Entries in La Grenouille (3)


Review Recap: La Grenouille

If one needed confirmation that Amateur Hour has ended at the Times dining section, it has arrived. With today’s three-star review of La Grenouille, Sam Sifton showed that he understands the restaurant’s place in history, the cuisine it has mastered, and why that is important. He was not, in the least way, demeaning or condescending, as his predecessor surely would have been:

The decline of great French cooking in New York has been a subject of discussion among the food-obsessed for decades, since at least the closing of Le Pavillon in 1971. In the last decade the talk has turned funereal, with the demise of Lutèce, La Caravelle, La Côte Basque, Lespinasse.

Brasserie cooking survives in New York, even flourishes under old mirrors and subway tile. We will always have steak frites.

But the quiet opulence of the traditional haute cuisine that was first brought to New York by Henri Soulé for the World’s Fair in 1939 and which flourished at his Pavillon and other restaurants in the years that followed? The whole marvelous Tom Wolfe scene of it: blanquette de veau and Beaumes-de-Venise, and ladies in finery beside gentlemen in soft cashmere jackets and rolled silk ties? C’est fini!

A series of recent meals at La Grenouille suggests that isn’t so. Not so long as Charles Masson, who has run it since 1975, greets his customers at the door, quiet and French and welcoming. Not so long as people can take a seat on a scarlet banquette at his restaurant, sit beneath a spray of flowers and eat sumptuous food out of Escoffier.

We have no idea if La Grenouille deserves to be a three-star restaurant. What we can say is that this is how a review of such a place ought to be written.

We and Eater both win $3 on our hypothetical one dollar bets.

Eater   NYJ
Bankroll $7.00   $6.00
Gain/Loss +$3.00   +$3.00
Total $10.00   $9.00
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 6–3

Life-to-date, New York Journal is 75–31 (71%).


Review Preview: La Grenouille

Tomorrow, Sam Sifton reviews La Grenouille, the last survivor of the French grandes dames that once defined fine dining in New York City. The Eater oddsmakers have set the action as follows: One Star: 4,000–1; Sift Happens: 4–1; Three Stars: 3–1; Four Stars: 40–1.

As the website notes, La Grenouille opened on a snowy evening, December 19, 1962. That’s 47 years and 4 days ago, as of tomorrow. Sam Sifton wasn’t even born yet. I was two years old.

As you might imagine, a restaurant this old has had plenty of New York Times reviews, ranging from four stars (Mimi Sheraton) to one (Bryan Miller, but later elevated back to three). Its most recent review was from Ruth Reichl, who awarded three stars in 1997. Reichl was much looser with the stars than most recent critics have been, and even she found the place bedeviled with inconsistency:

La Grenouille is the most frustrating restaurant in New York.

This is not because the food is bad or the service unpleasant. Just the opposite, in fact: in its 35th year, the restaurant is displaying such flashes of brilliance that each failure is a deep disappointment. It could so easily be a four-star establishment.

It is inconsistent still, as we found it in 2007. We thought the food alone was worth just two stars, but awarded 2½ stars in total for the atmosphere, which remains beyond compare. For a restaurant that hasn’t changed its menu in decades, all it can offer is to prepare the classics exquisitely, which it has done on occasion, but not reliably.

Frank Bruni admitted (in his Eater “exit interview”) that he had intended re-review the place, but backed off:

I wanted to rereview La Grenouille. And I went and I had a couple of really, really good meals. I put it on the schedule. I thought I would be lovingly refreshing three stars with the explanation that these three stars have a lot to do with the joy of still encountering this idiom of dining. And then, at my last few meals, they just went off a cliff. And it was clear to me—and the reason I’m comfortable talking about this—and if you use this, please include this explanation—is I’m talking about something that happened four years ago. I’m not saying that this is what La Grenouille is like now. It could be totally different now. But my last couple of meals were so disappointing that there was no way I could put my name on anything more than two stars. And you know what? At this point in time, I don’t want to be the one who kills the last of its kind—you know? Then you ask yourself, “Am I cheating readers?” But you know what? Readers weren’t curious about La Grenouille. I can’t remember what we replaced [that review] with, but I remember thinking, “This is something I want to revisit another one or two times,” because I was so determined not to be the one who killed La Grenouille.

That Sifton is now re-reviewing a restaurant that, let’s face it, no one in the food media pays much attention to any more, suggests one of two things: 1) He doesn’t mind being “the one who killed La Grenouille”; or, 2) He loves it, and wants to give a shout-out to the last surviving full-on traditional classic French restaurant.

As we noted in our review, the demise of this kind of dining has long been forecast. Even in 1991, Bryan Miller noted that, “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.” When a restaurant has been around for five decades, you don’t complain that it’s too expensive for the recession, or that young people don’t dine that way any more. It has already survived multiple recessions and multiple generations of young diners who eventually grew up.

So in our mind, it simply comes down to whether La Grenouille is doing justice by the French classics that define its existence. Pace Eater.com, it has nothing to do with whether “the pricepoint just doesn’t make sense to [Sifton] in this climate.” We think—mind, we say we think—Sifton has a sense of the history he is walking into here. He has the chance to demonstrate that he is not as culinarily clueless as his predecessor was.

With all of that in mind, we acknowledge that this review sits on a knife’s edge. We think that Sifton will award three stars to La Grenouille.


La Grenouille


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.

lagrenouille-flowers.jpgThe 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.

lagrenouille01a.jpg lagrenouille01b.jpglagrenouille01c.jpg
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.

lagrenouille02.jpgWe 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)

Food: **
Service: ***
Ambiance: ****
Overall: **½