the banquette, both facing out on the space. this location, along with the profusion of mirrors, made for superb people watching. a spray of deep pink roses and peruvian lilies adorned our setting.

the crowd here was decidedly older and decidedly moneyed. there were no culinary adventurers here—no foodies coming up from downtown. the clientele clearly considers this their own turf. outsiders, while tolerated, are not really welcomed with open arms. the only young people were the sons and daughters of the regulars and they were obviously in their element as well. we saw evidence of many episodes of plastic surgery, hairplugs and tanning beds. it was a different kind of people watching, but fascinating nonetheless. the clothes were hand-tailored suits and couture dresses, except for the “lady with the shoes” (more on her later).

the menu is strictly classic french. blinis with caviar; terrine with pistachio; endive salad with roquefort; duck a l'orange; veal kidneys; frog legs provencale. we made our selections (including pre-ordering a dessert souffle) and chose a french wine (when in rome, right?) from bordeaux: a 2005 duhart milon from pauillac. our hors d'oeuvres arrived shortly thereafter. a tiny bowl of potage st. germain (split pea soup) upon which floated the tiniest crouton ever. the waiter also placed a wee silver caddy with a few gougeres (cheese puffs) and a pair of cheese straws. we were offered miniature baguettes and some delectable, salty butter as well. while good enough, the baguettes were the only bread offered during our service and they were not served warm.

our appetizers were two of the house specialties: ris de veau and foie gras de canard. my sweetbreads were a textbook example, a crispy exterior giving way to a custardy soft interior. they were sauced with a port reduction scented with the piney aroma of fresh rosemary. drew's foie gras was also outstanding. the two generous slices had been given a deep, mahogany crust that enclosed the still-rosy liver. the saucing was similar, but the accompaniments included a couple of perfectly turned lozenges of baked quince and a tumble of sultanas.

after a brief interval, our waiter arrived to present my grilled whole dover sole. following nods of approval all around, it was whisked away to be filleted and plated on the sideboard. when he returned, there were four perfect fillets, some haricots verts, half a lemon and a silver bowl of rich mustard sauce to spoon atop the fish. drew had ordered a true classic of the french canon: quenelles de brochet lyonnaise. these rich, airy pillows of pike were bound with cream, poached in fish stock and floated to the table atop a pale cream sauce. alongside were served perfectly cook grains of white rice; crowning each quenelle was a spoonful of caviar. the dish was a composition in shades of white, contrasting with the shiny caviar on top and the use of a matte, black plate beneath it all.

once these plates were cleared, we were presented with an assortment of classic patisserie from which to choose. chocolate ganache cake; coffee eclairs; apple tart; oeufs a la neige (floating islands). to accompany our chocolate souffle, we chose a clementine granite and a miniature almond cake. the icy crystals of the granite were a necessary foil to all the richness we had consumed thus far. the almond cake, served with a spoonful of crème anglaise (custard sauce) was completely unremarkable. the star of this course was most definitely the souffle. presented tableside in all its towering glory, it was plated at the waiters station with unsweetened whipped cream. it arrived all quivering and steaming, the heady aroma of chocolate filling our noses and tempting us to dive in. we were rewarded with a decadent, elegant and nearly overwhelming sensation of warm, melting chocolate.

as we settled back into our seats, dark coffee was poured and a silver tray of cookies presented. crunchy caramelized almonds, classic madeleines, almond tuiles and chewy florentines were tiny enough to still be enjoyed without us feeling too stuffed. it was late and the room was starting to empty. as people got up to leave, it became even clearer that they all knew one another. they stopped to chat at various tables as they left and this gave us a chance to really see their beautiful clothes. a woman from the front room walked by on her way to the restroom and she caught my eye because she seemed really out of place. a bizarre blouse with holes cut in it, an ugly tan leather skirt and shoes that lit up??? did i really see shoes with lights in them? i quickly related this to drew and he was completely unbelieving. a few moments passed, she returned from the powder room and we saw it again. clear plastic mules whose soles were filled with multi-colored flashing lights! incredible! we fell all over ourselves in laughter and she smiled a big grin. this lady knew exactly what she was doing wearing that outfit in this room. we were the only ones that were relaxed enough to get the joke.

in the final analysis, we agreed that we need not go back. everything was perfectly executed: the décor, the flowers, the service, the food, the pastry. ultimately, though, there were no surprises; nothing that wowed us; nothing that made us sit up and take notice. it remains a bastion of gallic excellence. perhaps we are just jaded, but there are other settings where we agreed we would rather pass a few hours to fill our bellies.


lunch at le bernardin

my flight from cleveland arrived early; my bag was waiting on the belt; there was no cab line and virtually no traffic. from boarding the plane to walking into the apartment was just about two hours. the worst part of the trip was arriving at hopkins 2.5 hours early and sitting in the food court and gate area, waiting for my flight. drew served a late breakfast (my third of the day) of croissants, scones and coffee. we got ourselves together and headed out to the museum of modern art. the highlight of that visit was the retrospective of
tim burton's work. drawings, sketches, paintings, film, video, puppets, costumes, props, and other ephemera were all jammed in together to make for a wild and almost nightmarish exhibition space. we also strolled through the photography and design archives, as well as spending a few quiet moments with monet's water lilies.

we had a late lunch reservation and when we arrived the restaurant was really buzzing. we settled into our chairs in the center of the room and ordered a couple of big fat martinis. almost immediately we were presented with one of my favorite parts of lunch here: the salmon spread and toasts. a luscious preparation including fresh and smoked salmon, mayonnaise, lemon and chives, it is an integral part of the moment wherein we leave the outside world behind and allow the restaurant to envelope us.

for the first course, I chose a progressive tasting of kumamoto oysters en gelee. the six mollusks arrived atop a hillock of crushed ice woven through with a strand of seaweed. each was topped with a dice of differently flavored jellies, from yuzu to shiso, dashi to kimchi. each was a bracing mouthful of briny goodness. drew was presented with a salad of grilled bacalao (salted cod). the strong tastes of salt and the grill were tempered by a cool, white gazpacho, almonds and sliced white grapes. alongside, we nibbled at an assortment of breads that included parkerhouse and seven grain rolls, sliced raisin bread, and an olive baguette. when we finished these plates, I was brought a silver fingerbowl with which to wash away any traces of oyster.

for our entrees, we chose two different types of bass. drew had baked striped bass. two skinless pieces of fillet shared the plate with a corn "canneloni." a fine mince of black truffle was scattered across the fish; the light perigord sauce spooned around the plate was also flecked with this precious fungus. i was served a beautiful piece of crispy skin black bass, laid across two stalks of melted celery. the sauce here was a sharp combination of iberico ham and green peppercorns. alongside arrived a ramekin of parsnips three ways: custard, foam and chips.

after a lengthy pause that included a consultation on dessert wines with the sommelier, we commenced with the sweets. a pear composition that included a cinnamon caramel parfait, fromage blanc sorbet, smoked sea salt and "liquid pear"--a colloidal suspension filled with the essence of pear. a hazelnut themed plate featured gianduja cream, brown butter ice cream, caramelized banana and roasted hazelnuts. we topped this course off with a trio of seasonal sorbets: coconut, blood orange and pineapple buttermilk. these arrived with a pair of butter cookies. there were also served a basket of warm almond madeleines and pistachio financiers. to drink, we tasted a lovely fortified muscat wine and rich, dark roasted coffee.

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