Quenelle Man New York City Entry #48
Who eats quenelles anymore?
Making a profound pike quenelle is as tough as cooking. Perhaps the architectural or chemical feats of other chefs seem hard, but let these Irony Chefs make the perfect quenelle at some imaginary quenelle Olympics - this finely minced fish, bound with egg, served with a fish veloute from a stock that takes a week to ripen. These are dumplings that could float away if not consumed quickly.
With my wife, an intense gardener, in town, lunch at La Grenouille (“The Frog”) would not not happen. La Grenouille, now 43 years old, presents dining as floral fantasy. If The Frog couldn’t cadge a star from Michelin, it would receive a corsage from Horticulture.(Most restaurants sell cookbooks, Le Grenouille published a book of their floral displays). With red velvet banquettes, rosy bouquets, and sensual hush this is romance to a higher power. Fine dining can still mean a silky meal in a silken space. If La Grenouille was never the best in town (think Le Pavillon or Lutece), it presented a respectful classical French cuisine little in evidence today. Most competitors are six feet under (with only Le Perigord of the Grande Dames remaining).
Service is of the old school. Servers (all male) can no longer impress with Parisian hauteur, possible when insecure New Yorkers aspired to formality. In Bloomberg’s New York the culinary air is cleansed of smoke and snoot. Our waiters were attentive and helpful, although I wondered about the lost ‘tude. Still, old skills remain. When my wife rose to use the ladies’ lounge (a euphemism from days before “I must piss”) the waiter dove to pull out her chair. He could have caught a sinking line drive at Shea.
In this day of celebrity cooks, it is odd to find a restaurant that does not advertise their chef. I must do so. The Executive Chef is Matthew Tropeano. The restaurant’s website - with such beautiful images of its floral arrangements - provides a black-and-white candid of a scrabbly Chef Tropeano looking vaguely like Anthony Bourdain on a bad night. No mention of Chef Tropeano’s past achievements or, pace Ducasse, no hint of his philosophy of life. The Frog doesn’t treat their chef as auteur. We speculated that he was a cyborg - more Isaac than Eric Asimov - programmed in the 1960s by a mad restauranteur in a lab beneath the Champs. When working with the constraints of tradition, owners do not wish the chef to outshine servers or cuisine, but Chef Tropeano deserves respect, even if he is channeling Escoffier.
We selected our lunches to recapture the grandness of classic cuisine, to taste what La Grenouille does best. My wife ordered Corn and Chicken Liver Crepes with Sherry Vinegar. Not every foie must be gras. The dish was a small, precise composition, building on a contrast of flavors and textures. That it was chicken liver gave the dish a rustic charm, but the sherry vinegar linked the plate to traditions of haute cuisine. This was not a haute presentation, but it was set within traditional taste.
My soup was a Veloute aux Marrons - Chestnut-Fennel Soup. It was as creamy and caloric as grand cuisine demands. But wait! Floating in the middle of the bowl, a cloud of foam! I could not have been more surprised had I found a tadpole doing the backstroke. Granted this was an egg white foam (not wasabi or kabocha), but it seemed that even such a fortress as The Frog is not immune from buckshot from Ferran Adria. Bully for them. Chef Tropeano added a touch of aromatic thyme on the foam and a bit of cranberry compote in the soup, and I consumed liquid satin with a hint of a new culinary century. It was delightful, even if - like so much at La Granouille - it trades pungency for richness.
As main course, my wife selected a cheese souffle (with Supreme Sauce - a chicken-stock-based veloute with gobs of butter and cream). After forty years, La Grenouille has nailed the souffle. When our waiter opened the souffle to pour the aroma perfumed our table. The scent was all rose and cheese. Ahh! The texture revealed how food can become aura, wispy memory. Perhaps souffles are now ghettoized for those who cannot chew, but such a limit is sin.
I could not resist the quenelles of pike, served with rice and a fish veloute sauce. Those who believe that haute cuisine is weighty have never tasting a properly made quenelle - all air and fish and a smidgen of binding - and this was proper. By current standards the course lacked drama in its shades of white: Agnes Martin on a plate, but it was not minimalist in its essence of taste. As impressed as I was, I confess that I wished for a savory to provide an edge, demonstrating how corrupted I’ve become.
As dessert my wife ordered Warm Tarte Tartin with Vanilla Ice Cream. It was our least satisfying dish. Slightly burnt on one edge, the mille feuille was a bit soggy on the other. Although the flavors were fine, the texture disappointed. La Grenouille seems not to make their own ice cream. The scoop was rather ordinary.
In joyous contrast, I ordered Oeufs a la Neige. I might well have begun by asking “Who Eats Oeufs a la Neige anymore?” This is a grand dessert, known as “Floating Islands.” On a sea of custard sauce sit two bulky islands of sweet, soft meringue. But over the top - and over the top is the proper description - hovered a glowing mist of spun sugar. Spun sugar is magic, and Felencia, the Pastry Chef, a magician. (I don’t know why she is listed with but a single name, but with her sugar spinning skills, she could be Oprah).
La Grenouille is not a weekly treat (although I must try the Frog’s Legs), but there is great comfort in knowing that it still anchors New York dining. Given the filled dining room, the Frog has found its ecological niche.
Someone must prepare quenelles for those days on which huckleberry fugu simply will not do.
3 East 52nd Street (at Fifth Avenue)