By Lauren Fouda
Once upon a time, people dressed up for dinnersort of like they used to do for trip on Pan Am. Dining out was taken so seriously that even if cell phones had existed, nobody would have been so poorly behaved as to leave them turned on inside a restaurant or, gasp, settled on the table next to their plate.
Into this worldwhere individuals can be spotted wearing jeans to the operathrives Capsouto Freres, a Tribeca institution which seemingly hasnt acknowledged the casual Fridays trend, isolated One Hundred Years of Solitude-style and thus curiously immune to New Yorks growing informalities. Luckily, however, if your own self-presentation is less than stellar, the atmosphere created by the setting and staff will distract from your own ill-matched attire.
At Capsouto Freres, the cool, semi-stiff service is offset by the antics of the eccentric host, one of the three Capsouto brothers (Jacques), who makes his way among the tables telling stories and overseeing a team of waiters as they perform acts of culinary dexterity that would make any wannabe-actor who waits tables nervous.
Cathedral-high ceilings and columns, formal table settings complete with bud vases, and classical music playing softly in the background make the experience a little staid, as if you might be scolded for talking to loudly or putting your elbows on the table. The cavernous, hushed room is more than an oasis for grandparents visiting from out of town, however; its old-fashioned elegance makes it a treat for anyone interested in revisiting New Yorks former glamour.
Brick walls and windows crowded with a jungle of plants and exquisite flower arrangements liven up this classic and bring it down to earth. Even better is the more casual outdoor patio, perfect for a light supper on a warm evening; a breeze off the Hudson will surely offer respite from the citys oppressive summer heat.
The menu, for the most part, functions in the realm of classic French, with a few odd additions such as black truffle-and-parmigiano reggiano-laced asparagus and raw Washington State oysters. The amalgamation makes perfect sense when considering the owners culinary preferences. When asked his favorite dish, Jacques Capsouto insists theyre all his favoritesafter all, he put them on the menu for a reason, right?
The slightly confusing wine list is similarly all-inclusive: American- and French heavy, but featuring a few unlikely additions. The house pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon by the glass are dry and a little complex, matching well with a selection of appetizers. The menu highlights a lobster napoleon, the requisite onion soup, and a special saussiconthe recipe for which, Capsouto recounts, he coaxed from a Beaujolais chef with the bait of his own superb apple tart instructions.
An appetizer of gravlax is house-cured and served with lemon, capers, and toast. Mesclun salad rewards with the creamy richness of Maytag blue cheese dressing and wholesome walnuts. Terrine provencale manages to encompass all the layered flavors of smoky roasted vegetables and goat cheese, all in a slim rectangular slice drizzled with balsamic vinegar. But most importantly, every dish is presented with a flourish.
The same goes for the second courses, such as the classic salade nicoise and sole amandine. We opted for more carnal delights, tempted by the lure of a ginger and cassis-laced duck with peerlessly crisp skin on a bed of wild rice and snow peas. The filet mignon with madeira sauce, mushrooms, and mashed potatoes passed the tenderness test: it truly was cuttable with the side of a fork.
The moment everyone waits for, however, is dessert, a course where France is the worlds undisputed master and tableside service adds theatrical allure. The meaty richness of thick-cut apples, instead of the typical thinly-sliced forgettable variety, made the tart a scene-stealer, and the buttery crust had a welcome touch of salt (which, although not everyone seems to realize, every dessert needs to succeed). No wonder the Beaujolais chef traded in his old recipe for this one.
Capsouto Freres is famous for their soufflés, and throughout the meal I watched in impatient anticipation as soufflé after soufflé emerged from the kitchen, followed by a parade of waiters ready to participate in the spectacle. The choice between chocolate, hazelnut, raspberry, and blood orange was hotly contested, and although chocolate nearly won out, I finally reasoned that hazelnut soufflés are certainly not a run-of-the-mill occurrence.
The promise of soufflé transcendence, of course, was delivered with that ubiquitous panache. As the meal climaxed to Baroque theatricality, a towering creation in all its puffy, ethereal glory appeared before our eyes. The waiter ceremoniously pierced the center of our airy delight and poured inside first hazelnut crème anglaise, then a dollop of whipped cream, and finally another swirl of crème anglaise.
We began to devour it as it slowly deflated into a fluffy, creamy mess, but it was no less tasty despite its demolition: Ive been searching for New Yorks answer to Italys nocciola (hazelnut) gelato, and apparently trying to find it in a dense frozen dessert was a wild goose chase. This soufflés smooth, pure hazelnut flavor, studded with chopped toasted hazelnuts, comes closest to the coveted gelato of anything Ive tried on this side of the Atlantic.
Once again, finally, dinner is a performance worth attending. Dress up. Behave. Enjoy. Youll can find me in the corner, eagerly awaiting my soufflé.