If you’re looking for a refresher on reasons to stay committed to New York City living, Reggie Nadelson’s new book is a good place to start. Nadelson, a journalist, mystery novelist and documentary filmmaker, takes readers around the city in “Marvelous Manhattan: Stories of the Restaurants, Bars and Shops That Make This City Special,” released this week. She sets a nostalgic scene through a collection of essays and photographs spotlighting 40 of the city’s most iconic haunts, Including Danté, Raoul’s, ABC Carpet + Home, Il Buco and Indochine. The book has also paired up with many of the places featured in its pages, bundling items with a signed copy of the book for $30. Indochine — featured in an excerpt from the book below — is offering a free cocktail to anyone who comes in and presents their own copy of Nadelson’s book.
Excerpted from “Marvelous Manhattan” by Reggie Nadelson (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2021.
At Indochine on a cold night in December, Catherine Deneuve, her big fur coat tossed with panache over her shoulders, is in the booth next to mine. “The coat is probably so she can go outside to smoke,” says Jean-Marc Houmard, one of the restaurant’s three owners. A thin, handsome Swiss guy, he began as a waiter in 1986, a couple of years after the French Vietnamese restaurant opened on Lafayette Street.
Indochine has been around for more than 35 years, but it’s barely changed in any way that matters. It is still improbably ripe, like a good cheese — or a great French movie star.
Outside near the front door is a tiny orange neon sign — in the early days, there was no sign at all. Inside are potted palms, a bar area filled with rattan chairs and sofas, and wallpaper with big green palm fronds, and you feel as if you are on a Hollywood set for a French colonial house in Vietnam, the movie scripted by Marguerite Duras. In the air is the enticing odor of lemongrass and celebrity. Farther back along the right wall are the four big green vinyl booths where I’m trying not to stare at Deneuve, but there’s alchemy here, and the movie-star glamour infects me with its spell. “This is our theater,” Houmard notes, looking at these tables.
Indochine is the only place I’ve ever felt famous; it’s that je ne sais quoi that lingers like a rare air freshener. In the 1980s, Indochine’s heyday, everyone came: Madonna, Warhol, Basquiat, Schnabel, Mick and Bowie, and all the supermodels — and Fran Lebowitz, of course, who still does not share her dumplings, as she points out. Years ago I went regularly with Andrée Putman, the great French interior designer whom I’d interviewed and who became a friend. The most glamorous friend I’ve ever had, Andrée would arrive for dinner in stilettos and her Saint Laurent tuxedo dress, a slash of blond hair over one eye, the red mouth, and an utter lack of pretension. Cigarettes, steak, and red wine were her habits. She was in her sixties then, I think, and nobody was ever as cool. She was also funny. Dinner at Indochine with Andrée made me feel almost as cool as she was, and as famous; this brief moment of attitude is my historical contribution to the downtown ’80s.
“I have never stopped going to Indochine,” says the writer Salman Rushdie, who recalls his first visit, when there was “amazingly delicious food, improbably stylish guests, and impossibly beautiful waitresses.” Rushdie’s favorite dishes are the fried spring rolls, spicy chicken breast, crispy battered shrimp, and meaty grilled baby back ribs.
Maybe it’s the menu as much as the presence of a star or two that’s cranking up my nostalgia; the food is sweet, fried, crunchy, spicy. I’m on my second Indochine martini — citrusy vodka infused with ginger, pineapple, and lime juice. And the seemingly 7-foot-tall waitresses with carved cheekbones who wear their own fabulous clothes are just as ridiculously nice as ever.
Melanie Johl, who has worked at Indochine for decades, says, “The dress code is our own interpretation of what we would wear ‘out’ at a fabulous party…so in true New York style, we wear mostly black. It’s fun to ‘get dressed up’ for work, to put some glam in the mix.”
I settled in SoHo around the time Indochine opened in the “adjacent” acronym of NoHo; above it are the crumbling Colonnades, a row of 1832 Greek Revival buildings where Astors and Vanderbilts once lived. The area was desolate and thrilling; there were artists and drag queens, uptown suits and drug dealers.
Way back then, back in the now seemingly distant 1980s, Keith and Brian McNally, a pair of British brothers, owned the downtown nights; first together at Odeon, and then, after the brothers split up, Brian when he opened Indochine. Celebs, food, sex, drugs; even the seating was fodder for the tabloids. Uptown came down. Limos idled at the curb. Eurotrash rolled in with tons of Euro cash; artists and musicians, young and bohemian in the ’70s, got rich in the ’80s. It was the McNallys who reinvented downtown. (In the ’90s, Keith, having gone to Paris and returned, ruled at Balthazar.) If you went to Indochine, you could drown in the sweet smell of success.
In 1992, when Brian McNally decided to sell, Houmard and his partners, Michael Callahan and chef Huy Chi Le, bought Indochine. Houmard, in New York originally for a law firm internship, had worked nights at Indochine to pay his rent. It didn’t take long for him to discover that he “hated all the lawyers and loved everyone at the restaurant.” Still, he worried. The heat of the ’80s was wearing thin; the downtown scene was about art as a tourist attraction. “I didn’t know if we’d make it,” says Houmard, “but then Calvin Klein had his birthday party here.”
Of course, I never really was at all famous, but it was fun to go to Indochine in those days and gawp and pretend. In a way, though, I like it better now. I like going early and taking my niece Justine, explaining to her who Catherine Deneuve is (God help me) and sharing a joke with the waitresses. Like Houmard, a lot of the staff has stayed. As he notes, “The continuity makes the difference, the servers, the menu. People don’t come here to try new stuff; they want those spring rolls.”
The old downtown is long gone, and people bemoan it, but I always think, yet again, if I can’t stand the changes, I should get out of the city.
Lafayette Street may now be fancy coffee shops and billion-dollar condos, but after another martini and that steamed Vietnamese coffee cake, I can stroll home and enjoy the breeze, accompanied by a whisper of past and present pleasure. Or is it just the coriander rub on the ribs, and the pineapple in the martini?
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