Friday, December 5, 2008

Le Rivage - Back to the Future

It is Friday evening around 8PM, peak dining hour for most restaurants, and Le Rivage is completely empty, save for a single table that will soon settle their bill and venture out into the warm Autumn night. It is always like this on Fridays and indeed the rest of the week as well. In fact until recently Le Rivage used to shut down altogether by 9PM. Of course turn back the clocks two hours and you will witness a very different scene as Le Rivage will be packed at a time when most restaurants have barely wrapped up the staff meal. You see Le Rivage is situated on 46th Street, also known as restaurant row in the heart of the theater district. The paradigms are different in these parts. Value and timing are the criteria by which restaurants are judged with taste being a distant third - its all about making the show, which after all will go on with or without those struggling to polish the last of bites of their desert and sop up the last of their coffee.

With the price of theater tickets constantly going up you certainly don't want to spend too much on a dinner that you will probably rush through anyway and you certainly don't want miss the curtain call. Le Rivage is adept at fulfilling the first two criteria - a three course dinner cost only $37 and they can probably have you out in 45 minutes if need be. But if my dinner there the other night is any indication of the restaurants potential then I would have to say that Le Rivage also fulfills a third criteria - tasting good- to an even greater degree than it meets the first two and makes Le Rivage worth visiting even if you have no show to see afterward.

In the interests of full disclosure, I was a guest of Chef Paul Denamiel, Pat and Mark from Pat La Frieda Meats, Josh "Mr Cutlets" Ozersky as well as three lovely ladies who shall remain nameless for the sake of their dignity. This is not a review as much a trip back through time, revisiting the dishes that lay the foundation for much of what we enjoy today in modern cuisine. The meal was a multi-course, family style affair and although much of what we sampled came right off the menu - I believe we requested any item that had parents - the chef also produced a number of special requests. Gluttony and hilarity ensued as a seemingly endless procession of classic French dishes accompanied an evening of witty repartee:

A Coquille "Maison" could only have been more perfect if it had indeed, as its name implies, been served in a giant clam shell. Dotted with succulent morsels of scallop and shrimp ensconced in a velvety cream sauce, the dish was a sheer delight.

Escargot drunk with butter and high on garlic and parsley, a tangy sweetbread strewn with mushrooms and doused in sherry, Trout Amandine and whole frogs legs, the golden oldies just kept on coming.

"Wait for the sauce" admonished the chef when the plate of lamb was stripped bare mere seconds after the above photograph was taken, Cutlets plucking the chops the way mere mortals wield chicken wings. The Burgundy sauce that accompanied it was worth the wait, complementing the earthy lamb perfectly.

Pomme Anna, a dish that dates back to the 19th Century, was reproduced, much to his chagrin, by the Chef. He had probably not made the dish since attending the Culinary Institute of America, were he clearly mastered the technique as it was wondrous - silky slivers of potatoes layered under a crusty golden canopy congealed in to a creamy buttery mass, literally melting on the tongue. Why is this not on the menu at steakhouses instead of the generic, and far less compelling, hash brown potatoes? He was equally peeved at having to serve pot roast in Burgundy sauce from his regular menu. "It is just pot roast" he complained in an almost bewildered manner. "Exactly" was the reply of more than a few of us at the table. It did not disappoint, easily succumbing to the slightest fork pressure and obliging in a similar fashion on the tongue, melting away but leaving a rich mouth feel, with an earthy flavor punctuated by dark fruit notes.

If some of the more pedestrian requests annoyed the chef he probably took it out on the lobster served, in another classic throw back, in the style l’Americaine. The flesh was so ethereally tender and pure in flavor that he surely cooked it in the traditional manner - plunging a knife between the lobsters eyes and boiling it before serving up his corpse in a garlicky, tomato sauce infused with wine and cognac. A funeral pyre of tartness and heat rather than of flame. Looking up at the vintage oyster dishes that hang on the wall , the lobster l’Americaine exploding in my mouth, I imagine myself in Brittany sitting down to a meal after walking the windswept channel beaches. I am soon dragged back across the Atlantic as a mammoth steak appears, a slab so large that it would never grace a Europeans plate. It was perfectly cooked to medium rare, well past done in my book, I skipped over it, gleefully tucking in to a pork cutlet in its stead. "A salad to aid the digestion?" volunteered the Chef when we had virtually depleted all that lay before us. We were having none of it - bring on with desert!

A bread pudding, decorated like a Medieval tapestry, swam in a rich creamy custard. This is the type of d├ętente between French cuisine and British cooking (I chose those words deliberately) that is needed to elevate the latter.

Napoleons, lined up like the Generals Battalions marching east, I devoured them just as the Russian winter devoured his legions. Eclairs and crepe joined the historic parade, I suppose the only thing missing was a flambe desert of some kind but it was not needed, we were all stuffed beyond repletion.

When dinner is over and the disparate parties have trickled away, disappearing into the stream of theater goers I find myself walking up 46th Street with the Chef. We had never met before tonight but after having been fed by, and dined with, the manI feel kinship with him. He wonders allowed if it is enough, if he shouldn't be seeking out the fame and fortune that seems to be point of being a Chef these days. While some so called Chefs are nursing hangovers while checking the endless chirping of their Blackberry for news of a TV pilot Denamiel is in his kitchen making the stocks and reductions that are the foundations of the classics that he serves. "Who does that these days?" He exclaims. Indeed. There is a piety and an earnestness to the work Denamiel is doing at Le Rivage, he is preserving a culinary heritage, keeping a light a flame that is threatened to be doused under a mountain of foam or diminished by fusion.

Le Rivage
340 W. 46th St.
(bet. 8th & 9th Aves.)
Manhattan, NY 10036
Phone: 212-765-7374


Kenny McKinney said...

Were those dishes part of the $37 prix fixe menu? Because, if so, I will make a beeline there on our next trip to NYC.

Nick said...

The Lobster is not, nor the Pomme Anna but everything else is on the menu:

DocChuck said...

I really hope that I am mistaken in my interpretation, but I just have to ask:

Has your blog become a commercial?

Or are you going to go back to writing honest reviews of steakhouses, restaurants, and yes, even burgers . . . on BOTH sides of the pond?

And I guess I would venture one additional question, if I may:

Does Josh have a financial interest in the so-called "Black Label" burger meat?

Just wondering, since I do not live in the center of the "Burger Universe" . . . NYC, and have been put into my place by being rudely told that our burgers here in the South are not worthy of "Mr. Cutlets" delicate NYC palate (he claims that he has 'tried them all' . . . LOL).

I could NOT sleep last night after "Mr. Cutlets" cut me down, so to speak.

After my wife prescribed a sedative, I'm sure that I will get a better night's rest this evening.

danny said...

that looks like a seriously fine meal. speaking as a person who grew up in the midwest and the south, i think the reason steakhouses don't have Pomme Anna is because most of the country has no idea wth it is besides its made of potatoes...