It took twenty months and $6 million to get Cello up and strumming in its landmarked turn-of-the-century townhouse off Madison, but within hours, food-obsessed pals had my call-waiting system choked. I was reminded of the clatter at Le Bernardin’s debut thirteen years ago, when friends were phoning the second night, crying: “It’s ready. Of course it will get stronger, but it’s great right now.”
That’s what gourmandlich early birds were chirping again. And not just because Jacques Le Magueresse, a face familiar from the maître d’s podium at Le Bernardin, is a partner and orchestrator here. Cello isn’t on an even orbit yet. But it flashes all the signals of a serious try. The dining room is small and serious, almost somber – mahogany panels, frosted glass, and custom-designed chairs with celadon mohair seats and a vintage feel. The silence is proper and welcome, a shade imperious when the room is almost empty, soothing when it bustles. In the garden, cellos explode silently in a twelve-foot assemblage by the French sculptor Arman. The linen is Frette, the flatware sterling. And Bernardaud seems to have come up with porcelain shapes I’ve never seen before, like the twelve-inch plate with a three-inch indentation that makes a jewel of the chef’s amuse-bouche – caviar on cream of eggs, perhaps, or a thrillingly complex shrimp dumpling under a white-truffle cartwheel, or a sampling of the peekytoe crab with velvety avocado and a tomato gelée that provokes uncontrollable gasps of pleasure.
Sorry, that’s what kind of food this is: alternating sensory shock and sustained delight. I wouldn’t say it was the equal of great sex, as one of my guests does, but I must admit I find the rapturous cries I’m hearing rather familiar. If, like me, you never heard of chef Laurent Tourondel as he made his way from the Troisgros kitchen in Roanne to Claude Troisgros’s now-defunct C.T. here, I suspect you’ll be hearing the name soon. He’s got a Gallic professional cool tempered by his own informed whimsy. What looks rather simple is intelligently complex, often detonated with a smart shock of flavor.
Order the lobster emulsion from the $74 lobster tasting as a starter on the standard $62 prix fixe (no one seems to mind), and what arrives is a claw tip in a lozenge of Sauternes gel. Then the captain ladles on an intense creamy nectar that melts the Sauternes into the lobster essence. Performance food, yes, and delicious. Rectangles of exquisite ahi are veiled in chiffon-thin slices of daikon touched with an almost-too-intense tang of caramelized lemon. Raw daurade royale wears paillettes of thinnest radish and Parmesan curls and green peppercorns, no one element allowed to overwhelm any other. Tiny rougets are delicately steamed and teamed with a triple whammy of raw-tomato sauce, Parmesan pesto, and tapenade. The waiter pours on special olive oil through a cork with such a tiny chink cut out it allows only a dribble – “The chef doesn’t trust us,” he jokes.
Like his former bosses at Le Bernardin, Le Magueresse is from Brittany. Thus the emphasis on fish. Though I’m not sure anyone who eats or cooks seafood at this level of sophistication has not been touched by the influence of the late Gilbert LeCoze, Tourondel strikes me as his own muse. Especially eloquent are his rice-flaked sea scallops in a soy-lime broth, poached lobster with endive in a Sauternes nage, turbot and sage-wrapped foie gras in a reduction of sherry bouillon, luscious smoke-touched salmon with pea shoots and caviar. I suppose this is where I should stop being tight and go for Pétrus, but habit and duty force me to stick to double digits. Sommelier Gillian Ballance’s fine house red, Ramage La Batisse ‘95, at $45, fits the bill.
Perhaps the hostess at the top of the stone steps is less than Michelin-smooth, and Cello’s first party of eight not only frazzled the waiters (three guests got the wrong dish) but sabotaged the kitchen, too. Most of the fish was too cooked, partly a reaction to many early guests’ sending back fish prepared to the chef’s taste – i.e., rarish, just the way I want it. As for the dining-room snafus, I spy Le Magueresse making frantic little hand and stern jaw signals to his recruits, and I’m guessing they’ll eventually get the drill. Even so, I must point out that Cello is for grown-ups and those of us dedicated to indulgence at the table. It’s not a scene. It’s not exactly fun, either, as I realize after a two-and-a-half-hour dinner that feels like four, prompting my mate, the Road Food Warrior, to announce he’ll never return. Even later, when I promise him the kitchen has found its pace, he does not relent.
Alas, the stunning grapefruit sorbet under Campari zabaglione in an egg cup and brilliant desserts like the banana-passion-fruit meringue and the frozen crème-brûlée-filled chocolate tuile with crushed cocoa beans do not move the man. He doesn’t melt when the little tartlets arrive, or the chocolates in a silver-topped wooden box. And he is asking for the check even as the rest of us, with the last ounce of devotion, swoop down on the orange-water-glazed doughnut holes, all vows of “I’ll just have one” forgotten.
Cello, 53 East 77th Street (517-1200). Lunch (beginning July 14), Monday to Friday, noon to 2:30 p.m. Dinner, Monday to Thursday, 5:45 to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, till 11. A.E., M.C., V.