Magazine article The New Yorker

AFTERTASTE; DEPT. OF DINING Series: 5/5

Magazine article The New Yorker

AFTERTASTE; DEPT. OF DINING Series: 5/5

Article excerpt

One last lunch at La Cote Basque. The classic, famous old restaurant was closing on March 7th, as its chef-proprietor, Jean-Jacques Rachou, neared seventy. Along with the deaths of Lutece and Gage & Tollner, the event marked the end of something or other, at a time of who knows what--but it needed to be observed, and it was.

The Cote Basque that ended was not the Cote Basque that began. That one, familiar to readers of Truman Capote (who set a gossipy story there), was actually one block over, east of Fifth Avenue, in the space that is now the Disney Store. The entire operation--the tables, the banquettes, and the murals of the Basque coast, by Bernard Lamotte, which gives the place its name--was dislodged nine years ago, and replanted more or less successfully in the new space farther west.

Historians, or, at least, chroniclers of the New York restaurant world, will also recall that the original Cote Basque was intended, rather defiantly, not to be what it ended up being--what's called a temple of haute cuisine. It was Henri Soule's second restaurant, the "relaxed," bistro-ish alternative to his Le Pavillon, which was itself a relic of the 1939 World's Fair. As Joseph Wechsberg explained in these pages some forty years ago, the Pavillon was the first restaurant in New York to be emphatically and uncompromisingly major--three-star cooking, as they did it in Paris--and La Cote Basque was the first to be major in a minor way. (Reading Wechsberg now, one is struck by how tired the food sounds, much of it made earlier in the day and presented as a buffet froid, to be admired as people entered the restaurant.) La Cote Basque, however, became the fashionable place, on the universal principle that whatever is defined in advance as exclusive is uninteresting, while whatever is defined in advance as welcoming can have an overlay of exclusivity bestowed upon it.

La Cote Basque, which stumbled after Soule's death, was revived in the early eighties by Jean-Jacques Rachou, who had earlier created what was for a spell one of the best places in New York, Le Lavandou, on East Sixty-first Street. Rachou was the master of a brief rococo interregnum. (This had to be a food-magazine cover line back then: "The Rococo Interregnum.") His chicken was still stuffed; his fish still imported; and if he met a tournedos he greeted it with a slice of foie gras and a truffle sauce. He was mostly famous for the free-form inventiveness of his plates, which often looked, one critic wrote, if memory serves, "like the flags of some effete nation. …

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