Cafe Luxembourg

Earnest, earthless, equal, attuneable

vaulty, voluminous stupendous.

Evening strains to be time’s vast womb of all,

home of all, hearse of all night.

Her fond yellow hornlight wound to the west

her wild hollow hoarlight hung to the height.

Waste; her earliest stars, earl stars, stars principal, overbend us,

Fine featuring heaven.

Sibyl’s Leaves, Herald Manley Hopkins

Babbitt: Two Sonnets

Photography in our time leaves us with a grave responsibility. While we are playing in our studios with broken flowerpots, oranges, nude studies and still lifes, one day we know that we will be brought to account: life is passing before our eyes without our ever having seen a thing.


Cafe Luxembourg

200 West 70th St. (between Amsterdam and West End)

New York, New York 10023

(212) 873-7411

Milton Babbitt

Milton Babbitt joined the Juilliard School faculty in 1973. He died in 2011. He was a member of both the mathematics and music faculties at Princeton. Some of his famous students are the composer Stephen Sondheim and the jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan. Later in his career he became interested in electronic music, and wrote compositions for both both electronic and conventional music.

Juilliard presented its 32nd Focus Festival-Milton Babbitt’s World: A Centennial Celebration. I attended the program that included compositions by Babbitt, Irving Berlin, Stephen Sondheim and Elliott Carter. Babbitt composed a series of sonnets that were based on poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

It is two blocks to Cafe Luxembourg from the subway stop at 72nd street and Broadway. I walked carefully in the dark to avoid the pools of brown water and slush at the base of the crosswalks. The snow was piled in drifts along the sidewalks. The rush hour crowd navigated around the snowdrifts and spilled into the streets and weaved through stream of yellow cabs driving down the street. The traditional red awning- “Cafe Restaurant Bar”- reflected red shimmers on the snow banks along 70th street. Twinkle lights on the trees. It is an easy walk from Cafe Luxembourg to Juilliard and Lincoln Center. This is a great place to have dinner before you attend your performance at Lincoln Center.

A Brief History

In 1983 Cafe Luxembourg opened its doors “to become the quintessential neighborhood bistro of the Upper West Side.”

Cafe Luxembourg was opened by Keith and Lynn Wagenknecht McNally who were the original owners of Odeon. They opened Odeon in 1980 and it quickly became a smashing success in the downtown scene. In 1983, they decided to expand and opened Cafe Luxembourg,  and Nell’s (West Village). In 1989 they opened Lucky Strike (Soho). Their vision was that Cafe Luxembourg would “become the quintessential neighborhood bistro of the Upper West Side.”

However, the couple divorced and Lynn bought our Keith’s stake in the Odeon, Cafe Luxembourg and Nell’s. Keith went on to open Balthazar, Cherche Midi, Lucky Strike, Morandi, Minetta Tavern Restaurant, and Schiller’s Liquor Bar among others. Cafe Luxembourg’s sister restaurants are Cafe Cluny in the West Village and Odeon in Tribeca.

The Experience

I was greeted warmly and graciously by the host and given my choice of seats in the restaurant. I chose a table with a view of the street. I watched people walking carefully through snow and ice.

The bistro has red benches and Parisian cane chairs.  It has Jean Perzel fixtures and antique mirrors on the walls. There are vases of flowers in the corners of the restaurant. There are candles on the white table cloths. It seats about 90 people and is smaller than Odeon.

Sinatra was playing just above the hearing threshold. The patrons were older and quieter and more reserved than the crowd at Odeon. They are the sort of people were the men wear suits to dinner and the women wear fancy hats. They have always gone to Lincoln Center and have never heard of Area. The pace was relaxed and unhurried. In the true bistro tradition, I could read the New York Times and write without feeling out of place or rushed.

The staff were professional and courteous. They wore traditional black and white uniforms with long white bistro aprons. They were human. I like this. When I inquired about the wine, the waiter brought me a tasting, and the hostess served my bisque and stopped by later to inquire how I liked it.

The wine list is small but well chosen. They have red wines from Bourgogne Burgundy, and a Côtes du Rhône. Whites include wines from Austria, France, California and Germany. The Sancerre Paul Vattan, Domaine de St. Romble, Loire, France 2013 was intriguing.

I chose the Chateau Poitevin, Médoc, 2010. The wine was round and polished with a ripe blackberry flavor and plum with hint of mint and wood. It had a dense color and firm tannins. Robert Parker said that the 2010 from Poitevin “is a straightforward, easygoing wine that displays good fruit, some herbaceousness, and hints of tobacco smoke and roasted herbs.” For my second glass, I tried the Château de Landiras Graves, Bordeaux, France 2011. I tasted cherry and earth. It was balanced and had good structure. Both wines were very enjoyable.

The waiter said they sourced their bread from Amy’s Bread. Amy’s Bread has been baking since 1992.  They aren nationally known, and Amy has been recognized as one of the 10 Best Bread Bakers in America by Dessert Professional Magazine. However, as I have said in other reviews, the bread is almost tasteless, the crust is soft and the crumb lacks structure. Professor Kaplan was not impressed by Amy’s Bread either so I am in good company.

My starter was the lobster bisque. The bisque was a dark orange brown with mustard creme and green chive oil. The creme was so light that it made small bubbles on my spoon. The combination of the mustard, chive and lobster was complex but each flavor was distinct and supported the others. This is one of the best lobster bisques that I have had in a long time.

What is a bisque? The name comes from Biscay, but the crustaceans are “bis cuits” (twice cooked). They are first sautéed lightly in their shells, and then simmered in wine and aromatic ingredients. Last, they are strained and cream is added.

It is a way of extracting flavor from crustaceans not good enough to send to market. It is usually made from lobster, crab, shrimp or crawfish. In an authentic bisque, the shells are ground to a fine paste and added to thicken the soup. Julia Child says: “Do not wash anything off until the soup is done because you will be using the same utensils repeatedly and you don’t want any marvelous tidbits of flavor losing themselves down the drain.”

Unlike stews and chowders, a bisque’s flavor comes from the shells of the crustacean, not the meat. A classic lobster bisque recipe requires you to first sauté and then simmer the shells to extract every morsel of flavor (i.e., twice cooked).

My entree was the grilled mackerel (with beet apple salad râpée, potatoes, horseradish, and caper cream).

The mackerel was lightly grilled and the skin was seared black and crispy. It was served on top of potatoes and the caper cream. The beet apple salad was on top of the fish. The deep red of the beets complimented the black of the skin. It is an attractive dish. Its many textures and flavors that worked well together.

Other interesting entrees included roasted faroe island salmon (with Fregola [a type of pasta from Sardinia], cilantro, butternut squash, green olives, paprika vinaigrette, preserved lemons and mustard greens pistou) and a heirloom bean stew. Standards such as roasted chicken, steak tartare, steak frites and moules frites are on the menu.

The menu has a long list of gluten-free dinner options. These options include roasted winter vegetables, grilled octopus, three egg omelette, pork lion, and all natural steak. I have not seen this in a bistro before. The waiter also asked if I wanted bread on the table and if I had any allergies. The restaurant is taking care to recognize the many personal preferences that diners have these days.

Jean Perzel

The menu mentions that the restaurant has Jean Perzel fixtures. Its sister restaurants, Odeon and Cafe Cluny, seem to have the same lighting.

Jean Perzel was born in Bruck, Germany, in1892. When he was 16, he learned the glassworker’s painting job in Munich. In 1910 he arrived in Paris and a master glazier sent him to execute important works in Algiers. He returned to Paris in 1914. During the war,  he made a commitment to the Foreign Legion. He became a naturalized French citizen.

From 1920 to 1939, Art Deco revolutionized 20th century architecture and design. This period gave birth to the Jean Perzel Company, which made its mark in the world of lighting and design.

Jean Perzel’s light fixtures and furniture in both glass and bronze and are installed in some of the world’s most prestigious addresses. He has created lighting designs for the King of Morocco, Bangkok’s King of Siam in Bangkok, the Maharaja of Indore, General De Gaulle and Georges Pompidou. He has created lighting for the Palace of the League of Nations in Geneva, the Luxembourg Cathedral, and the Canadian Embassy.

Jean Perzel  has been recognized by the French government for its history and traditional techniques. In 2008, the French ministry of culture awarded Jean Perzel with the label of “Company of Living Heritage”.

Brassai-Three Naked Ladies

You may be wondering why Cafe Luxembourg uses an image of three naked ladies in high heels standing at the bar as its brand? You can see this image on its website, on its postcards and on its branded merchandise.

This image was inspired by the cover of Brassai’s “The Secret Paris of the 30’s”. Brassai was as street photographer in Paris. In the early 1930s he decided to photograph Paris at night. He photographed the streets, the cafes, the river, the night life. There are images of dance cafes, prostitutes, pimps, madams, transvestites, passionate couples and street cleaners. His book became one of the most famous photography books of all time.







Reviews of Cafe Luxembourg

Amy’s Bread

Jean Perzel

Milton Babbitt