|Photograph by Kenneth Chen.|
Gray Kunz is one of the city’s few four-star chefs, and he deserves the distinction, yet in the five years since Lespinasse was shuttered, Kunz has pretty much vanished. There’s been consulting work here and there, rumored plans that never materialized, and a cookbook, but for the most part he’s been off the culinary map. Imagine Derek Jeter taking a break in the prime of his career to coach Little League for a few seasons. Or Nathan Lane running off to join the Seattle Rep. Now Kunz is back, and although his Café Gray missed the insane fanfare accorded its Time Warner Center neighbors, it’s been almost fully booked since it opened in early October.
Even in a room as ugly as this. Let’s get this out of the way early: Jeez, Louise! What was David Rockwell’s group going for when they hatched this design—the misunderstood majesty of the Hyatt Corporation? The sloping, chocolate-carpeted entranceway may stir a slick sense of anticipation, but once up the ramp, you come smack into a we’re-so-not-having-fun-house of beveled mirror and etched smoked glass. Railings appear wrapped in aluminum foil, as if pinched from a prom with an industrial-age theme. And though the lighting is flattering, it features grids of almost the same exposed filament bulbs used in the overhang outside the midtown Novotel. The desire for an informal space is admirable, and oddly enough, unique for this egalitarian locale, but this airport-hotel dining room is a match for the mall’s mendacity.
Others may gripe further because Kunz’s dream kitchen lays claim to the windows overlooking Central Park. If you came only for the view, head up to the bar on the 35th floor of the Mandarin Oriental for a cocktail before your reservation. When you’re ready to have more of your senses activated, come to Café Gray.
Kunz is Swiss and is thought of as a French chef, but his passion is to match his European expertise with Eastern cuisines. True to the word café, the menu at Café Gray is more populist than that of Lespinasse. Kunz’s plates are small, precise—his first-course portioning may provoke moderate squinting—but his flavors are huge. Double-boiled oxtail consommé, dark as sable, thick as varnish, is so powerfully rich, with its satiny raviolini packed with an herbed burst of foie gras, that it relegates other clear soups to mere broth status. A coral-and-cream cloud of lobster chowder, whipped at the last minute with lovage oil, proves more luscious than bisques twice as dense. A gentle sweet-and-sour broth of saffron and zucchini serves as a base for a harvest ragout that is the answered prayer of every hungry vegetarian. The rustic opulence of risotto is perfect for Kunz, and he studs it with shards of wild mushrooms, their liquid drenching the velvety rice grains with their smoky perfume. The bottarga variation of vitello tonnato is novel if less exciting, and both tarragon-yogurt dressing on marinated-jícama-and-kaffir-lime rémoulade beneath tender skewered shrimp render each overtly herbal and earthy. Cured yellowtail with rock salt and chili oil highlights the chef’s love of Asian techniques, but his pasta fiori, in a bristling, resplendent, nearly electrifying pool of tomato concassé and thyme, is the appetizer to hoard.
Entrées are more generous and anything but dainty. There are no more-indulgent short ribs around, piled high in sloppy, succulent splendor on a cushion of lush soft grits. Lamb chops are just the opposite—firm, fragrant, offered with a piquant carrot-curry emulsion. Sounding like a dish right out of Bennigan’s, puffed-rice-crusted fluke is an unexpected rush, the crust lending the fish the nutty appeal of the meatier pompano. Port laced with lime spruces up salted cod into a fitting partner for chunks of sweetly tart langoustine. Kunz’s soft, moist pork shank drenched in stout and maple syrup with bean stew could keep an Irish bar in business for generations. And the only drawback to meltingly lush slices of roasted duck drizzled in walnut vinaigrette is that feelings of inadequacy may put you off ever roasting the bird yourself for the holidays.
Kunz is no fool. Three (count ’em) chocolate desserts. The marquise is easiest to love, chocolate rum toast hardest to ignore, but it’s the chocolate crumble with cranberry and oatmeal that will grow on you. Carameled pear is surrounded by pistachios, olives, and fromage blanc sorbet. Don’t make a face—make the leap. Kunz can be trusted. And for as long as you’re transported by his hazelnut soufflé, Café Gray is the prettiest restaurant in town. Perhaps the house could start the evening by giving you a spoonful as an amuse-bouche?
Ideal meal: Pasta fiori, short ribs, hazelnut soufflé.
Note: The booths near the bar, oddly enough, offer the most privacy.