Café des Artistes (CLOSED)
One West 67th Street
New York, New York 10023
Moderate to expensive: main courses $23-$39. Prix fixe $35 (Restaurant Week All-Year Round), Open seven days a week, lunch 11 to 3 pm and dinner 5 to 11pm. Jacket recommended but not required.
So much has been said about the current craze for restaurant-going by people who are striving to understand it, either for enlightenment or profit, that it seems a truism to observe that a visit to a restaurant is a kind of travel, not entirely ersatz, but something between dreaming of Capri in an armchair and jumping on the train to Fire Island. The decorator has provided the sets, the chef a motive for going there, the staff a supporting cast; the diners at the table have their relationships, their hierarchy, and their desires, and, if the evening out is going to be any fun, they’re ready to play their roles. Dining out is also a self-generated theater, the ultimate interactive entertainment. It can be a journey in time, as well as a mildly-imagined land travel. Most people will go out for something old just as readily as something new, although the longevity of restaurants is tenuous enough these days to put that in question.
I was recently put in mind of the Café des Artistes, which I used to frequent rather a lot through the 1980’s. In fact some major life-changes germinated there. The collector-artist-developer Ian Woodner lived not in the famous Hotel des Artistes which houses the restaurant, but in an artist’s studio up the street where he had lived since his student days. Like the hotel residents in bygone days, Woodner used the Café as a dining hall. We were organizing an exhibition of Woodner’s drawings, and, either as his guests or on our own, we kept going back to the Café des Artistes. Often we’d go there on the late side, when the dining room and bar were in full swing, always fortissimo.
The Café des Artistes originated in 1917 as convenience for the occupants of the studios in the Hotel, which was a hotel only in the French sense of the word. The building was the fifth and largest of the artist co-ops which line that block of West 67th Street. Constructed in a Gothic style, complete with gargoyles, by architect George Mort Pollard with the visionary Walter Russell (coiner of the phrase “New Age”) as developer, the building housed primarily small studios, originally kitchen-less, so that the owners depended on the restaurant downstairs to prepare meals and hoist them up on dumbwaiters. There was a larger restaurant on the second floor, the ancestor of the Café des Artistes being a grill room on the ground floor. As George Lang, the renowned culinary entrepreneur and historian, who has owned the Café since 1975, and his wife, Jenifer, herself a distinguished chef and culinary writer, state on the menu, the Café was originally “fashioned after the English Ordinary, a cozy bistro with a limited menu based on foods available at market.” Following that tradition, their intent is to offer “good middle-class food, typical French Sunday dinners…rounded out by some ‘If only I could have…’ type dishes.” Their modesty is excessive, as my dinner proved, but a grain of it is true in spirit.
In the spirit of good and plentiful food and drink, as well as the participatory drama I mentioned, I always understood a dinner at the Café des Artistes as the central attraction. It had never occurred to me go there before an event at Lincoln Center. As close as they are, they seemed like two separate worlds. However, once reminded, I wanted to visit to place as soon as possible, which made it necessary to go before Tristan at the Met last Friday, March 14th—the notorious evening when both of the legendary lovers succumbed prematurely, only one of them actually making it as far as the stage.
Arriving, shortly after five o’clock, straight from Grand Central, burdened with luggage, I found a friendly, professional welcome at the desk, taken over by one of the servers who guided me to a quiet table. The entire dining room and bar were, in fact, still relatively peaceful at that time. In fact the restaurant had the hushed atmosphere of an unusually well-maintained and comfortable, but thoroughly unpretentious club—a legacy of the Café’s origins as the Hotel’s dining hall, as well as the Langs’ bistro philosophy, not to mention the handsome decor, which is fortunately free of the self-consciousness of an interior designer. The rooms still resemble what their appearance before the Second World War, after Howard Chandler Christy finished his voluptuous murals…of which more later. Abundant flowers mediate between the dark wooden panelling and the brilliant palette of the paintings. Coming at this off-hour, I realized how comfortable one can actually be there, and after the rush from the train, it was blessedly welcome, as was the highly highly professional, but personable, even warm service, which made me feel more like a regular than the prodigal son I was. To begin I asked for a glass of the house open Chardonnay, a Relativity Vineyards “Reserve” 2006 ($13), in anticipation of the Salmon Four Ways ($19) I was about to order as a starter.
By the time it arrived, I’d had a chance to get acquainted with the wine. The oak was well-tempered under a rich but not excessive finish, a perfect prelude and accompaniment to the salmon, four pink mounds surrounded by dollops of green sauce, each exquisitely prepared in a different way, as my server succinctly but pleasantly explained, while I admired the simple, elegant arrangement: a cut of poached salmon, salmon rillettes, salmon tartare, and smoked salmon, cured in-house. Each was impeccably prepared, the poached salmon, which in a larger portion would have made a splendid cold lunch, serving as a dose of reality beside the more fanciful variations. The combination of smoked and fresh salmon cooked with white wine and shallots was exciting beside the delicate tartare. The diminutive, but entirely sufficient fillets of smoked salmon were light and moist, their smoky perfume more evanescent than the product of even the best Scottish smokehouse. This was not the same Café des Artistes I’d known years ago. This starter showed a much higher standard. We all know that restaurant-goers demand more in today’s competitive market. This culinary ascendancy is due to Joseph Paulino, a young chef of exceptional talent.
As I enjoyed the salmon, I observed the rest of the pre-theater crowd filter in. They hadn’t quite as much leisure as I did. The staff efficiently asked each party their curtain-time as they were seated. Everything was firmly under control, but the atmosphere remained calm. Many of the diners, pursuing their conversations in discreet tones, seemed to have known each other and the restaurant a long time. One diner said he could not eat his fish as it was described on the menu. His waitress cheerfully offered an alternative, which was settled without fuss and looked delectable when it appeared. There was plenty of fish on the menu, but nothing overtly vegetarian. I asked my server how a vegetarian might be accommodated. She replied that the chef had a variety of suitable dishes, including roast vegetable plates, as well as steamed for the most restricted diets, assuring me that they were really good. I have no doubt that Chef Paulino has ways of adding flair to these virtuous dishes.
I have read that many prominent actors and other public figures frequent the Café, and that it is a good place to observe them in the wild, if one is interested in intruding on other people’s privacy in this way. I didn’t recognize anybody familiar, but I was more than delighted to lay my eyes once again on Howard Chandler Christy’s exuberant murals of nude…girls, yes, girls…disporting themselves under silvan bowers and rilling waters. One can never tire of these now innocent-seeming scenes, but it is well to remember that in 1934, when Christy began to execute them, it would have been difficult to reproduce them in general-interest magazines, where much of Christy’s work appeared. Presumably they were Christy’s way of asserting the louche, bohemian air of the Café des Artistes and the studio cooperative it served, as well as his celebrating his adoration of Woman. An illustrator, society portraitist and history painter, Christy was renowned as the creator of the “Christy Girls,” a type which culminated in the series, “The American Girl,” in which well-bred young women were depicted in attitudes which hinted only in the most restrained way at their erotic appeal, which was, of course, their raison d’être. Today Christy is, and always will be remembered as the creator of the WW I recruiting poster, in which a spunky young woman, dressed in a sailor’s uniform, exclaims “Gee, I wish I were a man. I’d join the Navy.”
In this way his work was as familiar to the mass of Americans as that of Norman Rockwell. Later he concentrated on portraiture—socialites, presidents, and other leaders, from Will Rogers to Norman Vincent Peale. He also painted enormous patriotic history paintings, like the twenty by thirty foot “Signing of the Consitution,” which hangs in the the Capitol. Today his work is highly prized by scholars and collectors of illustration, even if it has not bobbed up over the horizon of the College Art Association. Years ago, I used to take special pleasure in seeing Woodner hold court among his art historian retainers—experts on Titian, Dürer, and Raphael, all surrounded by those murals, which exuded more of kitsch a quarter of a century ago than they do today in our debased times. None of them ever admitted to me that they refused to look at them. In fact, these joyfully naughty paintings should be celebrated as the best of “bad art.” They are certainly more appropriate, to say the least, in their setting than the works, now hanging in the Tate, which Rothko painted for another establishment on which Lang set his mark, The Four Seasons.Restored and well-maintained, Christy’s murals scintillate with pink flesh and emerald greens, as if they were still new. The Café celebrates them with cocktails (all $12), named after them. To mention only two, “The Fountain of Youth” consists of poire-william-scented champagne with spiced pear and “Swing Girl” of Corazón Tequila, orange liquor and pineapple juice. Erwin Panofsky himself could provide no more penetrating exegesis.
For the main course, I couldn’t resist the pot-au-feu ($29), for which the Café is famous. In anticipation, I switched to a glass of one of the house reds, Flying Vine’s blend of Carignane, Syrah, and Mourvèdre 2003 ($11), which, as you might imagine, tastes like a casual émigré cousin of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, one more proof of the impressive skill with which the wines are chosen to complement the menu. Pot-au-feu was a family favorite we used to prepare fairly often—later a prey, I suppose, to pitiless labor and insidious vegetarianism. It is all the more wonderful to enjoy the dish in a restaurant, especially one which prepares it with such loving zest as the Café. My server informed me that it was such a favorite that any attempt to remove it from the menu, for perfectly reasonably motives—like summer, for example—had met with invincible protests. The Café’s version, which replaces the more familiar boiling fowl with duck, is exceptionally rich and full-bodied. In the traditional bistros which excel in the dish in France, it is a much lighter affair. Here, the perfectly done cuts of meat and vegetables were partially immersed in a dark brown, but still clear bouillon, which wafted hints of carefully roasted onions, carrots, turnips, and bones somewhere early in its history. It was so good, it seemed almost a crime to add the horseradish, mustard, and cornichons, served on the side. The marrow-bone, by the way, was of a generous sized, and like all the rest perfectly cooked. This was a robust, New World pot-au-feu, which was certainly as good as any I’ve ever had.
As unprofessional as it may have been, I found dessert impossible, especially with Tristan ahead of me, and I hope at some future date to report on the Ilona Torte, the Crème Brûlée, or the Dark Chocolate Fondue. Left to my own devices, however, I might gravitate to the cheeses, which seem to have been as carefully chosen as the wines, consisting of four French and one Italian. On the way way out, I gave a final once-over to Christy’s The Fountain of Youth, my favorite, and The Swing Girl, which celebrates the favorite amusement of Russian noblewomen before the Enlightenment turned them into Voltaireans, but here the girl is neither Russian nor American: she is universal. What would Linda Nochlin say?
Since George Lang bought the property in 1975, he and Jenifer have led it through several renaissances. Presently it must surely be at its peak. It is certainly a better restaurant than it was in the 1980’s. The Langs have clearly recognized that in order to attract a clientele of the right quantity and quality their old Paris bistro model had to grow with the times. A plate of gravlax won’t do anymore, and contemporary diners expect a magic trick like Chef Paulino’s original and dangerously addictive take on a dish like pot-au-feu…or goulash ($28), or Wiener Schnitzel ($34). This brings to mind one criticism I might make, and that would be that there might be a stronger stamp of Mr. Lang’s Hungarian origins. He once had an excellent Hungarian establishment in the Citicorp Center, Hungaria, which ran up against the impossible task of convincing New Yorkers that there is something worthwhile in Hungarian cooking. (Lang’s book of history and recipes, The Cuisine of Hungary, remains a classic; he resurrected Gundel in Budapest—just as he did the Café des Artistes—and a guest performance by Gundel’s chef, Kálmán Kalla, to the UN dining room in the 1990’s attracted a capacity audience.) What I find most intriguing is the Langs’ double-headed talent for conservation and innovation. There is a curious irony, however. While George Lang has been credited with the invention of dining as theater, the Café des Artistes is what it is: the real thing. The year before Lang acquired the Café des Artistes, Paul Goldberger saw fit to describe it as a “restaurant with a pleasantly offhand nineteen-forties air to it.” That, too, sounds intriguing. I know of places like that in Albany, but of course in Manhattan they vanished long ago.