Each year for my birthday I’m sure to take myself to a top-rated restaurant to celebrate. Last year I went to Per Se for the nine-course tasting menu, exactly 10 years after my very first visit to that Michelin-starred eatery. I was lucky enough to meet the chef, get a tour of the kitchen, get a peek into the infamous “chocolate room” and even got a huge bag of goodies to take home, including a birthday cake, cookies and customized chocolates.
Certainly a hard act to beat.
This year, I decided to spend my big day at the buzzy French eatery Le Coucou, located at 138 Lafayette Street. Touted as a “tribute to classic French technique and dishes,” the restaurant recently snagged two top James Beard awards. And hell, if it is good enough for Steve Cuozzo, who dubbed it, “one of the 21st century’s four or five best restaurants of any type,” it’s good enough for me.
The reservation staff informed me that in order to have a shot at snagging a coveted ressie, I would have to call at 9 a.m. on the dot exactly 28 days before the desire date. Pro tip: if you log onto Open Table at the strike of midnight you are more likely to get a table for a prime eating time.
My first indication that I was going to lose my head over this place was actually when I was placed on hold. While I waited, they played the very catchy “Le Coucou” song (it’s also plays in the bathroom). The pleasant ear worm stayed with me all day in the best possible way. I still can’t stop humming it with a smile on my face.
When I finally visited the restaurant, I learned something interesting: Le CouCou is of course named after the bird, but it also means someone who is “sweetly crazy.”
Other things I loved were the shiny chandeliers, the soft velvet seating (if it was socially acceptable I would drape myself in velvet), and the gorgeous and fragrant fresh peonies throughout.
Needless to say, I liked the vibe. It was not pretentious at all – the wait staff was warm, helpful and wore jeans beneath their aprons. Maybe the place was even a bit too unpretentious – I spotted a diner wearing a ratty tee and gym sneakers!
But no matter. The space exudes a quiet, understated elegance. A couple next to me were fixated with watching the cooking staff perform in the open kitchen. One remarked that it was like watching a symphony. The huge room was airy and felt relaxed. It seats only 80 and they could have well squeezed over a 100 in there. I am appreciative that they didn’t.
The 25-page wine menu could be a bit daunting, and my dinner companion would have preferred a few more single glass options. Still, she said the wine she chose a 2011 Château de Roquefort ‘La Pourpre’ was one of the best glasses she has tasted in a long time.
While I had heard the menu was heavily rabbit-laden, there were plenty of non-meat options. Again, my dining companion raved about the Washington State oysters which came with a seaweed granite and lime. My bigeye tuna with smoked wood vinegar over asparagus was terrific. Be warned though: it’s extremely salty. Those averse to saltiness might do well to opt for the lentil soup with crème fraiche and ham, or the Poireaux – leeks and hazelnuts.
The main course, “salade de homard” – whole poached lobster tail with generous grapefruit segments over grilled romaine – didn’t disappoint either. This lobster was head and tails over the Per Se version, which I found to be stringy. Clearly I was not alone in my assessment — it was a point of contention in a noteworthy New York Times review of Per Se last year.
My companion had a rather lengthy conversation with our server trying to choose between the other seafood options. She settled on the “Narvarin de Lotte” – a monkfish served in a mussel broth with spring vegetables. Again, it was delicious, but rather salty. The broth was so good we had to flag a waiter down to ask for more bread so we could sop the jus up with it. Chef Daniel Rose certainly didn’t disappoint.
While we didn’t try any of the meat options, the glazed lamb neck that arrived to the table next to us caused a stir both in how regal it looked plated and how great it smelled.
A few foibles in service didn’t dampen our experience in the end. I had to ask three times to get condiments for the side order of fries and the coffee and tea arrived well after we finished our dessert – we split a chocolate cake with salted caramel ice cream. Our biggest disappointment was we hadn’t opted to order two.
Upon exiting, I snapped a picture of the bartender – or shall I say “mixologist”?– pouring a concoction. He quickly asked if he could take my picture and staged an impromptu photo shoot for my friend and I. The perfect end to a near-perfect meal!