Bird Food at the Waldorf
(betw. 49th & 50th Sts.) 872-4895.
Location formed the core of the banter I traded a few weeks ago with a young publicist of my enviable acquaintance when she invited me to drop by Peacock Alley, recently revamped?and culinarily reimagined?in the guts of the Waldorf-Astoria. Now, before I get going here on the restaurant and its amazing food and its talented chef and its boy-genius sommelier, a brief disclaimer: I usually decline invites from publicists. Depends on the publicist, sure, but I have principles about this sort of thing that include my paying for most of my meals, especially the ones I write about. My feeling is that parting with dollars is an aspect of the dining experience that I'm obligated to relay to this paper's readership. Every so often, however, I accept an invite or attend an event, commonly when I know that I have no chance of ever really affording it on my own. And I try to make it clear up front that I won't trade favorable press for free food (not that the publicists expect it, anyhow). The flacks know this. I do my job, they do theirs, and sometimes we even break bread together. Exposes me to another way of life. Beneficial for all involved. Thus the world goes round. So it spins.
Anyway, location. There's only one way into Peacock Alley, and that's through the hotel. In itself, this is an uplifting passage (for me, maybe not for everyone, but definitely for me). Swagger in off Park Ave. and amble through the mildly tacky old place and in the process allow cascading glitz to stimulate the taste buds. I've been up to the Waldorf for a few events over the past year, and not once have I failed to spot half a dozen people, at least, lingering in gowns and tuxes around the elevators. It's that kind of place. Formal. Automatically formal.
And maybe to a fault. Because you visit a restaurant like Peacock Alley and you expect sleepy food served by fossilized waiters to a clientele consisting mainly of graying burghers and the wrinkled wives who dote on them. Peacock Alley is definitely the sort of place that you (a) take your parents to and get them to pay, (b) have your boss take you to and get him/her to pay, (c) have a publicist take you to and...well, you know the rest. This isn't a problem, more a set of circumstances to be anticipated. The room is overdone, it contains way too much fabric and inlaid pattern, too many cushions, tablecloths by the acre. Too much tuffetry. It could easily induce sleep. It feels old. It feels like a restaurant in which everything will be correct and solicitous and precise: service, food, drink, conversation, attire. It is not easy.
Or it doesn't seem so. This is a restaurant that initially looks hard, then gradually becomes easier?and suddenly turns into a work of art, revealing that its initially vast intimidation was all a ruse. I kid you not: the dinner I enjoyed at Peacock Alley was easily one of the best I've eaten in a while. And, ultimately, one of the easiest.
What they've got going is a nouvelle nouvelle cuisine, a gently synthetic nod to the traditional and the contemporary. It's fusion food, but it's not wacky, not strange or strained or willfully bizarre. Dialectical cuisine, and the essence of the French philosophy of the kitchen. Take a flavor. Add another flavor. Nurture the correct relationship between the two, and watch them give birth to something memorable.
Behind it all is Laurent Gras, Peacock Alley's hardcore Old World Young-Turk Parisian-vet chef, who has banished entrees from his menu. The centerpiece of the Gras approach is his "tete-a-tete" offering, a seven-course series of what at first appear to be glorified appetizers, but on tasting reveal themselves to be compressed main dishes. Complementing the procession of this smallish, exquisite food are the selections of sommelier David Singer, who has matched a sequence of wines to Gras' cuisine. Singer is Peacock Alley's secret weapon, a wine guy with some frisky moves and a remarkable nose.
For example: When I arrived for dinner, there was a little publicist wine klatch in progress, and being drunk was a '95 Moraga, a California cult red wine that Peacock Alley lists for $155. Delicious, but a tannic Bordeaux-style blend that forces your tongue and your cheeks to remember it. So once we sat down to commence Gras' meal, Singer poured two glasses of the '98 Casa Lapostolle sauvignon blanc, a dirt-cheap palate-cleanser whose clean and simple flavors?but more importantly, whose crisp springtime aromas?did their job superbly. You've got to have some skill, not to mention some chutzpah, to swing that combo: big, fragrant red followed by small, spry white. Mere minutes, and I was refreshed, ready to eat. I could breathe. Lingering memories of the Moraga had been dispatched. Or, more accurately, put in olfactory perspective.
Our first course was a black sea bass carpaccio with osetra caviar, accompanied ingeniously by sake (Ginyushizuku, for what it's worth?I like sake, but know next to nothing about it). According to my companion, classic Gras?sushi with a French accent, effectively, and two distinct flavors merging into a delightful whole. I was dazzled by the subtle texture of the sea bass against the capriciousness of the caviar, because caviar is, it must be said, the only perfectly spherical food there is. In the mouth, the individual eggs feel round, they purely embody roundness. (Try it.)
Next up, lobster in a chestnut reduction, downed alongside an insanely fragrant red Burgundy ('96 Chartron et Trebuchet Clos de La Combe). There would be more lobster later, in a curried coral sauce, joined by a riesling, but for me the first lobster dish?and its partnering Burgundy?was enough to moon over for weeks to come. The meat, delicate and sweet, white flesh collapsing gently under an onslaught of gushing saliva and barely restrained mastication. Who cares about the chestnut reduction? Well, I do, kind of. It adds something, a turf to the surf, all within the twee curve of a diminutive piece of Peacock Alley china.
Moving right along, crispy shallots with trumpet mushrooms. Shallots fried so swiftly that they're transformed into molted-cicada-like husks; mushrooms black as damp loam and weeping dark juice. The ethereal joined to the earthy. Next, seared sea scallops with the obligatory black truffles allow Singer to unveil another sake, this time a slightly more robust Tinkyu. Then it's on to the rinkydink snapper with blood orange sauce and a '96 Trimbach Pinot Gris Reserve (another good pairing), that second lobster dish, and squeezing in right before the cheese plate, the lamb au jus, paired with my favorite wine of the evening, a '97 Domain du Trap Adis Cote du Rhone. ("Wine Spectator gave it a 77," Singer tells me, dumbfounded by the anemic score. I sniff the booze. Man, it does smell good, I could spend a week in the glass, just smelling. "Can you believe it?" he asks.)
Could the meal, nearly ended, get any better? Could it summarize itself? It could. "A dessert wine?" Singer asks, not long after Gras has come out to say hi and tolerate my fulsome praise. A dessert wine? Um, yes, I think so...and, say, why don't you pick something out...and Singer does: a Barbancourt 15-Year Reserve rum from Haiti that stumps me cold. "It's rum," he announces, after I shoot him a baffled stare. And he pours a second glass. The first time I've drunk rum since college. A lucky conclusion to a fortunate meal.
And there you have it, my shameless cultivation by the Manhattan restaurant publicity machine. But really, why not? God only knows how much that meal would have cost me had I opened my own beleaguered wallet to cover the check. $250? $300? And, ultimately, what does it matter? I was briefly awarded a glimpse of a different life, and that's one of the things that expensive restaurants are meant to do.
But let's return to the question of location. Why does food of this quality need to be served in such uptight (relatively speaking) surroundings? I mean, one could easily imagine Gras and Singer and even the bread guy with his half-dozen different loaves transported somewhere else, to intensified praise and a generally younger audience. They could, in the dining room, at least, lose the name tags. The entire menu could be presented on austere white chargers amid lounging louches and their slutty women and their butt-heaped ashtrays and...
But that would suck, wouldn't it? If that were the evolution of events?if, say, the talent at Peacock Alley moved on to hipper realms?then I wouldn't want to eat at wherever they wound up. And here's why: because when I got the call to hop on the train and roll up there to a part of Manhattan still largely uninfected by our current plague of excessive and superficial style, I knew exactly what was required of me. I put on a tie. I donned a jacket. And even then, I felt shabby, underdressed. I feared being turned away. I questioned my own status. And I was inducted into a secret scene of pleasure, grace and understated charm, of dignified men who revere what they do and would do it regardless of where they are. The very definition of professionalism, of respect. An ethic. I was calmed. Reassured. Taken care of. Eased.
Would Peacock Alley be more grandly feted than it is already if it were to find itself someplace else? Probably. Do I ever want that to happen?
What do you think?
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