"Today we have on the wagon a very nice saddle of lamb."
"I think not anything off the wagon. It arrives too quickly."
"La Côte Basque," published in 1965 by Truman Capote.
There is, admittedly, something deliciously gratifying about ordering "off the wagon," as they used to say in the grand old days of haute cuisine. Now Jean-Louis Dumonet's menu in the newly abloom dining room of The Carlyle hotel—flowers by Olivier, "uniforms" by Kate and Andy Spade, opulent interiors by Thierry Despont—certainly has wonders galore, like the vichyssoise frappée and those tiny sole called céteaux fished from the waters off La Rochelle; but there is one spécialité you will not find listed. Ask, however, and M. Dumonet will oblige with his oeuf de caille en brioche au caviar, a first course as memorable as it is simple.
There are those who remember a version of this dish that is a far cry from the one served in the swanky hotel dining room at 76th Street and Madison Avenue. Food writer Alan Richman, for example, describes a sort of "oeuf de Philadelphia" created by his mother ca. 1956: "She'd butter a slice of Wonder Bread—you know, the 59-cents-a-loaf kind—cut a hole in the middle with the rim of a glass, fry it on one side, flip to the other, and crack an egg in the center. Really fancy mothers might cut off the crusts."
Dumonet's riff is—no surprise—something altogether different involving quail eggs, brioche, caviar, and a simple white dinner plate. Dumonet confesses that his grandmother created something similar by soaking peasant bread in milk and then cracking an egg over the top while it was frying. Years later he and the late Jean-Louis Palladin would perfect the dish with red, gold, and black caviar. But that was then, and this is now. Two voluptuous ounces of osetra and voilà: flavor, texture, utter simplicity.
Dumonet at The Carlyle is at 35 East 76th Street, New York; 212-744-1600.
Oeufs de Caille en Brioche au Caviar
(Toasted Brioche with Quail Eggs and Caviar)
BY JEAN-LOUIS DUMONET
Maître Cuisinier de France
4 quail eggs
Four 1/2-inch-thick slices of brioche
2 tablespoons clarified butter
Salt and freshly ground pepper
At least 2 ounces osetra caviar
1 Using a 3 1/2-inch biscuit cutter, stamp out a round from each slice of brioche. Using a 1 1/2-inch round biscuit cutter, stamp out a hole in the center of each brioche round. Carefully crack each quail egg into a small ramekin or bowl.
2 In a large skillet, melt the clarified butter over moderate heat. Add the brioche rounds and cook until golden on the underside, about 1 minute. Flip the brioche rounds and pour a quail egg into the center of each one. Reduce the heat to low and cook until the egg whites are just set but the yolks are still runny, about 3 minutes. Transfer to plates, top with the caviar, and serve at once.
Quail eggs: D'Artagnan (800-327-8246); brioche: Amy's (212-462-4338); caviar: Caviar Russe (800-692-2842)