My first taste of Pascal's came in January, long before I ever had the pleasure of dining at this Westchester gem. For me, it started with the following email invitation from a reader named Renée Powell: "Should you ever find yourself in Larchmont, please stop by my little Restaurant Pascal's for some delicious French food." I'm not sure why I waited so long to visit, for it was surely too long—and nearly too late. On Sunday, 8 July 2012, the restaurant closed its doors to the public for the last time.
The Pascal's story began long before that email, however. Renée's idea to open a restaurant was conceived decades earlier, amid her studies in Paris. While she was in college, and her brother Rogers at cooking school, the two made a pact to some day operate their own restaurant together. "I'll manage it, and you'll chop your salads: Win-win," she told him. The idea languished, however; ten years would pass with nary another mention of it.
Having spent some 20 years in France, Powell, a Bronx native, returned to New York in 1992. It was there she met Pascal, who, at the time, was the maître d' of La Côte Basque. In 1998, Renée posed the question that would alter the course of their lives: "If you had one wish for your future, even if it were impossible to reach, what would it be?" "I always wished I had my own restaurant," replied Pascal. With that brief exchange, the long dormant sibling pact had been resuscitated.
In June of the following year, Renée posited the idea of opening a restaurant with Pascal and Rogers. The two men dismissed her proposal summarily, citing what she called "a laundry list of reasons why it would be impossible to do." At the time, Rogers and his family resided in Larchmont. Renée, meanwhile, was looking to leave Manhattan, and to move closer to her brother. Undaunted by the utter disinclination of her potential business partners, she decided to pursue a restaurant site on her own.
The first space shown to her was that of the erstwhile Hope and Anchor at 141 Chatsworth Avenue, just up the hill from the Metro-North station, in Larchmont—a mere block from her brother. "I had to have it!" she remembers. Upon seeing the place, however, Rogers and Pascal declared it to be "a dump." As they turned and walked away from Renée, she yelled out to them, "Hey boys!! That's not a dump; it is your restaurant, you just don't know it yet." In late September, Ms. Powell had a little surprise for her bro and her beau. "All they needed to do was to sign the paperwork," she said. Sign they did, and, in November of 1999, became the proud owners of a restaurant. In February, following a three-monthlong renovation, the Powell pact had finally become a reality: Rogers cheffed de cuisine, Pascal maîtred de dining room, and Pascal's was ouvert for business.
Pascal's first two years were acclivitous, however, as the elegant, upscale restaurant français struggled to carve out its niche in Gotham suburbia. As flounder turned to founder, Renée bought out Rogers and Pascal, assuming sole proprietorship of the business in 2002. Her brother left to work at the French Culinary Institute in New York, while her boyfriend donned the toque blanche to become the restaurant's eponymous chef. Following substantial adjustments to the menu, Pascal's finally hit its stride. In 2010, however, a new chef, necessitated by Chef Pascal's initial retirement, failed to maintain that momentum. "My customers showed their dissatisfaction by boycotting my restaurant," recalls Powell. To rescue her business, she asked Pascal to return to the kitchen in 2011. He acquiesced, with the understanding that his reprise would endure only a year or so. That year has elapsed. "Time's up," says Renée, "Pascal is retired."
The last couple of weeks were emotionally charged as many longstanding customers returned for their final taste of Pascal's fabulous French fare. What a privilege to have been a part of it!
Below are some of the dishes that delighted my palate as the sun descended on Pascal's … and Larchmont.
To begin the parade of comestibles, Renée opened a couple of bottles of her favorite wine, Edge Cabernet Sauvignon. (Yes, Napa Valley, not France.)
The starters were magnifique! It's no surprise that Pascal's Soupe à l'Oignon Gratinée was recognized as the "Best French Onion Soup in Larchmont." Unlike many others, this one actually tasted of onion without confounding the palate with excessive seasoning.
Video: Renée Powell describes two popular starters
Roasted tomatoes, squash, and ratatouille atop the Tarte Méditerranéenne's delicate puff pastry and truffle vinaigrette, yielded the sort of Nice flavors found along the Côte d'Azur.
When cut, the warm goat cheese of the excellent Pomme au Chèvre Chaud burst out of its roasted golden apple enclosure onto a bed of lettuce with honey-mustard vinaigrette.
While I'm not usually very fond of mussels, Pascal's Moules Bourguignonnes made quite an enthusiast of me. The marvelous mollusks were gloriously garlicky, and the subjacent sauce was doubly delicious when blotted with bread.
Additional allium, this time in the Escargots à la Méridionale—a superb starter of snails stuffed with garlic in a bubbling-hot parsley butter.
My favorite cold plates usually involve some sort of cured salmon. Pascal's House Gravlax—accompanied by lemons, capers, and toast—did not disappoint.
Of course, warm salmon is a favorite of mine as well. The Sautéed Fillet of Salmon in a white wine mustard sauce was a splendid main—cooked perfectly and seasoned judiciously. Served with a risotto cake and steamed mixed vegetables, the whole combination was highly satisfying.
Renée's dish was the evening's clear winner, however. Her Sautéed Fillet of Basa Meunière was outstanding!
Basa, a type of catfish, lends itself perfectly to the rustic meunière (literally, "miller's wife") preparation. The fish is dredged in flour, sautéed, and served in a lemon-butter sauce. Mashed potatoes and steamed vegetables were civilized plate partners. Though I've tried this dish but once, I miss it already!
Other fine mains I sampled included the classics Canard à l'Orange (roasted duck in orange sauce) and Chicken Cordon Bleu (breaded chicken breast stuffed with Gruyère and prosciutto in a tarragon sauce). Both were tasty and well-executed.
The dessert list contained several time-honored sweets, including one of my all-time favorites, Crêpes Suzette. For me, this exquisite flambéed crêpe dish, served in a sauce of Grand Marnier, orange juice, zest, caramelized sugar, and butter, represents one of life's great pleasures.
Additionally, my sweet tooth was treated, so to speak, with a superior custard filling of Crème Brûlée (literally, "burnt cream") and Crème Caramel. (My dentist will surely appreciate the results.)
My last spoonful of dessert was bittersweet, however; I knew this course would truly be my last at Pascal's.
As a way to thank her customers for their years of loyalty, Renée hosted a farewell cocktail party with plenty of goodies on Sunday, 8 July. Below are some of the highlights of Pascal's final day:
Some of the Good-byes:
About her past 12 years as a restaurateur, Powell says, "I loved all my customers, which made this past journey worthwhile and very often fun." Nevertheless, she expressed regret over her lack of personal time for family, community, and a social life: "We were wrapped into this restaurant … from the moment we woke up to the moment we went to sleep." When asked about the media coverage of Pascal's closing, Renée bristles at the negative comments on local websites concerning Larchmont landlords. Wishing to set the record straight, she emphasizes, "I loved mine, as he made everything easy for me. He made my departure very, very sweet." What's next for Renée Powell? "Florida!" she exclaims with gusto.
As they departed, some of the regulars (for whom Renée had created a name-inscribed dinner plate) received their personalized plate as a precious memento.
With the last guests taking their leave, the Provençal-yellow dining room began to appear forlorn; its chairs, banquettes, and tables, now empty. Pascal's was not a trendy place. Rather, it was a comfortable spot, offering a traditional elegance that attracted a mature clientele. Sadly, this sort of restaurant is becoming increasingly scarce. "It was the last bastion of civilization in Larchmont," said one of the final guests. While I'm not sure why I waited so long to visit, I'm grateful it wasn't too late.
141 Chatsworth Avenue
Larchmont, N.Y. 10538-2940 (map)
Video: Memories of Pascal's Restaurant
To view additional images of Pascal's final days, please visit the corresponding album on Facebook:
Comestiblab: Although cuisine refers to a style of cooking in English, it means "kitchen" in French. (The modern word comes from Old French, from the Late Latin coquina, from the Latin coquere, to cook.) And while chef connotes a skilled cook in English, it generally signifies a head, or chief, in French. Ergo, a chef is really a chef de cuisine, or "head of the kitchen."
Maître d', meaning "master of" in French, is a truncation of maître d'hôtel. Thus, the person in charge of a dining room and its staff is, essentially, "master of the house."