Le Coucou And The Return Of French Fine Dining

Joshua David Stein on New York's hottest restaurant, Le Coucou, and what it means for French food

Much can be gleaned about New York City's dining habits from conjunctions and articles. We've lived through the Tyranny of The and the Rise and Fall of And and its associates, & and +. Currently, we eat in an age of obscure referants and neologistic portmanteaus: Ladybird, Seabird, Atoboy, The Wild Son, Wildair, Dizengoff. These restaurants and their names limn the current zeitgeist, which is at once international and individual.

There is, however, a resurgent definite article having a moment: le. That's both le, the French masculine article and Le, as in Le Coucou, the new restaurant from chef Daniel Rose and restaurateur Stephen Starr that turned a Holiday Inn lobby on Lafayette Street into the hottest room in Manhattan.

Silly, of course, to hang an entire piece on the resurgence of fine French dining from a single nail, no matter how glistering or true the nail might be. But silly too not to acknowledge that after suffering years of gloomy think pieces mourning the death of fine dining, fine dining is back on the horizon.* Le Coucou might not be the main fighting force, but it may be a reconnoitering scout, carrying a white tablecloth as a herald, proclaiming the start of a new era in fine French dining in New York City.

Le Coucou's Chiboust à la Vanille | Photo: Corry Arnold

Hither, thither and yon, through the glass doors and into the high-ceilinged room, the city's dining elite venture into Le Coucou. Inside, a vast French-wing conspiracy unfolds. There are pastoral murals by Dean Barger modeled after an 18th-century French landscape painter, rows of romantic chandeliers hanging high and Damoclean above the tables, worn white brick walls but crisp white tablecloths. Flatware and stemware exist in profusion. Waiters wear suits, hostesses dresses of immense beauty. At the center of each table flickers a long tapered candle. It's no coincidence that Roman and Williams, the firm who designed the restaurant, began their career as film designers. Le Coucou doesn't so much look like a French fine dining restaurant as a set for a French fine dining restaurant.

Of course, this is very much a very real, very French and very much a fine dining restaurant. Though his body was born in Chicago, Rose's spirit was born in the bouchon of Lyon, the backroads of Provence and the narrow kitchens of Paris. Lyon is where he cooked, and he traveled for six years apprenticing in French kitchens before opening Spring, his high-end seasonal restaurant in Paris, in 2006. The menu at Le Coucou, presented with a flourish by waiters, providing you actually score a ressie, reflects Rose's affection for his adopted patrie. It is swaggeringly, unabashedly French: quenelle de brochet, sauce américaine; crépinette de volaille aux foie gras et fruits d'été; tripe, souvenirs oublié de lyon; and my favorite, tout le lapin, or as it is translated, "all of the rabbit." That's one plural away from a meme.

With the enthusiasm and passion of a convert, Rose took to French cuisine like Joseph Conrad did to English. And he resurrected a style most New Yorkers, at least those unfamiliar with the New York Public Library's Buttolph Collection of Menus, have never experienced firsthand. The last time veal tongue with caviar was served, John Lindsay might have been mayor. And that's exactly fine with Rose, because veal tongue with caviar was good then and it's good now, too. "The best part of the classic French repertoire," he says, "is that it rarely needs tweaking to stay relevant." Rose's right. The essence of the sea suffused into a psychedelic iridescent orange foam, an extremely classic pike quenelle with sauce Americaine, which owes its name to America, an ancient name for Brittany is certainly as modern as anything at Aska, Agern or Atera.

So we're onto the beginning of something, and, rather than proclaiming fine French dining is back, let's just say it might be beginning again. For there was a time, long enough ago now that most diners at Le Coucou don't remember it, when the best of New York's restaurants were formal French affairs. The cataract began way back with Le Pavillon, a restaurant remainder of 1939's World's Fair, but from those prodigious loins came The Colony, Lutèce, Voisin, Cafe Chauveron, La Côte Basque, Le Caravelle, Le Mistral, Le Cygne, La Grenouille, Lafayette and much too many more to mention.  

"Back then, you were either part of the Le club or the La club," Daniel Boulud, who began his career as part of the Le club as chef at Le Cirque in 1986, jokes. Boulud remembers the stable of dishes served at these restaurants was relatively narrow in scope. "In those days," he says, "you could have a saucier move from one kitchen to the other and be functional in a few hours." What was offered drew from what we might today call Continental Cuisine, which at least for the last fifty years has been seen as rather old-fashioned and grandiose.

But don't forget that entire movement started with one man, Henri Soulé, and one restaurant, Le Pavillon, and one mission: to import the experience of a French fine dining restaurant to New York with as little lost in translation or concession as possible. Venison in a sauce grand veneur; tortue verte au madere, madrilene au gelee, a cute wittle duckling with cherries for two.

Inevitably, by the beginning of today's institutional memory, which perhaps began in earnest in the 1980s, those pioneering restaurants had grayed and diminished. If we did catch a glimpse of those last survivors of Soulé's innovation, it was in their senescence.**

The only difference between Rose and Soulé is that, in the latter's case, there was no surge to resurge. Le Pavillon was the first of its kind on this soil. But it's also not as if Soulé's shadow was so long that it extends even today.

The current practitioners of fine French cuisine barely look back. "French restaurants have always been an important part of New York dining," Rose says before adding, "so i've been told." Rich Torrisi, whose Dirty French softened the ground for Rose's arrival with classic preparations of French classics like duck à l'orange and trout meunière, says, "When I researched and traveled for Dirty French, it did not include New York inspiration at all." Instead, he looked back to France and her far-flung territories of which Manhattan was not one.

Whatever Gallic mantle there was to be carried from those days of yore was hoisted by guys like Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Eric Ripert who, though steeped in French technique, bent it to their own idiosyncratic ends. Boulud alone, who admits, "Of the generation of chefs of my generation and my status, I am probably the most French," is the true pedal tone to the Le and La clubs of New York's past. Cleverly, Boulud has released the pressure valves for modernity at offshoots like DBGB and Bar Boulud, a move which allows him to safeguard the glories of tournedos Rossini, albeit presented modernly, at his flagship, Daniel. But perhaps more important, Boulud is the Typhoid Mary of a specific very French way of cooking. Legion have been the chefs who passed through his kitchen door. Torrisi is one; Matthew Aita of the now-deceased Le Philosophe drew on his time at Daniel for the audacity to fux with blanquette de veau when the rest of the world was braising.

But where do those scores of years, thousands of dinners and hundreds of years of history embodied in the Le and La clubs live on? Does Soulé really only live on in archived Joseph Wechsberg profiles in the New Yorker and old columns by Gael Greene? Of course, all that effort must not be preserved, somewhere. He must live on, somehow. The laws of conservation of energy and matter demand it. Or not. Maybe it's best to place Soulé and his tuxedoed ghosts beyond the light of our minds and memory. As George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."  That ain't so bad. For the spring chickens at Le Coucou, perhaps it's better that there is no Le Pavillion, no Le Cygne and no La Côte Basque. For Rose isn't our own Soulé; a Rose is a Rose is a Rose. And tonight, at Le Coucou, there are simply pike quenelles, all of the rabbit and tripe with its souvenirs oublié.

*Although, let's call a spade a spade: Ninety percent of those pieces hedged with either a question mark, "Is fine dining dead?" Answer: Meh, or the phrasal template, "Fine dining is dead. Long live fine dining."

**Relatedly, the sadness of grandparents in the eyes of their grandchildren. "I was young and full of life once, too," Papa Frank thinks, as his grandson pulls at his loose onionskin elbows with barely disguised disgust, "I swear."