45 Rockefeller Plaza
New York, NY 10111
Standing in the station, with Paris in back of them, it seemed as if they were vicariously leaning a little over the ocean, already undergoing a sea-change, a shifting about of atoms to form the essential molecule of new people.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
It is the Christmas Holidays. I am paralyzed in the panicky crush of tourists, kids, iPhone selfie takers, cabs, sirens, barricades, cops, garish store displays, on Fifth Avenue just south of Atlas, holding up the world. It is cold, I don’t care about store windows or lights or ice skaters or shopping or Christmas I just want out. My wife finally relented in trying to find Christmas spirit, and we escaped to Brasserie Ruhlman where I had wisely made reservations anticipating the situation.
We entered through the back of the restaurant by the beautiful black marble bar into warmth, quiet and opulence.
What Is a Brasserie?
“Brasserie” means “brewery.” It is derived from the Middle French word “brasser” which means “to brew.” In the 1877 Edition of the Dictionary of the French Language, “brasserie” was defined as “a place where beer is sold by the measure and where there are only benches and wooden tables.”
When France lost the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, Alsatian businessmen flooded Paris and opened restaurants which served sauerkraut and beer. Patricia Wells said that brasseries have “lots of beer, Alsatian white wines such as Riesling and Gewurztraminer and usually choucroute, that hearty blend of sauerkraut and assorted sausages.”
Beer became a beverage for the working classes. Brasseries quickly attracted writers and artists. Some of the early brasseries were wild. The beer was served by pretty barmaids who would sometimes take customers into the back rooms.
Brasseries tend to be larger than bistros and are more energetic, lively and loud. Many of the modern brasseries are elegant, bright and are decorated with Belle Epoque design. Brasseries usually serve food all day long whereas bistros usually just serve food at mealtimes.
Brasserie Lipp is a great example of a Parisian brasserie. It was opened in 1880 by Leonard Lipp and his wife at 151 Boulevard Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Its original name was “Brasserie des bords du Rhin” as a tribute to Alsace. During World War I the name was changed to Brasserie Lipp. In 1920 the business was taken over by Marcelin Cazes who established house rules that jackets must be worn and pipes must not be smoked. In 1935 he established a literary prize that was awarded annually to a talented young writer. In 2015, the prize celebrated its 80th anniversary.
In 1935, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the great French writer who wrote such classics as The Little Prince, Night Flight and Flight To Arras, celebrated his return to France from the War at the Brasserie Lipp:
And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
Other great writers such as Malraux, Gide, Proust, and Camus were regulars at the Brasserie Lipp. It was popular with the Lost Generation writers such as Hemingway, Stein, Joyce, Miller, Eliot and Fitzgerald.
From its Website:
Four letters (LIPP) which epitomize gastronomy and history. Four letters which stand proud in the heart of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Crossing the threshold of this illustrious establishment is akin to entering a shrine to Parisian life and discovering its many treasures. Every object has a story and has witnessed a succession of French political and literary giants, as well as international celebrities in the arts.
Brasserie Lipp is listed on the register of French historic monuments because of its mahogany facade, Art Nouveau decor, ceramic tile murals by Léon Fargue and ceilings painted by Charly Garrey.
The difference between a brasserie and a bistro? The New York Times says:
Twenty years ago, the difference between a brasserie and a bistro could be reduced to the difference between the heart and the mind — or so it appeared to a young woman with poetic tendencies and expatriate ambitions. The beef bourguignon and homey roast chicken at the bistro were there to reassure and console, whereas the raw oysters heaped on ice and the slabs of pate at the brasserie catered to a more aggressive palate.
Perhaps the most renowned designer of his day, Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann is considered the primary exponent of high French taste after World War I. His early designs reflected the Art Nouveau influence. His construction techniques place his work on a par with the finest eighteenth-century furniture. His concepts and craftsmanship epitomize the glamour of the French Art Deco era of the 1920s and continue to leave a lasting legacy.
Brasserie Ruhlmann was designed to pay homage to Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann and the Parisian brasserie.
Over the entry way of Brasserie Ruhlmann is a gold Art Deco engraving of a reclining male figure pouring water from a jug. There are large Art Deco lighting fixtures throughout the restaurant. The restaurant feels clubby. The wood is deep, rich, red mahogany, the lighting is soft and yellow, the tablecloths are white and starchy, the benches and chairs are red velvet, the floor is blue, white and brown geometric mosaic. The space projects opulence, exclusiveness, and formal reserve. It is calm and quiet which is a welcome contrast to the crush and the masses of tourists outside at Rockefeller Center.
Chef Laurent Tourondel
The executive chef of Brasserie Ruhlmann is Laurent Tourondel. He is a highly accomplished chef.
Chef Laurent Tourondel graduated from the four year cooking program at Saint Vincent Ecole de Cuisine in Montlucon, France where he earned a “d’Aptitude Professionnelle de Cuisinier.” He worked under such notable chefs as: Bruno Tison at Restaurant Beau Geste in Manhattan; Jacques Maximin at Restaurant Ledoyen in France; and Chef de Partie at Restaurant Mercury at the Hotel InterContinental in Moscow. He also worked at the three-star Michelin Relais & Chateau Troisgros.
He opened BLT Steak, BLT Fish, BLT Prime, BLT Burger, BLT Market, LT Burger in the Harbor, LT Burger in Bryant Park, LT Signature and most recently Arlington Club. In October 2007, Bon Appétit magazine named Tourondel Restaurateur of the Year.
Food and Experience
The menu includes caviar and vodka, a raw bar, a sushi selection and most of the bistro standards. It is pricey; most of the entrees are in the middle $30s. Oddly, the Dover Sole Meunière (with spinach, pommes fondantes, soy citrus, brown butter) was $52 but the lowly Branzino (with mashed potatoes) was $36.
We led the dinner with pommes frites and French onion soup.
The wine list is vast and expensive. We selected modest wines by the glass-expensive but of quality. The list is a bit confusing-they serve wines in 5 and 10 ounce carafes. It is easy to order a nice wine for what you think is a modest price but only to receive 5 ounces, but to get a real glass of wine, you could be up to $30-$50 dollars or so!
I had the Scottish Salmon Chermoula (couscous tabbouleh, harissa, yogurt sauce). My wife had the Seared Sea Scallops (rosemary apple & cauliflower purée, hazelnut, sage, brown butter).
The food was competently executed but it did not sing. Considering the reputation of its head chef, the food should have been of higher level. More attractive plating, more creativity, more clarity between flavors, better articulation of the overall dishes was expected.
The service was prompt, efficient, pleasant. It was slightly stuffy and formal but with modest attempts of communication they became human.
Service: 7 (Formal and professional)
Archetype: 8 (High scores for brasserie, this is not a bistro )
Food: 6 ( Professionally prepared, competent but lacked soul. Where is Chef Laurent Tourondel?)
Energy: 7 (A quiet, warm, clubby, opulent retreat from the masses at Rockefeller Center)