La Grenouille is the grandest and the oldest of the city’s few remaining classic French restaurants. It’s not an every-day restaurant (at least, not for most people), but for that rare special occasion, I’m glad it’s there. My girlfriend and I paid a visit last week with my mom, on her 70th birthday.
The death of this type of fine dining has long been forecast. In a January 1991 review (the last of three that he would write), Bryan Miller said:
If you listen to some restaurant-industry pundits, La Grenouille is just the type of expensive, opulent institution that is slated for extinction as ineluctably as the dinosaurs. In this era of austerity and a return to more ingenuous foods, they say, the dining public is turning away from haute cuisine and embracing little pizzas, pasta, coq au vin and grilled chicken.
So welcome to La Grenouille, Tuesday night, mid-January, traditionally the slowest time of the year for restaurants. The dining room is as packed as Bloomingdale’s during a post-holiday clearance.
That is how we found it last week, on a Tuesday evening. Nor was the clientele composed entirely of retirees and their families. To be sure, while the restaurant’s center of gravity is clearly the 55-and-over set, I saw at least three tables with young couples that appeared to be under 35. I’m sure that some kind of special occasion lured them to La Grenouille.
The experience here may have once been about the food, but those days are long since past. A book for sale in the vestibule, The Flowers of La Grenouille, hints at the restaurant’s calling card. Even in 1980, when Mimi Sheraton awarded four stars in the Times, La Grenouille’s annual flower budget was $75,000. The three-course dinner back then was $35.75. Today it is $95, so I would imagine that the flower budget has nearly tripled.
Bryan Miller, probably the paper’s toughest grader in recent times, demoted La Grenouille to two stars in 1985, and then just one star in 1987, before elevating it back to three stars in 1991. Ruth Reichl reviewed it twice (1993, 1997), awarding three stars on both occasions. In the latter review, she found it “the most frustrating restaurant in New York,” finding both “flashes of brilliance” and “deep disappointment.” She said, “It could so easily be a four-star establishment.”
By all evidence, the current Times critic finds French food boring, so I doubt he plans to spend much time at La Grenouille. But were he to review it again, I doubt that it would retain its three-star status, as I can think of any number of better restaurants to which he has awarded only two. The overall experience is still one of gracious luxury, but the cooking has probably seen better days.
I believe the amuse-bouche was a celery root soup — certainly competent, but not a patch on the sunchoke soup amuse we had the night before at Perry St.
Sweetbreads (left); Le Choix des Hors d’Oeuvre (center); Lobster Ravioli (right)
La Grenouille charges $95 for three courses, and it can easily be more, as many of the dishes carry supplements. Prices are in the range of the city’s four-star restaurants, but there were no “oohs” and “ahhs” at our table, except perhaps for my mom’s sweetbreads. I started with the plate of mixed cold hors d’oeuvres, an impressive portion, but entirely forgettable. Equally forgettable were my girlfriend’s lobster ravioli, which carried a $15 supplement.
My mom and my girlfriend had rack of lamb. With only two ribs offered, it was an ungenerous portion, and my girlfriend reported that one of hers wasn’t warm enough. I ordered the Pike Quenelles, a classic French dish that few restaurants serve any more. I’m at a bit of a disadvantage to report on it, as I’ve never had this dish before, but like my girlfriend’s lamb, it seemed not as warm as it should be, and the accompanying white rice tasted like Uncle Ben’s.
We all ordered soufflés for dessert ($9.75 supplement). My mom and I had the grand marnier soufflé, which was the best thing I had all evening. My girlfriend went for the chocolate soufflé, which she found not as impressive as the one we’d ordered at Etats-Unis a few weeks ago.
The wine list at La Grenouille is notoriously expensive, so I was happy to find a very good 2003 Châteauneuf-du-Pape for $95. The service had all of the traditional French trappings, beginning with the host’s greeting, “Bon soir, Madame,” when we arrived. The bill had separate tip lines for the captain and the waiter, a distinction that has disappeared almost everywhere else. (I just tipped a bulk amount; how they divide it shouldn’t be my problem.)
If the food was not the superb experience that it could be or should be given the price, the room remains extraordinary, the service polished and courteous. New York has better restaurants, but for some types of special occasions, La Grenouille remains incomparable.
La Grenouille (3 E. 52nd Street between 5th and Madison Avenues, East Midtown)