Choose the best meal I’ve eaten as a restaurant critic? My brain reels in a barrage of taste memories; it’s all but impossible to single out just one. But for an all-time cuisinary high, that first astonishing dinner at the preposterous Palace stands out from the 18,814 meals I’ve eaten as a restaurant critic. The Palace arrived on the farthest edge of East 59th Street in 1975, and with New York teetering on the edge of bankruptcy (sound familiar?), its shocking $50 prix fixe was especially provocative, an “acute case of terminal decadence,” I wrote. It was pretentious (an unlisted phone number, a sculpted decoration on every platter), but beautiful, with silk furniture, floral carpeting, and an incandescence of perfect lighting. And the food was remarkable. The great dining revolution had barely begun, but that night, the Palace delivered thrill after thrill, in an atmosphere reminiscent of Versailles. Given the mean economy, it had me feeling very Marie Antoinette.
Perfect Scotch salmon rolled around crème fraîche with two hills of caviar in a flaky pastry boat launched the seduction for my companion. For me, four thin circles of beef, daringly raw, silken almost sweet, under a wondrous mustard sauce. I swooned over a magnificent cream of mussel soup with saffron threads and tiny, barely cooked bay scallops. There were snails on a zesty aromatic sauce, angel’s-hair noodles in a chiaroscuro of black and white truffles, silken lemon ice to clear our palates for a côte de boeuf with chicken dumplings and truffle “pollen.” I got happily smashed on an $11 half-bottle of Pouilly Fumé followed by a Léoville Las Cases, 1962. The feast ended hours later with Lilliputian pastries, éclairs, frosted puffs and tarts, piled into a wheelbarrow made of sugar. The check, presented in duplicate on heavy stock was sobering: $197.50. Nothing today, but then, obscene. And absolutely fantastic.