Mon-Thu, 6:30am-2pm and 5:30pm-10pm; Fri, 6:30am-2pm and 5:30pm-10:30pm; Sat, 7am-2pm and 5:30pm-10:30pm; Sun, 7am-2pm and 5:30pm-10pm
N, Q, R at 57th St.-Seventh Ave.; 1, A, B, C, D at 59th St.-Columbus Circle
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The Jumeirah group, from Dubai, purchased the dignified, slightly frumpy Essex House in 2006 (the hotel housed Ducasse’s original restaurant in New York) and gave it a $90 million face-lift. By the looks of things, most of this cash has been sunk into the restaurant itself. It’s a tall, mosquelike space, replete with a bar made of polished orange travertine, walls covered with glittering angled mirrors, and floor-to-ceiling windows in the front of the room, offering a classic perspective of the park. There’s also a name chef in the kitchen (Kerry Heffernan, who rose to fame running Eleven Madison Park), a Hummer-size Grand Cru–stocked “wine wall” stretching from one side of the room to the other, and waves of energetic, internationalist waitstaff who appear to have been recruited from Jumeirah leisure resorts around the globe.
You’d expect all kinds of elaborate food in a setting like this, but that’s not what Chef Heffernan has in mind. His menu is a curiously clipped document, filled with a mix of classic gourmet and boutique Greenmarket ingredients, many of which look more impressive on the page than they do on the plate. My helping of hamachi crudo tasted faintly of eucalyptus oil, like the menu said, but it didn’t really matter because the shreds of fish were barely large enough to feed a cat. Ditto the “hot smoked” char (with microscopic segments of grapefruit and niçoise olives), and the miniature seared foie gras, which was muffled in “tarragon preserved” kumquats and an oversweet coulis made, bizarrely, of rhubarb. These slight appetizers are mingled with refreshingly simple ones (cool shrimp with leeks, pencil asparagus sprinkled with crème fraîche and shaved eggs) and strange, showy Haute Barnyard preparations like a too-thick flan made of peas, and a vividly brown purée of wild mushrooms, which tastes okay but looks less than appetizing served in a tall martini glass.
The clientele at South Gate are the same kind that you’d find at any expensive tourist establishment on the Bund in Shanghai, say, or the Champs-Élysées in Paris. The tables are filled with jet-lagged businessmen, prosperous Euro couples with their children, and Japanese ladies carrying bulging designer shopping bags. There are lots of enticing wines on display for the delectation of expense-account diners, and a serviceable bar menu designed for the legions of tourists who jam the cocktail area in the evenings. The menu also features surprisingly accomplished desserts, like tarts filled with passion fruit, and a slim, gourmet chocolate mille-feuille flecked, on its top, with gold leaf. If you have to choose one of these items, try the blood-orange parfait. It contains bits of meringue and shortbread hidden in clouds of orange sorbet, and ice cream flavored with mascarpone. Take a bite, and you’re not in a run-of-the-mill midtown restaurant anymore. You’re in a grand hotel, enjoying a glass of Champagne, admiring the timeless view, out the window, of Central Park.Ideal Meal
Shrimp with leeks, sautéed red snapper or pork belly, blood-orange parfait.