Dining on gourmet cuisine in fine surroundings is always a pleasure. Melanie Mize Renzulli meets three luxury family-run restaurants that should give you some serious food for thought
Among the many types of businesses passed down from one generation to the next, the family-owned restaurant is one of the most prevalent of enterprises. But not all family-run restaurants are created equal. Where some eateries have relied on traditional tactics, such as modest prices and generous portions, to bring customers in, others have turned their families' personal style and tastes into name brands, all the while keeping one eye trained on the excellence of their food.
Since 1962, when Charles and Gisèle Masson first opened La Grenouille (left) in a two-story Tudor home at 3 East 52nd Street in Manhattan, this palace of French haute cuisine has been the epitome of elegance and exclusivity for New York's elite. Indeed, countless luminaries from the worlds of politics, design and business, such as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Oscar de la Renta and the Rockefellers, have settled into La Grenouille's red velvet banquettes to broker deals and exchange society gossip over meals of Châteaubriand.
Over the years, La Grenouille's niche of serving old school French fare to the old money establishment has become less crowded, as many of the restaurant's original competitors, such as Lutèce and Caravelle, have closed shop. Nevertheless, food critics continue to heap stars and accolades on La Grenouille for its gastronomy and starched-linen, table-side service. One reason that La Grenouille has managed to endure in the face of an informal dining trend is because of its emphasis on what Charles Masson termed "the art of living", which includes not only perfection in the kitchen but also in the décor, the
ambiance, and the service.
Charles Masson II, who has expertly managed La Grenouille and its branding since his father's passing in 1976, wrote a book about the restaurant's signature style – lavish arrangements of fresh cut flowers, the annual budget for which is well over $150,000. In The Flowers of La Grenouille, he explains that the décor – from five-foot-tall floral compositions to red silk wallpaper – embodies his father's philosophy:
"For my father, there was food for the palate and there was more. There was the service he learned through his travels working in many fine restaurants. There was the art of the table. But as important to him was the life around the table: the art of living."
Oversized vases of fragrant lilies, anemones, orchids, and roses certainly temper La Grenouille's refined atmosphere with romance, as well as keep the restaurant looking seasonally appropriate. "If it's the season for dogwood and lilac, then it also means it's the season for morels and white asparagus," says Masson. While La Grenouille adjusts its menu and décor according to what's fresh, classically-rich entrées, such as Blanquette de Veau (veal), Provençale-style "Cuisses de Grenouilles" (frogs' legs), and grilled Dover sole, are La Grenouille mainstays. These dishes can headline lunch (three-course, prix fixe menu for $49) or dinner (prix fixe at $95). As La Grenouille is located only a few blocks from Radio City Music Hall, it also offers a pre-theatre menu, which includes an abbreviated selection of French favourites – from beef consommé to "Quenelle" of pike Lyonnaise. Luckily, no matter the menu or the month, La Grenouille's famously decadent Grand Marnier soufflé is always available to finish off a meal.
3 East 52nd Street, New York.
Reservations: (001) 212-752-1495
Florence has long been home to name-brand families. Consider the Medici, Vespucci and Ferragamo clans, to name a few. Added to that list is the Pinchiorri family, whose Enoteca restaurant has been one of the most coveted reservations in Italy for decades.
When Giorgio Pinchiorri opened his Enoteca (below) in 1973, it was a fairly new idea among wine sellers as well as restaurateurs. Here at the "wine library", customers could learn about different local wines of the region, sample reds or whites by the glass, and then purchase a bottle to take home. Of course, the wine bar concept became wildly popular among both wine connoisseurs and novices, and Pinchiorri soon had to enlist his wife Annie Féolde to create appetizers and light entrées to complement the wines.
This proved a savvy move for Pinchiorri, as French-born Féolde, a self-taught chef of both rustic Tuscan fare and sophisticated pan-Mediterranean cuisine, began bringing in her own fans. Patrons came – and still come – for suckling pig, foie-gras-stuffed monkfish and other innovative dishes, which eventually earned Féolde three Michelin stars – a first for a female chef in Italy. Today, Féolde and executive chefs Italo Bassi and Riccardo Monco turn out two tasting menus of about a half-dozen items ranging from tagliatelle with Swiss chard and prawns to a classic tiramisu for €225 per person exclusive of wine.
Enoteca Pinchiorri has an edited menu for a reason: to bring attention to its vast wine cellar. By the restaurant's official count, there are approximately 150,000 bottles of wine in the cantina at any one time, including vintages from every region of Italy, as well as from France, Australia and Napa Valley. In fact, in addition to the food menus, Enoteca Pinchiorri provides two wine "cards" – the Italian and International Wine Cards – which offer several tastings to the guests. There is also a Distillate Card, which includes selections of Armagnac, grappa, and whisky.
The reservation backlog at Enoteca Pinchiorri can sometimes last several months. But, Antonella Pinchiorri, who has helped her father manage the restaurant for two decades, sees no end to Enoteca's popularity or its reign atop the Italian culinary throne. "Retirement is not an option" for either Pinchiorri or Féolde, says the duo's daughter. In fact, with three Pinchiorri restaurants now in Japan – Enoteca Pinchiorri in Tokyo and Nagoya and Cantinetta Pinchiorri in Tokyo's Odaiba district – it may be easier to get the world's best Italian meal in Asia.
Via Ghibellina 87, Florence.
Reservations: (39) 055 242 777
For almost three decades, the Steppé family, owners of Blue Elephant International, has quietly built an empire. Thai expat Khun Nooror Somany Steppé and her Belgian husband Karl Steppé opened their first Thai restaurant, L'Eléphant Bleu (above), in Brussels in 1980. By 1997, the Steppés had established a food export business in Bangkok, two "La Porte des Indes" south Indian restaurants, and approximately 10 Blue Elephant Royal Thai Cuisine restaurants at some of the most enviable addresses in Paris, London, New Delhi, and Dubai.
And the empire continues to grow. Today, Blue Elephant restaurants number a dozen locations throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. But while the company now markets to the masses, the Blue Elephant remains the world's leading name for exquisite Thai cuisine. In fact, the Paris branch has a Michelin star. And although the flagship of the luxury chain is in Belgium, Blue Elephant Bangkok is where guests have a chance to sample authentic Thai recipes at source.
In 2002, with assistance from daughter Sandra and son Kim, the Steppé family opened the Blue Elephant Cooking School and Restaurant in a colonial mansion in Bangkok. Like its sister restaurants, the Bangkok branch is outfitted to resemble the court of a Siamese prince: a waterfall trickles into a carp pool, tropical fronds frame teakwood seating, chandeliers reflect off of crystal, and dainty restaurant attendants wear jewel-toned silks and hand-woven cottons. "First, you eat with your eyes," explains Sandra Steppé, who is also an occasional teacher at the Blue Elephant Cooking School. The precision of the décor and the presentation of the food are essential elements of any five-star restaurant experience, and the mantra is one of the first things Blue Elephant cooking school students learn.
No doubt, this belief carries over to the kitchen of chef Khun Chang, who has brought eye-catching innovations, such as foie gras with tamarind sauce, to the Blue Elephant table. Chang's fusion of Thai, Chinese, and continental flavours is also evident in bamboo-wrapped seabass and rice field "escargot" (tiger prawns dressed with black and green peppercorns). However, diners who are looking for the exotic, but balanced flavours that Thai cooking is known for need only order Blue Elephant's Royal Thai Banquet or Symphony Menu. Succulent chicken or buffalo satay, free-range duck with roasted coconut, spicy green curry with roti pancakes, and the requisite pan-fried noodle dish Pad Thai have been the foundations on which the Steppés have built yet another temple to Thai taste.
233 South Sathorn Rd, Kwaeng Yannawa, Khet Sathorn, Bangkok.
Reservations: (66) 673 9353
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