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Class Act

La Caravelle may have a fancy nouvelle menu, but at this venerable institution, you really ought to study the classics.

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Tradition found: La Caravelle.  

The French poet Paul Valéry once compared the gilded, Baroque interior of the original Maxim's, in Paris, to the inside of a well-appointed submarine. The extravagant restaurant, which was founded during the Belle Époque and had murals of reclining nudes, among other things, looked to him like a kind of time chamber sunk beneath the sea, "with all its period trappings." Valéry meant this description as a rebuke. But I've always liked it. After decades in business, any successful dining establishment, like Le Grand Véfour in Paris (est. 1784), say, or Katz's Delicatessen in New York (est. 1888), becomes part of the civic landscape, like a church or museum. It turns into a kind of refuge, a place of insular, old-world tradition and civility, sunk down below the waves, safe from the real world. Only tourists and the truly devout visit on a regular basis, but for the rest of us it's a comfort to know it's there.

With comfort at a premium in the city's dining community these days, it was my pleasure recently to visit La Caravelle, the most neighborly of Manhattan's grand old midtown restaurants. La Caravelle celebrated its fortieth anniversary last year in a characteristically understated way. There was no radical redesign of the interior -- that happened in 1990, when the Maxim's-style scarlet rug and banquettes were replaced with a more understated scheme of green and peach -- and only one celebratory party. The menu, however, has been slowly adjusted during the course of this year to accommodate what the proprietors, André and Rita Jammet, diplomatically call the "contemporary palate." The adjustment, as overseen by chef Troy Dupuy (formerly of Lespinasse in Washington, D.C.), is complete this month, and the effect is soothing and a little startling, like watching a racy new opera performed by a cast of expert period players in their beautiful old opera house.

With its low ceiling, luminous green Parisian-street-scene murals, and long, side-by-side banquettes, La Caravelle actually feels more like a cozy train car than an opera house, or even a submarine. The tables are covered in a waffly pattern of Frette linen, the waiters wear white topcoats, and, if you wish, you can still order elderly comfort food like truffled pike quenelles or crab Caravelle from a dwindling section of the menu called "Les Classiques." Feeling sentimental on my first visit, I did just that. But then I watched suspiciously as the other people at the table were served delicate plates laden with Dupuy's new, modernist creations. First came a gravlax-and-tuna combination, crowned with a net of Japanese seaweed salad in a strangely tangy mango vinaigrette. It was followed by deliciously condensed shellfish marmite (stocked with cockles and trendy kumamoto oysters), then a little dish of seared foie gras garnished with a smudge of odd, tropical-looking seeds. When I inquired about the seeds, the waiter gave a little bow. "It's passion fruit, monsieur," he murmured, with an ironic smile, "just like my mama used to make."

My uncle Frank, a staunch traditionalist, vouched for the marmite, but some of the other fusion items seemed a little thin. The claque of vegetarians at the table enjoyed a dish of sweetly tangy braised endives with chestnut purée, but a wispy open ravioli with chanterelles tasted mostly of sweet corn and bubbles. You couldn't say that about the crab Caravelle, mixed tableside in a creamy vinaigrette, or my fluffy pike quenelles, which were doused in spoonfuls of pink lobster sauce like some ethereal form of fat man's baby food. On my second visit to the restaurant, I had to be restrained from ordering the quenelles again, instead settling for the non-classique lobster, roasted chastely in herbs and olive oil and arranged on a prim bed of asparagus. The broiled rouget (with daikon radish and crunchy yellow lentils) had a similarly monkish, almost dried-out quality. Dupuy's light touch worked better on the exceptionally tender yellowtail fillet, served on a bed of tiny Japanese eggplants, with a crackling of Chinese rice noodles on top.

These arty Asian influences also leak into the brawny beef portion of the menu at La Caravelle. Good old filet mignon has been replaced by a New Age sirloin dish (with celery root, golden Chinese leeks, and two kinds of sesame sauce) that tastes vaguely like Mongolian barbecue. My friend the lamb nut was startled, though not displeased, to find his favorite food served in a mild curry sauce, decked with buckwheat sprouts and little heads of bok choy. The big, pink veal chop (served with shredded artichokes and Madeira sauce) was more recognizable, as was my Dover sole, culled from the traditional portion of the menu. It was expertly grilled, neatly deboned, and served with a boat of whipped mustard hollandaise thick enough to eat with a fork. The classic poultry dishes were just as satisfying, particularly the roasted country chicken (accompanied by a little platoon of cipollini onions) and the big Long Island duck for two, which is marinated for a day before cooking, carved at the table in big, crispy slices, and served over steamy wild rice, with a decorous finger bowl on the side.

On the evenings I visited, the crowd was composed of quiet families and wistful-looking older couples perched on the peach banquettes. They sipped the famous house mojito (vodka, crushed mint, sugar, lime, champagne) and poked around the aged wine list, which is thick and tattered as an old wallpaper sampler. Every one of the desserts were classic, except for a trio of beignets set in a Starbucks-like emulsion of mocha and Bailey's Irish Cream. The soufflés (chocolate, raspberry, Grand Marnier) had the perfect balance of lightness and heft, and if you ask the waiter, he'll also slip in a scoop of vanilla ice cream. If you're feeling modest, try the poached pear, with a speckling of candied macadamia nuts at the bottom. If you're feeling reckless, plunk for the chocolate marquise, a shiny dome of mousse with crunchy bits of dark chocolate buried in its interior, and the faintest hint of citrus. It's rich enough to be comforting, but too elegant to be decadent, which is as fitting a description as any for dinner at La Caravelle. (omega)

La Caravelle, 33 West 55th Street (212-586-4252). Lunch, Monday through Friday, noon to 2:30 p.m.; dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Dinner prix fixe, $68. V., M.C., A.E.


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