I plan to make something new for Thanksgiving—an onion tart. This is partly because I like onions and tarts made from them, but also because the recipe I plan to use brought back warm memories of an encounter with a famous man.
As a young couple, the spouse and I wanted to explore more foods. At a time well before baba ghanoush, hummus, pita bread, and lamb kebabs were staples in restaurants and grocery stores, we discovered that Mideast restaurants and bakeries were in abundance on the street behind our apartment. They were inexpensive and allowed us to bring in our wine, and we enjoyably explored.
We soon learned that affordable neighborhood “ethnic” restaurants dotted Brooklyn and the rest of New York City, and we searched out Polish, Chinese, Mexican, Peruvian, German, Uzbek, Ethiopian, and both red sauce and Northern Italian restaurants. (Alas, I found no Lithuanian places.) But our penury prevented us from going to dinner at the City’s culinary nirvanas because those restaurants just put too much of a dent in our budget from fellowships and starting wages.
Then, however, we learned that many of these exclusive restaurants, while still expensive, were often much less stratospheric for a weekday lunch and often had a bargain fixed price lunch, which of course was labeled prix fixe. We began once or twice a year to treat ourselves to what we saw as a mini-mini-vacation. We would free up an afternoon and meet at La Caravelle, La Grenouille, the Coach House, or Le Cygne, dine luxuriously and then spend the rest of the afternoon at nearby art galleries whose staff did not seem to mind that we were only gawker/browsers. We knew that we are not experiencing the full evening dining experience but were still able to sample the food and ambiance of the best of New York in a way we could sort of afford.
Finally, we went to what many had told us was the pinnacle of New York City restaurants, Lutèce. At a time with few celebrity chefs, André Soltner, the chef-owner, was famous because his restaurant was repeatedly named the best in the country. Situated in an eastside townhouse, the dining room was elegant. And so were the patrons. The spouse and I were nicely dressed, but the women and the men all seemed to be regulars in designer dresses and bespoke suits. Even so, the staff, while incredibly professional, made us feel comfortable and welcome, something not always true at other expensive restaurants.
I don’t remember what I had to eat; I think that I would remember if I had the signature Alsatian onion tart. We both recall vividly, however, that the spouse had salmon. She kept exclaiming quietly to me throughout that main course that it was the best salmon, the best fish, perhaps the best dish she had ever had. We were lingering after we finished our meal, hoping to extend for a few moments more the experience. The dining room had mostly cleared. The door to what we assumed was the kitchen swung open, and a thin man wearing a toque and assurance entered the dining room. We watched as the legendary André Soltner stopped at a few tables to exchange greetings and pleasantries with those remaining few who must have been regulars. And then he mystified us by coming over to our table and said to the spouse, “I heard you liked the salmon.” The spouse was taken aback, but then realized that a waiter must have told Soltner about her pleasure and enthusiasm. After the briefest of pauses, the spouse replied, “Yes, yes. I loved it.” He continued in his Alsatian accent, “Would you like to know how I make it?” He sat down and went on to explain his preparation in detail but so clearly that the spouse learned it and prepared it many times for dinners afterwards, always impressing our guests.
André Soltner’s graciousness was all the more surprising when it had to be clear that we were unlikely to be frequent diners at Lutèce and, indeed, might never eat there again. (In fact the restaurant closed before we were able to go again.) And we were surprised by another thing. Soltner stressed that the secret of the dish, what pushed it into the extraordinary, was that the salmon was cooked in bacon fat.
This experience came back to me when I recently saw printed in The New York Times Soltner’s onion tart recipe adapted by Gabrielle Hamilton, who is both a gifted cook and a gifted writer. She was the chef at the extraordinary restaurant Prune. She is the author of Blood, Bones, & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, a book about much, much more than just cooking, catering, and restaurants. (Both AJ and AJ’s Dad highly recommend it.) In this book, she records that her sister cooked an omelet with Soltner. He did not showily crack open the eggs with one hand. “With two hands, he split the egg open and deposited its contents into a bowl. With each thumb, he reached into each half of the shell and scraped out the remaining albumen that tends to cling to the membrane until he had thoroughly cleaned out the egg. He said, ‘When I was growing up, this is how my mother got thirteen eggs out of the dozen.’”
I read Hamilton’s take on Soltner’s onion tart classic, and memories of our lunch flooded back. Her instructions told me that while baking the dough, I should slowly caramelize the yellow onions over a medium-low heat in a wide pan in…yes, bacon fat.