Modern, Dressing On The Side. – 5 New York, NY restaurants – Review

Modern, Dressing On The Side. – 5 New York, NY restaurants – Review – restaurant reviews

Brad Goldfarb

In the lexicon of restaurant design, it doesn’t take an expert to know that red-leather banquettes and aged mirrors usually mean French, mahogany paneling and plush upholstery indicate you’ve found the beef, and a waterfall suggests the kitchen is going for something light and modern, with or without pan-Pacific influences. Whether out of frustration with this cookie-cutter mentality, a desire to strike out in new directions, a wish for something more playful, or perhaps just an urge to capitalize on the latest trends, many recently opened restaurants, juice bars and wrap shops (the sandwich counters of 2000) have hit on a new design concept – a hypermodern approach. Here’s a look at a few of the restaurants that are bringing mod back into mode – plus one that got the whole thing started forty-plus years ago.

FRESSEN

421 West 13th Street (between Ninth Avenue and Washington Street); 212-645-7775

If the current flurry of activity in that western outpost of New York City known as the Meat Packing District were compared to a gold rush, Fressen could indeed be said to have struck it rich. On any given night, the bar and restaurant are filled with the kind of mix – artists, social types, foodies, fashion people, groups of gay men – that calls to mind the unique melting-pot quality of past NYC success stories like Indochine and Odeon. No doubt part of this is due to the individuals behind the restaurant, each of whom has large groups of loyal friends and admirers who made sure the opening nights were busy ones. But not even your Aunt Rose can be counted on to keep your restaurant busy three months past the ribbon cutting, so clearly something more than loyalty is at work here. Like Surya last year and Balthazar before it, Fressen has caught the buzz, that elusive cocktail made up of unknown parts talk, timing, and talent. The restaurant has all three, and three great rooms to boot. With its use of lighting and Mondrian-inspired screens created from squares of burnished yellow paper Fressen, designed by Jed Johnson & Associates, offers the kind of outer glow that’s the next best thing to having an actual inner one. And while the room’s streamlined design pays undeniable homage to the aesthetic of the late 1960s, its attention to comfort and space are unmistakably concerns of today. So, too, is the food. Wherever possible Fressen has committed itself to using only organic ingredients, a philosophy that guarantees both freshness and a menu that is rarely the same two days running. Not surprisingly, the kitchen’s approach is more about enhancing flavors than adulterating them, so an Amish chicken is enlivened by the addition of caper berries and pickled onions; a sliced tenderloin is given extra juice with the help of roasted cherry tomatoes; and a grilled branzino gets lusty new life thanks to an olive and hazelnut vinaigrette. Standouts among the appetizers to date have been grilled asparagus with blood oranges, vegetable tempura, and a crab cake with a spicy corn salsa, while desserts have so far presented one clear-cut winner – a late summer pudding with fresh berries and creme anglaise. Detractors have complained that the cooking has at times been uneven and the service spotty, and no doubt Fressen is still finding its legs; but if recent visits are any indication, those quads are getting stronger with each passing week.

COUP

509 East 6th Street (betw. Aves. A and B); 212-979-2815

Step inside Coup, a year-old restaurant located in the heart of the East Village, and a little voice is likely to tell you that you’ve made a wrong turn somewhere – what’s this sleek, neo-retro bi-level operation doing in a neighborhood where restaurant design is typically marked by a loving-hands-at-home unfinished charm? There is nothing unfinished about Coup, which makes it seem strangely, though not unpleasantly, out of place here. From the stainless steel entranceway to the oblong light fixtures, blond wood floors, and Zenlike garden, Coup feels more like a show house for Scandinavian design than it does an Alphabet City eatery. What the restaurant doesn’t have is any of the pretension one tends to find in establishments that have obviously placed so much emphasis on appearances – the staff is as easy and open as you’d expect in this neighborhood of artists and students and young professionals, just a little more polished. To varying degrees the food helps to underscore this impression. Like the architects responsible for Coup’s uber-design, the kitchen is aiming for a grown-up mix of sophistication and fun – food that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but which is nonetheless carefully thought out and executed. This approach proves most successful where the appetizers are concerned – potato-and-goat-cheese terrine; steak-and-blue-cheese quesadillas; shredded chicken with tarragon mayonnaise – all are hearty and full of flavor without sacrificing finesse. Entrees are somewhat less successful. Though the poppy-crusted tuna presents one of the better versions of an offering that has by now grown tedious, the sliced New York strip steak with greens and grapes never quite came together, the Thai spiced shrimp had bite but lacked zing, and the turkey chop, though beautiful to gaze upon, painted a tougher picture when viewed with a knife and fork. Desserts too present some clear-cut winners (the coffee flan, the chocolate cake) and some also-rans (a strangely dry pineapple upside-down cake). Still, despite these complaints, no one at Coup seems to be having any less of a good time, which serves to remind that for many atmosphere and environment are no less important than the food – a fact Coup has wisely tuned into.

POP

127 Fourth Avenue (betw. 12th and 13th Sts.); 212-767-1800

Where Coup might be described as the sort of place you’d expect to find on the warm West coast, Pop is one-hundred percent New York City. In fact, the interior – featuring an expanse of strict blond wood banquettes and a drop ceiling of burgundy-lacquered steel – is said to be an homage to Eero Saarinen’s celebrated design for the TWA terminal at NYC’s Kennedy International Airport. This conceit may have sounded good on paper, but in reality it translates to hard edges, cold spaces, and lots of noise. All of which makes the genuinely warm reception you receive from the staff somewhat disconcerting – like you’ve walked onto the set of Dr. No and everyone’s reading lines from Oklahoma. Pop is clearly going for something that feels new and modern, and while that may involve looking back in terms of design, in terms of attitude it has its sights set firmly on a future where snarls are replaced by smiles. It’s a welcome change, albeit a surprising one, given that Pop is the creation of former model Roy Liebenthal – owner of the now-defunct Cafe Tabac and still smoldering Lemon, two NYC restaurants whose reputations had less to do with “food” or “friendly” than they did or do the promise of pretty people. He’s clearly going for something different with this latest venture. Liebenthal has brought in Brian Young, the former chef de cuisine at the four-star Le Bernardin, and while the fare frequently hits the mark or higher, it often feels out of step with the jet-stream-lined setting it’s presented in. When a restaurant this young in spirit lists beluga caviar and customized tastings of five and six courses on its menu, it’s hard not to feel they’re overreaching. Too bad, because judged solely on its own merits, much of the food is quite good, especially seafood options such as crispy shrimp rolls, soft-shell crabs, and Chilean sea bass, or less enlightened ones like the stuffed pork loin, Or the strawberry cream cake. Pop’s interior, menu design and table settings may recall a first-class flight circa 1970, but all airplane similarities happily end there.

CAFETERIA

119 Seventh Avenue (at 17th Street); 212-414-1717

One of the first NYC restaurants to tune into the appeal of retro modern as a design concept, in the year since Cafeteria opened, the establishment has received as much attention for its Jetson’s interior as for its inferior service, superior attitude, and indifferent cooking. Though the operation has improved marginally in the past year, the cooking, unfortunately, has not. Comfort food items like meat loaf, baked macaroni with two kinds of cheeses, and chicken pot pie all sound appealing – and in keeping with a restaurant whose name is clearly meant to imply a grown-up version of all those meals you ate off a tray growing up – but the sad reality is they don’t taste a whole lot different than the institutional version you’re probably familiar with. So the cornmeal calamari has plenty of crunch but little else; the salmon in cous-cous is pure vanilla, despite the presence of figs and black olives; and the grilled hangar steak salad, a heaping plate of sliced beef, spinach, potatoes and artichoke hearts accompanied by an indifferent vinaigrette, suffers from the more-is-less syndrome – didn’t anyone tell the kitchen there’s more to cooking than piling on ingredients? What does work at Cafeteria, however, is the design. Though detractors have complained that the restaurant’s padded white walls are reminiscent of another type of institution, with its warm white lighting, well-placed windows and mirrors, and stainless steel garage doors, the room still manages to communicate a certain slick urbanity without feeling cold. Cafeteria may be kitsch masquerading as sophisticated, but if the choice comes down to a fast meal at the nearest Greek coffee shop or dinner in a place where at least the lights won’t hurt your eyes, sometimes style (even the disposable kind) wins out over substance.

FOUR SEASONS

99 East 52nd Street (betw. Lexington and Park Aves.); 212-754-9494

It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s walked inside the Four Seasons restaurant recently, or had the pleasure of eating a meal in either the Grill or Pool Rooms there, that the forty-year-old establishment which first brought modern American design to the arena of the restaurant is still the most successful example of it anywhere. Though the carpeting has been changed a few times (always with the approval of architect Philip Johnson, who co-designed the space with Mies van der Rohe), and the dinnerware has been updated to include Mr. Johnson’s recently created line of dishes (they’re available at Bloomingdale’s), little else – from the restaurant’s French walnut walls to the undulating curtains of copper chains – has been altered. Why mess with perfection? The big surprise for first-time diners, however, is that instead of being cold and intimidating, the result is a space that’s incomparably warm and inviting, contributing to a mood that’s relaxed, even playful. True, jackets are required for men in both dining rooms, and there is an unmistakable hush and seriousness to the place, but the atmosphere is never stuffy or pretentious. After all, how can you feel intimidated by a restaurant whose wait staff can be seen hurrying plates of what looks like large white wigs around the room? In fact, those “wigs” are cotton candy, one of the many Four Seasons standards not listed on the menu (the famous lemon tart and chocolate velvet cake are others), but which the initiated know about and which are always available. This interest in creating four-star versions of quotidian dishes (think baked potato with truffle oil) is a trademark of the restaurant and present in many of its most lauded dishes. Even those standouts which you might not risk trying at home tend towards the classic and unexperimental. So while you will find exceptional versions of items like crab cakes, Dover sole, steak tartare, or roast duck prepared either au poivre or served alongside a cherry compote, what you won’t find is the latest trendy ingredient flown in from Central America or Southeast Asia – the kitchen here has total confidence that that wheel’s already been invented. Now what could be more modern than that?

COPYRIGHT 1999 Brant Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group