La Crémaillère Is Home to the Finest French Country Cooking on the East Coast

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If you’re not sure what to look for, you might miss it: a white
clapboard house with green shutters that seems to be the administrative
office of a New England boarding school. The sign on the front door
reads, FOR GENTLEMEN: PROPER ATTIRE NO SHORTS/SANDALS. PLEASE. Oh dear,
perhaps it’s the headmaster’s office. Are we in trouble?

Au contraire, mes petits choux.

Step through that door to La Crémaillère and sink into the pink—the
flowers, the tablecloths, the chintz, and the candlelight—in the
French country restaurant of a few Frenchmen’s dreams that began here in
Bedford, New York, nearly 70 years ago and is still going strong. It is
the legacy of the duo who, in 1960, opened the celebrated New York City
restaurant La Caravelle, where Jacqueline Kennedy learned of René Verdon
and later made him the first executive chef at the White House.

Past the pink, the walls here are covered with murals of countrymen in
their regional costumes—Burgundy, Normandy—and the slate floors
gleam. Although the main part of this landmarked farmhouse dates to
1750, you would swear you have landed in Aix.

Then again, you are gazing at the work of masters. When Antoine Gilly, a
Burgundian, opened La Crémaillère, in 1949, it was during the heady
postwar years when high-toned French restaurants became the gold
standard of dining out in New York City. It was a fascination that began
at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, where the restaurant at the French
Pavilion proved so popular that, in 1941, its maître d’hôtel, Henri
Soulé, opened his own Manhattan venue, Le Pavillon, with Pierre Franey
as its chef poissonnier and, eventually, executive chef. It became the
finest French restaurant in America as well as a training ground for
scores of employees who went on to open places of their own.

One of them, Robert Louis Meyzen, started at Le Pavillon as a waiter,
then rose to maître d’. When Soulé expanded with the estimable La Côte
Basque—the ladies-who-lunch spot immortalized by Truman
Capote—Meyzen was its manager before opening La Caravelle with his
partner, Fred Decré. They took on Le Crémaillère in 1962, seeing it as a
genteel country cousin to the haute cuisine of its sophisticated city
counterpart.

These days the man who greets you at the door is Meyzen’s son, Robert
Olivier Meyzen, who has worked here since 1975. The restaurant is
located about 40 miles north of Manhattan, a stone’s throw from
Greenwich, Connecticut. This leafy, rural, if manicured, area has always
been wealthy, and in recent years the wealthy, as is their wont, have
grown wealthier. Jean-Georges Vongerichten opened the Inn at Pound Ridge
nearby, and Richard Gere is an owner at the Bedford Post Inn. But the
biggest competition among the restaurants here is with the private chefs
who are hired to keep their captain-of-industry bosses in fighting trim.
Grilled cauliflower for everyone!

More’s the pity, in Meyzen’s opinion. La Crémaillère is devoted to the
staples of French country cooking; he has refined them by reducing his
homemade stocks to intensify their flavor while lessening the butter and
cream. The quenelles, pike dumplings served in a champagne lobster
velouté, sound as heavy as Marie Antoinette’s crown but have a clean,
clear flavor that soars.

Meyzen sighed. “They’ll say, ‘Robert, can you put the sauce on the
side?’ ” He shook his head. “Actually, it’s a quenelle, so, no, I
can’t. I’m rooted in the classics. The dishes themselves are light, but
at the same time the dish is a statement. I listen to them decompose the
menu and think: Why do you come here? We can’t be everything to
everybody. This is who we are.”

TO HEAR CUSTOMERS WAS SURPRISING, SOMEHOW, IN THIS LIFE-SIZE
DOLLHOUSE.

Plenty of people know better, of course, seven decades’ worth. Among
Meyzen’s customers are Governor Andrew Cuomo, Tommy Hilfiger, Glenn
Close, Tom Brokaw, Regis Philbin, Paul Shaffer, and Billy Joel. Also
Mick Jagger. Several times. And all of them dressed appropriately.

Which is where that sign on the door comes in, geared toward the
money-come-lately. “They show up in their Lamborghinis or
Maseratis—in their shorts—and all I can think is: Have a little
respect,” Meyzen recounted. “I said this to one man and he was
outraged. ‘These are Polo shorts!’ he shouted.” All the same, he was
not seated.

The elder Meyzen would have approved, certainly. In 1967, after he and
Decré had a success with the swank La Caravelle, on West 55th Street,
they opened the theatrical Le Poulailler 10 blocks north, across from
Lincoln Center. “My father was gregarious, a showman,” Meyzen said.
“He danced with Ginger Rogers; he sang with Pavarotti. I think he
bought this place because he wanted to grow his restaurant world.” (He
died in 1995.)

The younger Meyzen was born in New York City, where he attended the
Lycée Français; at 13, he was sent to school in Switzerland. He worked
in La Caravelle’s kitchen during every vacation—though when he was 17,
in 1969, he did take a weekend off to go to Woodstock. He joined the
staff here full-time 42 years ago. “I was peeling, shucking, making
stocks,” he said. “My father never showed me any favoritism. When I
bought this place I paid the asking price.”

His commitment to the restaurant runs deep: he shops for food with the
chef, Albert Astudillo, at least twice a week, orders the wine, and most
days spends 16 hours here. “It’s a pretty good life,” he said
modestly, “like a farmer or”—his smile was wry—“owning a cabaret
where you’re the entertainment. This is my home.” Neither his son nor
daughter has expressed much interest in it, but Meyzen is game to stay.
“As long as my knees hold out,” he said. As he spoke, the scent of
tarragon floated from the kitchen, the outside light faded in the
windows, and the 25-watt lightbulbs cast their gentle glow. To hear
customers at the door was surprising, somehow. This life-size dollhouse
seemed perfect without them.

“How are you, sir? Are you out on parole?” A dapper man who fancied
himself the soul of wit shook hands with Meyzen, who had risen to greet
him. Meyzen walked his customer into the dining room, fielding each
attempted joke with a generous laugh. A quietly elegant crowd soon
assembled, some older, some younger, all murmuring over their wine,
seeming to tell secrets, one group digging spiritedly into a
silver-footed plateau of golden French fries.

Dinner was a dream. My table of four made short work of the escargots
with angel-hair pasta, then tucked into the quenelles before savoring
the deeply flavored rack of lamb, a perfect roast chicken with hand-cut
egg noodles, morel tarragon sauce, and baby peas, and a sautéed veal
chop with potatoes Anna—buttered layer upon paper-thin layer. I
especially loved the seafood vol-au-vent, an old warhorse of a dish
ruined decades ago by Stouffer’s; this puff pastry was fresh and
fragile, the scallops, shrimp, crawfish, and crawfish fumé, delicate and
nuanced. Dinner conversation was reduced to the repetition of “This is
ridiculously good.”

O.K., the cheese course was too cold—American health departments need
to chase down tuberculosis somewhere and let this stricture go,
really—but the molten chocolate cake and homemade ice creams were
sublime.

We glided into the night, seemingly without feet. It was just as Meyzen
had said earlier, about all that pink: “It’s soft here. Come relax in
the country.”

Full ScreenPhotos:In Photos: La Crémaillère, Home of the Finest French Cuisine in New York
Country Classic

Country Classic

A banquet table.

Photo: Photograph by Jonathan Becker.

Table pour deux, with a bottle of 1983 Château Petrus.

Table pour deux, with a bottle of 1983 Château Petrus.

Photo: Photograph by Jonathan Becker.

The wine cellar.

The wine cellar.

Photo: Photograph by Jonathan Becker.

Year-round, the main dining room of La Crémaillère is a pageant of pink.

CRÈME DE LA CRÈME

Year-round, the main dining room is a pageant of pink.

Photo: Photograph by Jonathan Becker.

MAGNUM OPUS

MAGNUM OPUS

Proprietor Robert Olivier Meyzen, 65 (with a double magnum of 1975 Château Lafite Rothschild), at your service since that year.

Photo: Photograph by Jonathan Becker.

Country Classic

Country Classic

A banquet table.

Photograph by Jonathan Becker.

Table pour deux, with a bottle of 1983 Château Petrus.

Photograph by Jonathan Becker.

The wine cellar.

Photograph by Jonathan Becker.

CRÈME DE LA CRÈME

CRÈME DE LA CRÈME

Year-round, the main dining room is a pageant of pink.

Photograph by Jonathan Becker.

MAGNUM OPUS

MAGNUM OPUS

Proprietor Robert Olivier Meyzen, 65 (with a double magnum of 1975 Château Lafite Rothschild), at your service since that year.

Photograph by Jonathan Becker.



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