Can a restaurant that closed a dozen years ago be important when it pops up for two nights in New York City? YES.
It's a question I get asked nonstop: What's your favorite restaurant? Depending on the day, my mood and a couple other X factors, I have a half dozen names that anyone who follows me on Instagram probably knows.
But if the question is, what's your most important restaurant? I have only one response: La Caravelle. The classic French dining room—with dreamy Parisian murals on the walls and a little lamp on every cloth-covered table—lived on 55th Street in Manhattan from 1960 until 2004, when it closed its doors. It was a fairy-tale world for me when I was growing up downtown, the only fancy restaurant my family went to. (It's the antithesis of the way I eat now: Keep moving. As opposed to, going anywhere else—Lutèce, La Côte Basque—when you're in perfect happiness where you are. ) We had a "connection" there: My father and La Caravelle's chef, Roger Fessaguet, had worked at the same summer camp at the same time; Roger got fired from his job as assistant chef for using too much butter.
This week, I got to time travel back to La Caravelle when it popped up for two nights at Chefs Club by Food & Wine. (Full disclosure – I helped brainstorm the idea with La Caravelle's owners Rita and André Jammet, and Chefs Club's Dana Cowin, my former boss.) Chefs Club is a warehouse-styled space dominated by an open kitchen and a mammoth, glass-encased chunk of salt that hangs from the towering ceiling and has a street value of $100k. It's the absolute antithesis of what the softly lit La Caravelle was. And yet, when I walked into Chefs Club, there was the immaculately dressed André Jammet to greet me and escort me to my table; flashback. It's been a long, long time since I went to a restaurant and all the men were in suits, but there they were at Chefs Club. A lot of them had been La Caravelle regulars who texted Rita to ask about what to wear; her reply was "Dress up."
When the menu was handed over, I had another flashback: The classic La Caravelle script logo was imprinted on the top with a border of colorful little brushstrokes. So many of the restaurant's standards were there: Chair de Crabe Caravelle with fines herbes dressing; Bilibi de Moules Safrane, the creamy mussel soup; the high-rising Soufflé au Grand Marnier. And the most famed entrees: Poularde Maison Blanche, or chicken in Champagne cream sauce, a favorite of the Kennedys, who were La Caravelle regulars; and Quenelles de Brochet, pike dumplings with lobster cream sauce (so much cream!). Those dumplings were the breakout hit of the pop-up. ("Magnificent," said Jean-Georges Vongerichten, one of the many chefs who came for the La Caravelle revival. "Lighter than air," he continued, spreading out his arms as if the quenelles were floating around him.
The dish I always ordered at La Caravelle—roasted duck, presented on a platter and carved tableside, then served with an impeccable golden potato gratin in a copper dish—was not on the pop-up menu. So it was an unexpected bite that carried me back: The amuse bouche of smoked salmon, layered with whipped crème fraîche and paper thin mango slices, served very cold. I don't remember it at all from my meals at La Caravelle, but it was salty, sweet, creamy and transportive. "It's your Proust madeleine moment," said a friend, and it was precisely à la rechche de temps perdus. I came back the next night as well.