Good morning, all.
I'm feeling quite chipper this morning because of a wonderful dinner I had at Country last night. Yes, Country upstairs, not Cafe @ Country downstairs, which has been the subject of various reviews here.
The first thing to say is that the space is spectacular, whether you enter through the funky subterranean Cafe downstairs, or the elegant foyer of the Carlton Hotel, on the street level. None of this should surprise us given that it is all designed by David Rockwell, the architect/designer who is at the top of his form, and probably the best restaurant designer in the business.
And a nice surprise is one of the most beautiful and charming hostesses I have ever seen in New York City, where the bar is at Olympian levels. This is only a problem when you have to pretend to the girlfriend that, no, you weren't ogling her, you were simply thanking her VERY much for taking your heavy coat with such, er, aplomb. But I digress.
The room is a beautiful, neo-classical (and landmarked) space, that put me in mind of Daniel, but is better. Warmer than Daniel, with none of the feeling of chilly exlusion you often feel there. Gorgeous Tiffany skylight, unearthed in the renovation (all the waiters mentioned this as a particular point of pride), with elegantly spaced tables. My bet is that it will quickly establish itself as one of the great dining rooms in New York City.
The kitchen is very visible from the dining room, with Chef Doug Psaltis (the same one who wrote the book, The Seasoning of a Chef) in very obvious charge. It's quite a show, with toque'd dudes almost monk-like in their devotion to copper saucepans, various broilers and a whopping rotisserie. No noise, no hystrionics, no drama, except in what emerges under large serving domes, but more of that in a minute.
If one of Bruni's main criticisms of Del Posto was an over-large menu, this Country's is minimalist by comparison. A four course, prix fixe for $85, there are basically four or five choices under each course. Plunging straight in, I ordered spicy squid to start, Dover Sole for my main, and a scallop (yes, one!) in between.
The squid was amazing. Chopped and mixed with a little spicy salad, it was perfectly cooked, tender, but al dente, with a great taste of the sea, mixed with a kinda Provencal spice that came, so my foodie friend told me, from a special French pepper whose name is lost from my memory (probably on the wings of a few of glasses of juicy Cotes de Roussillon.)
Next up, my scallop. Again, perfectly cooked, with a meaty little jus that I couldn't quite identify, but still that unmistakeable briny taste and a gorgeous puree of parsnips along the side (is the parsnip the most under-used vegetable in America? I think so).
Along the way, I was sneaking tastes of my girlfriends' veloute of Asparagus, with a quail egg on toast (green, yellow and fabulous)and my pal's creamy mushroom risotto, mild and nutty, perhaps because the kitchen didn't fall for the old temptation of loading up with porcini, which is too easy, these days.
My pal (who later picked up the considerable tab, good man yerself) is a top-class foodie and declared this risotto to be among the best he'd tasted. Maybe an exaggeration, but this place lulls you into such over-the-top thinking.
Finally, the Dover Sole, and if this was a flat spot, it wasn't because of the taste or presentation of the fish, which was perfect. It's because we've come to expect those lovely big flat fish smothered in beurre noisette, and are almost disappointed when something else appears. As it did last night. THey prepare it as a roll of sole, or rather, two narrow strips, one on top of the other. With sole, you have to be really careful not to overcook it, and these guys are ultra careful. It was perfectly cooked.
For afters, I had a selection of great cheese. Not quite Picholine in variety, but top class in condition. And I snagged a taste of a lip-smacking creme citron, served on a toasted brioche (who knew that this would work in a dessert - it does!) 'dressed' in a lemony syrup. My girlfriend lapped it up and then said, in her best Southie accent, 'Omigod'. Quite so.
The waiters were formal without being stuffy,very warm and attentive, and all decked out in good suits. Even the bus boys ('So cute!', thought my girlfriend), were wearing suits. Yeah, cute, I suppose, if you like that sixteen-years-old in a suit look. But fair enough, she was just getting me back for my too-close attention to the gorgeous hostess at the front desk.
For all the hoopla about Del Posto, for all the hype and aggrandizement, it's easy to forget that miracles of culinary alchemy take place all over Manhattan every night, with nary a boastful burp on the part of the kitchen.
One such miracle is being wrought by Psaltis and his guys at Country. It is brand new, barely a few weeks, but my bet is that it is going to become part of the fabric of the city in a very short time. Yes, it is that good.
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