The Timeless St.
Regis and the Splendorous Lespinasse
It’s a freezing night in New York. Not a taxi to
be found. We’re rushing east along 55th Street, head bowed
against the wind, cross Fifth Avenue and stop to catch our breath.
Suddenly we feel the warmth of a hotel’s heated marquee overhead. We
look up -- a red carpeted stairway. Beyond, lights beckon from within. Ah,
the St. Regis. Surely there’s time for one small drink at the King Cole
Who can resist the lure of Manhattan’s most
romantic hotel? Nearly a
century old and as enticing at the dawn of the second millennium as it
undoubtedly was in the Gilded Age when John Jacob Astor first opened its
doors onto a Fifth Avenue of private residences, clubs, and churches.
We enter the creamy marble and gold interior. The
great Waterford chandelier is aglitter, the lobby is filled with casual
evening glamour. Someone at the piano is playing “As Time Goes By,”
and the past comes back with a rush: the Maisonette supper club
downstairs. At one time they
called it La Masionette Russe as it was modeled after a Parisian
restaurant designed by a Russian prince. Mabel Mercer sang there for
years. By the time we saw her, she was no longer young and performed
seated in an arm chair with a scarf across her shoulders. But who could
ever forget Mabel Mercer singing the songs of
Eddy Duchin and his orchestra played at the St.
Regis in the 30’s and 40’s. When
his son Peter took over in 1962, the old timers swore he looked just like
his father. Fifteen years later, Peter Duchin inaugurated the King Cole
room which became the society spot in New York for dinner and dancing.
It’s all changed. The Maisonette is now a private
meeting room. The King Cole
room is now a grand French restaurant.
The St. Regis Bar is now the King Cole Bar and Lounge, a wood and
leather, clubby kind of place, filled with people who’ve stopped in for
a late night drink, even a good cigar. But there’s the “Old King
Cole” mural hanging behind the bar, Maxfield Parrish’s vision of
“the merry old soul” enthroned center front, his medieval courtiers
spread out 28 feet across the wall in an Arcadian wonderland. It’s still
the St. Regis after all.
Coming in from the cold has whetted our appetites.
And so a few nights later we’re back, this time for something we’ve
wanted to do for a long time, have dinner at that grand French restaurant:
In 1988, the St. Regis closed for extensive
restorations. When it
reopened three years later, Lespinasse was in place. Named for a woman who
ran a famous salon during the era of Louis XV, it’s a regally expansive
room whose architectural details visible to the lobby behind soaring paned
French doors belie its recency. The
style is classic French in inviting shades of vanilla and gold. In the
center, a great chandelier hangs over a fabulous floral arrangement. Yet
despite the grandeur, the room is comfortable and inviting.
We were having a cocktail in the Astor Court when a
very young man in a smart tuxedo stopped at our table and introduced
himself as the restaurant manager, Jean Philippe Le Loup, known to all as
J.P. “Your table is ready whenever you’re ready, and it’s yours for
the entire evening,” he tells us.
We will learn more about J.P. as the evening moves
along for we ask him to select the dishes for our tasting menu dinner. He
proves an informed, instructive, and ebullient host describing each choice
with unfettered enthusiasm. But his greatest praise is reserved for
Christian Delouvrier. “His cooking is imbued with the flavors from the
southwest of France where he comes from, but he is also influenced by
American cuisine,” J.P. says. “He is a great, great, great
In this age of celebrity chefs, Delouvrier is an
anomaly. Born and raised in Toulouse, he came to the United States in 1971
and worked in a series of superior New York restaurants, most recently the
three star Les Celebrites at the Essex House which he created.
Arriving at Lespinasse in 1998, he has maintained the
restaurant’s four star New York Times rating. Yet despite such
stellar achievements, Delouvrier remains a behind-the-scenes man.
“He’s not show business,” J.P. says. “He’s very low key.”
His cooking, however, is anything but. The
Lespinasse menu is marked by inventiveness, unusual combinations, a
multitude of fresh ingredients of the best quality, and the novelty of an
occasional Asian accent. “I want you to taste some of the very
traditional dishes he does so well and also some things that are
different,” J.P. tells us, and so we begin with a sublime potato soufflé
with crème fraiche and Osetra caviar from Iran set on a bed of coarse
salt. Osetra is the caviar of choice at Lespinasse, J.P. tells us, as its
quality has been found to be more consistent.
Pumpkin ravioli comes next, a predictable American
autumnal choice, but served with an unexpected sweet ginger sauce. “One
of my favorites,” says J.P. There follows another unexpected combination: seared tuna and
foie gras with a red onion marmalade spiked with horseradish and cracked
black pepper, a simple yet elegant preparation.
As he presents the steamed St. Pierre in champagne
sauce with Osetra caviar, J.P. indulges in a little reminiscence. “As a
kid, I would practice sports every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday,” he
tells us, “and when I came home I would have the same fish dish you are
having now made exactly the same way, except without caviar. It’s
very traditionally French.”
As a fricassee of wild mushrooms, grits and grated
white truffles is placed before us, the lovely sommelier Danielle Nally
pours a 1999 St. Andre de Fishiere Rose from Provence. “With this
course, I choose a Rose,” says Danielle. “It’s served by the glass
and is really very difficult to get. The price of Roses has been
skyrocketing because everyone seems to have found the beautiful secret of
If it seems unusual for a young woman to be a
sommelier, Danielle assures us such a perception will soon be nearing the
end of its run “When I took my certification course, half of the sixty
students were women. Twenty five dropped out. But every year, the number
of women who stay on increases.”
||We ask the only woman in the St. Regis dining room
how she got into this traditionally male-dominated field.
“I’m an old fashioned American girl interested in wine,” she
tells us. “Some women buy clothes; I buy wine.”
|Although firmly grounded in her knowledge of French
wines, Danielle also has an appreciation of the wines of Spain and serves
a rich, deep 1996 Fillaboa, Albarino from Galicia to go with the next
course: scallops with grilled baby calamari and bean sprouts with squid
ink for one of us, and a trio of lamb with a puree of cocoa beans, veal
with braised leeks, and duck with pureed quince for the other -- each a
delectable and novel combination.
We conclude this memorable banquet with a selection
of cheeses accompanied by a 1999 New York State Riesling and desserts of
chocolate cake, apple tart tatin, and chosen from a multitude of flavors,
apple and pineapple sherbet.
After dinner, we stop in the King Cole Bar once
again, this time meet up with Sharon Telesca, the strikingly attractive
director of sales and marketing for the hotel, who combines a spirited
verve with steely professionalism. Although it does not seem possible,
Sharon tells us she has been in the luxury hotel business for eighteen
years, the last seven of which have been here at the St. Regis.
“In the late 1980’s and into the early
90’s,” she says, “New York was not thought of as a hotel
capital in the way cities like Paris, London, or Hong Kong were. But when
the St. Regis reopened in 1991 after extensive restoration, the
competitors in town stood up and took notice. Today New York City has
become a hotel capital, equal to any in the world.
It was the St. Regis who raised the bar.”
It was Sharon who made the leap positioning J.P. in
the restaurant manager’s slot. “J.P. was 24 years old when he started
here two years ago,” she told us. “When he said he wanted the front of
the house manager’s job,” I said “‘Who do you think you are?’”
I thought he was too young and too French. I thought people
wouldn’t expect someone so young at the door. But a year later when the
then manager died, I decided to take a chance with him. And it worked.
Young as J.P. is, he has this very old soul. He is so gracious and
“In the same way, hiring Danielle was a little
radical for such a traditional room.
But she’s so knowledgeable and has proven herself as well.”
Lespinasse is a traditional room, as Sharon
says, and the St. Regis is a traditional hotel.
Sharon comments on how strongly the hotel figures in the lives of
people she meets who return again and again to commemorate a prom, a
debut, a special event celebrated here long ago. The past seems to
resonate throughout this lovely old Beaux Arts building where people have
rendezvoused, dined, and danced for decades. You can almost hear echoes of
music played here in the Jazz Age and the Big Band era, by the society
orchestras of the post war years. And
yet the St. Regis is clearly a hotel of the 21st century guided
by a new generation of talented individuals like Sharon who comes from Old
Forge, Pennsylvania, Danielle who comes from Seattle, Washington, and J.P.
who comes all the way from Verdun in northeast France. They are part of
the continuing parade of the young, bright, and ambitious drawn from
everywhere to the greatest city in the world.
“I’m working long hours, but I’m having
a great time,” says J.P. “Everything is here. It’s where I want to
2 East 55 Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues
New York, NY 10022
800 759-7550; 212 753-4500
at the St. Regis
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Photos by Harvey Frommer
About the Authors: Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband
team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional
scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories
It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in
America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in
Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.
They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining
as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United
States, Europe, and the Caribbean.
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This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer. All rights