For the record, Seymour Britchky on La Grenouille
January 4th, 2011
08:30 PM ET
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As we noted in our lunchtime poll, the foodosphere is all a-froth over former New York Times food critic Mimi Sheraton's swipes at the prose stylings of the current jobholder Sam Sifton.

Sheraton told Capital's Zachary Woolfe, "It’s food writing for an audience less interested in food and more interested in the experience and the theater of it ... I don’t like it at all. I always told people what the place was like, but these long, long introductions about the scene—I usually skip the first column and a half and get to the food, because that’s what I think it’s about."

The New York Observer then served up a course-by-course sampling of both Sheraton's (1977) and Sifton's (2009) reviews of New York City's longstanding Francophile flagship La Grenouille for stylistic comparison. Topics included decor, patrons and the restaurant's signature souffle and it was entertaining, without a doubt, but we're gonna stick a Britchky in the mix.

Seymour Britchky, often acid-penned author of monthly newsletter, The Restaurant Reporter and then annual editions of "The Restaurants of New York" had this to say of La Grenouille in the 1976 printing of his "irreverent apprisal of the best, most interesting, most famous, most underrated or worst restaurants in New York City."

On the decor:

The dining room is unprepossessing - apple green walls and crimson velvet banquettes. Someone came up with the idea of gracing the place with flowers - they are on every corner and in every table - and this touch of Mother Nature creates a feeling not of all outdoors, but of a little more space than there actually is.

On the clientele:

If the customers at La Caravelle seem to consist, in large measure, of corporate board chairmen, the customers at La Grenouille include a great many company presidents. Not only are the presidents about a decade younger, but their corporations are about a century newer. However, there's no point in holding on to your riches and waiting for them to become old when La Grenouille is serving lunch and dinner six days a week right now; and if you have good reason to believe La Caravelle will seat you beyond the Arctic Circle, eat at La Grenouille, where there is a front and read, certainly, but no remote corner, and even unknowns are sometimes seated in the tropics.

And on the matter of the souffle:

Everyone in this place seems to have souffles for dessert - toward the end of a mealtime they can be seen streaming out of the kitchen by twos and threes. And they are moistened with a strawberry sauce to which tiny seeded and skinned lemon sections have been added; and the chocolate, which is served with whipped gream or with a creme Anglaise flavored with Grand Marnier, or both.

Britchky was clearly enthralled (that was, by the by, one of only four four-star reviews out of several hundred in the 1976 printing) as those are uncharacteristically gentle words for a man known to grace his readers with assessments such as:

It has been said that the food at Luchow's is terrible. Of course nobody knows. There are close to 200 items on the menu and many of them would engender so little curiosity that only some kind of crazy, obsessive/instigator/cataloguer would ever look into them all. Are you, for instance, interested in getting the scoop on the Vegetable Plate of Green Beans, Baby Carrots, Asparagus Tips, Creamed Spinach, New Peas and Boiled Potato? Or are your awe and wonder aroused, rather, by Berliner Eisbein (Boiled Corned Pig's Knuckle) with Sauerkraut and mashed Potatoes? Perhaps you would be more interested in getting the low-down on Home Made Bratwurst, sauerkraut, mashed Potatoes. Well, don't bother. It has been established that a blindfolded man, sober, admittedly without the aid of mind-expanding drugs, could not differentiate between the sausage and the mashed. (See the full review)

And of Joes' Pier 52:

Middle Americans with weighted middles and mountains of plasticized and/or metallicized hair compete boisterously ("Charlie, on you dat bib looks like a necktie") with a steel band of busboys who clear away dishes with a cacophonous vigor that must break 30 percent of them. Flat-faced waiters, arms folded, sucking thei teeth, watch bored while others, frantic and inept ("Who gets scrod? Who gets crabs?), serve a group of ten in such fashion that when the last dish is put down, the first is quite cold. Waiters and busboys fight it out on the dining room floor. ("Hey! Water over here! More budda fer dese nice people!")

And hey - while we're on a roll, Mamma Leone's:

So when you sit down, you are brought celery, olives, tomatoes, and a block of soap the size of half a loaf of Wonder bread, and you cut off a hunk and go to the washroom to wash before dinner, and a few old hands restrain you good-naturedly and say no, no, that's cheese, for to eat, no soap. And you say no, no, it's soap, I can tell from the taste. And they say oh no you can't, because it doesn't have any taste! And everyone has a good laugh.

They do. They do indeed. But on La Grenouille, ought we give the last words to the critic betwix them, erstwhile Gourmet editor and Twitter muse Ruth Reichl? Why not. They're pretty.

On the decor:

California doesn't have restaurants that look like La Grenouille. Close your ears to the discreet murmur of English and you could easily believe you were in Paris, where top-of-the-line restaurants are famous for their fussy luxury. It's an inspired combination of the elegant and the awful; by some magic all these mirrors and lights and silver and flowers - this sheer excess of detail - creates a room of astonishing loveliness. (1993 review)

Ambiance: Golden light and flowers everywhere. It is always springtime in this elegant room. (1997 review)

On the clientele:

La Grenouille is packed with people who not only look rich but also act as if they enjoy their money. This is unknown in Los Angeles, city of guilt, where the wealthy drive fancy cars while wearing blue jeans and go to extraordinary lengths to look just like everybody else. At La Grenouille, on the other hand, every head turns as each new diner walks into the room, so that the clothes can be appreciated, the jewelry scrutinized. You find yourself curling your hands to hide your nails as you walk past the people in the power room at the front of the restaurant. If your purse is too large, the people in the banquettes along the wall may frown as it goes marching past. (1993 review)

As we are led to the rear of the room (where nobodies are always seated), I can't help noticing that those seated in the favored front seem far younger than they used to be. This cannot be marked down to improvements in cosmetic surgery, for these people are casually dressed. Has the clientele changed? (1997 review)

And that souffle:

The souffles, on the other hand, are superb: elusive clouds of flavor that seem as if they will dissolve into thin air before you have a chance to eat them. (1993 review)

...and a dreamy pistachio souffle. Spooning up this airy confection, I realize that it is not for nothing that a parade of souffles crosses the dining room each evening. I don't think there is a better souffle in New York. (1997 review)

For the record, the current souffle will run you $7.00 for the Small, $10.00 for the Medium and $17.00 for the Large, atop the $95 prix fixe price tag. It's worth the splurge - or so we've read.

soundoff (3 Responses)
  1. David Grant

    La Grenouille was my 1st great French NYC restaurant. I went with another Restaurant School (Philadelphia) student
    in 1976. We were floored by the majesty of it all. We were very young and impressionable but still..... Soon after I went
    to Condom, France to work for Jean Louis Palladin at La Table de Cordeliers which had 2 Michelin stars. I didn't get to
    stay because in 1976 the French were jealous of their national treasure so no working papers. He came to Washington
    in 1979 and opened Jean Louis at The Watergate while I opened (with my wife, Kerlin) Aubergine in Camden, Maine.
    Soon after Roger Fessaguet of La Caravelle became a good customer and so it was there we went as is proper. I've
    never been back to La Grenouille but have pressed my nose to look and its remarkably the same. I am retired after 30
    years in French restaurants which were all in Maine and all my own.

    January 5, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  2. Truth

    With a name like that, I hope he was never in the military...

    January 5, 2011 at 9:25 am |
  3. John Curtas

    Britchky was the best. All others, save maybe Alan Richman, are mere pretenders to the throne....

    John Curtas

    January 4, 2011 at 9:06 pm |
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