They got the band back together. La Caravelle, the great French restaurant that fed the famous and the discerning from 1960 to 2004, regrouped for a two-night stand at New York's Chefs Club by Food & Wine and didn't miss a beat.
"Both nights sold out in a ridiculously short time, taking us all by surprise," said Rita Jammet, who owned the Midtown Manhattan restaurant with her husband, André. "There definitely exist, even in our contemporary era, a nostalgia and a yearning for classical preparations that will transport you back to the earlier parts of your life."
I first ate there in the early 1990s, not long after the Jammets took ownership, in 1988. I had lived in France, so I was familiar with the cuisine and the culture, but to a young journalist, La Caravelle embodied a glamorous and sophisticated New York society I had read about more than experienced.
The restaurant was part of an august group that included La Côte Basque, Lutèce and La Grenouille—descendants of Le Pavillon, originally part of the French pavilion at the 1939 World's Fair in New York. When La Caravelle opened, in 1960, it was adopted by Joseph Kennedy, and when his son Jack went to the White House in 1961, the new president hired a French chef who trained in La Caravelle’s kitchen to prepare his favorite dishes, including chicken in Champagne cream sauce, renamed Poularde Maison Blanche.
That dish was on the menu during the recent reunion. It was joined by other classics, including Chair de Crabe Caravelle, a salad of lump crabmeat bound together with a delicately flavored mayonnaise, a recipe Rita was generous enough to share with me and which I’ve been serving at holidays for years. There were also dishes created by the restaurant’s innovative chefs—including Tadashi Ono, Cyril Renaud and pastry chef Laurent Richard—all of whom worked the brief run alongside the talented Didier Elena, the Alain Ducasse veteran who now oversees the Chefs Club kitchens.
A short list of wines meaningful to La Caravelle supplemented the excellent list of Chefs Club. The Jammets now have their own La Caravelle Champagne brand, offering brut, rosé and blanc de blancs (all delicious), as well as an elegant red Bordeaux from Listrac. Long Island’s Paumanok Vineyards, owned by relatives of the Jammets, offered a minerally Chenin Blanc. The wines of Trimbach and Huët, also family friends, complemented the cuisine with grace and vibrancy.
The dining room was buzzing with pleasure, as old customers mingled with a younger generation eager to understand what made La Caravelle iconic in its day.
Rita had an answer: “La Caravelle’s legacy is equally the cuisine, authentic and real, and the front of the house, a warm yet sophisticated welcome and attentive service with the sole purpose of making the guest feel happiest.”
Rita generously gave credit to everyone who helped make the reunion a reality, but it was clear that the guests had come for her and André, to pay respects and to bask in an ambience, and an era, that feels all too far away. A time where lively conversation around a lovely table well-supplied with fine food and wine epitomized a happy night out in a civilized city.
If that ideal still exists and tables like that can still be found, a large share of the credit is due to the legacy of La Caravelle.