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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 Bar.

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  Cole Porter? 

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: Lespinasse.  

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 chef!”

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 them.”

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.”

St. Regis Hotel - New York, NY 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. St. Regis Hotel - New York, NY

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 comfortable. 

“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 be.” 

St. Regis Hotel
2 East 55 Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues
New York, NY 10022

Phone: 800 759-7550; 212 753-4500

Lespinasse at the St. Regis
French Cuisine
Reservations: 212-339-6719
All credit cards

Photos by Harvey Frommer

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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. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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