My mother has been visiting La Grenouille, which occupies the ground floor of an old stable-house on East 52nd Street, ever since her father first brought her there for lunch 45 years ago.
“Your grandfather used to like the Dover sole, and here it is,” she said on a recent afternoon, pointing to la sole grillée ($48). The item is listed on the plats du jour section of the faded old menu, which is written in the original French and looks like it’s been in circulation since Hemingway repatriated the Ritz bar in Paris near the end of World War II. As the restaurant’s many devotees can tell you, there’s a classic old-world cheese soufflé available, too, along with other vanished Escoffier-style recipes like quenelles de brochet and frog’s legs “Provençale,” all of which are bought to the table with proper ceremony by French-speaking waiters in full white tuxedos.
When Charles Masson Sr. opened his family business in the winter of 1962, these exotic dishes were the height of fashion, of course. Masson was a protégé of Henri Soulé, whose seminal restaurant, Le Pavillon, ignited the great haute cuisine dining craze during the middle part of the last century. The other members of the original “Le” and “La” pack have all disappeared, and New York’s most high-profile French-style dining palace, Le Bernardin, recently caved to modern tastes by remodeling its formerly regal dining room and introducing items like a lobster roll on the new “lounge” menu.
At La Grenouille, however, you will still find 32 tables in the dining room, just like in 1962, each one outfitted with the same miniature, peach-shaded lamps that Masson purchased on a long-ago trip to Paris. Masson died in 1975, but his son, Charles, still uses peach-tinted custom light bulbs to give the room its special antique hue, and he still pays God knows how much a year for the restaurant’s trademark flowers, which he chooses himself, in the flower district, every Monday morning at six.
These included sprays of peonies on my last visit, and little bouquets of orange roses, which were set on our table in a small silver vase. My brother ordered le soufflé au fromage, which was as big as a top hat, and I ordered the quenelles de brochet, which had a beautifully soft, melting texture. My mother ordered her Dover sole, like she always does. It was cut into four small fillets (like it always is) and garnished with a dab of mustard sauce on the side. She took one bite, then another, and then she put down her fork. “This is the most civilized dish in New York,” she said.