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Sheraton Says - Why Lutece Was Great and more...


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Mimi Sheraton, interviewed by Zachary Woolfe at Capital New York dot com, has a lot to say about the dining scene in NYC. A little slam at Chang here, a little dis of Brooklyn's dining scene and its attendant coverage there.

I think she has some good insights, and of course the pleasure of being able to look back at a number of decades of dining and see what worked over the long term.

And, she agrees with me and what I wrote about food trucks in this topic when she offers:

and the truck thing, I don’t know how long that’ll last. I don’t know where they eat it, that’s what I can’t figure out about a truck. Where the hell do you eat it?”

You go, Ms. Sheraton.

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

Tasty Travails - My Blog

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Seriously? You eat it at your desk, like every weekday at your job.

Which is why the food trucks all fight for spots around Midtown, noon, Monday through Friday.

Edited by kathryn (log)
"I'll put anything in my mouth twice." -- Ulterior Epicure
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I wonder how Lutece would hold up next to the best of what we have now. Could Lutece play in the same league as, say, Per Se or Adour?

The most controversial part of the interview is all the stuff she says dissing Brooklyn restaurants, e.g., "...I’m not going to Brooklyn to wait on line. Not when there are 10 good Italian restaurants in Greenwich Village. The Times has certainly been very exaggerated in its Brooklyn coverage, because most of them live there. They begin to see it as being better than it is because it’s so close to them. I would go to Brooklyn if it were exceptional."

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I wonder how Lutece would hold up next to the best of what we have now. Could Lutece play in the same league as, say, Per Se or Adour?

The most controversial part of the interview is all the stuff she says dissing Brooklyn restaurants, e.g., "...I’m not going to Brooklyn to wait on line. Not when there are 10 good Italian restaurants in Greenwich Village. The Times has certainly been very exaggerated in its Brooklyn coverage, because most of them live there. They begin to see it as being better than it is because it’s so close to them. I would go to Brooklyn if it were exceptional."

Much like discussions in sports of how the greatest of yesteryear would compare with today's stars, I think it's pretty tough to postulate how Lutece would do now. Food culture evolves, and people's desires and tastes along with it. (Remember when sun dried tomatoes were first discovered by Americans and how "new" they felt?) It might be tough going for a traditional French place to fully bloom in today's NYC, even if it were in top form, like Lutece was in its prime. Otherwise, I would think there would be at least a few of the grand old French places left, but even the few hangers on are struggling, and each year more of them close. It's not necessarily because it isn't just as good as today's places, but at least in part because most serious eaters have now eaten good versions of most of the dishes served there many times. That said, I had what may have been the most memorable meal of my entire life (and the one that gets credit for making me into the food-crazed adult I am now) at Lutece.

As for the Brooklyn comments, I have to say that I have to agree on some level. It's not just a NY Times thing, but an overall bias that people tend to have towards their own neighborhoods. It's reflected not only in the NY Times reviews, but in many other publications (e.g. Time Out, which also boasts a large number of Brooklynites among its food staff) and more populist sources of food info, including, notably, the Zagat Survey. A few years ago, places located in popular residential areas outside the typical foodie hotbeds started getting high scores more often in the Zagat survey (and on Yelp and other mainstream sources) as Brooklyn became more "settled" . It first became widely noticed when Grocery scored among the top 7 restaurants in all of NYC in the 2003 Zagat survey (along with Le Bernardin, Daniel, Bouley, Jean Georges, etc.). Was the Grocery quite good? Yes. Was The Grocery on the same level as those other restaurants? No way...not even close...not ever. But just like rooting for the home team, people get excited when their local place starts to operate at a level that it can be at least compared to more prominent places. It's great for those living in Brooklyn, but makes the info harder to put into use for those of us who don't. Determining whether a place really merits a special trip and offers something that isn't replicated in Manhattan (e.g. Brooklyn Fare, Dressler), or is simply a good addition to the 'hood and an improvement over the existing standard (e.g. Saul, The Grocery), often takes a keen eye and secret decoder ring, just like any other bias among food critics.

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The thing about Lutece is that it WASN'T a Grande French Place. It didn't serve all those heavily-sauced dishes like La Carevelle and the others. It was more a Super-Brasserie, serving hearty traditional (mainly Alsatian) food cooked to the very highest possible standards.

Lutece was my favorite restaurant in New York when it was open, and it would probably be my favorite now. But no way could I see its now getting four NYT stars.

Edited by Sneakeater (log)
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The thing about Lutece is that it WASN'T a Grande French Place. It didn't serve all those heavily-sauced dishes like La Carevelle and the others. It was more a Super-Brasserie, serving hearty traditional (mainly Alsatian) food cooked to the very highest possible standards.

Lutece was my favorite restaurant in New York when it was open, and it would probably be my favorite now. But no way could I see its now getting four NYT stars.

Very good points all! However, I used to think of it as having more influence from fine French country inns than from brasseries per se, as many of the dishes were not iconic brasserie items. And while not everything bore them, certainly many signature dishes were heavily sauced (the veal medallions with morels comes to mind). Like you, I found it by far my fave at the time, but I'd guess it would be more in the 3-star realm in today's world.

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Yeah, you're right. The main point I was trying to make -- which I think we agree on (and your characterization is better than mine) -- is that the food at Lutece tended toward rustic rather than "fancy".

People who didn't eat there, and know it only by its reputation, tend to assume otherwise.

(God I miss that place.)

Edited by Sneakeater (log)
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Yeah, you're right. The main point I was trying to make -- which I think we agree on (and your characterization is better than mine) -- is that the food at Lutece tended toward rustic rather than "fancy".

People who didn't eat there, and know it only by its reputation, tend to assume otherwise.

(God I miss that place.)

Absolutely. And I think there were quite a few very good French places around the US soon after that time that were also based on rustic French cuisine, even though many thought of them as "fancy". L'auberge Chez Francois in the DC area comes to mind. Maybe, if we live long enough, there will be a revival of this sort of place, much as properly made cocktails have made their comeback:)

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Yeah, you're right. The main point I was trying to make -- which I think we agree on (and your characterization is better than mine) -- is that the food at Lutece tended toward rustic rather than "fancy".

People who didn't eat there, and know it only by its reputation, tend to assume otherwise.

(God I miss that place.)

I only wish I had eaten at Lutece during its heyday. Sounds like the kind of food we're sorely lacking here in NY.

Do any of the "newer" places even come close - Benoit? Cafe Boulud? Lyon? Has Sheraton ever weighed in on any of those?

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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That's the point. Those places aren't even in the same universe as Lutece.

Lutece had a kitchen as good as the hautest haute restaurant. It applied techniques appropriate to the hautest haute cuisine to the food it served. Dishes had little labor-intensive touches that you would NEVER find at a place like Benoit or Lyon. It wasn't "just" a bistro the way those places were. (I didn't say Lutece was like a brasserie. I said it was like a "Super-Brasserie". Even those, like me, who like Benoit and Lyon would never claim there's anything "super" about them.)

ETA -- I don't think Cafe Boulud belongs in that list. At least as it's evolved (and despite the claims made for it when it opened), it serves much more conventionally "fancy" food than Lutece did. It's hard to compare it to Lutece.

Edited by Sneakeater (log)
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Much like discussions in sports of how the greatest of yesteryear would compare with today's stars, I think it's pretty tough to postulate how Lutece would do now. Food culture evolves, and people's desires and tastes along with it. (Remember when sun dried tomatoes were first discovered by Americans and how "new" they felt?) It might be tough going for a traditional French place to fully bloom in today's NYC, even if it were in top form, like Lutece was in its prime.

Daniel, although clearly not a "La Grenouille" clone, is the closest thing we have to a traditional luxury French restaurant with four stars. But there are two crucial points worth noting.

First, although Daniel itself is perpetually packed (suggesting there is more demand than seats), the identical restaurant—if it opened today, without Boulud's name on it—would not do nearly as well. It survives mainly on its reputation and a core of regulars that have been with Boulud since before he had his own place.

Second, although Frank Bruni re-affirmed Daniel's four-star rating just two years ago, it was the least rapturous of his four-star reviews. He even said it: "while it yields fewer transcendent moments than its four-star brethren and falls prey to more inconsistency, it has a distinctive and important niche in that brood, a special reason to be treasured." If he had not reviewed it as an incumbent four-star restaurant, I am fairly certain it would have received three stars.

Do any of the "newer" places even come close - Benoit? Cafe Boulud? Lyon? Has Sheraton ever weighed in on any of those?

I never dined at Lutèce, but I don't think Benoit and Lyon even attempt to replicate it. Even if they executed their missions perfectly, no one would would suggest that they were playing in the same league as Lutèce. Café Boulud on its better days might come closer.

Edited by oakapple (log)
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Lutece was never a bistro. It was a warm place due to Mr. and Mme. Soltner and it catered to it's returning clientele, but the food was never rustic. It was elegant and superbly cooked. You had to dress to be appropriate.

As I remember, the only other restaurants in its league were Le Pavillon and La Cote Basque under Mr. Soule. Perhaps La Grenouille.

As for the restaurants that exist today...why compare. Life has moved on and so has the food. There are many good chefs and lovely restaurants. Per Se comes to mind. I loved the food at Lincoln even if Mr. Platt did not.

The clientele has changed, however. Too many noisy wall street types who think that they own these places and no respect for the food.

As an aside, The Lutece Cookbook, now out of print is just wonderful.

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Super brasserie...not! Lutece was a French restaurant of the highest calibre. It's food was not rustic...it was elegant, disciplined, refined cooking of haute cuisine. When I had my wedding reception there, we began with a lobster vol au vent and went on to veal Prince Orloff and then a cold raspberry souffle. The room downstairs and the rooms upstairs were so civilized. The menus with the drawing of a Redoute rose...the thick, silky linen tablecloths and napkins...the maitre and waiters in their impeccable black jackets...the polished, unobtrusive service. I suppose there were a few "rustic" touches--the Alsatian tarte a l'oignon is the only one I remember...and it was delicious. To think of being spoilt for choice, there was La Cote Basque, La Caravelle and La Grenouille...each with its own distinctive atmosphere and version of French haute cuisine. It's a small miracle that La Grenouille survives in all its rosy glow and gorgeous flowers...it's a treat to go there for Dover sole, poulet Grand mere, the Mont blanc and so much more. Happy I had the luck to experience them all...and love them all. And then there was Lafayette where I believe Jean Georges got his start in the US...but enough memories.

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The following two links are to New Yourk Times articles from 1972. The first is a summary (4 star) review of Lutece and gives a glimpse at some of its typical offerings. The second is a closer look at both Lutece and its workings, as well as the fine dining scene in NY and its gloomy prospects at that time. Again, you can see some of the offerings and can be dazzled by what seem like shockingly low prices (which view may be tempered by the examples of salaries: dishwasher $91/wk, waiter base $67/week and as much as $300/wk with tips).

Lutec Times Review

Times Arictle: Haute Cuisine scene in 1972

Knowledge is good.

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