[Pigging by Wilfrid: January 11, 2009]
If you are not deterred by false rumors of what Lucius Beebe might have called swank and snoot, you could do far worse than add Le Caprice New York to your list of Upper East Side supper options.
Snuggled in the long room alongside the lobby of the Pierre Hotel (a space as luscious as Lucius Beebe himself), Le Caprice is a significant improvement on what was once the Café Pierre.
This review includes some historical remarks, in italics so that my lazier readers can skip.
I dined at the Pierre a couple of times, and would drop by to listen to the tinkling of the grand piano when I lived just across the park. My abiding memory is of my father falling into a deep sleep on a comfortable banquette as we waited for almost an hour for the kitchen to conjure a simple ravioli dish. The waiters were white gloved, the ambience proudly stuffy.
Le Caprice, contrary to what you've been told by critics ignorant of its heritage, just ain't like that. Yes, there's a piano - worryingly diminished in size. The room no longer resembles the interior (if there is such a thing) of a wedding cake: decor is clean, modernist black and white. A long bar, comfortably set for dining (reservable) extends along the left-hand side of the room. There are tables opposite and in the rear. Servers are young for the most part, polished, and cosmopolitan (French, English, Hispanic, American).
Such has been the unreasoning hostility to this opening from some quarters, that we shall need to do some homework on what Le Caprice truthfully represents and what it seeks to offer diners. Josh Ozersky, for example, under the startling headline "Finally a Restaurant All New York Can Get Behind (Hating)" describes the original Le Caprice - on London's St James Street - as a "revolting English high society [restaurant]"! Oh dear. And I think we can safely assume Josh has visited neither the London nor the New York incarnation of the brand, which hadn't in fact opened when he published his diatribe. We all like to play Savanarola from time to time, calling down plagues and curses on that which offends us, but Josh mistook his target, just as Adam Platt did (in a generally favorable review) when he remarked on "crowds of pink-faced, Champagne-swilling Englishmen and Fifth Avenue couples out on the town bundled in their fur coats". I mean, who does he think stayed at the Pierre Hotel before Le Caprice opened - beatniks and hobos?
The Ivy and Le Caprice share, in fact, a treasured and historic niche in London dining. The former, poised on a dark corner off the Charing Cross Road, dates from 1917 and is possibly the closest equivalent London has to a Sardi's. The latter was opened by the maître d' of the former - if you follow me - thirty years later. Both restaurants were stale fixtures until they underwent astonishing reinvigoration in the hands of two talented restaurateurs and hosts, Jeremy King and Chris Corbin. King and Corbin created, at The Ivy especially, an exciting party at which anyone who could get a table - and you could if you tried - could eat and celebrate alongside movie stars, millionaires and everyday theater-goers. There was nothing exclusive about the menu either - I took my father there for shepherd's pie; I recall Welsh rarebit, liver and bacon, kedgeree... You were encouraged to scatter breadcrumbs on the white tablecloths. King and Corbin later added J. Sheeky, to the portfolio: this was a wonderful seafood tavern, serving not only oysters and Dover sole but potted shrimp, cod roe on toast with capers, fish pie...
From a New York perspective, it is almost automatic to class any menu
which proposes salmon fishcakes or fish and chips as offering comfort
food. And accurate too, in a way. What is much less obvious, I think,
to Manhattan-based gourmets, is the relationship between the style of
food offered by Le Caprice, The Ivy and J. Sheeky in London, and the type of
English cooking associated with Fergus Henderson of London's St John.
The latter is regarded with something approaching awe by New York
foodies, and regarded as very much the cutting edge. Certainly Le
Caprice and The Ivy have always offered items like foie gras, lobster
and the odd truffle to woo their monied patrons. It should also be
recognized that they were preparing and improving British classics like
ham hock and bubble and squeak, as well as serving wild game, when chef
Henderson was still an architect. If Henderson ever opened a fish restaurant, I suspect the menu would have much in common with J. Sheeky's.
The wine-list is medium-sized and very well priced considering the location. House champagnes - Henriot - check in at less than $20 a flute, and there's a selection of half liter carafes as well as wines by the glass. I started with some bubbly and ordered the octopus carpaccio. This was one of the specials, indicated as such by ostensibly being handwritten in the menu's margin.
The slices of tentacle were thin without being paper-thin, and correctly tender. Presented in an appetizing tangle - a more pretentious kitchen would have created a decorative mosaic - they were dressed with chives, scallions, cilantro and an oil with the mildest hint of chili. Refreshing. I could swear the bread is the same they serve in London, very crisp-crusted.
The sainted Fergus Henderson has smoked haddock in his repertoire. So indeed does Michael Hartnell of London's The Ivy who has opened the kitchen here at Le Caprice New York. Smoked haddock (known to the Scots as "finnan haddie") is a British classic, the flaky white fish often paired with a soft egg and mashed potatoes. Hartnell pulls off a spectacularly sophisticated version, blending the haddock and potato as the filling of a crisp tartlet.
Poached quail's eggs are mentioned on the menu, and one expects to find them dumped on top of the tart. Not at all; they are concealed within. Cutting into the tart causes the yolks to pop - once, twice, thrice - saucing the dish as you eat. It's an amusing effect, as well as flavorful.
Since New York is inhospitable to wild game dishes, meat options are less adventurous than they might be in London. A burger, a couple of steaks, a chop - I urge Hartnell to add his ham hock to the menu. I ate the chopped steak, rare as requested.
I can take or leave onion rings generally, but it the steak was served with good examples of the genre. More remarkable, the bucket of fries, impeccably prepared - crisp and tasty even as they cooled down (there are more than enough for one person). Pleasing too the Lujan de Cuyo Malbec, one of the least costly wines on the list ($43 the bottle, $29 the carafe), smooth, bacony, and highly drinkable with red meat.
And so we come to the case of the man Ozersky dismisses to as "this London toff." Richard Caring, ironically, is the son of an American G.I.. He grew up in North London, went to school on a sports scholarship, and made his money in the rag trade. Not exactly the Duke of Devonshire, but no matter. He purchased the Le Caprice group in 2005, and - this is the important part - has been wise enough to preserve what King and Corbin created. Attention needs to be paid to the considerable merit of these restaurants rather than who happens currently to own them.
I filled up on cheese. A handwritten special was Stilton from Colston Basset, served with fruit cake. I went for the plate instead as it boasted three of my favorites.
Shropshire Blue is a pleasing, orange-tinged alternative to Stilton. Caerphilly, another classic, is a crumbly cow's milk cheese, at first mild then slightly acidic on the palate. Berkswell is a modern invention, a hard sheep's milk, buttery and subtle. And what surprising value: $14 for this loaded board of imported cheeses for which I'd expect to pay $29 per lb at retail (reality check: Murray's will charge you almost $40 per lb for the Berkswell).
Indeed, not unlike its London siblings - those allegedly "high society" haunts - Le Caprice New York is a value proposition overall. Nine garnished entrées between $22 and $30 (yes, steaks are more expensive), $8 sides, and over twenty bottles (my count) under $50, you can eat and drink well here without lurching far into three figures. Downtown prices, believe it or not.
I understand that the very existence of the Upper East Side, its hotels and their restaurants is a red rag to many New York bulls, and I understand why. I doubt even that I've dislodged any prejudices, although I hope I've alleviated some ignorance. For myself, I'll continue to cherish this very good import.
The website is here.