Thursday, April 28, 2011

Food Field Trip NYC: Dining as Theatre

La Grenouille

I am an avid eater and a lover of all kinds of cuisine. But there is so much more to dining than just the food; on special celebratory occasions (such as our recent wedding anniversary trip to New York), B and I seek out dining opportunities that might be understood better as entertainment than eating.  Not only can such an experience mirror the composition of a fine theatre performance--an ensemble cast of supporting players, lighting, presentation, attentive and polished service, wine and spirits--but all the bells and whistles are designed to showcase a star--the food.

Our first act: La Grenouille. This almost 50 year-old institution is dedicated to classic French cuisine. The story goes that La Grenouille first opened its doors on a snowy evening in 1962 and to this day remains largely unchanged. The setting is a mirrored and slightly dated dining room, overflowing with an unfathomable amount of fresh flowers, which add vibrant colors and fragrance to the intimate space. The cast of all male wait staff is attentively hopping about everywhere. I especially appreciated that a cocktail was offered as a prelude before the menu presentation.

La Grenouille offers a pre-theatre 3 course prix fix before 6pm for $60 ($85 with a custom wine pairing), whose menu options are both traditionally French and lovingly and personally prepared. A starter of foie gras, was layered with chicken liver and complimented by a zesty celery root remoulade. The Quenelle of Pike "Lyonnaise” entree consisted of two lighter-than-air mousse brochets served in a rich butter sauce. A dessert offering of rhubarb on a buttery, layered tart (paired with a sweet pistachio ice cream) heralded the beginning of local seasonal spring produce. Surprises were sprinkled throughout the meal: gougeres, cheese straws, and petite fours. And the cast of grey-haired Frenchmen was from start to finish gracious, professional, and charming. Bravo.

La Grenouille on Urbanspoon


For Act II, the curtain went up the next night on Gilt. This intimate restaurant is housed in the Palace Hotel in the Villard Mansion, a building that dates back to the 1880s. Gilt channels the late 19th century Gilded Age, and this was the scene for the actual day of our 5 year wedding anniversary. Secret doors and hidden passageways set the stage for a whimsical, otherworldly experience. From the ornate bar and waiting area, a sliding wooden door opened to a breathtaking dining room of gilded walls and cathedral ceilings backlit in a red glow. And if you just happen (wink, wink) to head up an extra set of stairs from the bathroom, you will find yourself in an eerie library.

Justin Bogel’s cuisine is as unique as the décor, with a three course prix fix menu starting at $89.  A starter of "bacon and eggs" blended tapioca, caviar, bacon, and custard into a truly magical ménage of textured sweet and smoky flavors. The succulent Niman Ranch Strip Loin was complimented by dollops of bone marrow mousse, hen of the woods mushrooms, oyster root with a balsamic reduction, and bits of a vibrant green dehydrated broccoli sponge cake (a bit much!) This performance ended on a high note, with flavor inspired and conceived desserts centered on chocolate, including a mini soufflé, and apple, complete with cinnamon donuts. The service was again an all male cast that left us wondering where the female stars were hiding? And while the service was professional and attentive, there was a certain palpable tension and stiffness (presumably directed at earning that next Michelin star?)

 Gilt on Urbanspoon

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