My first trials cooking sous vide reminded me of a truly memorable dinner I had many years ago at NYC’s La Grenouille restaurant. I wrote about that experience back then, included in notes I shared with friends on my Restaurant Week experiences in 1997. Here’s that write-up:
For the sake of completeness, I need to describe how I got involved with this group of bargain seeking gourmets [my fellow 1997 Restaurant Week diners]. Richard and Peggy Hsia invited me to dinner in January. Their hobby is eating at NYC’s finest restaurants. I introduced Richard into the Cuomo administration (he had been a Wall St. lawyer and was looking for something more fulfilling; he became a Deputy Insurance Superintendent). I first dined with them years ago at the old 4-star Restaurant Lafayette at the Drake Hotel (where the aforementioned Jean-Georges Vongerichten began his rise to stardom). Richard asked if I would prefer Daniel or La Grenouille. I picked the latter, having not eaten there for many years (I used to eat there often, when I took Andersen recruits to lunch there in the 1970s). They invited Ray Chen to be the 4th at our table. Once he was invited, Ray called the maitre d’ and asked if he could ask the chef to do something special for us for dinner, since it was Peggy’s birthday. Here’s what I can recall of the menu 6 months after the event (alas, I can’t find my notes on it).
When we arrived, the maitre d’ told Ray that everything had been arranged. We were started with a small timbale of cold mung bean noodles that we enjoyed while looking over the wine list. We selected a modestly priced bottle of Bordeaux (the wine markup in these restaurants is an outrageous 300 to 500%!). Then came a demitasse of soup, described as “tomato bouillon,” a clear broth with small chunks of tomato and a lot of intensely flavorful minced green herb of some sort—really interesting, fresh flavors.
Our first entree was a slab of grilled stripped bass, topped with an extravagant amount of shaved truffles. As we were waxing poetic about the flavors of the dish, the captains presented a tray of roast pheasants. They took them back to the kitchen to be carved while we had a sorbet intermezzo.
The pheasant servings were presented topped with a slab of truffled foie gras paté, all in a rich, heavily reduced sauce. I noted how I had stopped eating pheasant because it is always dry and stringy. Yet this pheasant was moist and tender! At this point, chef Daniel Orr came out to greet us. It also became clear why we were given a normally-thought-to-be-undesirable table near the kitchen: Ours was the only table that the chef stopped by to greet. As we complimented him profusely about the dinner, I started to tell him how I normally don’t eat pheasant. He interrupted, saying: “Yes, it’s normally so dry. But I’ve found that if you don’t overcook it, pheasant can be moist and tender.” I had to agree and promise to try it again—but only if he cooked it.
I knew we were in trouble when the waiter reset the table with silverware. We were given a 3rd entree: braised short ribs of beef in a heavily reduced truffled sauce. I had seen other diners having this from the normal menu. It’s a dish that’s been made popular by Lespinasse at the St. Regis Hotel. This is a dish that is normally tender, but stringy (indeed, in dinner I had at Lespinasse a few weeks later, it was stringy). Yet the version here was fork-tender, yet held its form—something of a miracle! When the chef came out for a second visit, I tried to ask him about how he achieve this miracle, but was drowned out by the praises of my fellow diners. At this point, we cried “Enough!” and proceeded to dessert.
The 4 of us shared one round of 5 different desserts. The plates were cleared and were offered another round of 5 other different desserts, plus petit fours. Every kind of dessert was among them: from the classic French fruit tarts I recalled fondly from 20 years ago, to the more California-like presentations.
Although Richard treated, I managed to catch a glimpse of the bill and saw it was for the normal $75 per person, plus wine.