Sunday, March 6, 2005

Sniffing for Chanterelle

3.7.05 - On a Saturday night, we went down to Chanterelle, the beautiful restaurant on the corner of Harrison and Greenwich Streets, for dinner. I’d never been before but have always recalled reading a review of the place in the New York Times several years ago that was so glowing and rapturous I wasn’t sure I had the palette sophisticated enough to appreciate the art of the chef and co-founder David Waltuck.

The restaurant décor, despite its downtown location, is as sublimely chic as anything one might find uptown. The sweeping floral arrangements are created daily by the chef’s wife and co-founder, Karen Waltuck, set against walls that looks to be a pale pale peach, a shade known as “chanterelle” (hence the name, which came after the walls were painted, suggested by a friend). The vestibule when one enters is like a small sitting room in an art collector’s apartment, containing an armoire (for the coats) and desk, two small sofas, chairs and covers of previous menus – all artworks by contemporary American artists.

David Waltuck — a view of the "artist's" hand
Their first menu was done by the great TriBeCa-based sculptor Marisol. Since then they’ve featured works by a wide range of artists, photographers, writers, poets and even musicians including Roy Lichtenstein, Cy Twombly, Jennifer Bartlett, Ellsworth Kelly, Donald Evans, John Cage, Virgil Thompson, Ross Bleckner, Donald Baechler, James Brown, Vija Clemins, Bill Cosby and Edward Henderson, Merce Cunningham, Keith Haring, Francesco Clemente, Eric Fischl, John Dugdale, April Gornik, Maurice Grossier, Robert Indiana, Jenny Holzer, Louise Nevelson, Allen Ginsburg, Gregory Hull, Michael Hurson, Jasper Johns, Cletus Johnson, Tom Levine, Bill Katz, Glenn Ligon, Robert Luongo, Andrew Lord, Robert Mapplethorpe, Marcel Marceau, Malcolm Morley, Elizabeth Murray, Philippe Petit, Richard Prince, Daniel Oats, Francois Morellete, Susan Rothenberg, David Seidner, Jack Shear, Cindy Sherman, Lorna Simpson, Kiki Smith, Mike and Doug Sturm, Terry Winters, and our menu Friday night which was created by Robert Rauschenberg. It’s really quite an amazing array (and now a collection), and it somehow sets the tone for the evening: you’re in a very special place where you will have a very special experience. And pleasure.

The atmosphere is neither sedate nor festive, but serene. The clientele, which to these eyes covered the spectrum from the twenties upward, is dressed for the occasion according to their own individual taste – some in suits and dressy dresses, others very relaxed and casual in blazers or even short-sleeved shirts.
David Waltuck in the kitchen
Before we ordered (but not before the chef had sent us a tasting of some baby shrimp), we had the opportunity to visit David Waltuck in his kitchen where he told us a little bit about his background. He’s a New York boy who attended the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park in his early twenties. He never finished but went to work here in Manhattan on the Upper East Side in a popular restaurant of the day called La Petite Ferme. After a brief time, he and his wife decided to open a place of their own – this was twenty-five years ago – in the just then burgeoning TriBeCa.

Younger New Yorkers may not know that up until about that time, there was no such name as TriBeCa, just as up until the late 1960s, there was no such name as SoHo. All of that grew out of the artists' migration in those years to that former industrial metropolitan area with its wonderful spaces (lofts) full of light. So the Waltucks’ choice was ground-breaking – opening what was to be an “upscale” business in a brand-new part of town.

The first Chanterelle had ten tables (or maybe less), and almost from the first, they had an eager and enthusiastic clientele. David Waltuck changes his menu every ten days or so and there are no permanent dishes (except for the Grilled Seafood Sausage, which three of us chose for the appetizer). I had a bite of that and it was fantastic. I had the Terrine of Smoked Salmon and Black Caviar. Also excellent. Then came a Quintette of Blue Island Oyster Preparations. I am not an oyster lover although there were two at the table to pick up any slack so that there were only empty shells left. Our choices for the main courses were Olive Oil Poached White Tuna with Saffron Orzo and Tomato Caper Vinaigrette, Fricasse of Lobster with Lime, Curry and Muscat, Sautéed Tasmanian Sea Trout with Onion Compote, and Fig Balsamic Reduction, and Fig Balsamic Reduction and Brined Niman Ranch Organic Pork wrapped in Prosciutto with White Beans and Tarragon (my choice).
Chanterelle's “assortment of cheese"
This was followed by the “assortment of cheese,” about a dozen and a half of choices, each carefully described by the waiter (we all chose about six to try), followed by a variety of desserts, all too much at this point, and all eaten in entirety. With everything washed down by a “tasting of Old World Wines” and “a tasting of New World Wines.”

It should be said that the company was excellent, four people full of things to say, as well as enthusiastic gourmands for the evening. The service is seamlessly thorough, so much so that one is only conscious of having what one needs at all times without ever having to ask for anything. We arrived a little after eight-thirty, and three hours later, possibly slightly too sated from the grandeur of the menu (and wanting to try everything), we were putting on our coats to go back out into the cold New York night. There is a menu of several choices of appetizers, main courses and desserts for $95, including coffee, tea, etc, plus the assortment of cheeses for $19., and then there is the prix fixe of a choice of two appetizers, two main courses, the cheese, a tasting of chocolate desserts and petits fours for $115. The wine tastings are $85 each, Old World and/or New. Everything as sublime as the chanterelle.

To learn more, you can visit their website:
L. to r.: The Robert Rauschenberg-designed menu cover; The menu items handwritten by Karen Waltuck.
The main dining room
One of 3 flower arrangements in the main dining room
Chanterelle celebrates its 25th Anniversary
The wall of menu covers designed by the likes of Robert Indiana, Eric Fischl, Roy Lichtenstein, Ellsworth Kelly, Jennifer Bartlett, Keith Harring, Robert Mapplethorpe and many more