Chow time: Mimi Sheraton and Andre Soltner on what’s changed since Lutece

Mimi Sheraton. ()
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“I think the whole Brooklyn thing must be greatly exaggerated,” said the eminent food writer Mimi Sheraton.

“I’m from Brooklyn,” she continued, “but it would take a lot to get me there for dinner. When Lundy’s was Lundy’s, I’d be there. When Gargiulo’s was Gargiulo’s, I went. I certainly went to Gage and Tollner. There were one-of-a-kind things there, but so far anywhere I’ve been to there has not been worth the trip from Manhattan. I haven’t been to Al di la, because you have to wait on line, and I’m not going to Brooklyn to wait on line. Not when there are 10 good Italian restaurants in Greenwich Village. The Times has certainly been very exaggerated in its Brooklyn coverage, because most of them live there. They begin to see it as being better than it is because it’s so close to them. I would go to Brooklyn if it were exceptional.”

Sheraton was sitting in the living room of her townhouse in the Village. On the coffee table was The Lutèce Cookbook, a record of one of the greatest, least Brooklyn restaurants in the city’s history, inscribed to her and her husband by the book’s author, and Lutèce’s chef, André Soltner.

Soon after it opened, in 1961 or 1962, Sheraton went to Lutèce for the first time, to see what all the fuss was about. The restaurant, on 50th Street between 2nd and 3rd avenues, was owned by the formidable André Surmain, and in the kitchen was Soltner, a young chef from France who spoke very little English. Soltner was cooking traditional French food—foie gras and frog’s legs and cream sauces—with accents of his native Alsace, but there was from the beginning something about the food’s freshness, about the integrity of the ingredients, that set it apart from Le Pavillon and its scions, the haute cuisine palaces that had dominated the city’s fine dining scene for decades.

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On Nov. 4, 1977, Sheraton, who had been the restaurant critic of The New York Times for a little over a year, wrote a review of Lutèce, by then one of the most famous places in the city. She began the review with praise, the kind of blurb a chef might die for: she wrote that Lutèce was “one of the country’s most delightful and excellent restaurants.” But towards the end, things took a dark turn as she moved on to a grim listing of missteps during her recent visits. A lobster bisque had been disappointing; a baked crab entrée limp; roast duck with raspberry sauce “cloyingly, jamlike sweet.” At one dinner, the snails “lacked any flavor other than salt of which there was an overabundance.”

In a dramatic move towards an already-eminent institution, Sheraton removed one of the restaurant’s four stars, which had been awarded in 1972 by Raymond Sokolov. “Disappointments,” she wrote, “though relatively few, loom large precisely because they are exceptions.” Soltner, who by then had become the sole owner of Lutèce while continuing to cook, was, needless to say, displeased.

“André still hasn’t gotten over it,” Sheraton said with a laugh last week. She reinstated Lutèce’s fourth star a couple of years later, and eventually she and Soltner became friends. They are joining up on Friday for the latest installment in a series of post-concert “Musical Suppers” at the New York Philharmonic that Sheraton has hosted since last year, featuring chefs like Alain Ducasse, Lidia Bastianich, and Daniel Boulud. The intimate evenings, seating about 70, aren’t fund-raisers, though tickets are $225; Sheraton said that they’re intended to put a human face on the Philharmonic. (They have the added benefit of attracting well-to-do patrons, who may not be regular concertgoers, to the orchestra.)

Soltner, 78, is the first of the chefs in the series whose restaurant days are past (he sold Lutèce in 1994, and it closed, done in by bad menu choices and the post-9/11 economy, in 2004), and the title of the evening, “An Homage to the Legend of Lutèce,” emphasizes nostalgia. The dishes are all old favorites, starting with the Alsatian onion tart that, in that 1977 review, Sheraton said was “the best version of this we have ever had.” There will then be a jalousie of crab and spinach, encased in puff pastry; pumpkin soup, with croutons sautéed in butter; veal cheeks—“just impossible to find,” Soltner said excitedly over the phone recently, “just recently do they pull the cheeks out of the calf’s head”—braised in red wine and served with tender dumplings; and a bavaroise with pears and chocolate sauce.

THESE ARE THE KIND OF DISHES IT CAN BE HARD, IF NOT IMPOSSIBLE, to find today, and the meal is a reminder of Lutèce’s midcentury heyday—the restaurant pops up several times during season two of Mad Men—at a time when it can be hard to see its legacy.

Soltner, now the dean of classic studies at the French Culinary Institute, is still an influential training chef. But in a food scene defined by casual dining, with iPods blasting even at “nice” restaurants; by the haute-frat-boy cooking of David Chang (“I really don’t take him seriously as a chef,” Sheraton said); by chefs who oversee restaurant empires while hosting TV shows, Soltner, who owned one restaurant, missed approximately five days of work during his 34 years there, and co-authored a single cookbook, is a vision from another time. (Not coincidentally, he’s the only “Musical Supper” chef who is actually going to the Restaurant Associates kitchen in Long Island City the day before the event to supervise the preparations.)

“Today, chefs are stars and there are people who are willing to finance them,” Soltner said. “My generation, 50 years ago, it was not so. We had one restaurant, and we had a tough time maybe to find the money to open it and renovate it. That was then. Today chefs who are good, who are recognized, they find investors very easily. It was not like that in my generation.”

Not that Soltner did badly for himself. He owned the restaurant’s building, and lived above it for decades, and got a very good deal when he sold it, according to Sheraton, because he got out when his reputation was still at its height.

“He did very well,” she said. “He didn’t wind up poor. It’s still possible to make good money owning a restaurant, but not as much as they want to make, not if you want to go corporate and have a huge empire. But if you have a very successful restaurant and you’re the sole owner, you can make a lot of money. Not as much, probably, as Sirio Maccioni or these guys are making, but you have to have in mind that these guys have a lot of backers to divide between. Soltner was the sole owner.”

But, while the model of the one-restaurant star chef is mostly dead, and while it is hardly easy to find crab jalousies on New York menus these days, Lutèce’s, and Soltner’s, legacy is perceptible, not least in the freshness-obsessed locavore scene. When Soltner started cooking in New York in 1961, even fancy restaurants used canned versions of hard-to-find ingredients like girolles, the French wild mushroom. Soltner, though, refused to use canned or frozen products, years before the lighter nouvelle cuisine put a renewed focus on freshness.

And though the restaurant was famously expensive, it was equally famously warm and friendly. Soltner eventually brought in his wife, Simone, to run the front-of-house, and the restaurant laid the groundwork for New York restaurants that retained their high quality without being snooty or overly formal.

Soltner seems generally at peace with the evolutionary changes in food culture. While some chefs of his generation have treated the science-obsessed school of molecular gastronomy with disdain, he compared the criticisms to those leveled against nouvelle cuisine in the ’70s; both schools, he said, have their good and bad qualities. Indeed, if he was thirty today, he ventured modestly, he, too, might have two or three restaurants.

Sheraton, who is working on a book-length food glossary and still writes regularly for magazines, was more critical of the current state of food writing. The Times, she said, focuses too much on trends.

“Pie is the new donut, or pie is the new cupcakes,” she said, “and the truck thing, I don’t know how long that’ll last. I don’t know where they eat it, that’s what I can’t figure out about a truck. Where the hell do you eat it?”

Reading her 1977 Lutèce review is kind of like reading Elizabethan English: it’s recognizable, but foreign. She describes the appearance of the restaurant’s dining rooms, and its food, and that’s pretty much that. For readers now, who have already gotten used to Sam Sifton’s style—oddly reliant on the second-person imperative, and obsessed with a restaurant’s sociocultural mood, its place within the city’s past and present—Sheraton’s reviews are nearly bare.

“It’s food writing for an audience less interested in food and more interested in the experience and the theater of it,” Sheraton said of Sifton’s work. “I don’t like it at all. I always told people what the place was like, but these long, long introductions about the scene—I usually skip the first column and a half and get to the food, because that’s what I think it’s about.”

La Grenouille, which opened in 1962 and which Sifton awarded three stars a year ago, is the last survivor of its generation of fine New York French restaurant. Unsurprisingly, it’s one of Sheraton’s favorite restaurants, and she was headed there for lunch on New Year’s Eve. Soltner, for his part, put the phone down for a minute to tend to the pork chops with red cabbage and chestnuts that he was making for dinner. He cooks at home most of the time, he said, and when he goes out, he goes to the city’s fanciest places: Jean-Georges, Daniel, Le Bernadin.

“When I go out,” he said, “I want to go out where they cook the right way, where they use the best ingredients, the most natural ingredients, and that’s it, you know? I don’t go out to second-class restaurants, because I eat better at home.”