A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
Restaurateur Stephen Starr, who made his name initially in his home town of Philadelphia, has got together with chef Daniel Rose, Chicago-born but who made his name with Spring in Paris, to open Le Coucou on 15 July 2016.
It is not only the name that is French. So too is the entire menu; a good chunk of the wine list, the plush interior design, the fabulous kitchen, as well as the sense of elegance that all these factors combine to convey. But this restaurant could not have opened, nor met with such instant success, in any city other than New York.
Take for instance the sharp contrast between the restaurant’s appearance during the day and at night. The junction of Lafayette Street and Howard Street in New York’s SoHo still has strong echoes of the city’s rather bleak past: there’s a car park, a water tower and the entrance to a building once home to W and C B Sheridan and Co. There is a tattoo parlour only a few doors down while Wall Street looms in the distance downtown.
In the evening, this junction has become one the most popular in the city. There is the chic Howard Hotel just round the corner that houses New York’s latest hot nightclub, The Blond. And then, from the ashes of what was formerly a Holiday Inn, has arisen Le Coucou with its flower bedecked entrance.
It is the very entrance that seems to embody the city. From a windswept street it requires quite an effort to push open the doors, but once inside there is no missing the warmth on offer. The bar on the right was several people deep when we arrived for our 8.30 reservation. The lighting from the 11 broad chandeliers, full of individual lights that have to be polished every night after service, is friendly, diffuse and sufficient to allow the menus to be read comfortably. And there are so many waiting staff, so many of them well dressed, that it is actually quite a challenge to distinguish them from the customers.
Behind the reservations desk is Michael Cecchi. This was my first encounter with a man whose business card describes him as ‘Maitre D’ but whose CV conceals two overlapping careers. The first, after Harvard, was in the film business; the second, after 2008 when, in his words, ‘every business went digital other than the hospitality business’, was as maître d’ at the iconic Raoul’s on Prince Street nearby. His London equivalent, but with a very different background, would be Jesus Adorno at Le Caprice.
Cecchi, compact, smartly attired and fun, whispered our table number to a waiter who whisked us off and a couple of minutes later we were sitting, reading French while watching New York at play.
The menu, printed on a large card, is broken down into four sections: hors d’oeuvres, gourmandises, poissons et viandes and gibier. The dishes are all highlighted in French with their English translations underneath. There is a broad mixture of cooking styles. Vegetables feature heavily in the first category, which includes leeks with hazelnuts, celeriac remoulade and endives with crisp Iberico ham. A very French emphasis on the first courses also delivers a lobster salad, the classic pike quenelles with a lobster sauce, and a crépinette of chicken and foie gras with roasted plums.
The main courses are the most adventurous: a bourride, the traditional Provençal fish stew, of black bass and shellfish; sole Véronique; a pheasant for two cooked with foie gras and cabbage; as well as lamb and beef. A stuffed loin of wild hare with ‘relaxed’ foie gras was the game dish.
From these we chose dishes to compare these styles. The celeriac remoulade for my quasi-vegetarian wife was not as peppery as she would have liked but compensation came in the substance of the braised endive dish which I was served, my waiter having misheard my order for the eel (either my accent or his vocabulary). When my eel arrived it was very good, its skin crisp, the meat tender, even if the curried vinaigrette could have been more pungent.
We then went our very different ways. My wife chose an elegant salad of lobster tail, a first course, as her main course while I went rabbit mad and ordered ‘tout le lapin’ or all of the rabbit. This was a dish that intrigued me for several reasons, partly to see whether Rose managed to serve every part of the animal sufficiently moist and partly because it seemed the one dish on the menu that would test the kitchen. What appeared, and required quite a lot of rearranging of what else was on the table, were in fact three dishes. The first was a serving of the legs covered in onions. The second was two slices of the saddle rolled around the liver, while the third was a copper pan full of the front legs and belly cooked in a rabbit broth. I licked my lips when these dishes were served and even more so when they were taken away. With this we drank a bottle of stunning, mature, rare but very fresh 2008 Stony Hill Chardonnay from California ($117). My bill came to $290 for two including service.
The following day when I met Cecchi again he explained his own interpretation of Le Coucou. ‘It’s the place where Lutèce, the great New York French restaurant, meets Lou Reed.’ As a fan of all three, I could not agree more.
Le Coucou 138 Lafayette Street, New York 10013; tel +1 (212) 271 4253