We had three very different dining experiences yesterday that really made me sit back and meditate on the idea of a restaurant as a total experience which should be much more than the sum of it's parts.
In the hospitality business we all do a lot of talking about guest perceptions, customer service, memorable experiences, and creating a buzz. New York is a wonderful stage for a restaurant. It has a huge dining population with a relatively large disposable income with a tendency to be more open-minded than diners in other parts of the country. There are restaurateurs seemingly willing to move heaven and hell and spend millions of dollars to create the epitome of their version of the perfect restaurant. There are countless reviewers and endless blogs devoted to reporting on the dining scene. There is access to some of the best equipment, purveyors and ingredients in the world. There is an enormous employment pool of aspiring cooks and chefs, and an equally large pool of professional servers and managers, who all want to build their careers on a strong foundation of New York experience. Yet, with all of these advantages, many restaurants in this city feel lackluster and halfhearted. It's a tough year in New York City. I know these things are cyclical, last year was a much stronger and more positive one in this business. There were openings with a lot of buzz and the feeling that there were great restaurants to be explored on the landscape. This year when we ask friends in the business where to eat, we get shrugs. People shake their heads and demur. No one has any passionate recommendations of where to go and that is disappointing. Of course we push on anyway, alighting at whatever establishment has taken our fancy on a particular day, but for the most part our experiences have been wan and watery. Very few places have made us feel passionate and of those most have inflamed with negativity rather than ecstasy. Thankfully old favorites still remain and good meals can be found in unexpected places.
We zipped into Cafe Gray yesterday for a quick lunch. We had a meeting on the upper west side and we were starving when we hit the streets. The Time Warner building loomed in the distance and we followed its invitation. We were greeted halfway to the host stand by a coat check woman and quickly led into the half empty dining room. We were seated in the only crowded area of the room at a deuce located alongside the kitchen and the windows. Strangely, whenever we eat in the Time Warner building it seems to be an overcast afternoon but that doesn't detract from the pleasure of the view. As always I was slightly taken aback by the prices at Cafe Gray. Even in a city of exorbitant menu prices, lunch at Cafe gray gives me pause. We quickly moved past it, once you have committed to a restaurant there is no point in crying over the spent money.
I began with the artichoke veloute served with a large artichoke heart, a few scattered herbs and three small, plump langoustines. The soup was poured from a teapot tableside and the teapot then rested on the other side of the long rectangular plate. The server just poured a small amount into the bowl, so as not to overwhelm the garnishes and the teapot did a nice job of keeping the rest of the brew warm until I added it to my bowl. It was presented for a right-handed eater, which I am not, so after turning the plate around I tasted the soup. It was incredibly rich and velvety, with a strong flavor of artichokes. The first sip was warm and luscious but the flavors quickly became a bit heavy and cloying. I enjoyed the soup and in general there were hefty portions to balance out the prices, unfortunately something this rich can only be eaten in small mouthfuls and too much is often too much.
Alex began with a winter special, lobster thermidor. It was half of a broiled lobster; the carapace was stuffed with lobster pieces, creamed spinach, tarragon and celery root. The dish was served with a boozy and intense lobster reduction on the plate. It was a very tasty, over the top, bread sopping plate. As with all of the dishes we experienced at Café Gray, it could have used some acid to balance out the butter and cream because a few bites were enough to satiate and overwhelm the taste buds.
I followed with the mushroom and herb risotto. It was served alongside a silver copper pot filled with mushroom ragout. The server spooned a portion of the ragout onto my risotto leaving the rest to stay warm and snug in it’s little pot until it was called for. Again, the plating was designed for a right handed person, I note this not because I expect the servers to read minds and know that I am left handed for the first course but because I don’t think that anything should be difficult to eat. The size of the silver pot and aforementioned teapot made it impossible to eat comfortably without turning the plate and with the number of staff present in the dining room and the formality of the service, I did think that for the second course they could have turned the plate the other way when the second awkward course was served. Anyway, the risotto was very pretty, steaming slightly with the requisite texture of a thick rice pudding. Several moments before, Alex, who sat facing the pass, delighted in giving me a play by play of the period while my risotto sat waiting (an inverted plate over the dish) while another cook eventually finished his guinea hen. Thankfully the only evidence of its delay was the fact that the butter was just starting to break out its emulsion. That could have been simply because there was so much of it in the rice. It had a nice layering of flavors, faint hints of garlic, shallots and parsley mixed in with the nicely chewy but not crunchy grains of rice. The mushrooms were rich and soupy, slightly crunchy and pleasingly gelatinous. They teetered threateningly on the edge of being entirely too salty to eat but were thankfully buffered by the starch and the fat that surrounded them. Many of the dishes at lunch were balanced right on the knife’s edge where salt was concerned and I believe it was the very heaviness of the dishes which saved them.
Alex finished with the guinea hen special. The breast had a beautiful crispy skin and was juicy and perfectly cooked, topped with a nicely seared piece of foie gras. The confit of dark meat was distressingly crunchy with gristle and bones accompanied by melted leeks, which had a floral spiciness, which highlighted up the meaty flavors of the dish. All in all this was a nice winter meat dish. Strangely for a chef who is celebrated for his use of herbs and spices, this was the only dish where any of these components had even a slightly assertive presence.
Desserts looked delicious but with dinner looming only four hours away and prices ranging from $14-$16, we regretfully declined. It was a fun experience, being able to watch the view inside the kitchen and outside the restaurant was an edifying experience. The dining room was not very busy and we were not the last people to be seated for lunch that day. Our appetizers came out incredibly quickly and then there was a long delay before the second courses appeared. The flax seed bread, which I forgot to mention was delicious with a nice crust. Interestingly there was a lot of leaning on counters and chatting amongst the runners and the cooks. I note this only because in my experience cooks without a sense of urgency are rarely doing their best work. The last two meals I’ve eaten at Café Gray were both good, solid food although they made me wish that I’d been able to taste Chef Kunz’s food at Lespinasse when he was still young and hungry and building his reputation.