Photo by WNYC
When he took over as Executive Chef of Lutèce, Eberhard Muller was in an enviably uncomfortable position — how to retain the aura of Andre Soltner’s famous restaurant while concurrently incorporating his own personality. Muller admitted that following Soltner’s legend was an uphill battle. Devoted customers expected to find their Lutèce unchanged, the white latticework in the garden room intact, Soltner’s Alsatian onion tart at the start of each meal, his signature rack of lamb readily available and succulent as ever. Muller was obliged to compromise with these loyal patrons, to ensure the sanctity of their cherished traditions without abandoning his own cuisine.
But while customers kept returning to Lutèce for its warm ambiance, for Soltner’s charismatic presence, and simply because of its terrific stature in the echelons of haute cuisine, a 2-1/2 star New York Times review in 1991 suggested that Lutèce had indeed become a “living food museum,” if a cherished one. Muller knew that change, although somewhat painful for Soltner’s coterie, was necessary to transport Lutèce into the next millennium.
First, he redecorated, reviving the “unpretentious” dining room with a soft yellow paint and new linen. Then he went to work on the menu, awakening the tired document with zestier, lighter fare and a focus on seafood, introducing dishes such as crab meat and potato salad with black truffle vinaigrette and red snapper with stewed butternut squash and rosemary. Within two weeks, Muller earned Lutèce its current three stars while keeping Soltner’s customers more than satisfied; not a small feat in the culinary world.
Formerly the Executive Chef of Le Bernardin, Muller is well aware of the demands exacted upon him by his new position, and he has acted accordingly, making subtle and long needed changes at Lutèce with care, patience, and due respect for Soltner’s spirit. While the nostalgic patrons of Lutèce appreciate Muller’s show of reserve, critic Ruth Reichl faulted him with being overly cautious, saying “Isn’t it time for Mr. Muller to send us something of his own?” Perhaps Muller is acting under the guidance of Lutèce’s new owner, Michael Weinstein (of Ark Restaurant Corporation), who said “We’re not trying to put our stamp on Lutèce. We’re continuing the tradition, the feeling that you’re walking into somebody’s home.”
But even Muller admits that his first aim is to please. “There are two ways it can go…I could either be a villain,” he says, meaning to Lutèce regulars, “or be a hero, and I’d always rather be a hero than a renegade.” In this case, compromise may just be the most heroic course to take.