If I hadn't had the address in hand, I might have walked right past the entrance to Cello. The ornate wooden door, carved and studded with iron, is hidden in shadows thrown by a streetlight—but look carefully and you'll notice a little brass plaque about the size of a place mat with the restaurant's name stamped in. With characteristic discretion, there is no uniformed doorman, no street-to-door awning, no menu hanging in a window. Nothing, in fact, to lure you into chef Laurent Tourondel's domain other than a prior knowledge of what you'll find when you get there: one of New York City's most singular culinary experiences.
After cooking in several of France's top gastronomic temples, followed by stints in Moscow, Las Vegas, and New York, where he worked at C.T. in Manhattan's Flatiron district, Laurent Tourondel opened Cello in a century-old red-brick brownstone on a tony Upper East Side block in 1999. Cello met with immediate critical and popular acclaim, the culmination of which was a three-star review in The New York Times. But this also meant that procuring a reservation in the 65-seat main dining room became practically impossible, which is why it took me over a year to make it through that massive wooden door.
And it was worth the wait. As the exterior of the restaurant suggests, the pleasures of Cello are subtle, and yet as palpable as the invisibly attentive staff or the comfortable amount of space that surrounds each table—the kinds of indulgences that you don't miss until you don't have them.
Once, while I was waiting momentarily for a table, I overheard a gentleman say to his companion as they put on their coats after dinner, "This place always reminds me of Europe. They don't knock you over the head with fancy gimmicks and what have you. They just leave you alone to enjoy your dinner. I like that in a restaurant."
Well put, I thought as I walked down the tiny flight of stone steps and past the minuscule bar. The dining room has a certain gravitas about it, not in a somber way, but more like the heft of a piece of sterling—solid and elegant, old-world but ever-classic. A neutral palette heightens this impression, although there are touches of whimsy scattered about the celadon-and-gray interior: the aquamarine pillows that make for soft reclining on the sloping, wavelike mohair banquettes; the flashy brass Arman sculptures of contorted cellos, two small ones in the dining room and one behemoth in the garden.
A sophisticated, mostly Manhattanite clientele, many dressed in suits of gray that match the walls, fits in well with this genteel luxury. Cello has all the requisite details of turn-of-the-century fine dining: Frette table linens, Bernardaud china, German crystal glasses. While not at all stuffy or staid, it's the kind of atmosphere that inherently inhibits explosive bursts of laughter or overly animated, water-glass-felling gestures.
Instead, diners leave that sort of exuberance to Laurent Tourondel's imaginative cuisine, which is, as the chef himself says, "a personal interpretation of traditional French cuisine...based on seasonal ingredients...simple tastes, and classic technique."
Dinner at Cello begins with a narrow tray of amuse-bouches, or little mouthfuls—think quirky and daring canapés. In one, a morsel of soy-marinated eel sits on top of a buttery flat potato round. Smoked haddock brandade, a soft, salty pillow, garnishes grilled country bread in another. And a clever miniature smoked-salmon croque-monsieur dispels any thoughts that this urbane creation was ever anything as simple and rustic as a sandwich.
Alongside these delicacies, my mouth is equally amused by a glass of Champagne, the Paul Goerg Blanc de Blancs, a selection made for us by Cello's talented sommelier, Olivier Zardoni. In the course of a month I ate three dinners at Cello, and each time Zardoni was there to lend his oenological expertise, either creatively matching wines by the glass to a tasting menu designed by Tourondel or helping me and my dinner-mate pick out an appropriate bottle of red wine to accompany our fish-based entrées. And indeed, a Jean-Marc Boillot premier cru 1997 Pommard Jarollières was a perfectly delightful partner to one evening's special of nearly red-in-the-center Arctic char with asparagus and a mushroom jus, and the bacon-wrapped tuna with grilled foie gras and a reduction of balsamic vinegar.
Despite its decidedly un-aquatic name, Cello is a seafood restaurant. But rather than keeping to simple, mix-and-match preparations and gentle sauces that one associates with most seafood, Tourondel cooks every type of fish as if it were the only one on the menu. He carefully considers each individual taste and texture, then decides what would best enhance it, never shying away from bold seasonings and layered, complex flavors. He instinctively understands that the lean meatiness of the aforementioned tuna can stand up to both the rich, livery taste of foie gras and the salty crunch of the bacon, while the balsamic cuts through it all, adding a fruity nuance with just the right jolt of acid. With confidence he adroitly pairs the earthy, thick flesh of wild striped bass with a bracing pimento piperade, pungent tapenade, and deep-fried slices of Serrano ham as thin and brittle as potato chips. Succulent saline chunks of red-tinged Maine lobster are both heightened and tamed by a gutsy buttery emulsion of lime, ginger, and cilantro.
At the same time that he lets his ebullience reign with full-flavored fish, Tourondel knows when to hold back and let the more temperate species speak for themselves. A sweet, mild carpaccio of pearly dorade needs nothing more than a lively garnish of tiny cubed magenta beets, mâche, and a sprinkling of olive oil to bring it to life. The most popular entrée on the menu, Chilean sea bass with acacia honey and parsnip purée, is also an exercise in restraint. The components of the marinade are almost too simple—just soy sauce, grape-seed oil, honey, and white-wine vinegar—while the presentation is as plain as a piece of white fish perched on a creamy white purée. No ruffle of baby greens or herbs, no dots of sauce or sprinkles of caviar—nothing to distract from the pure, clean flavors that are deep and haunting as the ocean itself.
There is one meat entrée to be found on the menu, and it changes with the seasons. During the winter months it was a hearty confit of lamb shank with preserved lemon and savory, served with creamy flageolet beans. In a restaurant culture where steak is normally the best-selling entrée on the menu, I expressed my surprise that Tourondel had opted for lamb over beef.
"I always use lamb," he tells me with a sly grin, "for the simple reason that women will definitely go more for lamb than a piece of beef…. Since usually the woman in a couple decides where to eat, if you put the lamb on [the menu], she may want to come back." The chef, small and soli like his restaurant, has deep-brown eyes and a quick laugh. His deceptively rosy complexion would lead you to believe he spends an active outdoor life in the country breathing plenty of wholesome fresh air instead of an active indoor life in the city, where any fresh air he encounters occurs on the 15-block walk from his apartment to the restaurant.
But back to the meat. While I can tell you that it smells enticing, that it's served in its own little cast-iron pot, and that approximately ten servings a night are sold (out of 120 dinners), I can't tell you how it tastes. After three meals at Cello and one long night in the kitchen sampling as many little tidbits as the chef passed my way, I forgot all about trying the lamb. But really, it's beside the point. At Cello, Tourondel's focus is fish, and the meat is something that he feels obliged to provide.
It's not the sort of obligation he takes lightly, having something on the menu for everyone. Although it sounds simple and, one would think, integral to every restaurant, Tourondel's pragmatic attitude i rare. Unlike many French chefs at three-star restaurants, Tourondel does not put his own ego ahead of his customers' enjoyment. His food is not a grand scheme or an intellectual exercise, but, rather, an honest expression of what he loves, and of the foods and ingredient combinations that work for him and his palate. Although he does have his idiosyncrasies (no fruit-and-chocolate combinations, no warm oysters or warm smoked salmon, and no traditionally savory ingredients used in desserts), he also has an intrinsic understanding of the flavors that people crave. Satisfying those cravings in a creative, elegant manner firmly based in classical French technique is his mission at Cello. It's what he knows will fill the dining room—week after week, year after year, despite passing trends and fickle press.
Cultivating a following dedicated enough to make their next dinner reservation while waiting for their cars to collect them from their current one is a challenge for a restaurant as expensive and upscale as Cello.
"I don't want people to think we are too fancy," Tourondel says, "I don't want to hear 'Oh wow, we had a great experience, but you know next time we're going to try somewhere new.' No; I want to hear 'Wow, we had a great experience, so we'll come back.' "
To do this, he listens to his customers, and weaves their feedback into his cuisine. And although the presentations are elaborate and the garnishes luxe—caviar and truffles abound, as do fashionable "foams"—the tastes are clean and accessible. It doesn't take too much pondering to understand why he pairs crunchy breaded Ecuadorian shrimp with soft, briny feta cheese and cool cucumbers, or how the earthy intensity of Jerusalem artichoke soup brings out the similar qualities in the sliced black truffles crowning the top. His pastry chef, Jean-François Bonnet, follows this lead, and it's easy to appreciate the contrast his ethereal lime cream makes against the crisp leaves of pastry in his mille-feuilles, or take childish pleasure in the nearly savory edge of salted peanuts and Rice Krispies combined with the treacly complexity of bittersweet chocolate disks. The food makes sense, and people respond to that.
There is nothing as telling as watching a chef in action, doing what he or she does best. So I was pleased when Tourondel gave his assent to hosting me for one night during service. He dressed me up in one of his starched white jackets and I followed him down the stairs and into the kitchen.
First I was introduced to the kitchen team, including the two sous-chefs, John Randazzo and Matt Evers. I was struck by everyone's youth. Even for a French kitchen, where apprentices begin in their teenage years, the Cello kitchen is startlingly young. Tourondel himself is barely 34, his sous-chefs are 25 and 26, and the oldest person in the kitchen tops out at a ripe old 38.
"I like to have young energy in the kitchen," Tourondel tells me. "Older cooks don't listen as well…They have their own ideas."
This attitude is understandable, given the chef's precocity. And Tourondel was always precocious, even at the tender age of 13, when he was "fired" from school. He told me this earlier that day as we sat in his office conducting a formal interview. From his desk he fished out a handwritten letter to his father from the principal of his school.
"My father sent this to me and I saved it," he explained. 'Monsieur, Madame,' " he said, reading from the slightly frayed paper, 'We are sorry we could not reach you by phone. I would like to inform you that I, the director of the school, give to Laurent a warning for the following: Instead of going to his classes at 8 a.m., Laurent went to the bar with two of his friends.'
"We were playing pool or whatever," he told me, "so that's how seriously I took school. I couldn't stand sitting for hours; it bored me."
Of course, rather than think his son a culinary genius stifled in a noncreative atmosphere, Tourondel senior rather thought Laurent a juvenile delinquent. "My father gives me three choices," Tourondel related, 'Are you going to cook, do the sewing, or type as a secretary?' I chose cooking, but only because I didn't have enough school to go to the army."
It wasn't quite that desperate. Tourondel already loved to cook. By the time he was 12 he was preparing most of the family's Sunday meals. Th next year he single-handedly made an impressive Christmas dinner for the family and their friends. The menu included a terrine of vegetables, beef tournedos with green-peppercorn sauce, and for dessert, an apricot charlotte. "And I made my first terrine of foie gras," he nostalgically enthused. "It took me two days!"
After cooking school, Tourondel worked in his hometown of Montluçon, in the center of France, first slinging paella at a local Spanish joint, trying to save up for a motorcycle. Eventually he gave up the motorcycle idea and decided to move to London, work in a fancy hotel, and learn English. He spent three years there before returning to France to continue training in the kitchens of Michelin two- and three-star restaurants, including those of Jacques Maximin, Joël Robuchon, and the Troisgros family.
Although he experienced many renowned kitchens, he could hardly have found a more pleasant atmosphere than the kitchen he designed at Cello. Despite the tiles and shiny surfaces that tend to amplify banging and screaming, the room is peaceful and nearly silent. The chefs work swiftly and purposefully, with intense concentration, frying, searing, whisking, drizzling. Plates slide with a rhythmic shuffle, but no slam. I asked Amy Harmon, the only other woman in the room (and the only woman who works in the kitchen during dinner) if it was always this subdued, or if this was for my benefit.
"It's always like this," she said. "Or usually." Still, I feel as if I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop, so I slink back against the giant floor-model standing mixer and try to blend in with the tiles. It stays pretty calm the whole night, with about an hour of what might be construed as a "rush." From nine o'clock to ten, the energy level picks up and Tourondel stops feeding me such delicacies as zucchini-and-carrot-wrapped rouget and jumps forward in line with his sous-chefs, shouting orders and wiping down plates, spooning celery jus around mackerel tartare for the party in one of the regally appointed private dining rooms upstairs.
The work stations are set up like a horseshoe, with all the cooks behind the ring and Tourondel and the sous-chefs in the center. That makes it easy for him to jump around and supervise all the stations at once, dipping his spoon into the risotto to check the seasonings, jabbing a finger at a piece of tuna to feel how rare it is, or adjusting the micro-carrot tops that garnish a stone-crab appetizer. Nothing escapes his searching eyes. He watches as one of his cooks slides black winter truffles through the slicer, making even rounds to top the black bass. "Too thick," he says, tightening the appliance's edge to produce delicate slivers. "That's much better."
Over by the sauté station, Matt Evers arranges three brussels sprout leaves on top of the vegetable medley that makes a bed for the turbot layered with foie gras (which Tourondel calls "surf and turf" as an homage to his Las Vegas days).
Though Tourondel's cooking is exacting, it's never precious, and I'm shocked by this seemingly superfluous touch. "Three brussels sprout leaves?" I ask incredulously. "Yup, three," Evers responds without irony. When I mention the leaves to Tourondel he laughs, turning pink at the tips of his ears. "I like the shape," he says, smiling mischievously. "It makes it fancy, you know what I mean?"
Even though the dish already has turbot, foie gras, rarefied Xeres vinegar, fresh seasonal porcini mushrooms, and sage-leaf-wrapped foie gras paté, the idea that those three leaves make it "fancy" struck me as absolutely apt for Tourondel. After all, here is a man who doesn't shirk the details, down to counting out grains of coarse salt to top the crisp potato-crusted halibut.
It is only by wielding this much control that he can make his dishes truly work. One inattentive moment (or on a night when things don't quite click), and the combinations can seem wild and unruly on the plate, as if the ingredients had been let out of the kitchen to frolic without the steely-eyed chef around to kick them into line. Of all the meals I enjoyed at Cello this happened just once, with the brussels-sprout-leaf-garnished "surf and turf." The foie gras between the fillets was overdone. Instead of dissolving into a velvety sauce and unifying the dish with its rich, meaty essence, it refused to meld; the ingredients remained disparate elements, never coming together into a happy whole. But the next time I ordered it, the foie gras was as soft and melting as a pool of butter on a hot pancake, and the combination was miraculous—just perfect in its mix of audacity, authority, and sheer comforting pleasure.
That's the key to dining at Cello. As a customer in the cushioned dining room, you don't sense the strict rule that holds sway in the kitchen down below, the precise touches, the careful planning, the flawless technique, and the close monitoring of every dish. Instead, all you experience are the flavors and the pure harmony they produce in combination.
It's what Tourondel strives for on every one of his 14-hour days. Do not expect this man to ever rest on his laurels. He will keep cooking, experimenting, and improving his food until he reaches his next goal: a four-star review in The New York Times. Then, he contemplates writing a cookbook and, perhaps, having his own small television show, but nothing that would take him away from his restaurant for very long, and only if he can find the time. His priority is cooking—cooking to perfection.
Cello, 53 East 77th Street, New York, NY 10021; 212-517-1200, fax 212-517-1251.
Smoked Haddock Brandade
At Cello, this delectably creamy purée is used in myriad ways: mounded on grilled bread or sliced potatoes; topped with golden osetra caviar; served warm, covered with white truffles; or as a bed for other types of grilled fish. It also makes an intensely flavored spread for crackers.
1 pound (2 medium) baking potatoes
1/2 pound high-quality smoked haddock (finnan haddie)
2 cups whole milk, or more to cover
1/2 small yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
2 fresh thyme sprigs
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup heavy cream
1. Place the potatoes in a saucepan and add enough water to cover by 2 inches. Bring the potatoes to a boil and cook until tender, about 25 minutes. Drain and let cool.
2. Meanwhile, place the haddock in a small saucepan and cover with milk. Add the onion, garlic, thyme, peppercorns, and bay leaf and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer gently for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the haddock cool in the pot.
3. When cool enough to handle, peel the potatoes with a knife and mash them wit a potato masher or pass them through ricer or a sieve. Add the cream and whisk until smooth.
4. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the haddock to a plate, brushing off any clinging seasonings such as bay leaf or peppercorns. Break the fish into very small flakes and stir it into the potatoes. Force the brandade through a sieve and season with salt to taste. The brandade will keep for up to 3 days in the refrigerator. Bring it to room temperature or warm it slightly over low heat before serving.
Melissa Clark is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and the author of several cookbooks, including the forthcoming The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern, written with Claudia Fleming.