6 at 51st St.; E, M at Fifth Ave.-53rd St.
Gallery at Villard temporarily closed.
New York’s restaurant world is full of perpetually doomed “death zones,” where the dreams of even the most diligent and talented chefs go to die. Usually, these cursed black-hole regions are located on marginal side streets, or in fusty, feng shui-challenged rooms, but sometimes the opposite is true. Take the famously ornate apartments of the old tycoon and journalist Henry Villard in the beautifully situated midtown Madison Avenue palazzo that bears his name. Sirio Maccioni used the Gilded Age McKim, Mead & White space as the setting for his elaborate Le Cirque 2000 restaurant before abandoning it a decade ago. Since then, the rooms have housed a series of dreary hotel bars (the mansion sits off the lobby of the New York Palace Hotel) and star-crossed haute-dining concepts, like the tasting room Gilt, which went through several chefs during the course of its run before closing, with barely a whimper, just over a year ago.
The New York Palace was recently purchased by a real-estate investment firm, and the new owners have given the dowager space a lavish, $140 million face-lift and persuaded the venerable French chef Michel Richard to come up from his restaurant in Washington, D.C., to see if he can break the curse. Richard has wisely separated the space into two concepts, one called Villard Bistro, serving elevated brasserie dishes (onion soup, fried chicken, a lobster burger), and another, smaller, wood-paneled Gallery, designed for the enjoyment of tasting menus and fancy wines, which the designer, Jeffrey Beers, has filled with giant canvases of twentieth-century cinema divas (Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, etc.) and rows of tables illuminated from below in pools of white light.
The grand, sun-filled Bistro overlooking Madison Avenue is the most pleasant of these venues by far, although the dishes my tasters and I sampled during the course of our meals there had a hit-or-miss quality, and none of them were cheap ... Similar old-world treats are available in the 50-seat Gallery tasting room, although you may feel, as I did while dining alone one wintry evening, like you’re the only passenger onboard an ancient ocean liner embarking from Nice, say, on one last cruise across the chilly Atlantic. The room was mostly deserted on my visits. The courtly maître d’ is a veteran of Richard’s restaurant projects in D.C. and L.A., and the dishes served—Dover sole poured with chicken-consommé emulsion, foie gras brûlée topped with soft segments of citrus and grapes, an ingenious mock caviar made with Israeli couscous and squid ink served in a silver tin among glittery crystal “ice cubes”—feel like a collection of ye olde greatest hits culled from the chef’s storied career.
Will these culinary magic tricks be enough to lift the curse from this troubled restaurant space? Based on the many empty tables on my visits, the prognosis is a tentative “maybe.” The lean gastronaut fashions of today are light-years removed from the kind of elaborate cuisine Richard specializes in, after all, and old mansions in midtown ceased being dining destinations in this city long ago. But if you have a fondness for first-rate culinary nostalgia, you could do worse than a trip down memory lane conducted by this genial chef and his faithful staff.
Bistro: Frisée salad, roast chicken, napoleon. Gallery: Eight-course tasting with caviar “penguins.”