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Christmas in July at Café Des Artistes

Think Café des Artistes and it’s Christmas in New York. No other dining room in the city captures the sparkle of the season like this jewel-box of a restaurant in the Hotel des Artistes where George Balanchine used to live and where a few blocks away at Lincoln Center his Nutcracker Suite enchants an ever new generation each holiday season.

But our last visit was in midsummer. The sun had not yet set when we arrived, and the trees along Central Park West, thickly leafed, were still casting long, deepening shadows. Yet the Café glittered in a way that bespoke Christmas even on a mild Monday evening in July.

It had been a while, too long, we thought as we settled into a banquette. Behind us, leaded windows, their sills overflowing with potted azaleas and begonias, looked out onto a West 67th Street that always seemed as much Paris as New York. Before us a profusion of gardenias and passion flowers spilled extravagantly across a rectangular table. And all around were the murals, Howard Chandler Christy’s nubile nudes frolicking in lush gardened settings. One of the many artists who have lived in the Hotel des Artistes, Christy was the first to buy an apartment when both the building and restaurant opened in 1917. He was born in Ohio and painted the murals in the 1930’s and 40’s. Yet they evoke the Art Nouveau/Bohemian/Central European ambience that has defined the Café for nearly seventy years.

This evening, the dining room was filled with a sophisticated, well dressed, and multi-generational crowd. The staff was multi-generational as well. The familiar face belonged to Hiran Pagan, a native of Puerto Rico who has been on the job since 1954. A distinctive presence, warm and at the same time distinguished, we remembered him from a previous visit. Small wonder people call for reservations and request Hiran’s tables. He has no plans to retire, he told us, ever.  And then there was the youthful headwaiter whose first encounter with the Café was on a hotel school trip. “When I began working here, I felt like a new baseball player coming into Yankee Stadium,” he said.

The ebullience, enthusiasm, and desire to please, infectious among the staff, are a reflection of the attitude of George Lang, the Café’s charismatic proprietor since 1975. When he was originally asked by the Hotel des Artistes board to take over what had become a deteriorating property during that bleak period in New York City, the restaurant developer who lived down the block declined. But soon after, a rainy night and a lack of taxis on West 67th changed his mind. “If there was a successful restaurant on this block, we’d never have trouble getting a taxi,’” he told his wife Jenifer.

And with that, George Lang, the one-time Hungarian refugee and Holocaust survivor, committed to the renovation and operation of Café des Artistes. Known as the Gastronomic Impresario for having opened 200 restaurants in as many as eighteen countries, George stopped before our table just as one of us was helplessly succumbing to a second helping of the  irresistible rustic bread served at the Café, the sole product of a tiny bakery in Long Island City. We asked him to sit down, but he demurred. “I learned long ago in the restaurant business you never sit down with a guest. Why? The people at the next tables will say ‘Why isn’t he sitting with me?’ Also anything can happen in the dining room and you won’t notice it because you are too busy enjoying yourself.”

George and Jenifer Long

But George did tell us his vision for the legendary property he decided to take on. “The trick was to build a new house but leave the old house there. I did a lot of  research to discover what was there, what cannot be changed, what should be changed, and to what purpose. I learned the restaurant was originally a home for artists, writers, and politicians who lived in the building and on the block. They came here and felt like they were still at home. That is what I have tried to recreate.

“Still I have to make sure tradition does not become a jailer. If every time you think you cannot do this, you cannot do that, you can only do what has been done, it will not work. We want to keep the atmosphere of 1917 with the technical advances of today.”

So they have. Café des Artistes remains a popular neighborhood place, but it is also a destination restaurant with an international and frequently illustrious clientele. It has, according to George, one of the highest percentages of regulars among restaurants anywhere in the world.

Our midsummer visit reinforced past pleasures. The Café’s comfortable atmosphere suggests a familiar and well-loved bistro in Paris, or maybe Vienna, or maybe even Budapest where George comes from –albeit in surroundings of greater luxury and with a cuisine of greater complexity under the direction of Finnish-born chef Ari Nieminen.

Ari changes his menu frequently to take advantage of seasonal products and tries out new concepts regularly at tasting sessions with George, Jenifer, and the staff. Still he seems to remain true to what George calls the Café’s essential cuisine bourgeoise with signature dishes like  pot au feu and schnitzel of weiner or sturgeon.

But we were inclined to more summery selections: icy blue point oysters (order half a dozen, and seven arrive shimmering on a jumble of ice), pure-green asparagus in a light vinaigrette (in the springtime, it’s possible to dine on an entire menu devoted to asparagus), and height-of-the-season soft shell crabs with braised, garlicky mustard greens and arugula and trumpet mushrooms in a warm tomato vinaigrette. And then there was the Dover sole, classically grilled, moist and tender, served with fondant potato that melted into the juices.

Café des Artistes has a substantial but manageable wine list. It’s possible to order quite good wines that are not very expensive, half as well as full bottles. We had a clean, crisp California chardonnay that was perfect for July, Chalk Hill (Somona County, Pomona) 1999.

There is a nice selection of dessert wines as well – including ice wine from New Zealand, ports and Madeiras by the glass, and a slew of refreshing desserts made with ice creams, sorbets, and a range of summer fruits. But through all the seasons the Ilona Torte is a staple. This flourless walnut espresso chocolate cake is based on the one George’s mother used to make.

Recently we were talking to some friends about how so many restaurants come and go. Short lives seem to be the rule. By comparison, Café des Artistes’ longevity is exceptional, even if one limits it to the nearly three decades of George Lang’s domain.

He had said to us, “My dream is for the original owner of Café des Artistes, the man who opened the restaurant in 1917, to awaken like Rip Van Winkle, come into the Café for dinner, and then say to me ‘George, you did a pretty good job.’”

No doubt about it; he would.

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Café des Artistes
One West 67th Street
New York, NY

Phone: 212 877-3500

Photographs: Fern Berman Communications

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Travel Bytes

Having celebrated its eighteenth birthday this year, Montrachet is yet another among the select New York City restaurants that can claim longevity.  Not only does it survive and thrive, this, our favorite downtown eatery successfully continues its original mission: truly fine French cuisine in an unpretentious, welcoming environment, at reasonable prices.

Effervescent as a glass of champagne, Montrachet’s sommelier Bernie Sun communicates to diners his passion for wine. This summer, he innovated “What’s My Wine?” You select a price range and color; Bernie selects a wine to match your meal. It’s a win-win situation. Just for playing, you get 10% off the price of the bottle. There are six questions ranging from hard to hardest; country, region, appellation, major varietal (grape), vintage, and producer. One correct answer saves you 15%. Get all six right and the bottle’s on Montrachet. Corresponding savings occur along the way. The table beside us got five out of six and 50% off.

We bring all wine-related queries to Bernie. Our local merchant had introduced us to South African wines. What was Bernie’s opinion? The young ones, especially Sauvignon Blancs from the coastal region, are quite good, he said. He opened a 2002 Thabani. It was cold, clear and crisp, not at all sweet, and quite wonderful.

239 West Broadway
New York, NY  10013

Phone: 212-219-2777

The Myriad Restaurant Group
375 Greenwich Street
New York, NY  10013

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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

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

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