Reviewed by Robert Brown
The battlefield of New York restaurants is filled with the remains of foreign adventurism gone awry. Ever since the 1939 New York World’s Fair at which Henri Soulé started Restaurant Le Pavilon, foreign chefs and restaurateurs, most of whom have been from France, have both been eaten up or taken the town by storm. It seems for every Daniel or Jean-Georges, or more recently Antoine Westermann’s Le Coq Rico, there is Alain Ducasse, who after 12 years waived the white flag on New York City, or the shortest-lived venture of all, Romero, the ill-advised venture of the Catalan chef-neurologist Miguel Sanchez Romero whose restaurant lasted six months five years ago.
A very recent entrant to “If you can’t make it in New York City, man, you can’t make it nowhere” is Le Coucou. Since it opened six months ago in the Howard Hotel just off Canal St, the write-ups (and the box office) have been “boffo” and the amateurs weighing in on-line seem to number 99% favorable. Le Coucou is restaurant star power in more ways than one. The money, the construction, and the management are part of Philadelphian Stephen Starr’s restaurant group, and the cuisine from Chicago-born Daniel Rose (apparently not nicknamed “Broadway”) who learned his craft in Paris and Lyon where he is now a darling of the bistronomie movement with two small Paris restaurants, Spring and La Bourse et la Vie and a third Chez La Vielle, this one also with Starr, on the way.
Eating at Le Coucou is an impressive experience. The design of the room is sober and tasteful with what might be the highest ceilings since the Four Seasons. The servers know their stuff, the timing and precision impeccable and the wine list quite serviceable even if concentrated vintage-wise over the last few years. (But then again, you can’t drink an entire wine list). What impressed me the most was the brigade of about fifteen in the open kitchen, a number rarely seen since big-time restaurants in France in the late 1900s. And I made sure to ask about any sous-vide cooking, of which, a maître d’ assured me, there is none.
At the moment Le Coucou is worth becoming a regular at. It’s a reminder that traditional, classic French food at the bistro level when skillfully prepared is without equal. Meticulous is another way to describe the preparation: Algae butter served with a warm oyster may seem inconsequential, but assuming that perhaps Rose was importing it in blocks such as the churned seaweed from the Breton Jean-Yves Bordier , I asked about having a chunk to put on the delicious bread from Roberta’s in Brooklyn. As it turned out, Rose makes his own with seaweed he gets from the Massachusetts coast and puts into heated butter, which is why I couldn’t have the butter by itself.
While our group of four couldn’t order everything on the ample menu, there was particular satisfaction with the veal terrine with pickled girolles, the endive with Iberico ham, and the sweetbreads with tarragon and crème de tomate, a dish that our maître d’hôtel said was his favorite, rightfully so as it was the best sweetbreads dish I have had in this country. I was anxious to try what is the most-written-about dish of the restaurant, the rabbit in three servings. But instead my wife and I ordered the pheasant for two Alsatian style with foie gras and stuffed cabbage. I liked the dish more than she did. I found it, after the sweetbreads and the veal terrine, easy to eat despite the heavy foie gras component, because of the comforting cabbage. However, the meat was somewhat dry.
Before I visited Le Coucou I looked at the websites of Roses’s two Paris restaurants, Spring and La Bourse et la Vie. Spring was offering a poule faisan or a female pheasant. I asked our maître d’ before ordering whether the pheasant was male or female and where it came from. His answer was male and Dartagnan, a provider whose presence in restaurants seems to have diminished. It raises the question of how satisfied Daniel Rose is with some of his other produce such as lamb, rabbit and fish. For the moment, though, Le Coucou surely has to make any New York gastronome’s short list of regular visits. It remains to be seen, given the reliable adage of mine “Restaurants only get worse” if Le Coucou has a rosy future. Will the partnership endure? Will Rose’s spreading himself increasingly more thin affect the execution? Will we eventually see the “Inevitable Shrinking Menu”, cheaper cuts of meat, farmed fish, kitchen shortcuts, just to name a few of the reasons a restaurant doesn’t hold up in the long-term? But from now on, let’s hope Le Coucou gets even better.