Thirty years is helluva run for a restaurant in ADD-addled New York City. Starting in Soho and moving to Tribeca, Chanterelle not only survived for three decades, but also maintained its reputation as one of the city’s most influential fine-dining institutions until 2009, when the roving cheese cart, extensive wine list, and vases of dramatic blooms all faded away.
The demise of such a downtown stalwart elicited both sadness and speculation: Where would James Beard Award-winning chef David Waltuck—who ran the kitchen to match wife Karen’s benevolent, front-of-the-house hospitality—end up next?
For the chef himself, it was a chance to regroup for the first time since his mid-twenties. “I was 24 [when Chanterelle started] and had no business opening a restaurant that young,” he says. “But it was a different time and it was possible to do something like that inexpensively. I didn’t have a clear idea that I could write in a blurb. I just knew I wanted to open a restaurant and the kind of food I wanted to cook.”
I didn’t want it to feel like I was doing Chanterelle part two or three.
Now, five years after putting the Chanterelle-closing trauma behind him, Waltuck is back, having joined forces with his former GM, George Stinson, to open élan in the Flatiron District. At Chanterelle, he was known for his self-described nouvelle cuisine—“The name’s a bit of a put-down, characterized by certain excesses, but really, it’s how everyone cooks. There’s no one without some ambition who doesn’t cook with a sense of seasonality, making composed plates and trying to develop a style,” he points out—and at élan the rustic, French-inflected cuisine is decidedly familiar, if more informal.
“I didn’t want it to feel like I was doing Chanterelle part two or three. I wanted something different in terms of look and style and wanted the roots to feel like the Soho restaurant, when it was a more casual experience,” Waltuck explains. “I didn’t want to feel like I had anything to prove, that I was free to do what I want. There were some dishes and ingredients I couldn’t put on the menu at Chanterelle because they weren’t fancy enough.”
Whether diners sit at the bar and dig into zucchini blossoms and Waltuck’s signature seafood sausage, or the dining room to tackle a red wine and sage sea bass, élan’s vibe is at once classy and unfussy.
“In the late ’60s and ’70s there was no food culture. I didn’t even know if becoming a chef was realistic,” Waltuck says. “Evolution isn’t always going towards some sort of ideal perfection. Sometimes change happens and you just keep moving.”
Waltuck has gracefully remained in motion for decades. From French meals served at revered institutions to fatty, homemade lamb chops, here are 10 of the dishes that have helped sustain the chef’s long, robust career.
Crayfish Gratin at La Pyramide (Vienne, France)
I had just graduated college and was interested in cooking professionally when I took my first trip to France, alone, in 1975. I had no money, but I had permission to use my dad’s AmEx on occasion. At the time, a lot of my interaction with food was intellectual, through books. I went to lunch at La Pyramide and had the famous gratin of crayfish. I had no idea what it was going to taste like, but I had heard about it and read about it. It was perfect. Mrs. Point [wife of legendary chef Fernand Point] was still there and the sommelier I had seen in pictures from the 1950s was still there. It lived up to what I hoped it would be. (Photo: Dining in France)
I read an article by Gael Greene about her eating trip to France in the mid-’70s, and one of the things she referred to was the seafood sausage at Taillevent. She wasn’t terribly descriptive, but I took the idea and came up with my own version. Years later, my wife and I went to Taillevent and ordered it. It was delicious, but completely different from mine. Theirs was very French, poached and sliced delicately; mine was rougher and ground—a bit more American. It was a significant moment for me in the sense that a dish can lead two different chefs in two completely different directions. Everyone has their own style. (Photo: Today)
Tuna Carpaccio at Le Bernardin (Paris, France)
Tuna carpaccio is, of course, everywhere now, but before I went to the original Le Bernardin, in Paris, I had never had it before—just sushi. They did so little to it and it was just extraordinary to me in its simplicity. I admired them and was so excited when they opened in New York. (Photo: Le Bernardin cookbook)
Aspic at Alain Chapel (Mionnay, France)
At Alain Chapel, outside of Lyon, I had a cold, vegetal appetizer of aspic with white wine, frog’s legs, and squab. It was an interesting composition and I thought it was executed amazingly well. But I felt that maybe I was missing some intellectual component. Clearly, there was a deep thought here, but I didn’t get it. One of the lessons I carried from that is that food is supposed to be sensual. Too much thought and intellectualizing are not necessarily good things. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Daniel Boulud’s Chilled Pea Soup
I went to dinner at the old Daniel, in the Café Boulud space, and one of the things I remember eating was an amuse-bouche of chilled pea soup with rosemary and bacon. It was probably not terribly complicated in terms of execution, but there weren’t 10 different flavors going on; there were three, and they all came together perfectly. That simplicity was something to strive for. (Photo: Daniel Krieger)
Pheasant at Chez L’Ami Louis (Paris, France)
My wife and I were in Paris and I got sick. I dragged myself to lunch at Chez L’Ami Louis and ordered the least rich thing on the menu, which was the pheasant. It wasn’t about anything except the high quality of the ingredients and a very hot stove. This absolutely wasn’t pheasant that tasted like chicken. It was gamy and simply seasoned and didn’t need anything else. It was the perfect thing for me that day, and then I dragged myself back to the hotel. (Photo: Stay.com)
Back in the day, you couldn’t get fresh foie gras in New York. You ate it out of the can. A friend of mine in Europe, the chef Christophe Royer, prepared it in a mason jar and smuggled it to us. It was a Sunday at Chanterelle, when we closed the restaurant, and we sat there and ate the entire foie gras with a wine that was probably Sauternes. It was quite memorable. A couple of years later George Faison of D’Artagnan pulled up in a station wagon with loads of foie gras and wondered if I was interested in trying any. (Photo: D’Artagnan)
Braised Beef at Benoit (Paris, France)
At Benoit, a popular bistro in Paris, I had a straightforward braised beef with carrots and chunks of calf’s foot in the sauce. It was delicious and one of those situations where you realize it’s easy to say something’s just a rustic dish or just a bistro dish, but it takes skill and technique to create these layers of flavor. The gelatin from the calf’s foot made the sauce sticky, rich, savory, and just wonderful. (Photo: Benoit)
Mom’s Lamb Chops
My mother was a not a very good cook, and not particularly interested in cooking. One thing I remember she made was broiled lamb chops. The butcher would leave the fat on them because I loved it. She always made them with mashed potatoes and peas. Early on, the peas were from the can, and then at some point we moved up a step and went to frozen peas. As a child I would take the fat and cut it off into little pieces and mix it with the peas and mashed potatoes before eating the meat. At an early age, I learned the sum is greater than its parts. (Photo: Daley Dish)
Salted Fish Fried Rice at Phoenix Garden (New York, NY)
I love Chinese food, particularly Cantonese and Szechuan—[stuff that’s] homey with intense flavors. I think it informs what I do, especially now that I feel free to pull in that direction at élan. Because we closed Chanterelle on Sundays, almost every week we went to Phoenix Garden in Chinatown. Before it moved it used to be really good; I used to see Daniel Boulud there. One of the things I specifically remember is salted fish fried rice. The rice retained its salty accent and there was a little bit of egg and scallion. A great dish was created out of a few simple ingredients. (Photo: Urbanspoon)