November 11, 2015
It’s late at night, and I’ve just uncovered a box of old menus I didn’t even know I had. I thought I’d thrown them all away in the move from Los Angeles to New York in 1993, but I seem to have sent one big box, neatly sorted into alphabetized folders. All I’ve got is the end of the alphabet; how I regret having jettisoned the rest! What did I send instead? Rickety furniture? Old clothes? How could I not have known that one day I’d treasure these old menus?
The one above had a note tucked inside, from an L.A. Times reader, who sent it as a gift. There’s so much to parse here, including that “Russian Caviar, Ambassador Importation” for $2.25, the Denver sandwich (an omelet of ham, onions and green peppers between two slices of bread), and the once ubiquitous Biscuit Tortoni.
Trolling through the Rs I come to Rex Il Ristorante – certainly the most elegant restaurant of the eighties – and sigh over carne crudo with black truffles – $8.50. The food was extraordinarily innovative for its time, and the decor lovingly evoked another, earlier time. In its first incarnation Rex had been a fancy Los Angeles gentleman’s boutique, with an elevator designed by Lalique. (The learning-to-eat scene in Pretty Woman was filmed at the restaurant.)
Moving on I came to these menus from Rose et LeFavour in St. Helena, which may have been my favorite restaurant of the time. It was tiny quirky and utterly charming, with a constantly changing menu. Here’s one from January 1982
You probably can’t read my scribbled notes, but they say that the scallops were served on red chard with a raspberry vinegar sauce and a julienne of snow peas. The rabbit, I thought was fabulous, the cheese tray offered a chevre, Morbier and unspecified blue, and the dessert cart contained a persimmon tart, candied fruit and chocolate souffles. And we apparently drank a ’69 Meursault and a ’66 Cos d’Estournel.
Three months later I went back. Here’s that menu.
Alain Chapel’s pigeon jelly would come to be widely copies (not least by Heston Blumenthal), but this was the first time I’d encountered it outside of Chapel’s own kitchen. I first met Chapel in the seventies, when he came to California to cook a dinner for the Great Chefs of France series at the Mondavi winery. I was a young journalist covering the event (Edna Lewis cooked lunch, Chapel dinner), but when I turned out to be the only one who spoke passable French I ended up in the kitchen, translating for the chef. What I remember best is that we ended up hunting all over the Napa Valley for the cox combs he required – and Chapel swooning over “les foies blondes de la California.”
Bruce Le Favour’s interpretation of Chapel’s jelly was a loose translation, involving raw yellowtail and pigeon breast, a sauce of creme fraiche and orange juice, shards of daikon, leaves of arugula and bits of chervil. The salmon on the millefeuille, I noted, was slightly overcooked, but that the sorrel sauce I scribbled was “like a beure blanc made with egg yolks.” Whatever that means. The quail breasts had a texture reminiscent of poached eggs, and were served with lemon-poached slices of apple.
The lamb (brave to include the kidneys), was served with chard with red peppers and beautiful asparagus, the cheeses were chevre, Pont L’Eveque and a brebis, and the dessert cart included a strawberry tart, an unsweetened chocolate cake, and a macademia tart. But there was more to come: stuffed dates, cookies, fruit jellies and chocolate truffles.
Quite a meal for forty bucks!
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