Le Coucou, the city’s best new restaurant of the past two decades, is the last of our great eateries to reopen after lockdown. I’m thrilled to report that the gracious temple to French cuisine is even more magnifique than it was before the pandemic struck in March of 2020.
The 80-seat eye- and palate-popper within SoHo’s 11 Howard hotel began welcoming guests back on Nov. 18 — later than Le Bernardin, Jean-Georges, Restaurant Daniel, Marea, Per Se or Masa. There were good economic and staffing reasons for the go-slow, and the wait was worth it.
Le Coucou’s airy, brick-framed, romantically chandeliered dining room hasn’t changed an iota. White tablecloths still adorn all tables. Even the amusing “Coucou” song that plays ceaselessly in the toilets is exactly as it was when the place opened to acclaim in August 2016.
Service, from a tuxedoed crew, was always seamless and poised in the past. Now, it’s somehow even better, despite the well-publicized labor shortage that’s left many restaurants giving the moon away to lure second-rate help.
Servers and sommeliers are there when you need them and never there when you don’t. There’s no infantile blather about how the “bites” are treating us or if foie gras is to our “liking.” Instead, it’s just intelligent conversation about dish preparation in grown-up English.
Born in Chicago, chef-partner Daniel Rose first took Paris by storm in 2006 with his restaurant Spring — a success so troubling to Gallic sensitivities that the Michelin Guide didn’t award it a single star. Michelin also snubbed Le Coucou for several years, but the rest of the world knew better. The James Beard Foundation named it the best new restaurant in America the year it opened. Since then, virtually every critic has lavished praise on Rose’s gentle, loving update of the traditional French playbook.
The menu boasts four new dishes, though Rose hasn’t tossed out the original Le Coucou style. “It’s more of a subtle adjustment,” he told us. “There are a lot of avenues to take with the French structure of food.”
He takes light cues from the Iberian peninsula and the French Basque country for some new additions, such as thon a la portugaise (raw bigeye tuna with Madeira vinaigrette). But, he notes with a chuckle, that the dish “isn’t really Portuguese at all.” It’s just delicious.
Bar noir a la setoise — black sea bass with “sea creatures,” such as shrimp, mussels and clams — is inspired, sort of, by the town of Setoise between Marseille and Barcelona. Did Rose find it there? “No, it’s an idea of what people might be eating in Setoise,” he explained. The luscious preparation taps olive oil, olives, and herbs and is “more austere than in Italy or the Riviera where the fish would be cooked with tomatoes.”
Rose has notably tweaked his filet basquaise — prime beef filet with foie gras and ham, which he serves with a miniature pie of chard and red pepper. He’s bid adieu to the buttery Bordelaise sauce that previously accompanied the dish. In its place is an herb-infused olive oil that lets the meat’s deep flavor speak for itself.
Rose has wisely kept old favorites, such as a grilled Maine lobster and superb quenelle de brochet (pike dumpling) in thyme-rich sauce Americaine, on the menu. But why did we have to wait so long?
Restaurateur Stephen Starr, whose empire includes Buddakan, Upland and Clocktower, said that Le Coucou has very few seats for a venue of its size. “The city first allowed us to reopen in increments, 25%, then 50%. The math didn’t work for us. We’d be losing money. So, we waited for full capacity.”
Even then, he waited until vaccine rules made diners feel safer. But the staffing problem remained acute. Le Coucou’s fine dining model calls for experienced professionals, not the unskilled help some places lured with $200 signing bonuses.
“Pardon my French, but a lot of people [bleeped] off” after the 2020 lockdowns, Rose joked. Only five of the kitchen crew’s 26-person team, including chef de cuisine Justin Bogle, worked at the restaurant before the pandemic.
Finding sommeliers proved especially challenging. Le Coucou reopened with only beverage director Aaron Thorp and somm Marion Walker-Linsky to help customers navigate the 850-bottle list. (And to help non-oligarchs locate numerous, under-$200 choices amid a blur of pricier options.) “But we just hired two more this week,” Starr said with relief.
Does he fear any impact from the Omicron variant? “I worry about everything,” Starr said cheerfully. “A new virus, new inflation — every time something good happens, something walks by and kicks you right in the nuts.”
But demand is very strong. “We don’t take all the reservations people want. We’re careful not to overbook,” Starr said. “We’re opening our book more slowly.”
Food lovers would be wise to try and score a reservation as soon as possible.