Ron Perelman, billionaire businessman and philanthropist, is throwing a party at his Upper East Side mansion. Outside, shiny black Range Rovers discreetly decant his guests, as besuited, well-built men whisper into their lapels.
My well-connected lawyer friend Tom is taking me to Fleming, Perelman’s not-quite-opened restaurant a block away. He managed to snag a reservation by text: the restaurant, as yet, has no telephone line. “That was Anne Hathaway,” he murmurs, as I stride past her, oblivious.
The smart, unmarked little restaurant’s full name is Fleming by Le Bilboquet: Perelman once found himself in a dispute with his neighbour – charismatic restaurateur Philippe Delgrange, le patron of the original, 30-cover Le Bilboquet – over noise from outside tables. They eventually settled the dispute by going into business together, opening the current 100-cover Le Bilboquet on East 60th St. (Eric Clapton was another investor.)
Delgrange’s original restaurant was full of A-listers drinking champagne and eating Cajun chicken… while they weren’t dancing on the tables, and sometimes when they were. It was a bright, Saint-Tropez-like splash of sunshine in the notoriously buttoned-up Upper East Side.
The well-heeled, gregarious crowd at Fleming aren’t kicking their shoes off just yet, but there is a palpable buzz to the beautiful room. A few of Perelman’s contemporary canvases adorn the walls – Oscar Murillo, Ellsworth Kelly – and Delgrange already seems thoroughly at home in his new 50-cover dining room, table-hopping like the seasoned pro he is.
What, though, of the food, often a mere afterthought in such glamorous establishments? It is better, perhaps, than it needs to be: the head chef is Angie Berry, formerly of Asiate at the Mandarin Oriental, and the kitchen knows its soigné clientele, with salads and fish dominating the menu. To start, wedges of the last of the summer’s heirloom tomatoes with sweet slivers of grilled melon, a dribble of jade-green pistou, the tang of goat’s cheese and the crunch of croûtons, or a tentacle of octopus, sliced in three, each atop a little mound of smoky aubergine, with mint, preserved lemon and scattering of pine nuts lending a north African resonance to the dish.
Then a glorious tranche of king salmon, cooked to a perfect medium-rare, simply served with a few spears of asparagus, another blob of pistou and a sprig of watercress. And a similarly fine chunk of halibut, bathed in the lightest of tomato sauces, studded with nuggets of fennel and summer squash.
Tom wonders whether I might like to meet the chef but M Delgrange tells us that, malheureusement, she is absent from the kitchen. Maybe, we suggest, she might be catering a private party around the corner? We are greeted with the almost imperceptible raising of one eyebrow, a gesture that seems to say, “You might very well think that; I couldn’t possibly comment.” At Fleming, discretion is the better part of glamour.