When the 2006 New York Michelin Guide came out, many of the usual suspects received the coveted stars. But there were a handful that came as a surprise, and La Goulue was one of these. Once known primarily as a people-watching destination, La Goulue seemed about as likely to be honored with a Michelin star as Tavern on the Green or Café des Artistes.
The restaurant opened on East 70th Street in 1972 and moved to its present Madison Avenue address in 1993. In 1994, Ruth Reichl gave La Goulue zero stars (“Satisfactory”) in the New York Times:
La Goulue is a club; there are no dues and no secret handshakes, but its members know who they are. Interlopers are quickly put in their place. Reservation for Jane Doe? “I don’t seem to have that,” the hostess has told me on three of my four visits.
Salmon with green tea and truffles sounded like a nice idea…. But that dish was a joy compared with the risotto of blue prawns. The night I had it the prawns were so mealy I could not swallow them, and the risotto was just a bed of soggy rice. I wondered how I was going to explain the fact that I had eaten no more than a bite, but I need not have worried. Nobody asked any questions.
This should not be a surprise. Few people go to La Goulue for the food. It is one of New York’s best addresses for people-watching and for that alone may be worth the price of admission.
There hasn’t been a rated review in the Times since then, although by 1998 Reichl had evidently mellowed a bit—but only a bit: “Le Tout Paris descends on La Goulue when visiting New York City. Chic, attractive and expensive, this is one of those upscale bistros that tastes much better if you speak French.”
La Goulue’s chef in 1994 was one Jacky Pluton. Today, it is Antoine Camin. Service, too, has improved, perhaps because La Goulue is no longer in such high demand. I had no trouble scoring a 7:30pm reservation on OpenTable, which was cheerfully honored. Service was superb. My companion called our server “the best waiter ever,” a tribute to his attentiveness and cheerful disposition.
La Goulue doesn’t have its own website; its URL redirects to a site called “iseatz.com.” The text pays homage to the restaurant’s days as a celebrity dining spot: “Recent guests of La Goulue have been Stanley Tucci, Ashley Judd, Rod Stewart, Jude Law, Rene Russo, Bruce Springstein, Giorgio Armani and LeeLee Sobieski.” Further down: “The lunch crowd at La Goulue is a mixture of business men and women looking for a low-key, fun atmosphere to dine, and young, hip, upper-east side lunching ladies. La Goulue also entertains politicians, writers, actors and actresses, and European tourists staying at some of the many swanky boutique hotels nearby.” And so forth.
But if the Michelin inspectors know anything, they surely know French food, and here La Goulue excels. To start, I had a homemade chicken & pork sausage (Boudin Blanc, $12.50 on the bill), while my friend had the crab meat salad ($14.50), both excellent. We each had the John Dory entrée ($30.50), a hearty cylinder of fish atop a crisp mushroom tart.
For dessert, my friend had the chocolate tart ($9), which she found a bit too salty. My dessert was called “Oeuf à la Neige”, which was translated as “Floating Island” ($9). I guessed that it would be a kind of egg cream custard, which was about right, and it was superbly executed.
The restaurant boasts an excellent wine list, or so I’m told, but when I asked for wines by the glass, our server recited them, rather than providing a list. I settled for a glass of sancerre ($11.95), which proved to be an excellent recommendation.
The décor at La Goulue gives every indication of being an authentic Parisian transplant. The website boasts: “Burnished wood panels, century-old mirrors, yellow, nicotine-tinged, pressed-tin ceilings and brass luggage racks enhance the intimate bistro’s ageless ambience. Many of the lighted wall sconces are extremely rare and are signed by the French glassmaker Majorelle.” I found the chairs not particularly comfortable, however.
All of the staff are French, although they have none of the stereotype French stuffiness. The menu items are all written in French, with English translations. It appears that the menu is updated often; the copies we were provided were dated late January. La Goulue isn’t cheap, with many appetizers in the $20-30 range, and most entrées over $30.
But for authentic French comfort cuisine, I haven’t found better in New York. It’s high time for La Goulue to put its menu on the website, instead of talking about all the beautiful people who dine there. It really is about the food.
La Goulue (746 Madison Avenue between 64th & 65th Streets, Upper East Side)