At Play in Vintage Fields
Swimming with the sharks can be exhausting. But I do feel obliged to hang out with the first-nighters, vying for impossible-to-get tables and exploring the latest and the hottest, risking bruises and insults to keep my readers up to date. Soon enough, I’m stretched and long for a short trek to a familiar place.
A few weeks ago, in search of some rest and rehabilitation, I thought to explore some modest perennials. “What’s a neighborhood place you’ve been going to forever?” I ask a few friends. That’s how I find myself ordering off the blackboard at Neary’s, rediscovering Quatorze Bis and courting indifference at Orsay in case you’d rather not.
Discovering the “Irish 21”
“Neary’s has been there forever,” observes Shelley, my frequent dining comrade who lives in the far East Sixties. I discover that Jimmy Neary opened his proudly Irish den at East 57th Street on St. Patrick’s Day in l967 and some of the crew have worked here ever since. “They don’t take reservations,” Shelley warns, “ But I’m sure we won’t have a problem getting a table early.”
With a whiplash pull, the cloakroom attendant manages to unstick my stuck zipper. “I’m here anytime you need me,” she says. I laugh. Already I feel at home. And then I’m being welcomed by a smiling little man, Jimmy himself, who gets up from the corner table and leads me to a two-top swathed in red with a paper mat.
It’s early. I take in the Christmas tree, the framed book covers, the bartender setting up silver for a regular to eat at the bar, the businesslike moves of the waitress, Mary, who drops off a napkin-wrapped basket of bread. I decide I’ll have a bite or two of the pumpernickel roll and then another and another.
“Mary’s been here more than 25 years,” says Shelley, settling in precisely at 7:30. “She probably doesn’t actually need to work anymore. Who knows how many wills she’s been named in?”
We decide to share a $10.95 order of clams casino. They are five of them, flecked with bacon, very greasy and unembarrassedly bready. “I ate the largest one. You’re entitled to the extra,” I urge her. I consider the calves’ liver as my entrée. How often do you see calves’ liver on a menu these days? Octopus has taken its place.
“The prime rib is the thing to order here, and the lamb chops,” Shelley advises. “I’m having the lamb.”
I decide to go with tradition and have the prime rib. “Rare,” I command as always.
“I can’t promise you’ll get it rare,” the server warns. “The prime rib is already cooked.”
“Well, get the kitchen to give you the rarest piece they have,” I say. It’s rare enough and I like the oven-roasted potatoes. Shelley’s two double chops, juicy and caramelized, are seriously wonderful. But the potato pancakes taste fossilized, as if they’ve been sitting around a while, possibly on the steam table all week. I can’t eat another bite anyway. I should have resisted that roll.
Neary’s is bustling now, totally full, with what look like regulars, couples meeting after a workday separation, duos moving from the bar to a table. Shelley and I each take home a doggie bag. The meaty, untrimmed bones of Shelley’s leftover lamb really are for her dog. 358 East 57th between First and Second Avenues. 212 757 1434
Quatorze Bis: The Shape of a Classic
Long before the city became enthralled in the bistromania of the late ‘80s, Quatorze with its homage-to-Paris gold lettering was an oasis of snap and good bistro food in a desolate arrondissement on 14th Street. That inspired its owners to open Quatorze Bis, a lookalike on the Upper East Side in the spot vacated by Remi. As fates shifted, the shiny red door downtown disappeared, but its twin remains. My friends, two couples with nearby real estate, ask me to join them.
Now the annex stands alone — “La Maison n’a pas de Succursale” the menu notes. Beautifully lit and beckoning, the red banquettes are gone, but the vintage poster art and book covers by regulars look as if they’ve been here forever. And it’s easy to imagine that the senior couples seated at the cloth-wrapped tables have been coming for decades. Given their bulging 401(k)s, they don’t seem to notice that the prices have soared.
My pal Bob is thrilled with his herring. Myron and Marcia split an endive, Roquefort and walnut salad. Ellen and I are sharing the bacon, leek and Gruyère tart. Ellen offers a taste of her Arctic char. Choucroute garnie is the specialty on the familiar Parisienne-style menu. Cassoulet is the dish of tonight. Again, I play with the notion of ordering calve’s liver.
Bob always orders the roast chicken and asks for pommes frites instead of mashed–“dark and crispy”– he instructs. Regretfully, Myron realizes he should have asked for his the same way. Bob passes along tangles of fries to the rest of us. Marcia’s boeuf bourguignon is juicier than most. Even after sharing a bite or two with me, she’ll have enough for tomorrow’s lunch. Classic, classic, classic.
My cassoulet comes in its orange enamelware casserole with warnings not too touch. I start happily enough with a piece of sausage and some indifferently-cooked duck. The beans are tasteless. I don’t want to eat another bite.
Myron and Marcia are sharing the braised pear. Ellen and I divide a wonderfully lemony tart covered with very large blueberries. I guess this is how normal affluent seniors eat these days if they are not food writers. Our troupe leaves with three bags of leftovers.
I depart with a sense of stepping back into the past, as if all of us could have eaten like this any time since the ‘80s. Well, maybe the Arctic char is a 21st century notion. 323 East 79th Street between First and Second avenues. The old telephone number is written on the menu Lehigh 5-1414, but if you weren’t born yesterday, you need to know it’s 212 535 1414.
Orsay: For Ladies Who Munch Lunch
“What do you like in your neighborhood?” I ask Harriette who lives in the East Sixties. That’s how we end up having dinner at Orsay, a spot I’ve always envisioned with Upper East Side wraiths munching their grassy lunch. Not much has changed here since the partners of La Goulue moved into what once was Mortimer’s. Are you old enough to remember how shabbily we were once treated for daring to expect a table there? A friend and I invaded the bar once and dared the snobby Glenn Birnbaum to feed us.
Orsay, installed in glorious classic brasserie style, is clearly welcoming now. Although that could be because I evoke the name of Harriette at the door. There are mostly grownups here, middle-aged couples and foursomes. I watch a few outré Gen X’ers being escorted into the annex where they will be invisible. It’s very noisy. Throbbing music doesn’t help. “You don’t see any of those young traders that hang out at The Grill,” I observe as Harriette does an airy kiss-kiss with the owner.
I’m tempted by classic French onion soup and consider snails in garlic and parsley butter “with a mist of pastis.” What I’d really like to start and to finish would be the steak tartare “La Goulue” style, but I’ve promised my niece Dana we’ll share the rack of lamb. Salades, as the menu spells it, seem the ideal starter. I notice Harriette salting her dish. I’ve never seen her salt anything before, but she’s right. Nothing is salted. Is that meant to be a kindness to the aging clientele, to unelastic arteries and volatile blood pressures? There are salt shakers on the table so we can suit ourselves.
The servers actually look French here and practice a Gallic indifference as the evening goes on and house familiars crowd in. That’s after delivering salads in small glass bowls: frisée aux lardons ($16) with a pretty poached egg for me and Harriette, tender chunks of octopus tossed with greens ($18) for Dana and the ($14) salade Orsay with thins of Grana Padano cheese and white truffle dressing for Beth.
Harriette’s burger with caramelized onions is basically dull and not rare as ordered, but the fries are pretty good. The $32 special turbot with clams is much too cooked for my taste but only slightly overcooked for Beth’s. It costs $3 extra to divide the $45 evening special rack of lamb. That could be for additional roasted tomatoes. The meat is tender and delicious.
I get to choose dessert. Tarte tatin with crème fraîche. Each of us takes a small dollop. Then as my friends exercise that East Side discipline – is it in the air? — I finish the sweet candied dessert. It takes a long time to get the waiter’s attention and even when we get it, he refuses to bring the check. Is he punishing us for not ordering a bottle of wine? A manager sees me waving our credit cards and takes over. I suppose I’ll be around to check out the new La Goulue opening any minute, but I’ve had my reunion at Orsay for this century. 1057 Lexington on the corner of 75th Street. 212 517 6400.