I’M SITTING in the dining room at La Grenouille, staring at the least fashionable, most defiantly uncool dish in all of New York: the sole grillée, sauce moutarde. For one thing, it’s classically French, a Platonic example of a school of cooking that uses the most complicated technique to arrive back at a transcendent version of simplicity—like traveling the wrong way around the globe to get to the house next door. It consists of merely four elements on a white plate: a silky fillet of Dover sole, a tidy pile of haricots verts tossed with butter and shallots, a wedge of lemon, and a slick of mustard sauce, just sharp enough to highlight the sweet flesh of the fish.
The case for its squareness mounts from there: It is not a “small plate.” It does not contain pork belly. The sole—imported from the north of France—boasts the carbon footprint of a yeti. The menu declines to explain how it was caught or whether it was allowed to meet its demise with dignity. The dining room it is served in is located uptown, not downtown (Brooklyn might as well be Pluto); decorated with profusions of fresh flowers, not taxidermy; and suffused by a soundtrack of murmured conversation, not Blonde on Blonde at top volume. In short, the whole thing is totally wrong. And yet completely wonderful.
Don’t misunderstand me: I love pork belly. I think Blonde on Blonde is one of the high points of 20th-century culture. Like seemingly everybody else, I spend a scary amount of my free time chasing down Javanese street food or heirloom radishes or noodles made of edible glass or whatever trend rumbles down the pipeline.
My companion and I sit side by side on one of the plush, ruby-red banquettes lining the main dining room. We’re both facing outward, as though we’re at the theater—which, in a way, we are. This may be the best-lit room in New York, a golden, glowing lacquered box. The flowers not only adorn each table but are also displayed in 11 towering bouquets that act as living, blooming structural elements, dividing and defining the rectangular room. How impressive are they? Put it this way: There has never been a La Grenouille cookbook, but there is The Flowers of La Grenouille.
The players on this stage are an unparalleled cast of the type that can afford a three-course prix fixe that starts at $98, before wine or any number of supplements. There are Brioni blazers and Hermès ties. There are diamonds the size of acorns. There are silver-haired men in the sunset of their years, accompanied by women who…are not. On the faces of male and female customers alike, there is a gallery of what New Yorkers delicately refer to as “work.” There’s a woman a few tables away who looks just like Carolina Herrera—and turns out to be Carolina Herrera. Next to us are three regulars, who are involved in a debate about the best limo service for the five-hour trip between Gstaad and Lake Como. “It’s just like going to the Hamptons!” one of the men says.
Meanwhile, a bewildering array of staff circulates, tending to the customers with balletic precision: dark-suited captains and white-jacketed waiters, the maître d’ and the dining room manager, the army of busboys and the other, random men whose function is not entirely clear. They’re not simply trafficking dinners from the kitchen, but preparing and finishing and presenting them, in flashes of flame and cutlery, on gleaming, wheeled silver carts—the way waiters once did routinely, generations before the advent of “the chef’s table.”
Indeed, everything here recalls an era when fine dining in America was defined by New York restaurants such as Le Pavillon and La Caravelle, Lutèce and La Côte Basque. Of these white-tablecloth temples to French cuisine, only La Grenouille remains. And that makes my simple, square sole grillée among the most exciting, exotic meals I’ve had in years.
The man whose heartfelt, anachronistic convictions make La Grenouille what it is can also be seen on the floor, weaving among his staff in a well-tailored dark suit. Charles Masson is the one who arranges the flowers and the seating chart, trains the staff, and designs the menu, not only deciding its contents but also painting the seasonal watercolors that adorn its pages. Masson’s parents opened La Grenouille, at 3 East 52nd Street in midtown Manhattan, in 1962. His father, also named Charles, had been among the elite staff chosen by the legendary Henri Soulé for his restaurant at the French pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair—a place so rightfully certain of its role in introducing la cuisine to the States that it was known simply as “the French restaurant.” The elder Masson later rose to maître d’hôtel at Soulé’s permanent restaurant, Le Pavillon. Soulé, in his Parisian youth, had waited on Georges Auguste Escoffier himself at the Hôtel Mirabeau. This makes the younger Charles, who took over La Grenouille at age 19 upon his father’s death in 1975, the equivalent of a ballplayer with direct ties to Babe Ruth.
Masson takes the pedigree seriously. In the era of the hero chef, he’s a passionate defender of the notion that the position of maître d’hôtel—one who knows his establishment from stove to dining room, coat check to bus station—is the highest of restaurant callings. In the kitchen, he knows every recipe and technique intimately; on the floor, he lives up to Soulé’s own description of the job as “essentially a diplomat…also an actor, a stage manager, a lawyer, a magician, a mediator.”
If he falls short in any way it’s in summoning Soulé’s notorious imperiousness. At first impression, Masson seems intimidatingly buttoned-down: He is a native New Yorker but has a clipped, tight-lipped way of speaking that a friend of mine described as “Swiss boarding school.” His own mother likes to joke that he was born in a suit. And yet Masson can’t hide the genuine pleasure he gets from his job. Once, after I’d enjoyed an especially long, delicious dinner—creamy sweetbreads scented with rosemary, followed by a snow-white truffled breast of chicken with fava beans and a Grand Marnier soufflé—Masson was seeing me out the door and looked so happy that, before I knew what was happening, I found myself giving him a hug.
If you walk into La Grenouille on a Monday morning, you will find Masson arranging his flowers for the week. The normally orderly dining room looks like a botanical crime scene: banquettes and floors draped with tarps, tables covered with waiting vases, everything buried beneath a forest of leaves and stems and clippings. Even Masson is out of his suit—a sight as disconcerting as glimpsing Mickey Mouse with his head off at Disney World. He strides back and forth amidst the foliage he picked out early that morning, in Manhattan’s flower district, adding a wispy stalk of purple delphinium here, a Creamsicle-colored lily there. The bouquets, when done, will be displayed in clear glass vases, an act of mad floral hubris that necessitates that the water be siphoned with a rubber tube and replaced each morning.
More than simple decoration, flowers are a kind of guiding metaphor for Masson. “In France, your flowers come from the same garden as your fruits and vegetables,” he says, sounding like Alice Waters by way of Provence. “It’s all part of the same harmonious thing.” When lilacs and peonies give way to sunflowers and hydrangeas, he knows it is time to switch from the spring to the summer menu.
Masson’s highest term of praise, the word he uses to describe the goal of every decision that goes into running La Grenouille, is harmony. And he maintains an almost mystical faith that the secret of harmony is rooted in the country of his parents’ birth. The staff, from busboys to captains, is still expected to speak at least some French. And you would be hard pressed to find an ingredient on the menu that wasn’t used in Escoffier’s time.
“I’ve had people say a dish like the quenelles de brochet lyonnaise”—pillowy, football-shaped soufflés of pike and egg napped with a sauce almost exactly the same color—”is boring. ‘Why don’t you dress them up?’ Well, I could do that, but it wouldn’t make any sense,” he says. “Most fusion is just confusion. You are not going to find cilantro at La Grenouille.”
One of the greatest enemies of harmony, Masson believes, more pernicious even than foreign herbs, is the cult of the celebrity chef. “When you make a restaurant all about one person, you’re putting one person’s ego ahead of the pleasure of your customers,” he says. No cook’s name appears at the bottom of his menu, and Masson does not bestow such titles as executive chef. Nor will you ever see a cook schmoozing with clients. “Remember,” says Masson, “it used to be that a maître d’hôtel started in the kitchen and was eventually allowed into the dining room.”
La Grenouille, of course, does have a chef. Two, actually: Noah Metnick, 35, and Colin Whiddon, 30, who have split the title since being promoted from sous-chefs last year. Both are on duty, prepping for dinner service, on the afternoon when I’m invited into the inner sanctum. On the first floor of the three-tiered kitchen, Metnick is at the range, stirring a pot filled with chicken stock and a mirepoix of leeks, mushrooms, garlic, and thyme. Reduced and spiked with cream, this will become a shape-shifting sauce suprême. One floor above, pastry chef Matt Lambie is buttering the bottom and sides of countless ramekins. These will soon be used for the restaurant’s beloved soufflés, which are available in a rainbow of flavors, from pistachio to caramel to passion fruit. And on the third floor, Whiddon trims fat pink lobes of foie gras, his butter knife expertly scraping the livers like lumps of wet clay. During dinner, the steep stairways between floors will become avenues of barely contained chaos; a neatly printed label above them reads “No Jumping.”
To cook at La Grenouille requires faithful adherence to the classics, but also the ability to improvise. This is not a restaurant where you’re expected to abide by a “no substitutions” policy. The overwhelming majority of the clientele are regulars—some dine there four or five times a week—and they’re accustomed to having special orders honored. As dinner service starts, so do the requests.
“Chef, can you make the turbot without the leeks?”
“Yes,” says Metnick, head down, working the line.
Five minutes later: “Chef, can I have the agnolotti without dairy?”
“I can do it without butter, but not without dairy. They’re made with ricotta.”
“Chef, I have a five-year-old with my party.”
The chef sighs just perceptibly and reaches for a box of De Cecco linguine on which is written “Pasta 4 Baby.”
To whatever extent Masson has kept his chefs in their traditional place, he has also restored waiters to theirs. “Just carrying food to the table, that’s not a career,” he says. “That’s a messenger.” Dishes like frog’s legs, which are cut into three-inch segments, soaked in milk, and then sautéed in fresh butter and garlic, get a final, theatrical deglazing in the dining room. (They would make perfect Super Bowl food, especially if followed, as they are at table, with a gleaming silver finger bowl.) The waiters must also be able to expertly dismantle a roast chicken grand-mère, fillet a sole using only a fish fork and a flat sauce spoon, slice kidneys for rognons de veau moutardier into uniform strips, like meaty little mushrooms, and then flambé them with Cognac and mustard in a whoosh of old-school flame.
As dinner service reaches its peak around 8:00 p.m., the activity backstage intensifies. Handwritten orders flow in, dishes flow out. One table of five orders five soles grillées; there will apparently be no passing of plates in that group. Out beneath the flowers in the dining room, the murmur of Champagne-enhanced conversation slowly rises in volume. Masson patrols the perimeter with the slightest skip in his step. It is obvious there is no place on earth he’d rather be—even France.
It’s clear at these moments that La Grenouille is not a museum to a dead culture, but a living restaurant, one that reminds us of all the other things a restaurant can be besides a temple of innovative food: a place to watch your date’s eyes grow wide, a place to take your mom on her birthday, a place to sit at the bar with a friend who’s down in the dumps, splitting a roast chicken and a bottle of red wine and hashing it out, a clubhouse, a canteen, a fantasy, a vacation from all the less well tended corners of the world.
As for the trends it continues to buck, Masson remains unperturbed. “I read a statistic recently that the average restaurant’s life span is four years,” he says, with just the hint of a smile. “What does that tell you?”