Jan 19, 2014
Le Nid du Corbeau
(The Raven's nest)
The restaurant known as Le Nid du Corbeau or, according to its clients' linguistic preferences, more simply as 'The Nest', 'Le Nid', 'Il Nido' and so on, caters to an extremely reserved patronage. In fact, passing from 51st Street East to the left onto the much smaller, one-way, called N Street as many city dwellers would do at all hours – not to mention the steady stream of cabs using 'N' to cut across town to Lincoln Avenue on the west side – the very presence of the restaurant remains largely unnoticed and this is not without purpose.
Here there is no quaint, wrought-iron gating defining a narrow, sidewalk patio with bordering flower-boxes where to stop and enjoy a strong coffee in the afternoon sun; only a heavy, dark wooden door that, by its massive solidity, would seem capable of resisting the Mongol hordes. There is no window offering a glimpse of the elegant, candle-lit interior and, perhaps, a menu posted to entice passers-by to enter; there is, instead, only the solid red brick wall and sandstone corner-trim so common to the 19th and early 20th century architecture of the city. In the evening – when the restaurant opens – an individual inclined to look might notice the anachronistic gas-lamp sputter to life over the door and, below, a solitary, dour doorman whose gelid disposition does not invite casual conversation regarding the weather or inquiry for directions.
The restaurant preserves an external image of perfect anonymity. This is exactly as the clientèle would have it.
And on the night in question – this night – which begins with the arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Linkstadtler, there is no velvet rope to navigate or a line of expectant attendees, only the whisper of tires as a black sedan idles to a stop before the sombre façade and, assisted to the curb by the chauffeur, the couple – in impeccable evening dress – need only acknowledge the doorman before being promptly ushered to the sumptuous interior.
“Ah!” The maitre looks up from his book of arrangements and, behind antique, round spectacles, his eyes widen. He adjusts his tie and exits his station with his hand extended.
“Quel bon surprise! Monsieur et Madame, vous êtes bienvenues.” The two men shake hands and embrace formally before the other responds.
“We've been travelling...,” begins Victor.
“... in the Orient, Etienne,” completes Eleanor as the maitre makes to kiss the flawless porcelain of her hand in greeting and then he smiles benevolently at his esteemed guests.
“Mais, it has been so long since we have seen you.”
Victor thinks a moment. “Three years, love?”
“Almost four, my love,” corrects Eleanor. Etienne is dumbfounded.
“What a wonderful journey you must have had,” he comments sincerely. Eleanor is the more effusive of the couple.
“Etienne, mon chèr, you would not believe the marvels of those ancient cultures that we have witnessed: the temples of Ankor Wat glowing regally in the light of the full moon; the Great Wall disappearing into the mist just before the first light of dawn... all this and more!” Etienne clasps his hands before him in wonder and nods.
“So many beautiful things to be seen... so many marvels of the spirit,” he acknowledges and spreads his open palms in a gesture of the infinite. “Allors, mes amis, to welcome you back, you will be my guests tonight.”
Victor, in his calm reserve, exudes an intense will that bears little of transgression. “No, Etienne.” His long, white fingers extend and then curl firmly over the forearm of Etienne's jacket. “Your kindness is too much to accept.”
Having gathered two menus beneath his other arm, Etienne mocks a crest-fallen expression. “Then your drinks, Monsieur – please, it is the least...”
Victor gazes briefly at his wife who nods and smiles indulgently showing perfectly aligned teeth, the canines pressing endearing dimples into her full lower lip.
“Then, we accept, Etienne. Thank-you for your continued hospitality.” He retracts his hand and suggests a bow with a slight, rigid movement of his upper body.
“C'est del toute mon plaisir, Monsieur. Venez.”
Turning abruptly, Etienne leads the way from the anteroom to the dining room where, at the sight of Victor and Eleanor, the already subdued atmosphere fades to near silence and some guests crane their necks to view the elegant couple better. Part way to their intended seating, a man of startling stature rises from his seat and quickly dabs away dark drops from the edges of his mouth.
“Victor and, the beautiful, Eleanor,” he says, his voice as thin as rice-paper.
“Marcel,” responds Victor and, for public courtesy's sake, they shake hands. Likewise, Eleanor extends her hand briefly as though cautious of an unpredictable dog. “How is Paris these days?”
“It is thronging with people – as it always has been. And you? You have been away so long, I despaired of losing my old friend.”
Victor smiles thinly, lips drawn bloodless across his teeth. “You mustn't despair, Marcel – it is so unlike you. What brings you to this side of the Atlantic?”
Marcel looks up innocently, his expression a void and seeming to study the intricate stucco designs of the vaulted ceiling. “I wanted to pay a visit to this beautiful city and sample its offerings. So doing, I would be remiss in not dining here, wouldn't I?”
“I see,” nods Victor. “Perhaps one day our kind host will open a restaurant in Paris – that way you won't have a need to visit. I am certain that, at your age, you would be much more comfortable.”
Marcel laughs breathlessly. “Perhaps. Perhaps. I bid you,” he adds, bored of the charades, “pleasant dining.”
“And to you, Marcel,” returns Victor and, with his wife's hand to his elbow, they turn their backs, continuing after Etienne who lingered only paces away.
“I hope you will find this table convenient,” whispers Etienne as they are seated. “And sufficiently distant from less refined company,” he adds with a sad shake of his head.
“Etienne, do not worry. The table is lovely,” Eleanor prompts, lightly touching his hand after gathering her gown about her feet.
“Madame is as kind and gentle as she is noble and beautiful.”
“Yes, she certainly is,” concurs Victor, immediately. He smiles adoringly at his wife.
“Now,” begins Etienne, presenting the menus, “if you permit, allow me to offer a delicious bottle for your tasting.” He nods to a young man standing by and the bottle along with two cut crystal goblets are presented. After the formalities, he describes the product.
“This is a 2008 vintage.” Victor and Eleanor sip and nod, pleased. “You will find it light and full of life. What it lacks in body is more than made up by its bouquet and joie de vivre. It is pure delight.”
“Delicious,” affirms Eleanor. “Victor?”
“Lovely before, but I would want more body with my meal, I suspect.” Victor looks thoughtful, still savouring the delicacy of the liquid.
“Bien sûr, Monsieur – such are the tastes of a gentleman. While you chose your dishes, I will leave you to enjoy.”
“I think I already know what I want. Eleanor, love?”
“I have been dying for a small, loin steak.” Her laugh is low and musical.
“Excellent, Monsieur. And to drink?” Etienne deftly turns a page of the menu for his guest and makes his recommendation. “For Monsieur, I suggest this,” and his finger trails to the item on the page. “It is a 1963 – quite rare to find in this condition. It has the body and experience to please the most discerning. Also, I believe it is the perfect complement to your dish.”
“I think you know my tastes better than I do, Etienne.”
“Monsieur est trop gentile. Allors, pour Madame, loin steak alla temperature du corps, naturellemente. You will continue with the 2008, type O negative. As for Monsieur, the liver, also at body temperature, and a pint of the 1963, type AB positive.”
Receiving confirmation, Etienne nods, satisfied, to his contented guests and closes his book. The dining room is filled with the hushed sounds of conversation and the occasional scrape of solid gold cutlery on antique, Chinese porcelain tableware.
“Monsieur et Madame, buon appetit!”