André Soltner and his wife Simone
In March 1961, Craig Claibourne’s NYTs review of a new restaurant began:
“Lutèce was the original name of Paris [the ancient Celtic tribe the Parisii named it Lutetia]. It also is the name of a recently opened restaurant in Manhattan that is at once impressively elegant and conspicuously expensive. The Lutèce is at 249 East Fiftieth Street.”
The early review was not terribly good. It noted that there were 30 items on the menu, “… 3 soups, 7 first courses, nine main dishes, six vegetables, a platter of cheeses and seven desserts.” The food, according to Claibourne, was uneven. “ A few of the dishes, a foie gras en brioche or a roast veal with kidney, for example, could qualify as superb, others, such as a poussin rôtie aux girolles (squab chicken with wild mushrooms), are routine. A few of the dishes, such as a fillet of sole sampled recently, are disappointing in the extreme.” Prices were high, $2.25 for soups, $8.25 for main courses, $2.75 for dessert. A 1957 Chambertain was $14. YIKES, can you believe the prices!
The chef, André Soltner, was new to America and English and was at first thrilled with the honor of a NYT review. He was distressed to discover it wasn’t a good one. A mere 2 years later, Ian Fleming’s James Bond calls it “one of the greatest restaurants in the world” in his story, Agent 007 in New York.
Gael Greene, 1970 with Soltner
In 1970, Gael Greene wrote in New York Magazine, “Chef Soltner is driven by good demons. He is obsessed by perfection. Lunch at Lutèce can be absolutely glorious, sense-reeling. The pâtés and pastry-wrapped packages are magnificent. But glory is maddeningly ethereal. So much depends on mood: Chef Soltner’s. Henri’s, your own, the fishmonger’s. At times, bliss falters…disappointingly so.”
This seems to be a recurring issue in the early days –– great food with confounding fails. She went on to moan about the canned artichoke hearts in a salad and a grainy raspberry soufflé ($3.25) but then raves about mousseline de brochet Nantua ($4.25), pâté of pike in pastry, mignon de boeuf en croute Lutèce ($8.75), Carre de Pauillac ($17.50 for 2). The whole dinner for 2 came to $119.05 sans tip –– a princely sum in 1970.
By 1972, Raymond Sokolov gave the restaurant 4-stars in his NYT’s review: “Anyone who cares seriously about great food should start a special savings account earmarked for meals at this magnificent French restaurant… The kitchen is first rate, the services is polished, but neither overwhelming nor haughty…. Chef Andrè Soltner’s talent is Lutece’s greatest resource. It encompasses the classic repertory and insures, for example, that the brioche around your fresh (not canned) foie gras is rich and yellow and perfect or that the potage Germiny (cream of sorrel) is a beautiful soup, which taste is worth discussing at length, like the bouquet of a wine…. But his greatest virtue is that he does not limit himself only to the small number of dishes that continually reappear on many other restaurant menus in New York. Among other specialties Lutèce recently offered a mousseline de grenouille with small, tender pieces of frog leg inside an airy timbale…. Simpler dishes, such as rack of lamb or squab with green peppercorns, are impeccable; the raw materials are of extraordinary quality.”
1980 menu for guests (only hosts or men got the prices on the menus) from NYPL collection
NYT’s reviewer Mimi Sheraton had only given a three star rating in a 1977 review because of that old niggling problem with unevenness, but by 1980, Sheraton, writing of the 3 top restaurants in New York said, “Certainly, Lutèce is the most comfortable if not the moist soignée of the three, and the various rooms in this townhouse offer a variety of atmosphere, all more or less in keeping with the casual, personal charm of French country restaurants. … Mr. Soltner takes enormous pleasure in helping diners plan meals they will enjoy, often sending small extras out to customers he knows will like his choices. Among the lagniappe offered in such instances were tiny tartlets filled with garlic cream and sheer slices of pheasant liver, a hard act for any appetizer to follow. Nevertheless, possibilities are extraordinary, whether you choose the puffy, crisp crusted-Alsatian onion tart, the fine juniper-perfumed duck mousse or foie gras baked in eggy brioche dough, the feuilleté puff pastry, filled with the whipped, creamed salt codfish, brandade, the finished with a pink beurre blanc. Fish patés and terrines of country paté are always on hand, all equally inspired…cold half lobsters, composed salads with crayfish and avocado and an occasional daily attraction, such as fresh warm langoustine in a basil-touched butter sauce or a dishful of shelled crayfish in a Nantua-flavored sauce. Tiny artichokes à la Barigoule, not much larger than rosebuds, are sometime available and the dish of jade-green leafy buds adrift in a saffron gold sauce tinged with pink peppercorns and bronzed coriander seeds, invites photographing as much as it does tasting.” A six to seven course menu de degustation was a whopping $42 per person.
By the mid-1980’s when a 20-something me dined at Lutèce, it was understood to be the best restaurant in New York. Dudley Moore’s Arthur orders sole almondine to be delivered from Lutèce ("tell Andre it’s for me"). It's mentioned in Wall Street and Other People's Money. It stood for the best.
In 1985, Bryan Miller of the NYT's called it a "culinary cathedral".The degustation was up to $70. "In its 25 years of exemplary service, Lutece has become something of a culinary cathedral to NewYorkers and visitors from around the world - indeed, the name itself is a metaphor for superior dining. Carrying such a burden is a mixed blessing. As with a great painting or sculpture, a legendary restaurant must continually satisfy inflated expectations of the public, many of whom come with magnifying glasses, searching for imperfections."
Even today, Mad Men has set scenes there and often mentions it. From an episode called The Benefactor set in 1962, AMC said “At home, Don springs the idea of Lutèce on Betty before saying it's for business. “He's already invited Bobbie and Jimmy Barrett as well as the Schillings.) "I need you to be shiny and bright," he says. "I need a better half.”
I was not immune to the lure of the restaurant. When I was first dating my ex, he took me there for a birthday dinner. We were quite evil and splurged on a great old burgundy that was served in enormous glasses. At nearly the exact moment that Soltner was making his rounds at the tables and chatting people up, I gestured extravagantly and knocked the giant glass over –– red wine on the white cloth –– Horrors! But no, the tablecloth was changed in less than a minute as if by magic. I mean it was astonishing. Everything was back as it was (minus what was left of my wine, sniff). Soltner skipped a chat at our table and gave a smile instead as the lightning change was happening. I think I shrugged a "stuff happens" kind of shrug. Quel dommage, I never got to meet him!
Memory is a funny thing. I can remember things I ate from a zillion years ago. I can remember how they tasted. I can’t remember the food of that dinner. In an odd way, the drama of the wine glass sort of swallowed the memory of the food! I know I wrote about it in my old Filofax day-planner that I kept in those days but I tossed them all when I moved a few years ago –– before I started writing this blog. I wish I had them to refresh my meal memories now (pre-computer we wrote things down, can you imagine!). As it is, the meals remain in my brain tangle waiting for a nudge to pop them out again.
There is a vague recollection of chocolate and I think there was beef in there somewhere. I remember the burgundy well but alas the rest is locked away and for some odd reason, we never went back to gouge the Lutèce channel in my memory more deeply. New York in those days had so many fabulous restaurants to try and more always on the horizon –– I meant to go back but didn't. It closed in 2004, a victim of the decline of bottomless lunch expense accounts it was said, but also because Soltner had sold it in the 90’s and it just wasn’t the same without his heart and soul in it.
It was good to drag out The Lutece Cookbook to remind me of dining there but also to read about the way Soltner felt about food and how those feelings made Lutèce what it was. He remarked he could make a perfect omelette yet it wasn't as good as his mothers, “no education can teach someone to cook the way my mother cooked, to prepare food with the feeling for the people closest to her that was always in her heart when she cooked. That cannot be learned in a hotel kitchen or in a restaurant kitchen. It can only be learned by one loved one from another.” He also had that great chef’s talent for imagining food: “When I start to cook something, I already have it in my mouth, and in my mind, the taste of what I am cooking. It is like a dream, a dream of what the food is going to be.” He believed from the start in great ingredients (those canned artichoke hearts must have been an anomaly). “If you wish to cook successfully, ingredients are the most important thing. They are more important even than a talent for cooking. If you have good ingredients, it is hard to spoil them, hard to make bad food from them.”
I knew what I was going to make the minute I heard about Marx Foods New Zealand lamb from their subsidiary, New Zealand Meats (they do beef and venison as well –– all grass fed and you can read about it HERE). Aside from the fact I have a secret wish to move to New Zealand because it seems like Eden (no wonder it’s the location for the Hobbit series –– it looks like a fairytale), they have lush grass that makes for great lamb. I got rack of lamb and loins (which I will be doing next week for you). I love lamb, especially beautifully raised lamb.
The recipe is unusual. Soltner got tired of doing the same old lamb with parsley and garlic and invented new ways to use great meat. He came up with lamb chops covered in potato and fried. The lamb stays moist and succulent and the crisp crust is brilliant with the tender lamb. I decided to add beet pasta to finish the plate with another take on a root vegetable –– a bit of beet and fennel finishes it perfectly and is a take on one of Soltner's vegetable recipes that sounded delicious (you can make beet pasta or just use bought fettucini, although I have seen pre-made beet pasta in the market).
Côtes d'Agneau a la Croûte for 2-4
1 pound medium potatoes, unpeeled, washed
salt for potato water
1 rack of lamb from New Zealand Meats , divided into 8 chops or 4 lamb chops
salt and pepper
1 T oil
1 ample T flour
1 T cognac (optional)
3 T unsalted butter
In a saucepan, add the potatoes to the boiling salted water. Cover and simmer about 20 minutes. Cook without water for 5 minutes over low heat to dry. It's best if you get 4 potatoes about the same size.
Cool the potatoes
Trim the fat from the lamb, salt and pepper the chops.
In a skillet, heat the oil. Brown the lamb chops quickly - 1 1/2 minutes per side. Brush with cognac and let them cool. If you like them rare, chill them.
Peel the potatoes and then grate them into a bowl, using a coarse grater.
Add the egg and flour together, mix well. Salt and pepper the potatoes to taste then add to the potato mixture. Dry the meat, press mixture onto lamb chops forming a 1/4" shell around the meat. You can chill them at this point.
Melt the butter in a skillet. Saute about 5 minutes per side on medium heat. You can turn them on their sides to brown them as well.
Beet Pasta with Beets
2 small cooked and peeled beets, diced
1 shallot, sliced
1/4 c fennel, chopped small
1 clove garlic, minced
2 T butter
1 t elderflower vinegar* or red wine vinegar
2 - 3 T chopped walnuts
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/3 - 1/2 recipe of beet pasta or regular fettucini for 2, cooked (save some of the cooking water)
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup parmesan
chives, parsley, chopped
Saute the beets, shallots, fennel and garlic with the butter till vegetables are soft. Toss with vinegar if you wish. Toast the walnuts in a dry cast iron skillet for a few moments and reserve. Cook the pasta.
Toss with the cream and the vegetables. Sprinkle with parmesan and walnuts.
* Blend 1 T elderflower tea with 1/4 c white wine vinegar and let sit for 2 hours then strain.
4 oz beets
1 egg yolk
1 1/2 c flour ( plus more as needed)
semolina for dusting
Chop the beets and add to a blender with the egg yolk. Blend. Add more of the egg as needed to make a smooth puree. Pour this into a bowl and add the flour. Mix and knead -- you may need to add more flour to stiffen the dough depending on how moist the beets were. Allow to rest an hour or so, then make pasta. I recommend extra flour for this to keep the strands dry. It is very soft dough. Dry for about 20 minutes and then put on semolina dusted parchment and put in a plastic bag till ready to use.
This is plenty for 4 portions so you will have left over.