3 East 52nd Street, New York, NY
212.752.1495 (reservation made thru OpenTable)
Saturday, April 9, 2011
If choosing La Grenouille intimidated us initially, it only took Sam Sifton, restaurant critic for The New York Times, to set us straight. In response to a post from a woman looking for fine-dining recommendations and doubting her foodie sophistication, Sifton’s response was spot on. “I think you should stop infantizing yourself with this nonsense about being ‘novice foodies’ and make a reservation at [restaurant of choice] and see how you do. This whole fine-dining game, after all, is about experience…”.
Sifton is right, of course. If we are willing to deplete our bank account on a birthday Ninth at Nine, then the old-school lap of luxury should not feel exclusive. And so, we confirm our nine o’clock reservation at La Grenouille with visions of elegance waltzing through our heads.
La Grenouille’s inception conjures up romantic images, having opened on December 19, 1962–“a quiet night in the midst of a snowstorm.” It is easy to imagine well-dressed New Yorkers in their fur and silk scarves braving the cold to dine in French opulence. How many wedding proposals, anniversaries and mistress seductions have occurred over La Grenouille’s near 50-year history? No matter, it is our turn to seek the experience.
It is not December this night, but a balmy spring evening—and we are running late due to an impromptu birthday party at home, which proves we can fit 12 people into a tiny Manhattan kitchen. Like flicking on the bright lights at last call, we halt the party at the height of merriment and leap into a cab.
Rushing through the door and feeling smartly dressed, the polite maître d’ greets us with a boisterous “Bonsoir!” and informs us that our table will be ready shortly. We make our way to the bar where two seats await as if planned all along. With a glass of champagne and scotch on their way, we catch our breath and take in the grande red and gold decor, classic paintings, fresh flower arrangements and strong whiff of wealth.
We are soon being escorted to the dining room, and the maître d’ maneuvers the table so we can settle into the velvet banquette to enjoy dinner side-by-side; this definitely gets high marks on our romantic meter. Our half finished drinks arrive from the bar along with an amuse bouche of chilled leak foam and a plate of cheese puffs. We share a smile and a squeeze of each other’s hand; it is time for a special dinner (speaking of cheese puffs…).
The ambiance is posh and exudes old money. The other diners are dressed to the nines and plastic surgery for the 50-and-older set is clearly not taboo here. Across the room dines a bodyguard sipping Coca-Cola, who watches over his Arab employer a few tables away. Just when we have the clientele pegged, a solo purple-haired woman is seated next door and proceeds to swirl her wine while reading a Marilyn Manson biography.
We order a wallet-friendly bottle of red from Languedoc for $55—not much more than our pre-dinner cocktails at $22 a pop, yowzers! The first course of Little Necks Corsini (clams) and Les Ravioles de Homard a l’Estragon (ravioli with lobster and tarragon) arrives. The clams win us over, as the ravioli dish is comforting but unimpressive.
For mains, we decide to try something new and order Rognons de Veau Moutardier Flambe Grande Fine (you guessed it, veal kidney flambéed in cognac), but also play it safe with the classic prime rib. We quickly realize that the intensely-flavorful organ, served medium-rare with a side of rice, is an acquired taste. We decide to take turns with each other’s plates since the prime rib is cooked to perfection, melding softly with the light wine.
For dessert, it is our first soufflé with a side of fresh whipped cream. Already in heaven, the waiter, who has been serving at La Grenouille for 22 years, delivers a surprise birthday pistachio-layered tart. Feeling the need to unzip, we gulp the last of our espresso and realize the restaurant is now quiet. Wishing for a little music to keep us from overhearing a strange flirtation happening with the purple-haired woman and her married neighbor, the jaw-dropping check arrives.
No, it is not the total amount that astonishes us as much as the multiple tip lines: one for the Captain and one for the Waiter. Who the heck is the Captain? Are we passengers on the RMS Titanic? How do we handle this? After a swift conversation, we decide to scribble one hefty tip in large numbers that take up both lines. The Captain and Waiter can figure it out for themselves. Walking out through a line of staff respectfully nodding their heads and spouting “Salut!” “Au Revoire!” and “Merci Beaucoup!”, we feel almost as rich as the meal. The wise words of Sam Sifton ring true: fine dining really is all about the experience.
EXPERIENCE = 8/9