Quenelles de brochet are not uncommon in Lyon. But in Manhattan they're a dish of longing, of memory. They evoke a pre-tweezer past when Midtown was the hip part of town and adding cream made something fancy instead of fattening. The quenelle de brochet is endangered not because gilded-age institutions spin them out of rare fish but because the dish has slipped into stateside obscurity — along with the chefs who championed them in a pre-social media age.The quenelle is what makes restaurateur Stephen Starr's Le Coucou, in the 11 Howard Hotel in Soho, an unmistakable outlier. It is the rare restaurant less than forty years old to offer this laborious dish.
The kitchen extricates infinite pin bones from the pike, purees the fish with cream and eggs, forms the mixture into oblong quenelles, simmers them in salt water (where they expand), drenches them in sauce Americaine (essentially lobster bisque), and bronzes them under the broiler. Cooks place a single fist-sized quenelle in a gold-rimmed bowl and ladle it with more of the frothy, concentrated shellfish sauce. The quenelle, at Le Coucou, is a maritime marshmallow in a crustacean latte. It's a throwback dish that's somehow as avant garde as an edible green taffy helium balloon; Le Coucou, after all, has transformed a firm-fleshed fish into an edible cloud, a dish so light it's as if you're eating something that isn't there. You simply look at it, Instagram it, and minutes later, it's just a daydream.
Welcome to one of the city's best new French restaurants, an accolade Le Coucou merits by taking its cues from the traditions of older French restaurants.
If you've heard of Le Coucou, which you probably have since it was previewed, photographed, and explicated by all the blogs, all the major food publications, and heck, even by W Magazine, you know it's the celebrated New York arrival of chef Daniel Rose. The Illinois-born Rose schooled at the Institut Paul Bocuse before rising to fame in Paris at Spring, where he charges €84 EUR for a multi-course menu of modern French fare (veal "candy" sweetened with beets was apparently a course back in 2011).
Le Coucou, set in a room that smells sweet of slow-cooked carrots and heady organ meats, is not Spring, nor is it Rose's more bistro-esque La Bourse et la Vie, also in Paris. It takes a few more cues from a heady continental past than it does from a pared-down stateside present. There is no veal candy, only veal tongue. There are no ultra dry-aged ribeyes, only bone marrow-sauced filet mignon with pommes boulangere.
Le Coucou takes a few more cues from a heady continental past than it does from a pared-down stateside present.
There are no rules against seating incomplete parties (praise the Lord). There is no dining at the bar, and to drive that point home, there are no stools at said bar. It's there for sipping non-alcoholic peach shrub cocktails and stretching your legs before a three-hour bacchanalia that can run $150 per person (those who order more prudently can slip out in under two hours).
You'll tolerate that price, and the tasting menu duration of this a la carte meal because against most prevailing norms, the brick-walled, chateau-chic Le Coucou is cavernous and comfortable. That statement will be all the more true four years from now when chefs have us all eating with our hands behind our backs in pre-paid increments of thirty minutes at ticketed communal feeding troughs with kale quinoa IV drips.
So if it's a surprise that Rose is raking in the crowds with — and I mean this as a compliment — an epic pile of pike panade, the bigger shock is that Le Coucou actually exists. Sure, La Grenouille is still alive and thriving, slinging its own majestic quenelles de brochet in Champagne cream, but most of the old-school school fancy French stalwarts (La Caravelle, Lutece, and La Cote Basque) closed in the early aughts, as did their ideological successors, from Gordon Ramsay to Adour Alain Ducasse to Villard Michel Richard.
Indeed, the Gallic scene in New York is stronger than it's ever been. The nouveau Parisian wine bar lives in full glory at creative small plates places like Wildair. The bistro is reinventing and refining itself at expensive spots like Coq Rico and Mimi. But since the Great Recession wreaked havoc on the American economy, prompting a younger generation of chefs to pursue a leaner, cheaper approach to gourmet food, the cronuts seem stacked against culinarians iterating on The Grand Fancy French spot.
Le Coucou isn't concerned with those odds. It's thriving right now not in Midtown but downtown, with a 39-year-old chef showing up to the cool kids' corner and iterating on his grandfather's prom suit. There's your disruption right there.
One minute Rose goes all 1960s light, bright nouvelle cuisine. He finds two of nature's most fragrant fruits, one sweet (strawberries), one savory (tomatoes) and doubles down on the perfume by matching them with a gazpacho of the same ingredients. The next minute he's all cuisine classique, scooping up sweetbreads the texture of pudding and serving them tableside in such a generous wash of tarragon cream sauce that it would constitute a serving of chowder in lesser restaurants.
Then comes a hat tip to slightly more recent times. Rose grills lobster tail to the firmness of prime rib, scents the shellfish with its own oil, and matches it with cool Bibb lettuce, basil, candied lemon, and a hot grilled tomato. The presentation is very 1980s steakhouse, stark and with the sauce on the side. And in this case it's a traditional sauce Lauris, a mix of paprika and mayonnaise made famous by the extant Guy Savoy.
The fact that Rose makes all these incongruities work in a single meal highlights his peripatetic, kaleidoscopic view of the past, and it's all nearly flawless. Nearly. So let's talk about a certain a pre-El Bulli spherification: oeuf norvégien, a soft-boiled egg wrapped in chive cream and artichoke and covered by a sphere of smoked salmon. Call it brunch in a ball, a pescatarian scotch egg designed to make a 1970s Better Homes & Gardens editor swoon. Let me describe how it tastes in four words: Do not order it.
So what separates Le Coucou from failed fancy Frenchies of the late aughts and beyond? Simple: It's fun. It's not Señor Frog's, but it's a heck of a lot more transportive than The Industrial Chef's Table Restaurant or The Generic Hotel Restaurant. Ornate chandeliers — 11 of them — plus face-height candles on every table, gold-rimmed martini stems, and sofa banquettes impart the room with a level of opulence that is part Russian oligarch, part Beauty & The Beast.
Rose built a fully open kitchen, lacking a firm boundary with the dining room; line cooks work behind bespoke Athanor ovens, donning those two foot-high toques they wear in culinary school subway ads. The chef has spoken of making Le Coucou a Lutece of its own era, a callback to Andre Soltner's venue that was equal parts haute cuisine and high society hangout, but Major Food Group's Goodfellas-esque Carbone, a Michelin-starred update to the Italian-American chophouse, really is the better point of reference. That's not because Le Coucou traffics in pastiche, but because it takes advantage of its black hole gravity — and Starr's renowned devotion to Hollywood set design — to wow New Yorkers with a few of the overlooked (or undervalued) culinary wonders of yesteryear. It's not a bad thing in an era where where newer restaurants are feeling increasingly uniform in their offerings.
Le Coucou wows New Yorkers with a few of the overlooked culinary wonders of yesteryear.
It's a bromide to say what's old is new again, so let me put the wonders of Le Coucou in the following empirical context: It really is a commentary on the staid state of cooking in New York that one of the most refreshing piscine preparations I've had in quite some time is Rose's halibut in (the once ubiquitous) beurre blanc, the lean flaky fish elevated to heart-clogging bliss with enough emulsified butter and wine to cover the entire plate. Underneath the filet lies a mound of daikon sauerkraut: a tart, translucent not-quite-kimchi to wink at modernity before a diner drags it through all the fat.
The caviar course is a staple of any grand French restaurant. This indulgence typically involves about 30 grams of fish roe over ice and starts at well over a hundred bucks. At Le Coucou, the barrier to entry is lowered in exchange for a smaller portion. Cost: $38 for a coral-colored pile of golden osetra atop veal tongue. The soft meat gently warms the firm roe, helping release its briny overtones, while the caviar in turn salts the delicately flavored tongue. It evokes an era when caviar was plentiful enough to season a dish, rather than being marketed as the star of a composition.
Le Coucou is obvious in its luxuries: Lobster appears in three appetizers, foie gras in two, Wagyu in one. But their use isn't always obvious. The Wagyu is not steak, but rather tripe; it's been soaked, braised, fried, and laid over a brunoise of pickles and olives. Think of the crispy organ — a style of stomach not uncommon in Lyon — as a fun French analogue to a Japanese pork tonkotsu.
The wanton maxim "to share," commonly deployed by restaurants to justify the $150 chicken, isn't found on the Coucou menu, but perhaps it should be, as all of the fairly-priced mains are arguably portioned for two. Heck "tout le lapin" (all of the rabbit) could feed three. It's a wild trio of gamy loin (drizzled with kidney vinaigrette), neutral hind legs cooked with mustard and onions, and restorative pot-au-feu for the nutty front legs.
Bourride, the classic cloudy seafood stew of Provence (a Pernod-free cousin to bouillabaisse) is skimmed and strained into a clear-as-vodka consommé. It tastes of concentrated ocean and salt and sun-baked algae. You use a ladle to retrieve more broth from a Mauviel copper pot, which you pour over a delicate slice of black bass. You spoon a swath of aioli into the soup, dampening the littoral funk, but stinging the palate with garlic.
No ile flottantes or oeufs à la neige grace the dessert menu, and rightly so, as such ethereal creations would be redundant with the savory quenelles. But throwbacks abound here, from a rice pudding like any other, to a rarely seen chiboust — stiff pastry cream atop cherries — to a vertical take on mousse, with infinite shavings of dark chocolate rising above the fluff like an accidental mille feuille of black truffles.
Le Coucou doesn't blow you away in in the same way that experimental Brooklyn spots like Olmsted do, nor does it intend to. It's an assured, steady-handed restaurant at just three months old. It makes you look forward to more from Rose, who's entered the New York fray with a smart Starr blockbuster instead of an edgy independent flick. And it's the type of venue that will surely attract more to oldies like La Grenouille or more modern spots like Le Bernardin. Say what you will about 11 Howard (a $500/night Aby Rosen hotel that replaces a Holiday Inn) and what it symbolizes for the future of the city, but Le Coucou is the beating, albeit transplanted, heart of grand old French cuisine in New York right now.
Cost: Expect to spend about $250-$300, after tax and tip, on a shared a la carte meal for two (two hors d'oeuvres, two starters, a shared main, a shared dessert, a bottle of wine).
Sample dishes: Warmed oysters with seaweed butter, quenelles de brochet, tongue with caviar, tout le lapin, bourride.
What to drink: Kick off a potentially long meal with something non-alcoholic to pace yourself; I recommend a fragrant-tart pea-peach shrub mocktail. For something bubbly, consider the Hild sekt sparkling riesling ($14, a dry and cheaper alternative to Champagne). The bottle list is deep in the $200 plus range but there are also solid selections under $75 to carry you through much of the meal.
Bonus tip: Remember that there’s no bar dining and tables aren’t generally reserved for walk ins. Prime time tables book up fast, but because dinner can stretch past two and a half hours, the best move might be to take that 5:30pm reservation on a weeknight if you want to avoid the 3 am meat sweats.