The Gaul of It

Eat La France: Etats-Unis, where the name is French, the owner is American, and the food is fabulous.
Photo credit: Kenneth Chen

A foursome walks into Le Bernardin for dinner. Both women are appropriately attired for an evening at a great New York restaurant. One man is wearing the kind of sport jacket a guy throws in his suitcase in case he’s forced to dress up. The other has on a button-down shirt and slacks. The maître d’ welcomes them, acknowledges their reservation, and informs them that their table is ready, adding that though ties are not required in the dining room, it is customary for gentlemen at Le Bernardin to wear a jacket. A waiter holds out a blue blazer for the underdressed man to slip into. He glares at it, then seizes it, sneering, “Like it’s not bad enough that you’re French!”

Two weeks ago at La Côte Basque, where the $38 prix fixe lunch is one savvy bargain, only four tables were seated during service. La Caravelle—where chef Troy Dupuy has transformed a somewhere-in-time menu into one with enough jewels to rival Fred Leighton’s window—is only half full the following day. At Marseille (which my colleague Adam Platt called “subtly sophisticated”), there’s only one party dining outside on an outdoor-café-perfect afternoon.

It’s not just that business is uniformly down, that the economy sucks, that war, even when we’re winning, is demoralizing, or even that winter beat the crap out of everyone. French-restaurant owners, whether serving bistro food or haute cuisine, cite large tables canceling unapologetically (even gleefully) at the last minute, vitriolic crank calls, and the instance when a patron looked around a sparse dining room on the day coalition forces entered Baghdad and exclaimed to the owner, “Well, now you’ll have room for your buddy Chirac when he comes. Just don’t buy him a drink on me.”

What the hell is wrong with you people?

It was funny when that restaurateur emptied all his Bordeaux into the gutter—the fool didn’t think it through. His distributor had already paid the French vintner. It was his own profits he was pouring out. Initially, it appeared to be no more than a childish, grandstanding act, but evidently, lots more want to participate in this urban sideshow. The logic, however, is specious: The people actually being punished are not snarky (oh, there’s no love lost here, but that’s not the point), nor are they in Chirac’s inner circle, family circle, or citizens within his circle of life. They’re your fellow New Yorkers. And what’s being rebuked is not a country but a cuisine—one that happens to provide the livelihood of thousands of your neighbors, few of whom were born in the Loire valley.

Jean-Jacques Rachou has owned La Côte Basque and lived in New York for 42 years. How many of you “natives” have been here that long? André and Rita Jammet—he’s French, she’s Middle Eastern—have been residing at La Caravelle for fifteen years. Dupuy, their chef, is from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Marseille owner Simon Oren and his chef Alex Urena have both lived here for decades. Oren is Israeli; Urena, Dominican. And there isn’t a cook in this country, professional or amateur, who doesn’t owe Maguy and the late Gilbert Le Coze big time for what Eric Ripert’s kitchen at the seventeen-year-old Le Bernardin has done to reinvent the way this country regards and prepares produce from the sea.

But perhaps the real head-scratcher of this less-than-divine wave of retribution is the suddenly sparsely seated Etats-Unis. It’s not baffling simply because the translation of this perfect little Moderne bandbox of a restaurant’s name is United States, but because Tom Rapp, its chef and owner of eleven years, is American. In fact, Rapp’s menu doesn’t even contain that much to Gaul you. Which of the following sounds like it might be a staple of Alain Delon’s diet: a dense, soothing pea soup, sweetly redolent of ham hock, garlic, and pepper; a lush tangle of handmade spaghetti trapping eggplant, peppers, basil, and parmesan cheese (called “Jorge’s sauce,” by the way); or a velvety roasted poblano pepper that kicks out with a brashly spiced brandade of salt cod, celery root, and fried parsley. The answer? None, of course.

Both the gorgeous—well, to carnivores—sweetly pink pork shoulder braised in onion, poblanos, and citrus fruit, and the pork chops in a richly flavored but almost airy molé are meats imported from Niman Ranch. The cool-as-Hepburn asparagus soup with crème fraîche, a superb Dungeness crab soufflé pudding with a crust that demands attacking with abandon, and handmade gnocchi under an apronful of sparklingly fresh peas and pea shoots are all derived from local purveyors. For the record, the handmakers in the kitchen are predominantly Mexican. Do you need a smack in the head to see who’s being slapped on the wrist?

Like its namesake, Etats-Unis is not always the utopia it was meant to be. The food can occasionally get as precious as the clientele. And while Rapp has opened a Metropolitan Home–clever–on–a–shoestring late-night bar across the street that serves darn good bar food for the money—including duck confit, Vietnamese beef salad, and a lobster club—it’s sometimes irritatingly handled by a waiter who’d rather be out on the town at midnight than serving. With that attitude, who’d French-kiss him?

But the sheer weightlessness of lemon-pudding cake or Toshi’s rapturous date pudding will quickly remind you how neat it is to have elegant bistros like Etats-Unis scattered all over New York. Does any New Yorker really want to deny himself this pleasure out of misguided and misapplied spite? Can you really surrender so easily? If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were French. (Just kidding.)

242 E. 81st Street; 212-517-8826.

La Caravelle
33 W. 55th Street; 212-586-4252.

La Côte Basque
60 W. 55th Street; 212-688-6525.

Le Bernardin
60 W. 55th Street; 212-688-6525.

630 Ninth Avenue, at 44th St.; 212-333-3410.

242 East 81st Street
Dinner, 6 to 11 p.m. nightly. Appetizers, $11 to $15; entrées, $25 to $34. All major credit cards.

The Gaul of It