January 2010

The plan: to eat at four “landmark” city restaurants during New York City Restaurant Week taking advantage of the $35 three course menus.  The criteria: each restaurant had to be favored by locals and tourists alike (not as easy as one thinks) and have been in business at least 20 years.  

The four? Capsouto Freres, 21 Club, Le Perigord and Tribeca Grill.   The first problem? While NYC Restaurant Week is a great idea, the fact is many of the restaurants you want to go to don’t jump on the restaurant week bandwagon, or if they do, they only serve lunch. For those of us who don’t work in the city, obviously lunch is out of the question so dinner would have to do.  The second problem? Many of the restaurants to choose from all had nearly the same (think boring) restaurant week menu.  Inevitably, there were salads, a pâté or terrine, sometimes a soup or a smoked fish as an appetizer.  Dinner entrees were beef, chicken in many forms, occasionally a fish or a vegetarian option followed by dessert which was usually some sort of fruit tarte or chocolate concoction.

Since I decided early on that the restaurant reviews I post on the website would only be meals I thought worthy, two of the four places we visited during restaurant week didn’t make the cut.  But here’s the story.

Picking up my parents to join us for the first night of NYC Restaurant Week, we decided to take them to Capsouto FreresCapsouto Freres has been around since 1980 and on the weekends is busy with a younger brunch crowd but tonight, well, the clientele seemed rather elderly.  We had a comfortable table next to the bar and made our way through three decent courses with more than generous portions of basic French bistro food.  The four of us tried a variety of dishes to start: a smoked salmon plate, arugula salad, a terrine, followed by roast chicken and a daube de boeuf bourguignon.  Desserts included a blueberry crepe, a chocolate mousse cake and a poached pear.  The food was decent and the price couldn’t be beat but honestly, it wasn’t anything that I, myself, couldn’t make at home. It also led me to rethink the idea of this promotion.  What kind of food can you actually expect in this day and age for $35?  

Two days later we were at the 21 Club.  Even though Lynn has occasionally been to the restaurant since it’s down the street from his office for lunch (and ordered a burger), I think the last time I was there was with my mother when I was in college.  Back then the toys hanging from the ceiling were metal and I don’t remember what we had to eat (there’s probably a reason for that) but I do remember the place was busy.  Entering the 21 Club for dinner, the place is still crowded, the hamburger is still on the menu but the metal toys hanging from the ceiling have been replaced by plastic ones.

I would like to think that Restaurant Week brought in a bigger crowd than usual on a Wednesday night but I actually think that this was in fact not the case.  There were a lot of people there at 7:30 who looked like they had come straight from the office (some groups of women, but mostly men) and this was just their regular after work hangout. 

I know the 21 Club has been around for 80+ years (!) and it’s a bit of an “old boys club” with lots of old boys cooking deals (or at least pretending they are) so there’s lots of drinking and talking and the noise level is well… masculine. Stuck initially at a small table for two practically in the middle of an aisle leading straight to the bar, I sat, looked around and persuaded the captain we would be much happier at a larger table sitting side by side on a banquette. Once properly seated, I looked at the menu.  Again we were faced with the seemingly typical Restaurant Week menu — salad, salmon, chicken, dessert.  A bread basket filled with whole grain, wheat and raisin pumpernickel rolls along with a small baguette was offered with two pats of butter.  I must confess I bit into nearly every single one of the rolls only because collectively as a bread basket they were amazingly tasteless. We ordered a bottle of wine from the waiter and a few minutes later a sommelier appeared to tell us he didn’t have that particular vintage.  While this was mildly annoying and I needed to look at the wine list again, I was captivated by the funky gold medallion he was wearing around his neck.  I don’t think I had seen anyone wear one of those things in probably 20 years.  We got another bottle (recommended by the sommelier for a buck more) and ordered our appetizers.  Lynn had the veal and pork terrine which were two slabs of really chunky pâté placed on a chopped salad.  Wow, I hadn’t seen a chopped salad since the late 70’s!  Thinking I would bring us back to at least this decade, I ordered what was billed as a “citrus-cured mahi mahi” which turned out to be nearly frozen (and raw) mahi mahi which instead of the billed citrus flavor had a fairly strong astringent taste.  It was plated with some pickled beets and fennel plus a single slice of jalapeno. The appetizers were pretty bad but we’re not spoiled and ate everything anyway.

Waiting for the next course, I was getting a kick out of watching the clientele.  Besides the working girls and guys, there were quite a few tourists which caused my heart to skip a little.  Surely there were better restaurants they could have eaten at while visiting New York City?  Dinner went on.  In fairness, the wait staff was extraordinary.  They didn’t hover as much as eyeball your table from a distance to make sure you had proper cutlery, dishes, drinks and food until you got up to leave.  Although the table next to us (visitors from out of town) were persuaded not to get the chicken pot pie, Lynn ordered it.  It was heavy on the cream with a single piece of puff pastry that didn’t even manage to cover the top of the “pie.”  Stealing a bite, I thought the chicken and the vegetables in the mix were actually tasty. I had ordered the horseradish crusted salmon that while overcooked to my liking (I really like salmon nearly raw), the fish was decent and the vegetable accompaniment (cabbage, yellow carrots, brussel sprouts) were decently undercooked.

We finished our bottle of wine and moved on to dessert; a tasteless pear tart with some almond custard thing for Lynn and a huge chunk of chocolate mousse cake for me that had a scattering of what looked like those bizarre small frozen ice cream chocolate balls (Dippin’ Dots?) one usually sees at a baseball game.

For $35 the portions were generous if not exactly terribly exciting.  Maybe what the 21 Club is really about though (besides being a landmark old school NYC attraction) is the ambience.  Besides the clubby feel to the place and the boy toys hanging from the ceiling, I’m convinced maybe the real lure is the lighting.  All the guys look younger (even though the average age seemed to be around 65) and the women (mostly under 40) looked well, attractive. 

Two days later we were at Le Perigord.  Let me begin by saying I had at least three things working against me before we sat down.  First, it was a Friday night and after a busy week at work, by the end of the week I’m usually pretty zonked.  Because it was a Friday night, we headed to a bar before we hit Le Perigord and made the mistake of having two drinks not our usual one.  Third, a colleague of mine had been to Le Perigord during last year’s restaurant week and thought the food was good but warned me that the clientele was extremely elderly and the wait staff even older.  (He seemed to get a kick just by watching the wait staff ferry dishes from table to table nearly bent over in half by doing so.) 

Consequently, walking into Le Perigord that night with a couple of drinks under my belt plus a misconception of what the meal would be like, I was surprised to find that 1) the restaurant was packed, 2) the elderly waiters had been replaced by guys in their 50’s and 60’s and 3) we were surrounded by many couples in their early 30’s.  How did this happen?  Even stranger is that back in the 1980’s, I had worked as a temp for a consulting firm on this block and would frequently walk by Le Perigord and see a sedate dining room with many older couples eating their simple fish or chicken dinners.  Now, the room was noisy and tables were crammed into every possible nook and cranny. (Case in point, I could have easily eaten off of at least four other people’s plates that evening depending on whether I turned left or right.) 

But let’s get to the food.  I had seen the famous appetizer cart on the way in but frankly barely give it a glance — there was not much there that made my eyes sparkle or mouth water.  I did see some heavy mayo laden salad thing and a few overcooked whole artichokes but not much else. In tonight’s menu line up there were the usual suspects — pâté, salad, chicken, beef, salmon.  I sighed. So we started with a smattering of mixed greens with small round circles of beets with some tasty cornmeal breaded disks of goat cheese.  Lynn had a “vegetable” tart (actually it looked and tasted like a quiche to me) where the main “vegetable” seemed to consist of shredded carrots.  We got a bottle of French Bordeaux that I thought needed to be decanted so our waiter did just that before we moved on to our main dishes.  A roasted chicken with potato gratin accompaniment for me and Lynn (drum roll, please) got the boeuf bourguignon.  Again.  I tasted a piece of the stew.  I found the meat somewhat tough and uncharacteristically tasteless.  The chicken was better but the potato gratin had obviously been prepared way in advance (and unfortunately stored in some sort of metal container) since it had an unpleasant metallic taste.  For the other couples around us who weren’t ordering off the restaurant week menu, a dessert trolley was wheeled out and a big bowl of chocolate mousse, a tarte tatin and very old school floating island with crème anglais was offered.  What confounded me was that although Le Perigord was supposed to be French, I didn’t see a cheese cart anywhere on the floor although I have to presume there was cheese to be had on the menu if one so desired.  Since I had debated with the waiter the pros and cons of ordering the floating island (again a dish I hadn’t eaten in a good 20 years), he said he would bring me a sampling of both.  A sampling of both meant a large serving spoon of chocolate mousse (looking and tasting more like chocolate pudding) was dropped on my plate followed by an egg white meringue (the floating island?) plopped next to it.

When we were done eating, we sat for a while.  Why?  Because looking around us people had seemingly finished eating hours ago but they, too, remained rooted in their seats.  It was as if this dining room was their dining room. Presumably no one had anything else to do for the evening so why not stay?  Wasn’t this the restaurant Jackie “O”‘ used to visit?  Didn’t Henry Kissinger used to live on this street and dine there, too?  Was this restaurant really just an Upper East Side “French” country club that people who live on this side of Manhattan and of a certain age would frequent night after night?  While the older customers still outnumbered the  younger ones, I wondered whether restaurant week was really pulling in the younger diners or were the 30-year- olds gradually replacing the regulars? Hard to say but the portions were generous, the service spot-on and the cooking while not very exciting was comforting.  Dare I mention I didn’t see a single tourist in the room?

Last but not least we went to Tribeca Grill.   Why I decided this would be the fourth restaurant took a little bit of research on my part.  It was by far the “youngest” restaurant of the four but definitely met the initial criteria to be considered.  It also had a couple of other things going for it; located in a part of the city that originally wasn’t very trendy ( Tribeca), it was co-owned by actor Robert De Niro and chef/restauranteur Drew Nieporent.  It was Tuesday night at Tribeca Grill and the place was packed.  This is a very large restaurant so I was a bit intimidated thinking 1) how are they going to get this much food from kitchen to table quickly and 2) when cooking for this many people is it going to be decent?

Since we arrived nearly a half hour early for our reservation (there was surprisingly little to no traffic driving downtown), we sat at the bar and had a cocktail.  Around us were large groups of people making quite a bit of noise.  I started to get nervous. Was I in a famous New York City restaurant or an Applebee’s off a New York State Thruway exit?   I drank my vodka in silence until we were seated at a painfully small table for two smack next to a large family gathering (complete with screaming child) from out of town. Not liking the table we were given, I asked our host if we could be moved but he seemed so put out by my request that I decided as many a teacher has instructed many a student for hundreds of generations before me to “sit down, shut up, and open your book.”  So, I did just that, substituting the “book” for the menu and was pleasantly surprised.  This was no average restaurant week line-up.  A chestnut soup, grilled lamb sausage and an octopus salad as starters?  What about brook trout, black truffle cavatelli or venison as entrees? 

Bread and water were brought and our waiter wanted us to order right away but I needed help with the wine list.  Who knew that Bobby De Niro would have the biggest collection of Châteaneuf du Pape vintages this side of the pond?  Not that I was drinking (or could afford) such a varietal but the heavy on the French wine list is extensive as well as expensive.  I managed to narrow down my choices and was looking for the wine steward.  I was told by our waiter that “he went down to the basement to get a bottle .”   In the meantime, we ate the bread and tried to have a conversation with each other above the din in the dining room.  The wine steward eventually emerged from the basement wine vault and was able to help me pick out a decent Bordeaux from Graves.  We were now ready to order. 

To start Lynn had the grilled lamb sausage appetizer with a curried chick pea side dish seasoned with a cumin and chili tomato sauce.  I had the octopus with slices of über-fresh celery, roasted peppers, baby yukon gold potatoes and a few olives all tossed in a lemon vinaigrette.  I have to say, I was pretty impressed not only by the plating but that the dishes were so expertly cooked.  Who would have thought that the kitchen was capable of handling this with such a large crowd? 

After the first course there was a delay.  That gave me time to look around the room and pay well, close attention to the wait staff and the customers.  (A more extensive write-up of Tribeca Grill can be found on the Restaurant Reviews page.) Finally our entrees arrived.  Since it’s so rare to see venison on New York City menus these days (chefs seemingly preferring to cook the more popular and less expensive short rib), Lynn and I both had to get the venison.  Placed before us were at least six wonderful slices of perfectly cooked venison (medium rare, exactly to our liking) plated with a variety of winter root vegetables: acorn squash, brussel sprouts, parsnips and onions with a scattering of crispy cooked lardons.  While the acorn squash was a tad undercooked to my liking, the rest of the dish was amazing. Given my hesitancy beforehand about the size of the room and if the chefs would be able to do justice to the food, I was singularly impressed.

We finished our bottle of wine and moved onto dessert.  Three choices – cheese cake, chocolate mousse cake and an upside down pineapple cake.  Lynn, who ultimately can forgo dessert preferring cheese (or nothing) to a sweet finale, when pressed will ultimately choose chocolate.  This time he went with the cheese cake. With a  round shortbread bottom, the “cheese” part was molded to look like vanilla ice cream complete with a raspberry and whipped cream topping.  I didn’t think it would taste as luscious as it did (although the kitchen obviously made tons of the topping parts separately since when initially eaten the entire top came off in one piece).   My pineapple cake with creamy rum raisin gelato was a tad dry (the cake part) to my liking but ultimately I think the dessert worked. 

Bottom line: the amount of eating we did in less than two weeks was daunting. (Read my correlating story about trying to start off the new year with A Meat-Free January.) Now I know how Frank Bruni felt eating out every night!  All of the restaurants we visited were very crowded and portions were large.  But aside from Tribeca Grill (with Capsouto Freres a close second), there wasn’t much creativity coming forth from the kitchen and the restaurant week menus were limited.  Maybe that’s how $35 per person for three courses doesn’t morph into kitchen expenses closer to $50 per person when you’re serving fairly inexpensive cuts of chicken, beef and the “always popular with the ladies salmon.”  But here’s the catch, many of New York City’s high end restaurants, while not offering to participate in NYC Restaurant Week dinners (or even lunches) do in fact have regular prix fixe menus for lunch nearly every day of the week.  That said, I’ll take the $28 two course lunch at Eleven Madison Park or the $28 two plates and one dessert selection at Nougatine anytime.  And trust me, even if there is chicken on those menus, it won’t be like any other chicken you’ve ever eaten.  

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