Can Montrachet be closed? montrachet.jpg
Here’s what the “Food Stuff” column says in this morning’s New York Times:

This TriBeCa pioneer closed for renovations in early summer but has not reopened. Last week Drew Nieporent, an owner, said he was not ready to discuss his plans for the restaurant, which opened in 1985 with David Bouley in the kitchen and soon received three stars from Bryan Miller in The New York Times. It received two stars in its most recent review, in 2004. It is listed in the 2007 Zagat guide with a note about the renovations, and is on the Zagat Web site with the advisory, “call ahead.” But calls to the restaurant have gone unanswered.

“Temporarily closed,” says gayot.com. “Now closed,” says nymag.com.

Woe is me, for I have a soft spot in my heart for Montrachet. It was the first restaurant I reviewed.

I was in New York in January 1986, my first trip alone to Manhattan. I was teaching college English and writing a weekly wine column, free lance, for The Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis. I proposed to my editor that the paper should pay for me to go to New York to cover a couple of wine events, and to my surprise, she said yes. Somewhere I had read about this thrilling restaurant in the far reaches of TriBeCa, and I made a reservation.

I was staying at the St. Moritz, a hotel whose glory had faded to a kind of shabby European elegance reflected in most of the people residing there. My room was very small and looked out onto the air shaft.

The night of my appointment at Montrachet, I got a cab at the hotel and told the driver where I was going, 239 West Broadway. I seem to remember that the driver turned and looked at me as if I had asked him to drive me to Bulgaria. And not the nice part of Bulgaria. I, of course, had no idea where we were going, nor did I realize that TriBeCa in those days was a dark, deserted outpost of Manhattan, an industrial moonscape south of Canal. Soon we were driving less than purposefully through dim, narrow lanes past grim warehouses. The system of one-way streets seemed wholly arbitrary. The driver stopped, backed around corners, started up streets we had already driven down, crossed streets we had already crossed. He muttered. He scratched his head. Finally he stopped.

“O.K.,” he said. “I think it’s over there,” and he waved his hand vaguely to the left.

“Where?” I said.

“Over there. I think maybe in one of those buildings. Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s it, where those lights are.”

I paid the fare, walked across the wide pavement, heading toward the beacon of a few lit windows. And that’s where Montrachet was.

It was the first restaurant I had been in which the waiters wore all black. I was staggered by the chicness. Montrachet was simple and spare, and so was the David Bouley’s cuisine, yet that simplicity and spareness were infused with flavor and character. And cheap! Appetizers on that menu dated “12/85,” which I have here on the desk, ran from $7 to $15; entrees were $18 to $25, desserts $6 to $8. I suppose at the time that the prices were standard for fine dining, but I had few comparisons. Prices now — at least on the company’s website, where Montrachet is still prominently featured — are $12 to $24 for appetizers and $27 to $38 for entrees.
I remember that I chose an appetizer special, grilled shrimp wrapped in paper-thin strips of cucumber. For entree I bravely selected the pigeon with Savoy cabbage; I had never eaten pigeon. The dessert I don’t remember. The bread was wonderful, each roll bearing a crusty chapeau. I must have had a glass of wine but I don’t recall what that was either. What I do remember, so clearly, was that I had never experienced a restaurant like that, and I couldn’t wait to get back to the newspaper to write about it. My editor said O.K., because plenty of people from Memphis went to New York and would like to know about Montrachet. Though I didn’t take up restaurant reviewing as a permanent beat until January 1988 — after joining the newspaper full-time in August 1986 — Montrachet was the beginning.

Montrachet was also the launch-pad for Nieporent’s ambition, and what was one shining restaurant in the obscurity of TriBeCa became TriBeCa Grill and Nobu and Nobu Next Door and the defunct Layla and the new Centrico and Rubicon in San Francisco and restaurant elsewhere, all under the umbrella of the Myriad Restaurant Group.

Montrachet has seen many chefs steering the stove in 22 years, and dips and rises in quality. We had a splendid dinner there 10 or 12 years ago, but we were in New York for an early birthday in November 2002 and the meal there was, oh, it was fine, but not exceptional, not something you would tell people about with pleasure and glee and awe.

And now this. Is the end coming with a whimper, a few notices on websites, rumors exchanged across other tables, a brief buzz in the papers and magazines, a sorrowful shake of a head. Nobody really knows it seems, perhaps not even Drew Nieporent. But I know one thing. I miss my first great restaurant.