Le Coucou: Stephen Starr's smashing New York success and surprising evolution

Stephen Starr (left) and chef Daniel Rose in the dining room at Le Coucou in New York.

NEW YORK - The slender tapers are glowing bright over tables draped with linens laid upon linens. The impeccable service staff appears table-side to whisk away the crumbs and ladle a magical bouillon from a shiny copper pot over rabbit loins that were already near-perfect. The chef has been channeling - and updating - the legendary French master Escoffier.

No, this isn't a 1970s flashback. Le Coucou in all its reimagined classic French glory is the talk of New York's dinerati right now, just crowned the best restaurant of 2016 by the New York Times and one of the best "of the century" by the New York Post.

It's also one of the most unexpected creations yet from Philly's Stephen Starr, who, in the decade since opening supersized versions of Buddakan and Morimoto in Manhattan, has gone from "carpetbagger" status known for trendy megahits with mass appeal to a darling of New York's fine dining elite, along with partner and chef Daniel Rose.

"Financially [Le Coucou] will never be a big success," said Starr. "It's too expensive to run, the rent is crazy, and the amount we spent [on construction] was extreme - around $5 million. But I didn't do it to make a lot of money. I wanted to do something that was . . . important, and from the heart."

That hunger for critical praise over pure profit is surely part of Starr's motivation as he confesses that the "big-box restaurateur label used to make me crazy."

But the significance of Le Coucou's early success goes beyond pure ego. It confirms Starr's evolution on the country's biggest stage as a maturing restaurant visionary with a gift for spotting and showcasing talent in high-design settings. His New York competitors describe his interiors as "richly textured" and "sexy."

It also highlights his preternatural sense of timing, which in itself offers a somewhat counterintuitive commentary on American dining trends. Classic French cuisine in 2017? That obit was supposedly written years ago as the nation's restaurant world embraced more casual spaces and international flavors. But the taste pendulum swings faster in New York than anywhere else.

"I was skeptical," says veteran restaurateur Drew Nieporent, who owns Nobu and Tribeca Grill, among other New York institutions. "I've been telling my chef at Bâtard to do less French, more Middle Europa. But now with Le Coucou, Günter Seeger, and Le Coq Rico, it's suddenly the year of the French restaurant in New York. It didn't happen overnight. But Stephen ID'd that early."

And a steep investment in outmoded niceties like candles and tablecloths (a $200,000-plus annual expense alone) did not deter.

"Stephen has a tolerance for risk and imagination unlike any other restaurateur I've met," said Rose, who has three small restaurants in Paris, including Chez La Vieille, an 18-seat boîte that Starr invested in, though he's yet to visit.

The fact that Le Coucou manages to capture the elegant spirit of throwback French dining without feeling the least bit stuffy is partly a tribute to the engaging service staff, whether it's pairing a fine (but refreshingly affordable) Burgundy, describing quince, or procuring a recipe for almond financier from the pastry chef for a guest. But it's especially due to Rose, whose backstory captivated Starr. The 39-year-old Chicagoan learned to cook in France and stayed to become a Parisian sensation with Spring, a market-driven 16-seater with a daily menu that rarely repeats a dish. (Spring has since moved to a much larger 26-seat space. Rose commutes several times a month.)

In the much grander confines of Le Coucou's 87 seats in the 11 Howard hotel, a converted Holiday Inn at SoHo's edge just beyond Chinatown, the dining room's whitewashed brick walls are warmed by wrought-iron chandeliers, a lushly muraled pocket bar, and cushy green velvet banquettes. And Rose's menu evokes a forgotten era without seeming the least bit dated on the plate. Cream and butter are surprisingly minimal, while the character of flavors is personal, often rustic and profound.

Quenelles de brochet are made without the usual butter-flour thickener and hover like a cloud of pike mousse over a deeply bisquey lobster sauce. Pillowy morsels of poached veal tongue come dabbed with briny caviar jewels. Fresh-killed Montauk eels are crisped in an earthy buckwheat crust over curried vinaigrette, a beguiling homage to Brittany and France's ever-subtle flirtation with exotic spice. Sole Véronique, sauced with vermouth and striped with tiny mushrooms and grapes, descends straight from the haute cuisine bible of Georges Auguste Escoffier.

Meanwhile, Rose's stunning ode to whole rabbit (tout le lapin) divides the bunny into a multi-act feast that's the most compelling thing I've eaten in months: the saddle rolled into tender medallions beneath a minced liver-kidney vinaigrette; the hind legs rubbed in mustard and baked beneath a mop of sweet onions; the forequarters poached in a copper pot au feu of restorative broth lifted with an aromatic dusting of lime zest. Halfway through, a manager sidled up to ladle some of that broth over the saddle and transform it into something even better. Minutes later, Rose himself appeared in black shirt and coal-colored apron to offer a splash of Oloroso sherry - a "chabrot" - to lend the broth a finishing kick.

And the silky chocolate mousse set beneath a hail of 100 percent bitter chocolate shavings? More satisfying than a thousand molten lava cakes.

That Starr should be the benefactor to a revival of such classic sensibilities is ironic to say the least. It's almost as if history has unfurled in stylistic reverse for the man whose early work featured the futuristic Pod with austerely molded plastic curves and harsh fluorescent lighting that are the antithesis of Le Coucou's candlelit pampered comfort.

It also reflects a serious culinary turnabout for Starr, who, in the days before opening New York's Buddakan in 2006, declared to the Inquirer, "I am so over food," and conceded a preference for tuna sandwiches.

Of course, that populist touch and reliably better-than-average quality has given many of Starr's 35 restaurants a golden glow. His stable of properties in Philadelphia, New York, Atlantic City, and South Florida range widely from Asian fusion to modern Mexican, Neapolitan pizza, and luxury steak. And New York's Buddakan, which had $20.6 million in sales to a quarter million people in 2016, ranked 16th among the highest-grossing independents in the country, according to the website Restaurant Business. (Starr's brasseries, Le Diplomate in Washington and Parc on Rittenhouse Square, landed at 47 and 52, respectively.)

"Building [Buddakan and Morimoto in New York] for $17 million could have bankrupted me because I didn't have that kind of money," he said. "I was just lucky to open before the recession."

Starr's peers say he's succeeded not so much by luck as an acute attention to the details of design and consistently high-quality food: "Stephen's a genius with lighting, and the food [at Buddakan] is very good for such a big place," says Le Bernardin's Eric Ripert.

His more recent evolution as a master collaborator with culinary personalities, though, as opposed to building around concepts first, has brought Starr's standing to the next level. He did that in Philadelphia with Peter Serpico (at Serpico) and Aimee Olexy (at Talula's Garden), not to mention Morimoto. And his New York partnerships with Justin Smillie at Upland, Jason Atherton at the Clocktower, and now Rose at Le Coucou have begun to change the perception of him as a concept imitator from Philly into an original force.

"He's confirmed his own voice," says Nieporent.

That's why the New York Times' stellar praise for Le Coucou was an affirmation that clearly had Starr feeling emotional.

"I'm so happy, so grateful, and I wasn't expecting it," said Starr. "But you know when you get older you start crying a lot."

claban@phillynews.com

215-854-2682 @CraigLaBan

www.philly.com/craiglaban