La Grenouille (means the frog, sounds like the rat, tastes like chicken)

by Jason Roth on March 19, 2010

And I thought calling them "frogs" was a bad thing.

Widely known as the last bastion of old-school, classic French dining in New York City, La Grenouille was much more relaxed than I expected it to be. Upon our entrance into the magnificent, if packed and tight-quartered, dining room, the crowd was booming. Underneath the ocean of grey hair, there were people having serious fun. One recalls the childhood giddiness often accompanying the opportunity to stay up past one’s bedtime.

The dining room is a pastel-colored and mirror homage to your great aunt’s finest cocktail party.

Senior citizens tearing it up.

You shouldn't have.

And I say that with all due respect. The first word to occur to me, while being led to our seats through a narrow, snaking path between tables, might have been, dare I say, “cheerful”. It was an atmosphere of celebration. Patrons were laughing and loud, flowers were big and welcoming, and the whole place might as well said to us: we’re having a great time, and we’re glad you could join us.

The way our dinner kicked off, though, I was semi-grateful not to be dumped out front in a garbage bag full of frog femurs. Point one. Convinced that my middle-school French was sufficient not to botch the name of the establishment, yet doubtful enough to ask the waiter, I asked for his native-French expertise. (Silly me, I figured I ought to be able to communicate where the hell I had been on the night of my birthday.) He helpfully and memorably told us that La Grenouille was pronounced just like, not the famous French vegetable dish, but the famous French rat: Ratatouille. Apparently, I look more like someone who watches cartoons than a French food aficionado, because when I asked for the correct pronunciation, he asked: “Have you seen Ratatouille?” Admittedly, I had. Looking back, though, I really should have answered: “Yes, and then I ate it.”

The romantic Loire Valley. I mean: Rue de 52nd

Point two on the list of why I was happy not to be thrown onto the curb was amusing at least for the fact that it involved my wife rather than myself. Almost immediately after seating us, the waiter asked whether we’d like a drink. The answer was “of course”, but as to what drink it would be, my wife was caught off-guard. “Do you have prosecco?” she asked. Ouch.

I’d like to tell you about some sort of momentary, inner rage that surfaced briefly from within the waiter’s eyes. Mais non. Instead, he simply advised politely that he could offer her a glass of champagne, if that might suffice as a worthy alternative. She said, “Mais oui!” (no, she didn’t, remember: she just ordered prosecco in a French restaurant), and then laughed after I pointed out her faux pas. Hey, if you’re gonna commit a faux pas, what better place to do it then in a French restaurant? At least here they know what “faux pas” means and can appreciate it.

Personally, I think both our faux pas were negated by the fact that the table lamps were accompanied by a cord running the length of the table. I’m just saying.

I always forget. Do I use the lamp cord for the salad or the fish?

Service was polite and attentive. As I said, we were offered drinks right away. To me, that’s as polite as you need to be. And the sommelier went even further, recommending a reasonably priced wine, one that was priced significantly less than its closest rival. I don’t know about you, but I tend to keep a close eye on the wines I’m recommended. If you tell me the $35 bottle is better than the $50, I say: thank you. And in the long-run, I probably throw more money your way. (Though to be honest, there’s only one restaurant where I’ve ever personally tipped the sommelier.)

Our sommelier is officially pea-souped.

And then the waiter dares to pea-soup the sommelier. Yes, that’s a verb. (At some point, I’ll tell you why, but for now, just know that it means one-upped.) The pea soup was an amuse-bouche, so of course that means they gilded the lily by adding cream, but I’m not complaining. Nice taste, if a tad on the bland side.

Herewith, for the length of two paragraphs, I will set aside all sarcasm. For an individual at La Grenouille has devised a method of producing a particular food item greater than that of any I have ever eaten before. And I’m not talking about twice-fried anchovy cutlets or parboiled platypus testicles. (Both of which I look forward to eating.) I’m talking about something far more mundane: bread.

Another white tablecloth left in my wake.

Granted, I will feel more comfortable making the this kind of claim after repeating the experience, but I have zero qualms in stating, unequivocally, that the bread I was served at La Grenouille was the best bread I’ve ever eaten. If my mouth could find the words for why, it would probably tell you about the three distinct, equally godly textures that were decipherable in each bite through what must  have been the world’s perfect crust. Sometimes, butter can slant the results, but I don’t even remember the butter. I’m telling you this: the Apostles would have passed up their Lord and savior for this stuff. Jesus Christ, this was good bread. Eat it, and be saved.

If, as a cook, my turn came up second to the baker at La Grenouille, I’d either be very nervous or very confident. Those at La Grenouille have the right to confidence. Damn, their food was solid.

I ordered a salad, to share, that was similar to something my wife and I have made ourselves many times. (This was a case of: “let’s see what you can do with this, mofo!”) We’ve added toasted walnuts before (sometimes after burning the first batch), but we’ve never candied them for a salad. We’ve added slices of fruit (in our case, pears, as we saw in Rome), and we’ve frequently mixed a similarly mustard-tinged vinaigrette ourselves. My wife has always been much better at applying the right amount of dressing, and La Grenouille actually gave her a run for her money. The point is: they did everything right. And I almost forgot how fresh and perfect each piece of cut endive was. A great salad.

It takes an omnivore to make a salad.

It takes an omnivore to make a great salad.

Appetizers were both great. Foie gras was on the menu, so therefore on my plate. The chef’s choice of the fruit to compliment it was blood oranges, a pairing I’ve not had before, and enjoyed. And as you’d hope, it was cooked perfectly.

Someone, please, force-feed this down my throat.

If there were an appetizer to beat out foie gras, it would probably also have to win out in the fat content department. That might have been the case with the lobster and tarragon ravioli. (Did I mention that they actually translate the food names into English on the menu? I appreciate that.) I’m going to be ruthless and say I thought the lobster was a bit overcooked, though my wife disagreed. I will say, however, that it was one of the best plates of food I’ve had in recent memory. I don’t know what this concoction glorified more: lobster or pasta. On second thought, I’m going with tarragon.

Lobster ravioli, made divine with tarragon.

Sam Sifton from the Times said that the Dover sole was a must-have dish, and my wife took his advice. (Incidentally, if you wonder why the Times’ slide show photo of the pea soup is absent of any tinge of green, I wondered the same thing. Though maybe I shouldn’t talk, given that you’d expect the fish pictured below to be served by a guy in a hazmat suit.) We both appreciated the deceptive simplicity of the dish (deceptive, because it wasn’t). And Sifton is right; someone at your table ought to order it.

Mustard-hollandaise sauce. With a side order of Dover sole.

Knowing that I’d get a taste of the sole (and thereby winning the night’s food ordering chess match), I decided to order the restaurant’s namesake.

My only previous memory of frogs’ legs, other than the ones served by Doc Hopper in the Muppet Movie, had been the time they were kicking their little frog feet from beneath a layer of congee. Congee which also happened to be inhabited by snails. Not a big fan. The French clearly do snails better than the Chinese, and apparently they do frogs’ legs better, too. (Though I give chicken feet to the Chinese.) The frogs’ legs at La Grenouille appeared dry at first glance, but in reality had the perfect amount of butter and garlic. Not soaking, and not dry. I couldn’t tell where the butter stopped and the frog’s legs began, and I ate every one. (Well, except the one I grudgingly I had to trade for a bite of sole.)

Even better than Doc Hopper's.

The entrees came and went, and our foresight and/or greediness was about to pay off. Two souffles were on the way.  (Pardon my missing accents aigu, but until Firefox builds it into its spell-checker, “entree” and “souffle” are going to appear just like that.) Normally, I wouldn’t order anything even somewhat resembling cake, but (a) nothing stopped me from ordering a scoop of ice cream on the side, and (b) what I ordered wasn’t any souffle, but caramel souffle. As the waiter made clear, I couldn’t order that just anywhere, could I? Nope, and a good decision was made.

Caramel soufflé. And not just because it was my birthday.

Someone said "soufflé au chocolat", so someone at my table said "Me!!"

Given the quality of our experience at La Grenouille, it probably would be in bad taste to end on a discussion of the bathroom. Therefore, let me end on two discussions of the bathroom.

Looking at my reflection in the bathroom, I couldn’t help but think of The Fountainhead. Not because I tend to look in the mirror, wink, and tell myself how much I remind me of Howard Roark. My remaining hair is not red. Rather, the two mirrors on either side of the toilet remind me of when Dominique, while talking to Peter Keating, describes such a vision as “the senseless infinity you get from two mirrors facing each other across a narrow passage”. It does make for a rather bizarre bathroom, but perhaps a narcissist’s heaven.

I briefly considered leaving Martha Stewart out of this review, but my powers of self-restraint failed. There she went, walking past our table at the end of our meal on the way to the bathroom. My wife, not one to jump up and ask a celebrity to take a photo with her, jumped up and followed Ms. Stewart to the bathroom. What followed was relayed to me after I unsuccessfully tried to convince the grumbling woman next to us that, au contraire, it was perfectly fine to chase down a celebrity if and when that particular celebrity is especially important to you.

My wife came back, camera in hand, photo of herself and Martha Stewart obtained, and in possession of the reason why Martha just might have been so generous on this occasion. It seems her blouse had a couple of tricky buttons in the back. It’s a good thing someone just happened to be available nearby to help!

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

KT March 19, 2010 at 1:00 pm

The caramel souffle is a must! This coming from someone who’s not a big fan of caramel.

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