The Wizard of Fifty-Seventh Street.
When I was trying desperately to get a studio to let me direct my first movie, I went to lunch at the Russian Tea Room with Joe Roth, who was running 20th Century Fox at the time. I told him exactly what to order (the cabbage borscht, which was delicious), and he always says that's why he let me make the movie." --Nora Ephron, in an August 2009 interview with Maureen Dowd for the New York Times
Walking into the Russian Tea Room on New York's West Fifty-seventh Street was like stepping into a legend. True, by the time I paid my first visit, the crimson leather banquettes that had furthered many a movie deal were already looking a little shabby, and the decorative samovars seemed a bit dusty and dull. But I was largely blind to evidence of decline. Perhaps it was the lighting, or my inflated expectations. Gliding round the revolving doors, I pictured a bevy of ballerinas sipping the Tea Room's signature cocktails, gesturing dramatically with their willowy arms. Chaliapin, the storied Russian bass, would be tossing back vodka with choreographer Michel Fokine. Never mind that both were dead. And wait, wasn't that the great Nureyev chatting up dreamy-eyed Omar Sharif at the corner banquette?
It was June 1973. I had just graduated from Vassar, and a lavish meal at the Russian Tea Room was my desired reward after four years of Russian study. My parents and I took in an afternoon performance of Sondheim's A Little Night Music, then strolled uptown. I floated into the restaurant in a romantic haze. Over dinner I tucked into plump buckwheat blini and experienced my first briny taste of real caviar (sevruga, as I recall--much as my parents loved me, beluga was out of our range). The portions were generous, the blini excessively rich. My parents toasted me with champagne--I hadn't yet discovered the joys of vodka. Was this how the Russian aristocracy felt as they dined opulently every night? The euphoria of my visit to the Russian Tea Room lasted for several hours. Then, suddenly, it was gone. I spent most of the night after my graduation meal in the bathroom of the New York Hilton, throwing up my dinner, and along with it, some of my dreams.
A Star Is Born
The Russian Tea Room first opened across the street from its present location as a chocolate shop run by Polish emigre Jacob Zysman. The year of its founding is usually given as 1926, at the height of Prohibition, which is why it originated as a tearoom. From the beginning, the RTR served as a watering hole, if a nonalcoholic one, for the performers from nearby Carnegie Hall, especially the glamorous dancers who had fled Russia after the Revolution. The ballet connection can be traced to Albertina Rasch, a Viennese beauty who had studied classical dance before turning to vaudeville and the Ziegfield Follies. With her dance troupe, the Albertina Rasch Girls, she developed a distinctive choreographic style that favored drama and fantasy over technique. The Russian Tea Room was a lucrative way to advertise her name: early photographs show a vitrine with "Albertina Rasch" in big, bold letters. Considerably smaller are the words "Russian Art Chocolate" and "Russian Tea Room," with a touch of the exotic lent by the Cyrillic [TEXT NOT REPODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] in old Russian orthography. The walls of Rasch's tearoom were decorated with silhouettes of ballet dancers leaping among trees en plein air. Rasch was frequently seen having tea with her customers, and so popular did the cafe become, that by 1929 it had moved to its present location at 150 West Fifty-seventh Street, an 1875 brownstone built, appropriately enough, by the tea-and-coffee merchant John F. Pupke, who lived there with his wife, four children, and three servants.
Prohibition ended in 1933, bringing new life to the nation and to the Russian Tea Room, recently purchased by Russian emigre Alexander (Sasha) Maeff. Maeff decided to offer full meals instead of just teatime fare. He also set up a bar, where specialty cocktails like Ballet Russe, Boyar Cocktail, Vodka Bee's Knees, and Ochi Chernya--Black Eyes, named after the famous song and manifest in the two black olives swimming in a glass of vodka and vermouth--were served.
It was during Maeff's era that the Russian Tea Room achieved renown. He played no small part in creating the restaurant's legend, stating in a souvenir pamphlet that he had arrived on America's shores from "the fabled cold, gray steppes of Siberia." Maeff had had to leave his ten-month-old son behind, and his new life in America was given over to earning enough money to be reunited with him (he eventually was). Nowhere did Maeff reveal that he had been a successful entrepreneur in Russia, the owner of a halvah factory in Moscow--thousands of miles from Siberia. Having created a dramatic persona, Maeff needed an appropriate stage upon which to appear, and so the fabled RTR was born. The restaurant's pamphlet noted that "the applause of an especially brilliant performance is often resumed at the restaurant right after it has ceased at the auditorium, for more often than not the artist will come to the Russian Tea Room Restaurant straight from the performance, flowers and all." Each night a new performance began as the RTR guests maneuvered for the best seats in the house. Center stage was banquette number one, prominently situated near the dining room entrance.
By the time Maeff sold the Russian Tea Room in 1946, it was already the place to be seen in New York. For tete-a-tete dinners, customers could retire to the private Boyar Room or have intimate cocktails in the Oriental-style Bagdad Room; at the Casino Russe supper club they could take in live entertainment. In 1955 Sidney Kaye became sole owner of the restaurant, and a year later, he married Faith Burwell (now Faith Stewart-Gordon). It was she who took over the restaurant when he died in 1967. Even though Stewart-Gordon had no restaurant experience beyond the years spent with Sidney, as a former showgirl she instinctively understood performance and how to attract celebrity. She built upon the cachet of the Tea Room regulars: William Faulkner (who often dined solitaire), George Balanchine (who always appeared with a ballerina on each arm), Leonard Bernstein (said to have composed the opening bars to Fancy Free at the restaurant), and Mel Brooks, who came to the Tea Room to unwind after filming the hit '50s TV series Your Show of Shows. Other celebrities of the era included Marlo Brando, Jason Robards, and Zero Mostel, who once posed as a waiter to take orders for "peasant under glass."
The RTR was all about seeing and being seen. High-powered ICM agent Sam Cohn held court for decades at banquette number one. Elizabeth Taylor showed off her magnificent diamond ring from Richard Burton there; Dustin Hoffman and Arthur Miller brainstormed about Death of a Salesman; and Hoffman and Meryl Streep signed on at Sam Cohn's table for Kramer vs. Kramer. The 1982 movie Tootsie furthered the restaurant's reputation as a venue for power-broking, when Dustin Hoffman, dressed in drag, fooled his agent during lunch at the RTR. Even Madonna had Russian Tea Room ties. She worked there briefly as a coat-check girl before being dismissed for inappropriate attire.
I knew little of the RTR'S more recent celebrities, and my visceral reaction to my graduation meal left me with no interest in ever returning. But the Russian Tea Room found its way back into my life. In 1983, following the publication of my first cookbook, I signed on for a couple of years as the Stoli girl, promoting Stolichnaya Vodka throughout the u.s. My debut was a press luncheon at the Russian Tea Room. I was a bundle of nerves. It was bad enough that I had to talk about Russia's bibulous culture to reporters from the major New York newspapers and magazines, but somehow I had to remain articulate after demonstrating how to drink four different vodkas in the Russian style--down the hatch, do dna. But moments before my performance, everything miraculously came together: I remembered that the restaurant was a stage, created for scenes like this. It was there to support ingenues, to enhance and exalt them, as the best settings do. The afternoon was a success.
In the mid-'90s, I was asked to consult on the menu for Firebird, a new Russian restaurant opening in New York. Everything about Firebird bespoke the luxury of pre-Revolutionary aristocratic life. The decor was opulent but toney. Like Sasha Maeff's Russian Tea Room, Firebird came with a ready-made legend: the owner's wife, Baroness Irina vonder Launitz, was the granddaughter of the mayor of Saint Petersburg who had been assassinated in 1907. The difference was that this story was true. Most diners had no way of knowing that behind the glass-fronted cabinets were genuine Faberge eggs, or that two of the restaurant's chairs, bought at auction in London, had belonged to Prince Felix Yusupov, that avid enemy of Rasputin. (I remember spirited conversations about whether guests should be allowed to sit in them.) Genuine and authentic were not just buzzwords; the owner made every effort to furnish the restaurant with actual objects from pre-Revolutionary Russia. The result was breathtakingly beautiful. At the opening party in 1996, the food writer Sheila Lukins commented, "Warner's going to have to go pretty far to top this."
She was referring, of course, to Warner LeRoy--nobody called him by anything other than his first name. He was the legendary impresario who promoted the concept of the restaurant as theater, of dining as a form of entertainment. When Faith Stewart-Gordon put the Russian Tea Room up for sale in 1995, Warner couldn't resist. He set out to recreate its original glory, in the end spending more than thirty million dollars on the project, the most expensive restaurant ever built in the U.S.
Warner's flair for drama and performance was part of his birthright. His father, Mervyn LeRoy, produced the film version of The Wizard of Oz, and Warner himself was named for the Warner Brothers--his maternal grandfather, Harry, and great-uncle, Jack. Unlike most children who can only dream of what lies beyond the Yellow Brick Road, Warner actually skipped down it, there on the movie set, and this experience may have determined the course of his life. At age eight he was already entertaining friends with magic shows, and at fourteen he got a gig stage-managing the very first Miss Universe contest for CBS (which may have hooked him on long-legged beauties, for whom he had a noticeable weakness). Warner was being groomed to head the Warner Brothers Studio, but corporate life, even Hollywood style, didn't appeal. So in the mid-'60s he left California for New York City, where he worked as an assistant writer for Garson Kanin and later directed his own plays, mainly off Broadway. Warner was captivated by theater, but he also recognized that its golden age was nearing an end. Sensing that restaurants would be the next great stage for him to play on, in 1966 Warner created Maxwell's Plum, New York City's first singles bar. It was an immediate hit, and not only because of its over-the-top, Tiffany stained-glass ceiling. Maxwell's Plum was all about vibe and creating a public place where people could strut their stuff against a backdrop of ferns and shiny brass (it is little surprise that Donald Trump first met Ivana there). So distinctive was the setting that from Warner's concept the term fern bar entered into English.
After Maxwell's Plum came the Great Adventure theme park in New Jersey, and then Central Park's Tavern on the Green, which became America's highest-grossing restaurant. Warner's embrace of life was reflected in the name he chose for his company, LeRoy Adventures. With the Russian Tea Room, Warner set out to surpass his previous ventures, lavishing money on whatever he deemed necessary to present his idea of Russianness, right down to an automated diorama of toy soldiers marching past Red Square as a full moon rises over Saint Basil's Cathedral.
The project was four long years in the making. When the restaurant finally reopened, in the fall of 1999, the city's sophisticates complained that Warner's "taste for rococo shimmer and dazzle was just noisy kitsch, that his pursuit of the fantastic sometimes crossed the line from exuberance to wretched excess," as Warner's New York Times obituary later noted. The Times's restaurant critic, William Grimes, found the new Tea Room "appalling":
... upstairs, Mr. LeRoy has pulled out the stops, and he has proceeded with the confidence, and the taste, of a newly minted Moscow billionaire. It's a room that makes your jaw drop, a long banquet hall with mirrored walls, gold candelabra extending from the walls and a balcony on which a small orchestra plays "Lara's Theme" from "Doctor Zhivago," "Moscow Nights" and the theme from "The Godfather." By now, the giant acrylic bear that dominates the room has entered into legend, although the sturgeons within its revolving form were not up to the job and have been replaced by red clown fish. A convoluted gold tree with enormous decorated eggs hanging from its branches contributes to an odd synthesis. The room is meant to conjure up the glittering halls of the Peterhof Palace and the magic world of Afanasyev's fairy tales. It feels more like a pinball machine.
Grimes got it completely right--and completely wrong. Warner's vision was indeed one of excess, because he possessed uncanny insight into the Russian temperament. His Russian Tea Room, in all its flamboyance, reflected an essentially Russian way of living life.
Off to See the Wizard
I first met Warner in 1998 in New York City, where I had gone to discuss my involvement in planning the Russian Tea Room's new menu. We rendezvoused at the Cafe des Artistes on West Sixty-seventh Street, a restaurant nearly as imbued with legend as the old Russian Tea Room had been. Its Howard Chandler Christy murals of cavorting naked girls had once shocked chaste diners, even as the whiff of raciness enhanced the restaurant's allure. I sat in an intimate booth in the prime spot in the house, facing a man small in stature, but larger than life in his exuberance and glee. Warner loved that I ordered raw meat, the cafe's renowned steak tartare. He goaded me to eat restaurateur George Lang's famously rich chocolate Ilona Torte, with a generous dollop of schlag on the side. No wonder food can seal deals.
Replete with schlag and fantasies of all the Russian Tea Room could become, we stepped outside into the bright day, where Warner's limo was waiting. Technically the car was beige, but it had a pink cast, like sandstone or tufa. Warner liked it because he could always pick it out in a limo crowd. As for me, I felt so high with excitement that I nearly flew back to Penn Station. Here was someone who instinctively understood the Russian love of excess, who wanted to perform, who wanted a show! I was thrilled to be part of it.
Warner saw his restaurants as productions. As he told a reporter after creating Maxwell's Plum, "A restaurant is a fantasy, a kind of living theater in which diners are the most important members of the cast. It is one of the few creations that appeal to all of the senses, and one with which I can create my own world." Of course, some plays are hits, and others flop. So much depends on the zeitgeist. When Warner reprised Maxwell's Plum in San Francisco in 1981, it was called "an explosion of vulgarity," and his plans for an elaborate crystal palace restaurant at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington never materialized. Like so many Russians a century before, he was fascinated by the idea of the Crystal Palace shown at the great London Exhibition of 1851. But if this rational construction of iron and glass represented for Dostoevsky a dystopic future, for Warner the soaring crystal structure was decidedly utopian, a symbol of endless individual promise.
Even though Warner's crystal palace never came to be, he could indulge his fancy as freely as he liked in the Russian Tea Room. He wanted the restaurant to be, quite literally, fabulous--a fantasy kingdom with fairytale creatures etched on the mirrors and wondrous objects on each of the building's four floors. The RTR'S own press materials emphasized this fantastical element: "The third floor is a grand fantasy of dancing Russian bears ... The fourth floor ... is rich, warm and elegant with a sense of fantasy." During preproduction, the talk of the town was the fifteen-foot-high acrylic bear engineered by sculptor Ovidiu Colea to rotate slowly every hour. Did Warner take his cue from Tatlin's famous Monument to the Third International, whose three sections were designed to rotate at various speeds? For lack of money Tatlin's 1920 monument was never realized. But finding the requisite funds was no problem for Warner. His bear was rendered in a juggler's pose, recalling the famous bears of the Moscow circus; its outstretched arms held three gold-and-silver balls. But the most ingenious feature was its belly, which doubled as an aquarium. Originally it was stocked with shovelnose sturgeon, but these bottom-feeding fish failed to thrive, so red clown fish were brought in to replace them.
On the first floor, Warner refurbished the red leather banquettes, though their shiny newness only emphasized the restaurant's lost glory. He commissioned an imposing ice sculpture of the Kremlin, which had the practical purpose of chilling bottles of premium vodkas and champagnes. Like a gueridon, the ice sculpture was wheeled over to each table to present the available drinks (the Kremlin had to be replaced three times a day to make sure it didn't melt). On the second floor, along with the giant bear, stood a golden tree hung with Murano glass orbs. Reporters were delighted to mock this tree. More than one called the orbs "faux-berge eggs," but in fact, they were meant to recall the golden apples from the old Russian firebird legend, just as the iridescent acrylic shards on the walls imitated the mythical bird's fabled plumage. Ice-skating bears and skittering hares were etched onto the jet-glass walls. The original Tiffany glass ceiling from Maxwell's Plum completed the picture. For better or worse, the overall effect was jaw dropping.
The top two floors of the new Russian Tea Room were reserved for private dining. Once the restaurant had opened, I couldn't help myself from sneaking up to the fourth floor to gaze at Warner's favorite little-boy toy: the mechanized diorama of Red Square. As a solemn tsar reviewed the soldiers parading along a flowing Moscow River, the light slowly dimmed from daytime to night. The moon and stars came out, and snow began to fall gently. It was pure magic. In this, and in everything he did, Warner paid attention to the most minute details. We endured long discussions about the quality and design of the matchbooks and the ladies' room hand towels. The waiters were costumed in scarlet tunics with fabric belts like those worn by Saint Petersburg's famous Tatar waiters. The doorman's wonderful garb blended a nineteenth-century military greatcoat with Malevich's abstract costume designs for the avant-garde opera Victory Over the Sun. As Jeffrey Higginbottom, senior designer for LeRoy Adventures, told New York magazine, "We are actually putting on a show here, and Warner is the director." Higginbottom would know: he holds a degree in set design from Yale.
The theatrical associations were not lost on the press. New York magazine called Warner the "Flo Ziegfeld of the restaurant world" and said of the RTR renovation: "This curtain was going to go up--whatever the cost in dollars and anguish." In his review of Warner's extravaganza, William Grimes used the stage as his metaphor, writing that "... the revolving doors deliver you into a scene that recalls the storming of the Winter Palace." He went on to refer to "the visual spectacle within" that compared poorly with the old RTR, which "retained an irreducibly eccentric personality--an outsize, stage-Russian role ... The waiters' uniforms have been spiffed up and now look like Ballets Russes costumes ... Like a boffo Broadway musical, it has been standing-room only ever since it opened its doors ..."
Staging the Meal
On opening night, Warner appeared in a bespoke, burgundy velvet tunic from Turnbull & Asser. He could be heard yelling into his cell phone, "I need a script! Get me a script! You know I always need a script!"
It was this kind of hyperbole that the critics objected to. The American-Israeli restaurant critic Daniel Rogov decried Warner's idea of splendor: "I saw the new place only once and was saddened by it ... my memories are of an ambiance that called up a long gone, more gentle day in which luxury did not have to be ostentatious." But the gentler day of Rogov's imaginings had never really existed in Russia (or in Russophile Manhattan); furthermore, Warner's genius lay in his intuitive grasp of Russian extravagance.
Perhaps Warner's real mistake was to open his fanciful restaurant in New York instead of Moscow. Luxury has always been ostentatious in Russia, and Warner's vision epitomized a very Russian spirit of dining, one visible again in Moscow today. Nearly twenty years into the post-Soviet era, the city's most talked-about restaurants aim to stage a meal, not just serve one. In these public spaces, the Russian propensity for lavish spending and love of illusion are enacted daily. If hyperbole is a negative value in New York City, it remains a desirable feature in Moscow's gastronomic landscape. To visit a trendy restaurant there means to enter a fantasyland and leave reality behind. The performance of the meal trumps the meal itself, making restaurants literal theaters of consumption. In Moscow, no one decries the Delft porcelain toilets in the ladies' room of Turandot, restaurateur Andre Dellos's fifty-million-dollar recreation of an eighteenth-century French palace. Neither do they mind the sturgeon swimming under the transparent floor of Arkady Novikov's marine-themed restaurant, Sirena. The mirrored walls in the RTR's second-floor dining room were condemned as garish by the New York press, but in spirit, they hardly differ from the scene once set by Princess Zinaida Yusupova, who created a wintertime illusion of blossom-laden orange trees growing right through her dining table. She covered the length of the table with mirrored glass--a victory over seasonal darkness. And if Warner had known about the eccentric nineteenth-century nobleman Demidov who made his table servants dress in strange livery, he would certainly have approved. Half of each man's shirt was sewn of lace, the other of the coarsest cloth. A silk stocking and an elegant shoe covered one leg and foot; the other was shod in a peasant's bast sandal. The guests' surprise at this unusual costume only contributed to their pleasure in the meal.
The desire to surprise and enchant reaches deep into Russian history. In the wake of Peter the Great's radical reforms, food in the households of upper-crust Russians moved from the realm of sacrament to that of everyday life, and the Russians discovered delight in illusion as part of the French aesthetics they so eagerly emulated in their palaces and country estates (faux fruits in bowls, trompe l'oeil table settings). Before the invention of restaurants, the nobility indulged their gastronomic fantasies within the privacy of their own homes. Their whims were met by servants and serfs (the many "souls" they owned), which prompted them to seek ever more novel diversions. Ennui may be endemic to wealth, but the idea of pokazukha or illusion is especially appealing to Russians, whose lives have long been defined by a severe climate and isolation. Simulated environments offered, at the least, an antidote to otherwise bleak routine. Catherine the Great's favorite, Count Grigory Potemkin, once transformed his dining room into a Caucasian grotto with a fully engineered stream spilling down an artificial mountainside, where roses and other fragrant flowers grew in profusion. Myrtle and laurel trees were resplendent with fruits crafted of gems--not unlike the Russian Tea Room's golden apple tree three centuries later. On the Empress's arrival, a chorus broke into song, limning her praises in ancient Greek. Count Alexander Stroganov, of beef stroganoff fame, turned his dining room into a Roman triclinium with tables of marble and mosaic, and mattresses stuffed with swans' down so his guests could recline. Each diner was served by a beautiful young boy, who brought in one exquisite dish after another, including herring cheeks--for which more than one thousand herrings were required to compose a single plate--salmon lips, boiled bears' paws, roast lynx, cuckoos roasted in honey and butter, cod milt and fresh turbot liver, oysters, wildfowl stuffed with nuts and fresh figs, salted peaches, and pickled pineapples, which were, of course, unknown in ancient Rome but were such a desirable novelty in Russia that their authenticity was overlooked.
For Counts Potemkin and Stroganov the performance of the meal served also as a means of vivid self-promotion. Things haven't changed much over the years. Meals still provoke anxiety on the part of the host, for a great deal is at stake. When entertaining in public, any would-be mogul must avoid being stuck in the aptly named "Siberia" of a restaurant's more remote regions. The most desirable tables are those visible to all as they enter the restaurant, since they publicly announce the host's power and prestige. Russian Tea Room loyalists disdained Warner, not only because he had tampered with the restaurant's decor, but also because he put on a show for people other than the glitterati. Warner wanted diners of more modest means to be able to enjoy his spectacle too: after all, the Yellow Brick Road was not paved with actual gold.
In the early days of the Russian Tea Room, the applause for a brilliant Carnegie Hall performance continued in the restaurant's dining room as the stars made their entrance. But Warner wanted the applause to celebrate the restaurant itself, its performance as much as its culinary delights.
The public reaction was not what he had hoped for, at least not in the press. Gourmet's restaurant reviewer exemplified the critical reaction, which recognized Warner's showmanship while mocking the spectacle, as if upholding restaurants as paragons of tastefulness:
If the new Russian Tea Room were any more frenetic, they would have to replace the liveried doorman out front with a carnival barker: "See the Amazing Tree of Venetian Glass Eggs!" "Watch Red Clown Fish at Play in the Stomach of the Juggling Crystal Bear!" "Cut into the Chicken Kiev and Dodge Butter as It Spurts across the Room!" ... Warner LeRoy has constructed the grandest theme restaurant of them all, a four-story Technicolor extravaganza ... The double-height second floor, with the bear, the tree, the stained-glass ceiling, and a five-piece orchestra, is a three-ring circus of its own.
A couple of restaurateurs did acknowledge the brilliance of Warner's style. Faith Stewart-Gordon found the new Russian Tea Room "a hoot! It was Old Russia as we dream of it. Right out of Doctor Zhivago." Danny Meyer, head of the Union Square Hospitality Group, a fantastically successful restaurant empire, also lavished praise on Warner's creation. Unfortunately, his words came too late, appearing as they did in Warner's New York Times obituary: "Nobody can out-showbiz Warner in a restaurant, and probably nobody would want to, but in defining the edges so authoritatively, everybody took notice. He forced the rest of us to reckon with how people are going to feel in terms of the drama of our atmosphere. You cannot open a major New York restaurant today and not be aware that showbiz will play a role."
What critics rarely consider is the stress of performance, whether in a theater or a restaurant. Opening night is frazzling, and in Warner's case, the reopening of the Russian Tea Room coincided with complex negotiations in his tabloid divorce. Complicating the situation was the other divorce, a year earlier--the dissolution of Warner's original partnership with star chef David Bouley just months before the RTR was scheduled to reopen. I came on board as Warner was looking for a new chef. He eventually found a dark horse: Fabrice Canelle from San Francisco's Brasserie Savoy.
Once Fabrice was hired, our tastings began. These sessions were impassioned, with eight to ten of us critiquing each dish as it appeared on the table. New York Observer restaurant critic Moira Hodgson was always present; TVFN personality and food writer David Rosengarten sometimes showed up too. The recipes often numbered in the double digits, so the procedure was lengthy, as well as anxious. As Warner once quipped, "My grandfather told me, 'You either get ulcers, or you give them.'" Our tastings led to both outcomes. Warner's health suffered greatly (he gained eighty pounds and had a pacemaker installed), but we all felt pressure, especially Fabrice. He worked for seven months to develop the menu, testing about one thousand recipes for a dinner menu that opened with forty-two dishes.
Whenever I described my work at the Russian Tea Room, people acted jealous. They couldn't believe I was being paid to sample kilo-sized tins of caviar and taste dish after dish prepared by a talented French chef. Besides our biweekly tastings--feats of endurance--I gave the team a crash course in Russian food and culture. I spent my off-hours investigating various bakeries in New York City--Amy's, Orwasher's, Eli's Bread--to find one that could make the right kind of dark, dense sourdough rye. Moira and I also visited some of the restaurants Warner admired, like Le Cirque, to see how they did things and figure out how to do them better. The process, if pleasurable, was slow and often fraught. Worse, the renovations were not moving as quickly as planned, and we still weren't close to devising a menu.
Twice a week I traveled from the Berkshires into New York City, taking an early train to allow time for a brisk walk up Broadway from Penn Station to West Sixty-seventh Street and on into Central Park, where our meetings were held at the Tavern on the Green. Warner presided over the tastings like a patriarch. Our sessions were themed so that Fabrice could prepare several variations of each potential dish. For instance, the Kabob Tasting of April 29, 1999, featured fourteen different skewered delights, from guinea hen marinated in yogurt, mint, saffron, and paprika; quail steeped in pomegranate juice; rack of veal with sweet cherries; to sturgeon in a spicy cilantro marinade. Skewered whole eggs gave a requisite (if uninspired) nod to vegetarians. We tasted five different sauces alongside the meats. The Blini Tasting of May 4 was equally rigorous, with twelve different kinds of pancakes and four different sides. I knew how to survive the tastings: you're supposed to take just a bite and then move on to the next dish. But unlike a wine taster who spits out her wine after swishing it around in her mouth to assess it, I never mastered the art of abstemiousness. If something tasted really good, as it often did, I found it impossible not to clean my plate. I remember especially some Nootka oysters with a citron vodka and lemon granita, garnished with lemon zest and cracked black pepper. They made their way onto the opening-day menu.
Some of my tasting notes make for amusing reading. Sturgeon Schnitzel with Red Verjus Butter Sauce? "Delicious!" I proclaimed. By contrast, Pheasant in Mushroom Cream Sauce got a resounding "No!" with an exclamatory "Tough!" underlined three times. Warner had his own adamant likes and dislikes. After each tasting, his assistant would distribute his comments. Next to Monkfish Matelote with Braised Green Cabbage, I read: "X BIG NO! It's horrible; can't imagine anything worse than monkfish." His reaction to the pickles we tasted for the zakuska (appetizer) plate was simply "Pickled stuff--love it!" Warner so loved the Moldavian Peppers with Sauteed Chicken Livers that he decided to hold a separate chicken liver tasting (much as I love chicken livers, I remember my heart sinking at the thought). Warner's menu philosophy was this: "25% should be simple classic fare; 25% can be as wild and crazy as you want; 50% should fall in the middle--imaginative, stylish, great fare that is the heart of the menu. A great menu should have both ends and the middle." But he liked best to think about the wilder and crazier parts: "I would love to do Flaming Skewers of food ... We need to do opening night menus, i.e, a 16th-century Emperor's feast with game and roast swan ... Coronation menus!" Warner encouraged grand dreams and loved my idea of asking the city to close off Fifty-seventh Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues so we could create snow with a snowmaking machine for opening night. A troika of gaily festooned horses would deliver celebrity guests to the restaurant door. In moments of madness like this, Warner was great fun to work with, charming and disarming in equal measure.
However, we had our disagreements. For one thing, there was the issue of authenticity. Not that any meal at the Tea Room could ever be truly authentic, but I couldn't imagine a Russian restaurant without kasha--buckwheat groats--on the menu. And what about eggplant, so beloved by Russians everywhere? Warner hated eggplant, so he refused to have it on the menu. We nearly came to blows over sour cream. The RTR menu was being devised in the thick of the American antifat campaign, when the mere mention of butter or cream sent people screaming. Although Warner eventually agreed that you couldn't have a Russian restaurant without sour cream, he didn't want those two scary words to appear on the menu. He insisted we use the term creme fraiche instead. I objected. We settled on smetana, the Russian word for sour cream. If diners didn't know what it meant, they could always ask the waiter. Somehow it sounded less fattening.
We held one of our final meetings at Warner's penthouse apartment near Lincoln Center, on West Sixty-sixth Street. I took a fast elevator up to the fifty-ninth floor. Large panes of plate glass revealed gorgeous views of the city, with the Hudson River sparkling in the distance. Warner proudly showed me his private screening room (it was mauve), and on my own, I marveled at the throne-shaped toilet in his bathroom. Unlike one snoopy reporter from New York magazine, I didn't peer into Warner's three "mind-boggling" closets, "nearly the size of bedrooms, with row after row of jackets organized by style and color; custom-made costume jackets of gold sequins or blue velvet or a red Sgt. Pepper look." Instead I toured his impressive collection of artwork, noting a Picasso self-portrait hung not far from an original Walt Disney drawing of the Seven Dwarfs.
At this meeting Warner directed me to set up a review session for the newly hired waitstaff to prep them for the written exam they had to take before opening day (seasoned waiters all, they were as nervous as any undergraduates I've ever encountered). It was also at this meeting that Warner came up with his own cocktail to complement the classic RTR offerings: the Borscht Belt, a shot of vodka-spiked borscht. The man had style.
Warner died of lymphoma in February 2001, having overseen the Russian Tea Room for less than three years. Its management passed to his youngest daughter, Jenny (whose middle name is, not incidentally, Oz), but despite her able leadership the restaurant continued to lose money, so the family decided to sell the property. Luckily, the original intention of the new owners, the United States Golf Association, to turn the building into a museum of golf memorabilia was not realized. The Golf Association sold the building in 2004, and the Russian Tea Room reopened once again in 2006.
You can still find a few Russian items on the menu. The blini and caviar are there, as are Chicken Kiev and Boeuf a la Stroganoff. But dominating the menu are dishes like the Tea Room Market Salad of "mixed greens with snap peas, shaved fennel, pickled mango, almonds and a spicy strawberry vinaigrette"; or the Kobe Tasting: "Perigord Boneless Kobe short ribs and beef filet with Vidalia onion tempura, truffle cauliflower gratin and sauce Perigord." Eric Asimov of the Times once dubbed me the restaurant's "culinary conscience." It was now my turn to lament the passing of the late Russian Tea Room's glory days.
But I'm getting ahead of my story. Before Warner's death, I paid one last, resonant visit to the Russian Tea Room. Twenty-six years after my college graduation I returned to the restaurant for another celebration, the ninth birthday of our daughter, Leila. Like many overachieving mothers, I had tried to do something special each year for Leila's birthday parties. For me they were necessarily food driven. Friends still recall the speckled chocolate cake I made for her second birthday (it was so labor-intensive I haven't made it since). Other years we pressed cider and bobbed for apples--Leila's October birthday arrived just in time for the local apple harvest--or let the kids make their own pizzas, which we baked in our kitchen's wood-burning oven, dramatic flames roaring in its cavernous maw. By the time Leila turned nine I was running out of ideas, and I suspect she was tiring of Mom's parties. What to do? I decided that the Russian Tea Room would be the perfect venue.
So off we went to New York. My sister and her family came up from North Carolina, and we all convened under the Tea Room's brilliant red canopy on West Fifty-seventh Street. Leila still remembers walking into the restaurant: "I was absolutely floored by the decorations--all the bears everywhere, and especially the bear sculpture. The waiters were all very proper. I felt like Anastasia." She loved the blini with caviar. The rest of the meal was a blur, she now says, though I remember her enormous chicken Kiev, prepared in the classical way, with the wing bone attached to the chicken breast, its stump thrust high in the air. Also my beautiful salmon kulebiaka (coulibiac). We took a break to visit the diorama before returning to the table for dessert. With great fanfare the waiter set a tall, footed compote of amber-colored glass on the table. Around the edges of the bowl were scoops of red, yellow, purple, and white sorbet: raspberry, passion fruit, black currant, and coconut, nestled among fresh blackberries and raspberries. In the center stood a footed goblet crafted entirely of milk chocolate; soaring above it was a sparkling, twelve-inch-high cage of spun sugar. Only when the cage was broken did Leila discover the treasure within: an unctuous chocolate mousse surmounted by a molded, dark-chocolate onion dome, with swirls of milk and white chocolate gaily patterning the top. We cherish the photograph of Leila grinning a pre-orthodontia smile beside the towering creation of pastry chef Andrew Garrison Schotts, whom Warner had enlisted to surprise and delight her.
I thought the evening had reached its pinnacle, but as we left the restaurant, a stretch limousine was just depositing some customers. Leila and her cousin were taken by the glamour. So, seeing the girls' awe, we grabbed the limo, ending the evening on a magical note. Leila recalls: "The evening didn't feel real. I felt like a princess. The monster dessert was awesome. Everyone in the restaurant sang happy birthday to me. I was in euphoria after that dessert--I can't remember anything else besides the limo. It felt as though I had stepped out of reality. It was part of the whole princess thing." That's the effect Warner strove for, "the whole princess thing." He understood the importance of regalement. He knew how to make people feel like royalty.
A decade after that birthday dinner, I still think of Warner almost every day. Not because he was such an important figure in my life, but because of the silver-plated saber that hangs on our kitchen wall. One grey morning FedEx came barreling up our driveway with an urgent Saturday delivery--something unusual in our small-town life. We thought there was some mistake until I spied "LeRoy Adventures" on the return address label. Inside the box lay a beautiful, eighteen-inch saber with a cobalt-blue hilt and this inscription on the blade:
RTR 1999 Thank you. Warner
That saber still has the power to carry me back to the day of our caviar tasting at Tavern on the Green. It was late spring, so we were outside in the garden, opening tin after tin of fresh caviar from several different purveyors. For once I did not find the tasting a burden: I could savor caviar to my heart's delight--osetra, sevruga, even the elusive, expensive beluga. After a few rounds of this bliss, Warner beckoned to one of his men, who soon reappeared with a case of champagne. Not just any champagne, but Moet et Chandon Brut Vintage 1995. Warner had decided that the new Russian Tea Room should serve caviar with a flourish. The waiters would be trained to strike the tops from champagne bottles using a specially crafted saber from maitre coutelier Claude Dozorme. And that day, Warner wanted to practice himself. We spent the rest of the afternoon in the garden, scooping spoonfuls of caviar and sipping champagne, howling with laughter each time Warner failed to master his stroke and the champagne spurted everywhere.
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|Title Annotation:||Style as Performance/Performance as Style|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2010|
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