Just across the street from the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan’s Midtown, you can go and sip cocktails from diamond-cut Baccarat tumblers, under the cool light of a crinoline Baccarat chandelier, then ride the elevator up for a disco nap in your Baccarat suite.
Baccarat has manufactured crystal glassware in northeastern France for the past 250 years, but last month, in a gigantic feat of international lifestyle branding, the company opened its first hotel.
It’s a swanky palace built out on the first 12 floors of a split-level tower, with 114 rooms of varying grandeur and a spa run by Estée Lauder-owned cosmetic company La Mer. When the 80-seat restaurant Chevalier (currently in its soft opening) opens on April 13, it will fall toward the posher end of the brasserie spectrum, with Executive Chef Shea Gallante in the kitchen.
You might not even notice Charles Masson, what with the towering chocolate soufflés, the glittering crystal, and the flashy Gilles & Boissier design of the hotel. The 60-year-old Frenchman in a pressed white shirt, jacket, and gleaming polished shoes is Chevalier’s director, managing the front of the house. “I like to be discreet,” he tells me over the phone, “because the highest level of service is discretion.”
But Charles Masson has noticed you.
Masson is a legend in the restaurant scene and the former general manager of New York’s La Grenouille. He’s also one of the last managers in New York to practice a particular style of French service—elegant, composed, and yeah, a little bit old-fashioned—and he’s in demand. His old regulars have already stopped by for visits.
“It’s very touching,” he says. “Very moving.”
When his father fell ill, and Masson was just 19 years old, he moved to New York to help run his parents’ French restaurant. He went on to do so for the next 40 years. Masson’s parents had opened La Grenouille in 1962, in the middle of a snowstorm, with just a few red roses on the tables and old linoleum floors, upgrading the place slowly but surely until it became one of the city’s great French restaurants—and a bastion of luxury.
Life is more beautiful when Masson is around. For one thing, there are always fresh flowers in water. Different water for different flowers, because Masson knows about these things: Peonies like it sugary and cool; larkspurs need a little dose of alcohol to feel perky; daisies thrive with peppermint oil; and big, tough birds of paradise take well to a small dilution of vinegar. Masson published a small book on the subject dedicated to his father, called simply The Flowers of La Grenouille. It’s a must-read for anyone looking to extend the life of their delphiniums, or to understand the care that goes into a bouquet. By 1984, La Grenouille was spending more than $80,000 a year on fresh flowers.
“When you get to know your guests, it becomes very personal,” says Masson, talking people, not flowers. “You really anticipate the needs of your clientele, and it’s never ‘one size fits all,’ ever.”
Masson’s family restaurant stands and continues to serve quenelles—the melt-away dumplings of poached pike mousse—under silky pashminas of Champagne sauce and caviar. But Masson’s younger brother Philippe took over as general manager last year, after Charles left abruptly under what he still refers to as “painful circumstances.”
It seemed like the end of another New York micro-era (and it was), but Masson’s new post at Baccarat indicates a comeback, and a major investment in the old school of Gallic finesse.
At Chevalier, Masson says he anticipates spending $80,000 to $100,000 on the arrangements each year, shopping at the flower market on 28th Street a few times a week. But he says the most important thing for his new team to get right will be, when it’s good, completely invisible: the excellent service of a synchronized kitchen and front of house, as well as genuine hospitality.
“You could have the most beautiful flowers, the most beautiful chandeliers, but if you don’t have the spirit to serve, and the humility to serve, then it’s not the kind of restaurant I’d like to frequent or work in,” he explains.
Baccarat was a particularly good place for Masson to wind up. There are some cosmically perfect coincidences that can make a publicist’s knees go wobbly—sweeter than marketing materials, stranger than fiction. For Masson it involves an expensive vase that his father bought many decades ago, when the family was still operating on a shoestring budget but reaching for more. It was the first of many stunning crystal pieces that would be filled with flowers each day and come to define the elegance of La Grenouille.
“It was the most magnificent Baccarat vase,” says Masson, “and it happened to be a Chevalier design.”
Chevalier is in the Baccarat Hotel, at 20 West 53rd St. (Midtown); 212 790-8869 or baccarathotels.com.