13 August 2011

Le Temps des Mirabelles

This has long been my favorite table for tête-à-têtes.

Today marks the anniversary of one of my favorite restaurants — indeed, one of my favorite places of any kind, anywhere, and a “home away from home,” wherever my home happens to be at the moment. On this day in 1984, Annick LeDouaron opened the door to La Mirabelle, serving traditional French cooking on the Upper West Side of New York City. She took the name from the small yellow plum that — by sheer coincidence — grows in my garden in Beynes, and is harvested around this time of year.

Where else on earth is my arrival cheered even before I walk in the door? After moving to Paris, whenever I called to reserve a table on return trips to New York and left my name, I’d hear a happy cry of “You’re back!” across the telephone. I can’t count the number of special occasions I’ve celebrated there: birthdays, departures, homecomings. When times were a bit more flush for me, I’d bring special dates to the Mirabelle, just one on one, although in recent years my dinners have been shared with large groups of friends.

When I’m homesick and can’t get to France, I come here.
Mme Danielle’s paintings hang all around the restaurant.

While it’s perfectly possible that I may rate your friendship very highly even if I have never taken you to the Mirabelle, it is certain that, once we have dined together there, you have truly made the grade.

I didn’t find the Mirabelle until a decade or so after the grand opening. It must have been a Bastille Day, because Danielle Ruperti insists that she doesn’t sing the Marseillaise any other day of the year — and she sang it while I ate my first supper in the restaurant. This was easily one of the most thrilling performances I have ever witnessed. I was captivated from that moment onward.

Mme Annick at the reception desk.
Signed photographs of celebrities hang on the wall behind her — and sans blagues, most are regular customers.

Mme Annick (as we refer to her*) was still doing business then in a residential hotel on 86th Street at Riverside Drive, but within a few years she uprooted to her present location, on 86th at Columbus Avenue. And it’s one measure of the way she does business that, over the years, she has held on to her customers and to her staff. You see the same faces there, you eat the same dishes, and you find comfort and community in the absolute fidelity at work: to people, to food, to wine, and to the most sacred principles of French hospitality.

Mme Danielle began working with Mme Annick at another restaurant, several years even before the Mirabelle opened, and it’s always a pleasure to see how much the two women appreciate each other. Not only does Mme Danielle sing — French popular standards in a robust, vibrant alto, to the delight of customers like me — but the walls are festooned with her paintings, floral still lives and country scenes. (One of her works now hangs in my study in Beynes.) I can’t think of many places I’ve worked where I’d be made a star, the way Mme Danielle is here.

Mme Danielle, ma bien-aimée

I’m often struck by the sense that the Mirabelle is a story, and it’s a story of women — French women, who crossed the stormy Atlantic to build a future here. “We’ve all got stories,” Mme Danielle told me, just before I moved in the opposite direction, leaving New York for France. Indicating her colleagues, she said, “You could write a book about every one of us.” Believe me, I’ve thought about it. (And yes, I think we would have to include a few recipes.)

Mme Annick is from the north of France, Mme Danielle from the south — you can hear it in their accents. You can see it sometimes in their demeanor, too: it was many years (and something of a personal triumph for me) before Mme Annick welcomed me with a bisou, though such a greeting had been standard with Mme Danielle for a long time. The children of both women have worked at the Mirabelle over the years, which heightens the sense of community I find here.

“Petite” Annick, another of the stars of the staff.

A typical meal here begins with a glass of Lillet blanc — and despite the fact that my sister-in-law is from Bordeaux, it’s a beverage I have seldom drunk anywhere but at the Mirabelle. (It just wouldn’t taste right if anyone other than Mme Danielle poured it.) Most often I have come with an appetite, and often, too, my dinner companions haven’t arrived yet, so I nibble on the toasted slices of bread while I wait. When we are assembled at the table, Mme Danielle arrives to tell us the day’s specials, in English and in French, to be sure everyone understands exactly how wonderful the specials are.

The stuff on the menu is wonderful, too, and I can’t count how often I’ve started with a salad of endive and blue cheese. For a main course, the menu boasts rognons de veau (veal kidney) that are delicious — and what’s more, I’ve never found any place in France that can touch the Mirabelle recipe. Nobody else does kidney right, and especially on cold winter nights, nothing else is quite so satisfying to me. (But the ris de veau — veal sweetbreads — are a favorite, too.)

The “waitress station” and the wine rack.
In the evening, you are liable to find the tarte du jour here.
(Unless I’ve already ordered the last piece.)

My dessert is always and invariably a slice of the tart of the day, with its light, homemade crust and tangy fruit (which varies according to what’s available at the market — of course). Naturally we drink quite a lot of wine with our meal, and there’s usually an after-dinner drink, too.

By the time we leave, Mme Danielle has sung at least a few times, and we have all chatted and caught up on the news; then we wander off into the night. I suppose that it’s possible to polish off a Mirabelle dinner in under three hours, but I can’t imagine why anybody would want to.

The bar, by the door to the kitchen.
Mme Danielle’s bartending skills have won praise
from The New York Times.

I once took my godmother to dinner at the Mirabelle, and at one point, when I was away from the table, she and Mme Danielle got to talking. “We feel about Bill as if he were one of our own,” my godmother explained.

“We feel the same way,” Mme Danielle replied.

So yes — I celebrate this anniversary day.

Restaurant la Mirabelle
102 West 86th Street at Columbus Avenue
New York, NY 10024
(212) 496-0458

Madame, Monsieur, your table is waiting.

*NOTE: Bernard long ago informed me that to designate a woman as “Madame” with her first name — as we refer to Mme Annick and Mme Danielle — is actually better suited to the address of the proprietress of a brothel than to the respectable owner or waitress of a nice restaurant. But to call the ladies by their last names strikes me as impersonal (and rather false), and to address them simply by their first names seems excessively familiar. And so the habit has held.

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