Vaucluse: Upstairs and Down
On a dark and drizzly evening, walking north on Park Avenue around 5:30 PM, I'm brought up short at the sight of lights glowing in the ground floor windows of what is now Vaucluse at the south-east corner of Park and 63rd Street. This space had long been home to Park Avenue -- Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn, a restaurant that changed its decor along with its menu from season to season. After a 22-year run, the restaurateur, Michael Stillman, packed up his pots and pans, taking them to lower Park Avenue.
Like a Peeping Tom, I'm pressing my nose to the window, noting the urbane modern atmosphere—the dim lighting, white tablecloths, and neutral tones. As I watch, the waiters take their stations on the periphery of the dining room -- ramrod straight, arms crossed behind their backs -- like a squadron of toy soldiers waiting to receive their orders from guests who have yet to arrive. The stunning room is all in readiness. What to do? Make reservations.
A Short History
Down through the years, this prime corner has been home to a number of fine restaurants. First there was Voisin, a legendary French gem, exclusive and classy, that opened in 1913, and went on to have a successful sixty year run. If memory serves, even then the dining room had two levels, upstairs and down, separated by low carpeted steps, along with a menu that had a "couvert," a cover charge.
When Voisin closed, Le Perigord Park, also offering the classics of French cuisine, moved in. Their light and airy souffles were the stuff of dreams. In time they, too, would close, giving way to Park Avenue -- Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn.
At the Moment
Last minute reservations were hard to come by, unless we wanted to dine at 5:30 PM. We chose to be flexible, and the staff was most accommodating.
Upon entering the restaurant, the changes were immediately visible. The palatial main dining room, the downstairs area, is lined with banquettes, all of which afford a great view of the clientele. Plenty of jackets, plenty of Botox.
The bar on the mezzanine has been enlarged, with room enough for a few small tables and low chairs. What's more, during the reconstruction, a hidden vaulted ceiling was discovered thereby increasing the roominess of that space. One has to wonder why anyone with a vaulted ceiling would think to lower it. Up the stairs, past the bar, the restaurant was bustling.
Monsieur, what is the difference between the upstairs and down, I asked the captain. Only what you see, Madame. What I saw was an upstairs with banquettes and sea-foam green leather chairs, somewhat less formal than the main dining room. Quite possibly, the seating may be closer and the ceiling lower than in the main room, thus accounting for the slightly higher decibel level.
Something that should make the downtown folks, hobnobbing uptown for the evening, feel right at home. In a nutshell, if the downstairs is stunning, sedate and well-mannered, the upstairs is handsome, lively and convivial. Take your pick. You won't go wrong.
My companion can rarely resist escargots as an appetizer, and this evening was no exception. But the escargots Bourguignonne -- a small pot of Burgundy snails, mixed with red Camargue rice, feta cheese, and garlic-parsley butter-- were a disappointment. Too fussy, he declared, greatly preferring his snails prepared in the classic manner. Deliberating between the grilled leeks and endive salad, I chose the latter with slices of pear, Roquefort cheese and walnuts. Lightly-dressed, it was refreshing.
For the main course, we both enjoyed superb pan-seared trout with lemon-scented butter sauce. Superb, that is, once I got over the surprise at seeing such a delicate white-bodied fish coated with a dark brown sauce.
In collaboration with Michael White, chef Jared Gadbaw is cooking traditional brasserie dishes like a $24 "White Label Burger" with aged beef, shallot confit, Fontina cheese, and tomato jam. Many of the classics of French cooking appear as specials of the day including a blanquette de veau (Thursday), a bouillabaisse (Friday), and a coq au vin (Sunday). That evening for dessert, we were won over by the decadently delicious Vacherin Exotique -- a crisp meringue, with coconut sorbet, exotic fruits, and mango coulis.
Who's in Charge at Vaucluse?
Vaucluse is the latest offering from chef Michael White and Ahmass Fakahany, partners in the Altamarea Group, with a string of Italian restaurants including Marea and Ristorante Monini. As this is their first "French," the chef now gets to use the long-leafed French tarragon, grass-fed butter, and hints of lavender.
My advice? Upstairs or downstairs, Vaucluse is a welcome addition to the Upper East Side. By all means go!
I'm off to do a bit of last minute shopping, see the tree at Rockefeller Center. How about you? Are you finished with shopping and facing the dreaded wrapping of gifts? Or have you nothing to do other than to sit with your feet up by the fireside? Here's to you, here's to me. Looking forward to seeing you in 2016. Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!
And, in the spirit of the season, remember sharing is caring!