Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Welcome to Michael's

Michael at his house in Malibu, March 2005. Photo: JH.
Beautiful October day in New York.  Last there was a book party at Michael’s for Michael McCarty’s new book “Welcome to Michaels.”

Liz Smith puts it precisely in her introduction in the book:

“Like a lot of basically true things in life, nobody really quite knows why Michael’s became the hangout of choice for the media and the book business. Everybody just wanted to go there, and it was fun to see more people whom you knew there than at any other restaurant. ….It reminds me of how people used to congregate at the Stork Club or at the Algonquin in the old days.”

NYSD readers know that this writer is an habitué of Michael’s. For me it’s a couple of things – a club that would have me (Groucho’s sentiment notwithstanding), a New York racket (I’m talking about the sound of the room) where the din of the diners gets your adrenaline moving; the passing parade of celebrity and political power as well as the fancy passers; not to mention the wonderful staff -- from the girls at the reception and coatroom to the waitstaff and busboys, the captains and the GM Mr. Millington, along with the Master Greeter himself, Michael: everyone makes you feel welcome with their grace, their kindness and their enthusiasm about your presence. And that is putting it precisely.

So this is the book about it. It’s part memoir, party party suggestion, lots of recipes and ways of doing things. Ruth Reichl, Editor-in-Chief of Gourmet, and once the premiere food critic for the Los Angeles Times and then the New York Times, remembers Michael’s from the early days:

“It was the food, however, that really set Michael’s apart. Michael and his chefs took the light, fresh, ingredients – driven principles of the nouvelle cuisine movement so popular then in France, and applied them to American products cooked by Americans ... ”

... for last night's pulled pork sandwiches.
The story about Michael’s is really the story about The Good Life. Michael McCarty is one of those individuals who has a talent for living well. Eating well is a big big part of it, and that is reflected on so many pages and in so many images in this new book, and not excepting his girth. But having visited and lunched with Michael and his wife Kim, (the painter whose work adorns some walls of the New York restaurant) at their simple, far-flung mountainside house -- surrounded by three acres of vineyard -- overlooking Malibu and Point Dume and the great Pacific, with their pizza ovens by the pool and their luncheons on the terrace with the view -- I can only say that Michael demonstrates that it’s true: Living well is a gift. Like beauty, like genius, like an unexpected song. And Michael McCarty’s got it.

The book incidentally, has the feeling about it that the secret to living well is contained therein. See for yourself.

Meanwhile, the Party. From six to eight. The place was jammed with the regulars of which there are hundreds, and unlike a lot of big cocktail parties where people kind of keep to their own group, this one was like a class reunion. People couldn’t get enough of it, as well as the passing baby lamb chops and veggie hors d’oeuvres and the oysters and clams and the booze and the drinks. A good party, the Living Well version.
Steve Millington, Larry Ashmead, and Danny Debella
Lauren Howard, Kim McCarty, and Pamela Hanson
Roz Jacobs and Alice Mason
Rita Jammet, John Jakobson, and Joan Jakobson
Joe Armstrong, Joan Jakobson, and Peter Rogers
Jolie Hunt, DPC, and Felicia Taylor
Lily Vonnegut and Jill Krementz
Mickey Ateyeh and friend
Tim Street-Porter and Annie Kelly
Michael Gross and Jolie Hunt
Nikki Haskell and Liz Smith
Jim Mitchell
Joni Evans
Pamela Keogh and Charlie Scheips
Sister and Brother Murphy
Ralph Destino
Amy Rosenbloom, Today Show producer
Jack Myers and Steve Rubenstein
Rand and Jessie Araskog
Steve Rubenstein and Lloyd Grove
Sarabeth and Eric Hunter Slater
Barry Landau and Lynn von Furstenberg
Betsy Perry
Lisa Grubka with Danny and Candace Deballa
Billy Campbell
Karen and Jesse Kornbluth with Shirley Lord Rosenthal
Amy Fine Collins, Martha Kramer, and Neal Fox
Bryan Palmer and Phoebe Eaton
Myrna Blyth, Michael McCarty, Liz Smith, and Michael's mom
Steve Millington with his beautiful kiddies
Lee and Jamie Niven with Michael McCarty
Myrna Blyth and Beverly Camhie
Pinot Noir from Michael's Malibu Vineyard
I left Michael’s about 8 o’clock. It was a beautiful night and very mild, and so I walked several blocks over to Broadway and up to 60th Street and the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in the Time-Warner Complex where the Casita Maria was holding its annual autumn gala.

The Casita crowd is very chic. There are a lot of Latin American men and women involved in this charity, and the women tend to have greater degree of interest in glamour than their Anglo counterparts.  Some of its just in the ruffle.  But it’s an attitude and it’s great to look at. Carolina Herrera. She dresses very simply but she’s glamorous; that’s what I mean. The men all look well in black tie. I once asked my late and impeccably dressed friend John Galliher why the dinner jacket looked good on everybody. “Because it’s a uniform and it shines them up,” was his impeccable answer.

Thus it was last night at the Mandarin Oriental. I wasn’t there to attend the whole evening but only to catch some pictures of some of this glamorous crowd. I met Agatha Ruiz de la Prada. At first I mistook her for her last name. Reinaldo Herrera introduced us and I couldn’t quite make out everything he was saying about her over the rumble and din of the conversations in the crowd. Then I took their picture and as I was writing down the correct spelling of Agatha’s (Ag-a=ta) name, Reinaldo continued to tell me about her. It was very impressive. When I got home I couldn’t resist googling her:

Meanwhile, back at the party: I’m always trying to get shots of women talking either to each other or to the men at these evenings. All dressed up and talking. That’s where the personality really shows. There is something fascinating about the contrast between the apparent seriousness of the conversation and the ephemeral elegance of the high costume.

Jackie Weld Drake had invited me to join her table for dinner. I told her at the time that I wasn’t certain I could make it. She pointed out that it would be fun, that everyone was there for “the dancing.”

That ordinary statement is also unusual in context these days on the charity circuit. Again, that glamour factor. The Latins love dancing also. Oh, I know, a lot of people like dancing. But I recall Luis Estevez telling me that in Havana before Castro, the big society luncheons always had orchestras so that people could dance. It’s in your soul. I’m sure the evening last night at Casita Maria was somewhat tempered compared to pre-Castro Havana, but I can assure you that the spirit was there.

The Casita Maria itself is New York’s oldest settlement house serving the Hispanic communities of the South Bronx and East Harlem. Last night’s annual Fiesta honored philanthropist Emilia Fanjul; President of the Brazilian Foundation fo Sustainable Development, Israel Klabin; New York City’s Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, and Hola! Magazine publisher and youth advocate, Carmen Sanchez Perez.

The Fiesta 2007 Chairs were Jackie Weld Drake, Carolina Herrera, Aileen Mehle and HRH Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia. The interior design profession’s answer to Las Vegas lounge acts, Mario Buatta served as Master of Ceremonies. I think if Mario could sing a just little, he’d be ready for the main room, the big casino. He is funny. His standup got me laughing so much one night that I had to leave the room because people were looking at me like I’d lost it. Enough of that.

Bob Hardwick provided the music. There was an auction conducted by Mati Boneetti Buccini.

Casita Maria’s mission is to create a gateway of opportunity through after school education in the Arts, Literacy and Job Creation; all this while addressing critical needs for youth, for families and for seniors in predominantly Hispanic communities in New York and beyond. The Neighborhood. Looking after the Neighbors. He’s not heavy; he’s my brother.
Joy Ingham
John Loeb and Sharon Handler
Kristi Witker and Frances Shelton
Sharon Sondes and Geoffrey Thomas
Helena Martinez
Hunt Slonem and Ann Rapp
Carol Mack
Gaetana Enders and Eduardo Junco Jr.
Emilia and Pepe Fanjul
Hilary Geary Ross, Audrey Gruss, and Wilbur Ross
Jackie Weld Drake and Carmen Sanchez Perez
Arnold Scaasi and Hilary Geary Ross
Jackie Weld Drake and friend
Margo Langenberg
Sharon Sondes and Jamee Gregory
Raul Suarez
Arnie and Paola Rosenshein
Xavier and Sara Deramona
Somers Farkas and Audrey Gruss
Joy Ingham and Kristi Witker
Peggy Mejia
Reinaldo Herrera and Eduoardo Junco Sanchez
Alex and and Jeanette Watson Sanger
Muffy Milller and Candy Hamm
Grace Meigher
Peggy Siegal
Parker Ladd
Prince Dimitri, Paul Wilmot, and Carolina Herrera
Jackie Weld Drake, Mario Buatta, and Nixon Richman
Richard Ziegelasch, Tom Cashin, Beth DeWoody, and Jay Johnson
Annette Tapert with Jonathan and Somers Farkas
Karen May
Reinaldo Herrera and Agatha Ruiz de la Prada
Carmen Sanchez Perez from the back
Jesse Kornbluth, the internet's Head Butler ( is a frequent guest at Michael's, as well card carrying media knight. We asked him for a few words about the favorite media luncheon spot in New York.

Welcome to Michael's
Michael McCarty

Every few weeks, I meet friends at Michael's. That's the sort of thing you do when you're a sole proprietor of a media shop in Manhattan --- you go where the Kool Kids go, just to remind them that you're alive.

And then, as long as you're there, you have lunch.

If that sounds like an inverted set of priorities, you're not a regular at Michael's. We get the reality: Michael's is two establishments in one. The first is a media cafeteria for the extremely powerful and their court jesters. The other is a damn good restaurant. Everybody talks about the cafeteria. The restaurant is noted mostly in passing. Both are misunderstood.

The powerhouse lunchroom is misunderstood because it is exclusive without being snooty. Michael's has white tablecloths and huge flower arrangements and walls covered with Hockneys and Diebenkorns, and it is annoyingly expensive and getting more so with every menu change, but you can go there, even if you're Nobody. You may not get to sit in the fabled front room. But over time, as you get to know the staff and/or make something of yourself, your lot may improve. This is in dramatic contrast to another exclusive lunchroom, the now-departed Mortimer's, where innocents routinely entered an empty dining room only to have the owner peer dismissively over his glasses and announce that his establishment was full.

Last night's selection of clams for Michael's book party.
The restaurant is misunderstood because so many people go there to rub shoulders with peers and would-be peers that they barely notice the food. It is possible to eat well here, but this is not a clientele that likes to chow down. If ever a restaurant should have a compost heap, it's Michael's.

Neither misunderstanding is fatal. Michael's has been a popular restaurant in Santa Monica for 30 years and has owned the power lunch business in Manhattan for almost two decades. That is not a record we will see broken in our lifetimes, and while it takes a village to raise a restaurant, most of the credit should go to the founder, Michael McCarty.

McCarty is such an exuberant guy --- “Party on, dude!” is his signature line --- that he's the restaurant's biggest misunderstanding of all. Alice Waters usually gets the major ink for inventing New American Cuisine, but McCarty was right there with her. And he has the credentials to prove it. After a privileged childhood of parties at summer resorts and ski retreats and an apprenticeship as a teenage gourmet at New York's better restaurants, he rushed off to Europe. He returned with a Certificate d'Aptitude Professionelle from the Ecole Hoteliere de Paris, a Grand Diplome from the Cordon Bleu, a diploma from the Academy du Vin --- and a vision.

His vision was simple. He would streamline the eternally elegant recipes of France and prepare them using the freshest ingredients in America, then he'd serve his food in a room that was lovely but relaxed. As he puts it: “My cooking is presented simply, dramatically, with none of the fussiness you find in many fancy kitchens. Even those dishes that contain butter and cream, I use the light hand that modern sensibilities demand.”

What McCarty does not say: He's a Rabelaisian spirit, maybe even Falstaffian. Truffles? Pile them on! Fois gras? Thicker! So let's be clear: Welcome to Michael's is not your everyday cookbook. It's got some great twists on old favorites --- like the salad of goat cheese, beets and lettuce dressed with a white wine-dijon vinaigrette --- but for every grilled chicken with tarragon butter there's a recipe for grilled chicken with duck foie gras and morels. If you're not billing your life to your employer, you may have to restrain yourself here.

But this cookbook has charms beyond food. It's also a summary of Michael McCarty's philosophy. Given his success, his obvious happiness and his uncanny ability to make the most neurotic people on the planet feel at home, that philosophy merits your attention. And, for good measure, some of the regulars offer their Michael's stories, which are often as funny and irreverent as the owner.
Plenty of oysters to go around too.
The recipe to share? I'm torn. I often order the roast chicken, an organic bird with wonderfully crisp, herbed skin --- and enough French fries for a kid's birthday party. But let's go with the most popular item on the menu: the Cobb salad. Formed like a cake, it is one massive --- and yet low-cal --- meal. I've never seen anybody finish one. But that's because Michael's customers all want to be television slim. Could that be because so many of them are on TV?

Cobb Salad
serves 4

1 and 1/2 cups olive oil
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup chopped chives
1 pound chicken tenders, fat and sinew removed
3 tablespoons peanut oil
3/4 pound mesclun
l0 ounces cherry tomatoes, halved lengthwise
2 avocados, peeled and sliced
4 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and chopped
1/2 pound bacon lardons
1/2 pound crumbled Maytag blue cheese
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Combine the oil, vinegar and chives in a container with a tight-fitting lid. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and shake. Set aside.

Season the chicken with salt and pepper.

Heat the peanut oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat. When very hot, add the chicken and sear, turning occasionally, for about 6 minutes or until browned and cooked through. Transfer to a platter and set aside.

To make the lardons: Cut the bacon crosswise into quarter-inch strips. Place the bacon in a large frying pan over medium-high head. Fry, stirring and turning frequently, for about five minutes, or until bacon is golden and crisp. Remove from the heat, place bacon on a double lay of paper towel to drain.

Place an equal amount of the mesclun into each of 4 large shallow soup bowls. Cut the chicken tenders crosswise into thin slices and arrange equal portions of the chicken down the center of the greens. Place a line of cherry tomatoes on one side of the chicken and a line of avocado down the other. Place a line of chopped egg next to the tomatoes and a line of lardons next to the avocado. Sprinkle blue cheese over all.

Service with the dressing on the side. Or drizzle a moderate amount over the top as you serve, asking guests to mix their salads immediately.

And don't imagine how much better this would taste in the front room of Michael's --- consider how great it is to be serving it at Table 1 of your establishment.

Jesse Kornbluth is editor of

Photographs by Jeff Hirsch & DPC/NYSD
Comments? Contact DPC here.