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Life on the Line

Give the man a hand: Sean Kelly oversees everything at Claire de Lune.
Anna Newell

Sean Kelly is no celebrity chef. His hands give him away. They're big, strong, the wrists thick from handling sauté pans, fingertips mauled, palms rough as untreated leather.

Cooks know cooks from the feel of each others' hands, and they can gauge how long someone's been in the business from the thickness of calluses and slow accumulation of scar tissue. Blindfolded, I could recognize some of my own partners in crime with just a handshake. The kinked pinky from years of whisking the roux with the whisk held wrong, the fingertips beveled by slips of the knife, the occasional missing digit or truly noteworthy scar.

Not too long ago, I ran into a former boss who -- like me -- had hung up his knives for a kinder, gentler career path. He'd become a restaurant owner. After we exchanged the usual pleasantries, he asked, "So, how are your hands?" I told him that a few days earlier, my wife had handed me a cup of coffee straight from the French press and I'd had to set it down, fast, on the counter, because it was so hot. It was the first time in ten years I'd been able to feel heat on the palm of my hand. He nodded, commiserating. We were both becoming sissies, useless in the real world of knives and fire and boiling duck fat. These days, the biggest threat of injury we faced was a really nasty paper cut. Our hands were getting soft.

But not Sean's. He's no overstuffed teddy-bear chef in spotless whites throwing out catchphrases to a rabid, captive audience. He's not a clipboard-checker, either, stabbing his gold-tipped digital thermometer into every entree coming off the hot line to make sure the entrecote for table 22 is going out well-done. Sean is a cook, and he has the hands to prove it.

He didn't have to stay in the kitchen. Things could have gone very differently after he closed The Biscuit and his much-loved Aubergine Cafe and walked away from the business in early 2001. In the wake of these much-publicized closures, investors were waiting in line to throw big, dirty bags of money at him. "I remember sitting down with these sixty-, seventy-year-old millionaires," Kelly says. "Guys who had all these ideas, who wanted to be restaurant owners and could toss around $40,000 like it was nothing. But that's not nothing. That's a year's work for someone like me. They were like, 'Oh, don't worry. We'll set you up with banks and loans and everything.' But you know what? Someday, someone's gotta pay all that money back, and I didn't want that kind of debt on me."

He could have done a deal with the devil and spent the rest of his days flitting around a swank dining room, taking all the credit for work being done by hordes of sweaty underlings soldiering away on the other side of the swinging doors. He could have become an institution. Restaurant Sean Kelly would have been wildly successful. An empire of Baby Aubergines and Kelly's-to-Go takeout oyster-and-bresaola franchises might have made him a very rich man.

But instead, he did exactly what no one expected. He became a cook again. After a year on the outside spent reading, cutting fish for a local supplier, doing some food writing and getting reacquainted with his family after years of fourteen-hour days, Sean Kelly's back in the kitchen, making your dinner at Clair de Lune. There's no sous chef, no line full of tattooed, felonious kitchen mercenaries brought in to communicate the "essence" of Sean Kelly to the masses -- just Kelly himself, along with Terry White as garde manger, roundsman, prep and pantry cook, and Gustavo Murillo, who washes the dishes. They work together five nights a week in a tiny, bright, well-organized kitchen smaller than those in some starter apartments, and they do it because this -- and not some Pandora's box of debt and celebrity and eighty-hour weeks -- is what Kelly wanted. Something small, intimate and controllable. A place where nobody owned him, that was truly and totally his. And most important, a place where he could cook. "No investor would've gone in with me on a place like this," Kelly says, standing in the alley by Clair de Lune and describing the strange twists that led him to this cramped, pint-sized space on Sixth Avenue.

And he's right. I don't think there's a money man out there who would have risked his neck (or his credit rating) on the concept: eight tables in the dining room, most of them two-tops; five people on the staff most nights (including servers); one cook in the kitchen using local produce and meats -- much of it organic, all of it expensive and some picked, grown, harvested or slaughtered just for him.

Reading Kelly's brief, compact French-Mediterranean menus is like looking at van Gogh's Starry Night. They're sketches, windows onto something larger, vignettes of perfect evenings done in food. Seared sea scallops with celery-root remoulade, scallions, capers and preserved lemon; simple straw-potato cakes; saffron couscous; walnut liqueur, crème anglaise, baked apples and cider reduction; salt-cured foie gras with earthy summer-truffle vinaigrette. Kelly's offerings change with the seasons, with his mood, with the chattering of a fax coming in from one of his local purveyors. Whatever is good, whatever is fresh, whatever moves him, that's what he'll cook. "It's really pretty simple," he says. "One fish, one game, one meat, one vegetable. Then there's the antipasti, the fruits de mer, the cheese courses."

Yeah, simple but for the fact that most of the offerings change daily. The Reblochon for the cheese course was held up in customs, Kelly tells the staff at a pre-service meeting, so don't push it. The scallops looked good, so he'd gotten enough just for tonight. Tomorrow, it would be something different. "And you'll notice, again, that everything on the menu is pan-seared, pan-roasted, pan-broiled..." He flashes his copy of the night's menu across the bar, the margins filled with handwritten notes. The staff laughs. It's an inside joke.

"Everything has to be done in the pan," Kelly explains. "I don't have room to do anything else."

In the kitchen, I watch as Kelly arranges a half-dozen sea scallops in a smoking-hot pan, laying them down in a perfectly spaced circle so that each one receives the same amount of heat, nudging one back into line with the knuckle of a thumb when it shifts just slightly. I watch as he stops in the middle of a heated discussion about Food Network chefs to lay out a leg and breast of Guinea fowl on a sizzle plate, leaving an unfinished sentence hanging in the air while he carefully pokes at each piece of meat, as if communicating with an old friend. Kelly follows his own rhythms at Clair de Lune, playing the restaurant game by a totally different set of rules -- rules that he makes up and changes whenever it suits him.

You don't have to be in the kitchen with Kelly to appreciate what comes out of it. A few nights earlier, I'd sat in the tiny dining room, crowded with foodies in various stages of hoity-toity indulgence, surrounded by walls that were the color of an Impressionist sky. The plateau de fruits de mer, one of the few menu mainstays, was like a Long John Silver's sampler platter for grown-ups. Immaculately fresh Littleneck clams and Malpeque oysters -- served on the half shell and carefully opened to preserve their liquor -- lay like knobby gems on a bed of ice. I could smell their metallic perfume as they arrived at the table, the scent catching right at that juncture between throat and sinuses, like you're chewing a mouthful of pennies. The taste was briny, deep and green with no bottom. The texture like having suddenly grown a second, tiny tongue. When eating shellfish as fresh as these, you're immediately aware that this thing in your mouth was alive just an instant before it hit your plate, that it died for your pleasure. And as with the smell of truffles or the flavor of expensive port wine, the sense-memory connections they form in the brain are pure sex.

Also on the plateau were two spiced shrimp, huge and chilled, and half a lobster split straight down the spine as though following a diagram in an anatomy textbook, giving you the chance to taste the subtle differences between the meat of the tail, body, claw and head. There were dipping sauces as well: a shallot vinaigrette, a cocktail sauce jacked up with spices, and a tarragon tartar sauce, although the netted half-lemon provided was the only accessory this dish required. It says a lot that the lobster -- usually queen of the fruits de mer -- was the least interesting thing on the plate.

The plateau came with dipping sauces, as well: The antipasti misti, another regular menu item, was a wildflower drawn on the plate with sweet, bright-orange persimmon, powerful house-cured sardines, roasted red peppers, caper berries, black olives, little cubes of marinated chevre, homemade bresaola (a marinated tenderloin, air-cured, then sliced thin like an older, meaner, less cultured big brother to prosciutto), and crisp-fried baby artichokes drizzled with basil aioli. The baby artichokes are the only dish that Kelly resurrected from Aubergine. "I had to have them here," he says. "Or come up with some really good excuse why I didn't. There's people who would've never forgiven me otherwise."

On the menu that night was a vegetable tagine (a classic Moroccan preparation consisting of winter vegetables, preserved lemon and a tomato jus) served with solid, lemon-touched falafel and saffron couscous. There was also a wonderful, slow-roasted, aged Muscovy duck breast on an autumn sketch of braised apples, lemon, sweet potato, cippolini onions and a sweet cider reduction. The duck was firm and musky, with crisp, fatty skin and meat that had been dried somewhat by the aging process but made all the more flavorful for the concentration. Generally, I like my duck rare, bloody and full of life; I like the classical preparations, the meat flame-kissed and pink. But that wasn't what Kelly was doing. Not this season. Youth and juiciness are spring sensations. This duck was hearty and ready for a long, cold snow.

By the time dinner was over, I'd accidentally gotten drunk as hell on Chimay Red, from the short, carefully considered wine list arranged by Karin Lawler. This wicked quasi-beer, made by monks, is highly carbonated and high in alcohol content (something that should probably be written in much bigger letters on the bottle, although having it come as a very blurry surprise is fun, too), with a flavor halfway between a very good beer and a very cheap champagne, which all conspires to make you drink a lot of it quickly and then inspires very un-monklike feelings in the casual imbiber. It's nice stuff. It was especially nice at Sean Kelly's place.

Clair de Lune is the restaurant that every burned-out, grill-scarred, sick-of-it-all veteran of the food industry dreams about when he collapses into a booth at the end of the night with his crew. I've been there, and I know the whole, tired spiel backwards and forwards: "Fuck it," he says. "Fuck it all. Fuck these hours; fuck this heat, these customers who don't know a gratin from a gaufrete. Fuck the fish guy and that stinking grandmother of a salmon he sent me. The investors crying over a slow Saturday. Fuck 250 covers at brunch. One of these days I'm gonna..." And it goes on from there. They all want a place to call their own, a place where they can work the rest of their days with the kind of simple happiness I saw on the face of Sean Kelly. A place like Clair de Lune.

It's small, yes -- so small you will become intimately acquainted with everyone in the dining room, because you'll be able to hear every word of their conversations. But you'll get past that. Yes, the menu is in a state of constant (and welcome) flux. And no, your plastic is no good here: Kelly didn't feel right about giving thirty grand a year to credit-card companies for the dubious honor of using their machines when he could instead give that money to a dishwasher. You'll get past the cash-and-check-only policy, too.

Clair de Lune may be small, but the food served here is bigger than the walls, the block, the neighborhood. It's big enough to feed anyone who understands how rare it is for a cook with Kelly's resumé and skills to be touching every plate that comes out of the kitchen. To be sure, it's too small for a celebrity, so it's a good thing there aren't any here. There's just a cook -- a great cook, with the hands to prove it.