It’s a groundfish that doesn’t taste like a bottom dweller. It’s a highlight of my summer meals.
America suited Charpentier’s ambitions. Not long after his arrival, he opened his restaurant in Lynbrook, a landlocked village on the South Shore of Long Island, about an hour outside the city. He courted customers from his work in the city, Vanderbilts and Roosevelts among them, along with Diamond Jim Brady, David Belasco, Sarah Bernhardt and other members of New York’s glittery elites. Traveling to the restaurant from Manhattan, whether by car or train, could not have been easy then. Nick Carraway may have passed through the valley of ashes to get to West Egg in “The Great Gatsby,” but the southern route was surely as horrific, pushing east past the hellscape of Jamaica Bay, where horse-rendering plants lined the coast alongside garbage incinerators.
Still, they came. “One pleasant day in 1912, when all I had to worry about were debts and empty shelves in my wine cellar,” Charpentier wrote in his memoir, “Life à la Henri,” “I looked out-of-doors and saw a big Renault car. You can well believe I would tremble at the sight of a mechanism made in France, but I was delighted when Mr. J.P. Morgan stepped out.” Charpentier first met Morgan as a boy, while working at the Hotel Cap Martin in the south of France. “He seemed quite, quite old. ‘Henri,’ he said, ‘there will be 10 of us tonight at 7.’”
Charpentier’s fluke au gratin did not make an appearance that night — he served sea bass to Morgan’s party instead, after courses of caviar and pot au feu, in advance of poussin, salade Monte Carlo and the requisite crêpes Suzette — but it would not have been out of place. It’s an elegant and really quite simple preparation, with fillets of fish baked on top of and beneath a sauce of butter cooked with chopped shallots, garlic, chives, parsley and mushrooms, brightened with lemon juice and white wine, and with bread crumbs, sliced mushrooms and dots of butter strewn across the top. You can make that sauce in the morning, if you like, and assemble the dish for the oven just before dinner, making it a breeze for weeknight entertaining (remember that?). But it’s no stretch to do it all, as Charpentier might have said, “à la minute.”
Prohibition hit Henri’s hard, and business took a turn for the worse. In 1938, Charpentier closed the restaurant and left Long Island for Chicago. According to The New York Times, which reported on his departure, he “blamed high taxes and what he described as the present lack of appreciation for fine food.” Fluke is a good way to reverse that last.