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La Grenouille—The Frog Pond
There are several perennial nominees for the quintessential New York meal: a hot dog in Coney Island, a prime steak in Brooklyn, spaghetti and meatballs in Little Italy, curry in the East Village, Chinese takeout in a high-rise. Those are all vintage New York, to be sure. But the meal that captures the power and the glory of the Big Apple—the meal that established the bona fides of restaurantdom here, that allowed New York to become the restaurant capital of the world—was the haute snob, haute cuisine, power-seating blowout at a French temple of gastronomy in Midtown. Like the Jewish delis, these French temples are falling fast. Most of the big names—Lutèce, La Caravelle, La Côte Basque—have given up the ghost in recent years. But La Grenouille, arguably the most elegant temple of them all, is still proudly standing. And its congregation may be the richest, most connected, most powerful worshippers in the old-time religion that is food.
Located in a quaint Tudor cottage off Fifth Avenue that used to be the stable of the city’s top abortionist, La Grenouille is incongruous amid the anonymous towering skyscrapers of Fifth and Madison that have turned Midtown Manhattan into almost another Dallas or Houston. Almost. Because Dallas and Houston don’t have anything like La Grenouille, not even close. Inside, the restaurant has a unique rosy glow, aided in part by the five-foot-tall floral masterpieces, the deep red banquettes, the red silk wallpaper, and the electric bulbs that are painted pink. Until recently you could never look in: the big window into the bar was draped by curtains. But now the curtains have been pulled back, and from the street you can get a glimpse of the spectacular room, with its rows of banquettes around the perimeter, filled with the high and mighty sitting side by side, chic to chic. If you’re not in one of those banquettes, you probably don’t belong. At La Grenouille, it’s On the Wall, or Not at All.
Who are those high and mighty? The Rockefellers. The Astors and Vanderbilts, or what’s left of them. The tycoons, like Henry Kravis and Ron Perelman. The designers, like Calvin Klein and Oscar de la Renta. The heirs and rulers of “appearance” fortunes, like Ronald Winston (son of Harry) and Ronald Lauder (son of Estée). The press lords, like Si Newhouse and Conrad Black before he was indicted (Black threw a surprise party here for his wife that cost $42,000—chump change that makes shareholders feel chumpish). Rich Texans like the Bass brothers. In fact, rich Americans from all over who can get this formal thrill only in New York, and barely anymore. Foreign royalty and plutocracy—Rothschilds, Agnellis, Hohenlohes, Hapsburgs, whoever’s in town. The Donald, because he can. The mix of La Grenouille is the mix of Manhattan, old-money WASP, Our Crowd grandee Jews, techno-dollar Wall Streeters, Euroclass, brash Trumpish arrivistes, megawatt media presences.
The only group in short supply at La Grenouille are movie and rock stars, who always chafed at the dress code, which has now been opened up, like the curtains. You’d see Michael Eisner, but not Brad Pitt; Clive Davis, but not Tina Turner. But you’ll see more than enough. If you can handle the ego battering of being the stranger at a party, where the men are on the front page of The New York Times, and the women, if a little too old for Vogue and not in the Times themselves, are right there in Town & Country. La Grenouille is probably the last place in New York, outside the charity-ball circuit, where women can wear their jewelry and their couture dresses out in public. It’s a very private public, but public nonetheless.
And you can, too. La Grenouille may not give you a banquette at the entrance, the Babe Paley seat, but it will greet you with open arms. It dropped its required necktie policy, opened its curtains, and offers a bargain prix fi xe panini menu at the bar. These are all signs of changed times, casual times, funky times, the end of elegance. At one point, not long ago, over 40 percent of La Grenouille’s reservations were no-shows. “We were irritating our customers,” concedes owner Charles Masson, whose parents opened La Grenouille in the go-go year of 1962, when coming in black tie was not unusual. Now it’s “irritating.” See? They need you. So you sit in the middle of the room, even the back room. The flowers are the same, and so is the food. Think positive. Think pink.
As for the cuisine, it’s nowhere as haute as you might expect: no pressed duck à la Tour d’Argent, no lièvre à la royale out of Escoffier, no Alain Ducasse razzle-dazzle or Alain Passard vegetable fantasia. La Grenouille’s menu is very straightforward, old-school French, but not a school you couldn’t get into. The menu is pretty much club food, fancy Paris club food: smoked salmon, grilled Dover sole, steak aupoivre. The most complicated you can get is veal kidneys flamed with cognac, but nobody orders that, except maybe Pinault or Arnault when they’re in town doing a takeover. The most famous appetizer is the baked little neck clams, which are like the clams oreganata you get in Little Italy, but made with butter and not olive oil, a little drier than you’d get downtown. There are frogs’ legs on the menu, bien sur, sautéed Provençale, but they can’t compare to the just killed croakers you find in Chinatown. In the old days Truman Capote’s society “swans” would usually start with lobster tarragon ravioli, which passed for fusion in those simpler times, then move on to French-as-you-get quenelles de brochet, and fi nish up with oeufs à la neige.
The “Capote option” is still on the menu. It worked then, it works now. Even if the food isn’t three-star complicated, the wines rise to the presence of the superrich. Expect to drink wonderfully and pay accordingly. The service is old-school perfect, and not at all scary, other than the waiters’ suits being more expensive than yours. The room is as blissfully quiet as it is elegant. Silence is golden, and a rarity in buzzy Manhattan. To go with their big sticks, the rich speak softly.
The first Charles Masson, founder of this noble house, goes back to the very beginning of the French revolution in sophisticated cooking in America. The year was 1939. The place was the World’s Fair, held in Flushing Meadow, Queens, where the Mets now play. Masson père was a waiter at the restaurant of the French Pavilion, the hot food ticket of the festival, under the aigle eye of big boss Henri Soulé. Soulé had been maître d’ at the famed Café de Paris on l’Avenue de l’Opera, a three-star extravaganza that gave Maxim’s and La Tour d’Argent a run for their francs in the prewar period.
Soulé was a bourgeois, squat, rotund, unprepossessing young man from near Bayonne, in the French southwest; he was precisely the sort of person he himself would relegate to Siberia. An unabashed snob, he was deeply influenced by the arrogance and caste systems of Maxim’s, where he was never able to land a job. The excludee thus became the excluder. When the war broke out, Soulé and his crew were stranded in New York. Making the best of an awful situation, Soulé found some investors, and in 1941 opened his own restaurant. It was called Le Pavilion, trading heavily on his association with the Fair and France without getting a license from either, on Fifty-fifth Street and Fifth Avenue, across from the St. Regis Hotel. Charles Masson, another middle-class boy, from Belfort, near the Swiss border, became Soulé’s maître d’.
Playing his new game by the Maxim’s rulebook, Soulé helped New Yorkers, a highly psychoanalyzed group to begin with, even then, to embrace the icy joys of insecurity and inferiority complexes. Remember the Avis “We Try Harder!” ads, one of Madison Avenue’s most brilliant campaigns? Well, Henri Soulé made New Yorkers try harder—a lot harder, especially those near the top but yet so, so far away. As Soulé’s right-hand man, Charles Masson was a junior Torquemada, flagellating the egos of Manhattan. As if World War II wasn’t painful enough. With the postwar boom, the ego thing got a lot worse, so bad in fact that Charles Masson could no longer stand his role as Soulé’s whip hand. He quit Le Pavilion eventually and went to sea, albeit to a floating island of more snobbery, the S.S. Constitution, where he became headwaiter.
Masson’s wife, Gisele, stayed behind in Manhattan raising two sons, Charles and Philippe. She was part of the expatriate French community that often visited the Fifty-second Street art studio of Bernard Lamotte, a spark plug of New York’s French set who gave swell parties for the likes of Garbo, Chaplin, and Dalí. Lamotte painted the vividly elegant murals of Paris for Le Pavilion as well as those of Saint Jean de Luz for Soulé’s new offshoot, La Côte Basque, where Capote trashed all his swans in a famous Esquire article that burned all the tiny terror’s bridges to the Soulé-fed high-society Capote craved. One of Lamotte’s most famous wartime guests was the aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who wrote The Little Prince while staying at the studio. Charles Masson was an amateur painter and was also a visitor of Lamotte, and of the little French restaurant La Vie Parisienne on the ground floor.
By 1962 the Soulé juggernaut had taken the life out of La Vie, and Lamotte had moved out as well. Strolling down Fifth Avenue one day, Gisele Masson, who had gone to work for Christian Dior and wanted her sailor to come home from the sea for his two boys, saw a for-lease sign in the window. Then she did something she thought her husband would kill her for: she signed a long-term lease for all of $4,000 a month, and presented it to Charles as a fait accompli. Charles did not kill his wife; he accepted his fate to own a Manhattan restaurant. He named it for Gisele; his nickname for her was “ma petite grenouille” (my little frog). La Grenouille opened in December 1962. No little frogs came through the doors, only big ones, very big ones, the ones who had been fattened up by Henri Soulé but couldn’t get fat, or French, enough.
In a city that couldn’t get enough flagellation, La Grenouille was an instant smash, so much so that within two years Charles Masson bought the whole building for $385,000, one of the great real estate moves in New York history. Taking a break from being grandmaster of the seating follies, Masson would go upstairs and paint. Eventually, though, the upstairs space was converted into one of the most charming country-French private dining rooms in the city. What initially made La Grenouille was its embrace by John Fairchild, whose family owned Women’s Wear Daily, the bible of the rag trade. Fairchild, a master of the Manhattan exclusion game, loved to publish lists—what’s hot, what’s not, what’s in, who’s thin, that sort of thing. La Grenouille was on the top of every list. It soon became the darling of the rag set, both sellers and buyers. When it became the darling of Jackie O, who was then Jackie K, the Massons were made.
Henri Soulé died in 1966, at sixty-three, of a sudden heart attack in the kitchen of La Côte Basque. Charles Masson died in 1975, of malignant melanoma acquired from too many escape trips to Florida to lie in the sun without a seating chart. His wife and sons took over and kept La Grenouille the same as it ever was, as long as they could. Eventually Gisele, in her eighties, retired to Brittany, and the brothers split, leaving Charles junior, in his fifties, in control of the restaurant, if not of the revolt against formality and the assault of the celebrity chefs. At La Grenouille, the celebrities are in the banquettes and the cooks stay in the kitchen. The twain do not meet.
Charles left his art studies at Carnegie Mellon to join the restaurant after his father died. He has loosened the place up, dropping the ties, even dropping the waiters’ tuxedos, all to try to attract a new generation of Babe Paleys and Halstons and Henry Kissingers. Whether Nicole Richie and Tom Ford and Karl Rove can step up to the Limoges plate here remains to be seen. “We have tried to become more user-friendly, less huffy-puffy,” Charles says. But when it all gets to be too much, Charles Masson goes upstairs to relax in a little six-by-eight garret under the roof, as French a space as exists in New York today. What does he do up there? He doesn’t read the Social Register, as Henri Soulé used to do, or WWD, to see what’s hot, or “Page Six,” to see who’s cool. La Grenouille is way beyond that. Who comes, comes. Charles Masson may drop the ties, but he doesn’t hustle business. When he comes up to his French garret, he sketches, just like his father, just like Bernard Lamotte. Art, even more than food, runs in this house.