Some Things New York City Entry #96 Le Veau d'Or
Any restaurant that has survived in the tumultuous New York restaurant scene for seventy years must have learned a thing or two. And so we come to Le Veau d'Or, a French bistro, opened in 1937, a stone's throw from Bloomingdale (although perhaps Bloomie's was the new kid on the block).
Le Veau d'Or was my parents' favorite restaurant. They dined monthly, and during my adolescence brought me several times a year. It was touching and deeply symbolic of Le Veau d'Or that I could greet several of the same staff after forty years. Robert, the old school maitre d', has lost some hair and some spring in his step, but he might say the same of me. In a real sense it was at Robert's knee that I came to appreciate French cuisine.
Again and again as we reminisced I was counseled, "the place hasn't changed a bit." How true. New York diners judge their eateries by the restrooms, and these tiny closets have not been spruced up since before I last dined. The banquettes are still red leather from bistro central, and the objets d'art on the wall are those etchings that men of a certain age once invited lithesome inamorata to their quarters to inspect. The menu with its classics - Coq au Vin, Vichyssoise, Frog's Legs, Escargot, Baked Meringue - harbors plates that were classic in the interwar years. For certain diners, like my parents, Le Veau d'Or was a welcoming community, classic but never challenging. What might they say of WD-50 and its psychotic antics? Judging by our fellow diners this remains true. Le Veau d'Or has suffered the affront of no longer being rated in Zagat's (the Le Pain Quotidien chain makes the list, as does Starbucks). Yet the restaurant is well-attended on a weeknight by older couples who look for an place where everyone knows their name and which is affordable on a budget (with tax, tip, and wine the three course meal was $60). This means, of course, that Le Veau d'Or has chosen to be straight-jacketed by its market niche.
But how is the food? Slathered in nostalgia. My companions and I ordered classic bistro food, and were we to measure by strict critical standards, this Golden Calf is not fatted. While never offensive, one could taste the rust of time. My Soupe à l'oignon Gratinee does not rely on a rich beef stock, simmering for three days. It tasted warm and wan. The cheese and bread did evoke French farmhouse preparations. The soup was not so different than what one might expect at an rather adequate ocean liner banquet. The pate was dense but not distinguished.
As a main course I selected one of the specials (yes, they have specials, although traditional ones), Sweetbreads with Cream and Mushrooms. The dish was soothing, if a bit mushy, and the mushrooms had surely nestled inside a can; the potatoes au gratin were slightly overcooked, but nicely creamy. The Canard Rôti aux Cerises was a rather tough old bird, napped with a cherry sauce that was sweet without much complexity. (Probably a dish I once ordered on the theory that each course should be dessert). Steamed mussels were not as plump as the sea contains.
Desserts continued the string. My Peche Melba, as classic as bistro cuisine can be, was sweet, but marred by canned peaches and middling vanilla ice cream. Oeufs a la Neige (Floating Islands) was sweet enough, but lacked a divinely light consistency. Best was a intense chocolate mousse that seemed as if it might have been just scraped from egg beaters.
Le Veau d'Or's modestly priced wine list does not list vineyards. One chooses varietals, and hopes for the best. We ordered a buttery Meursault that turned out to be a Clos du Cromin 2003 for $60. The restaurant offered a 1994 Chateau Beychevelle for $110.
As a critic, I must present the restaurant as it might appear to others, but I must confess that despite my complaints, I was gladdened that Le Veau d'Or still serves and has a clientele. The service was occasional, the food passable, and the ambience shadowy, but this was my culinary home. In 1965 Le Veau d'Or was much as it is now, never glittering or accomplished, not Le Grenouille. Perhaps in 1937 it was the same. Some things never change. Yet, dining in the dusky room brought a happiness - a suffused glow - that recognizes that sons can't live on soupe à l'oignon alone.
Le Veau d'Or
129 East 60th Street (at Lexington Avenue)