Wookiee Hut Cuisine presents:
L'École

Elmhurst, NY
212-219-3300

Review by Diana DeRiggs, SuSu, Wraith6

We'd just attended some lectures/demonstrations at the French Culinary Institute (FCI), and decided to try out the restaurant attached to the school. This is an inexpensive place -- prix fixe at $20.03 for lunch, $29.95 for dinner, as well as à la carte fare. It's a nice place, not too large, the tables have enough space between them so you don't have to listen to someone else's conversation, and it's solidly booked. You have to call for reservations. How do they do it? It turns out that it's actually part of the professional curriculum of FCI. They realized that other schools require "externships" where students are placed in restaurants as interns for a semester or year. The problem with the system is though it gives real-life experience, it does not ensure the student gets experience in all stations or all facets of a restaurant kitchen. So the owners of the school decided to create their own restaurant, staffed almost entirely by students. The front of the house are professional waiters, management, etc. But the back of the house is a master chef as expediter, and instructors throughout. The menu is changed every 6 weeks, so that the students get a full set of experiences. And since the food has to go somewhere, it's offered to customers at an extremely reasonable cost. This model has been emulated throughout the country at other schools. It makes good sense -- why go to restaurant where the chef will not let you plate a thing, as opposed to one where you are in the line, responsible for the happiness of others?

We were with a noisy bunch of foodies, some of whom attended classes at FCI, the Culinary Institute of America, etc. We ordered selections from the prix fixe, which included an appetizer, main, salad and dessert, in the venerable French bistro tradition. We shared, we commented, we critiqued. Dishes included pâté, carpaccio, white bean soup, salmon gravlax, etc. The white bean soup was the least of them, but the others were superlative. Oh, and upon ordering, the kitchen sent out three "amuse bouche" apiece -- in restaurant circles, this is a freebie from the chef, a sort of pre-appetizer. There were tiny toasts, topped with crab meat salad, or a tomato salsa, or cucumber and pepper mix. It was a nice touch, and as Master Jacques Pépin said, in the restaurant business, you must give things away.

Main courses ordered were roasted duch breast, duck confit, arctic char, grilled salmon, entrecôte, and braised lamb. They were all tasty; some had surcharges since the ingredients might have been more expensive (the surcharge is about $9). I guess that's fair. The students are not paid; in fact, they pay for the training. Some of them were misses -- the duck breast was cooked well, and the skin crispy, but it seemed overdone, kind of over the top. They all had a sort of embalmed air about them, as if the students had cooked them in advance, then didn't quite master the plating/reheating/finishing stages. Well, that's why they're here, right? For the cost, it was still an excellent effort.

A mesclun salad followed, accompanied by a round of toast covered in goat cheese. By the way, the bread here is made by students in the bread baking course, and the baguettes are excellent. Desserts are made by pastry students, so they are over decorated, overly fanciful. They are expensive, grade A presentations, and I was surprised they were included in the set price. They were tasty, too.

The bathrooms are clean, had plenty of paper and towels, and posted articles about the restaurant on their walls, in French bistro style. They should have posted those articles outside the bathroom, so waiting for a 'loo could be pleasantly occupied. One of our party couldn't figure out what "WC" meant, and couldn't discern which was for men and which for women ... it means "water closet" and it turned out the bathrooms were unisex. However, another of our party kept insisting one of the doors had a flower on it, so it must be for women. Conversation piece?

We were an early seating, and I guess the second seating had shown up while we chattered and had a general good time. So the waitress had the tough task of getting us to move on out, as it was raining and we were happy! We eventually did, and continued our conversation under umbrellas in the bucketing rain. It seemed right, somehow.

The parts that counted were done very well, at the highest standards, and the price was excellent. We paid $60 apiece, including four-course meal, many bottles of wine, several bottles of Pellegrino, and tip. If you're on a budget, steer clear of the wine -- that is not discounted! According to the foodie pros in our group, the markup on alcohol is 300 to 400% of retail ... their wine list was good, but don't be lulled into thinking it'll be as inexpensive as the meal. Still, it's a good value.

Inside photo property of FCI.


Disclaimer: The opinions and observations noted are the property of the author. Neither Wookieehut nor any associates makes any claims or lucre from the posting of this report or review. This webpage is presented by Wookieehut.com. Enjoy!