You’ve seen the legendary restaurant recreated in scenes of television’s Mad Men series and many films about the swinging sixties. But for one magical evening, the elegant and delicious Lutèce restaurant was reincarnated aboard Crystal Serenity.
Its owner, Andre Soltner was a celebrity chef before there was such a thing. For three decades he presided over a remarkable kitchen that made Lutèce *the* place to dine and in the process see and be seen in Manhattan and its fame spread throughout the known world. Through it all, the man behind the myth kept a smile and a modest insistence that he is a cook and a teacher to others and not a celebrity chef.
On a Crystal Cruises’ Mediterranean Food and Wine theme cruise he was our guest chef and not only gave cooking classes to passengers and staff, but presided over preparation of a four-star meal that for one night reincarnated the cuisine and even a bit of the glittering elegance of Lutece, demonstrating his mastery on a scale never imagined in the days of the restaurant.
The five-course lesson in fine cuisine might have required booking a month in advance and mortgaging the house at Lutèce but it was complimentary in the main dining room as Crystal Serenity sailed from Taormina, Italy. Before the meal began, Soltner gave a final enthusiastic pep talk to “the ladies and gentlemen” of the wait staff, describing in rapt detail the ingredients used in the menu and how each garnish should be placed for maximum effect. When it came time for questions there were none because most of the crew had worked with him on previous Crystal cruises on which he had been guest chef.
Suddenly, it was show time and with typical Crystal flair the waiters in full formal dress formed a ceremonial line at the entrance to the dining room to escort guests to their tables.
Revelation number one: Chasson aux Crabes, an appetizer of crabmeat turnovers served with a perfect Béarnaise sauce. My wife, Lisa — who has a diploma from Le Cordon Bleu herself — shook her head in blissful regret: “I’m afraid I’m going to have to rethink everything I know about a Béarnaise and start over,” she said.
The salad course was Salade d’Endive aux Noix et Olives Noirs — endive lettuce and walnut that sounded like a throwback to another era but there were also slivers of black olives that added just the right edge. With Soltner it’s about knowing how much is just enough.
Then there was soup: Minestrone Des Grisons, but not the bean-laden heavyweight we associate with the name minestrone, rather a flavorful medley of vegetables with pearl barley and tiny croutons whose magic soupçon is a spritzing of melted butter just before they’re dropped into the bowl to give them richness while retaining their crunch.
The main event was a choice. I opted for the cod fillet in red wine sauce on a celeriac puree, with carrots and slices of asparagus that was pure ecstasy. Lisa selected the roast duck with raspberries, broccoli roses and gnocchi romaine. She has prepared a lot of ducks in our kitchen and was in awe of the delicate tenderness of the meat and the subtlety of the juxtaposition of ingredients Chef Andre had created.
Dessert was a pear cake made with nut flour that was remarkably light and was served alongside a small scoop of vanilla ice cream topped with a glazed, thin slice of baby pear. Again, it was about subtlety and balance rather than excess. We applauded Chef Andre when he made his appearance at the end of the meal. I will forever remember his words: “It should always be about the taste.”