New Yorkers really are an ungrateful lot. They came from all over town and made a big deal when Grand Central Terminal was gloriously reborn last year, eagerly searching the constellations on the ceiling, turning their faces toward the warm radiance of the golden chandeliers, scampering up the new East Staircase just for fun. And they all agreed. It was hand-claspingly stunning. Then, as if this were a once-in-a-lifetime, Streep-back-at-the-Delacorte-type thing, they left and turned the place over to Metro-North commuters and whoever happens to work close by.
Get back here! GCT has become far more than a marvelously engineered redevelopment project. It's the most positive force of civic self-esteem this city has put forth since the original I LOVE NY campaign. Unlike the master planners behind the redevelopment of the west end of 42nd Street, where a grandly bland redesign will soon have those dancing feet tripping over Madame Tussaud's gallery of waxen guises (if only they had wicks) after slappin' on the feed bag at Chevys (whose sign exudes more vulgarity than any former porno shop), Grand Central's overseers decided its revitalization, and its visitors, deserved something better.
So, along with all the grime and glaring advertising, out went the acrid smell of cheap doughnuts and grim-faced vendors with their shelves of Sheetrock-tender calzone. In their place on street level is a Hudson News featuring dark wood paneling and books not written by Dean Koontz; a florist that can create a bouquet without baby's breath; shops pushing black pearls, Tumi luggage, and real Rolexes for a change; plus a handsome block-long fresh-food market selling teas, herbs, grains, New Zealand cockles, and wonderfully lean London broil.
Downstairs is even more startling. How easy it would have been to go the food-court-at-the-mall route. Except there's not a Whopper to be found. No Gordita, no Super Big Gulp; in fact, not a single store serving anything with a movie tie-in. If you trekked down to the lower level only when lost or in search of the now reopened Oyster Bar, get ready for sprightly outposts of Caviarteria, Junior's, Zõcalo, Little Pie Company, Two Boots, and more to come. Dining areas are bearably lit, winningly sleek, and surprisingly clean. Come, take a look, and if as a New Yorker you fail to find this transformation totally uplifting, then maybe those nearby tracks should be taking you someplace . . . for good. Or why not just get in line for the wax museum?
But if it does give you a sweet rush, and it will, you'll be tickled to know there's more. Directly across 42nd from Grand Central's entrance, under the Park Avenue viaduct, restaurateur Buzzy O'Keeffe has lit up a space that for decades was dark and hidden. As evidenced by his River Café and Water Club, O'Keeffe is not a man for small gestures. The Ziegfeld-like marquee fairly screeching out Pershing Square reminds you that this street became famous for glitz and bustle, not glut and tumult. O'Keeffe has crafted from the darkness an extraordinarily welcoming and canny space. What's most intriguing is how the illusory framework of riveted steel beams, herringboned cork-brick ceiling, and multicolored slate floor not only reinforces sepia-toned memories but doesn't let you forget you are under that viaduct. In fact, when the restaurant, bar, and bakery aren't crowded, the ka-thump of traffic overhead is muffled but audible.
The Pershing staff's inexperience shows in their wanderlust. They're sweet and well-meaning and getting better, but it's a big room, and occasionally they just get, well, lost is the only way to say it. Poof. And then they're back -- and eager. O'Keeffe's experience, however, shows in the menu. Despite the trendy-brasserie menu graphics, chef Brad Steelman's selections -- straightforward and unthreatening, with appealing twists usually occurring in small type -- fit in this room. Proof that overreaching is hardly a crime is the sparkling cocktail of crab, scallop, and shrimp in tomato, coriander, and jalapeño; a pleasingly rugged Caesar salad; and an arugula, beet, and goat-cheese salad brightened by cider vinaigrette. The tuna tartare, though, doesn't have the smack to make you want to dodge taxis for it. Onion soup is the gooey, cheesy mess it should be; baked shrimp scampi, the oily curls they shouldn't be; and the smoked-salmon tasting plate, what bialy lovers will want it to be (though be forewarned: You get toasted brioche). But the appetizer worth taking a later train for is the cracklingly fried oysters under a tart vegetable-and-sesame aïoli.
Main courses are right in rhythm with that overhead traffic. They ain't dainty. But the short ribs with carrots and dates, the roast chicken with crispy artichokes, and the seared lamb medallions in sage are the kind of solid, hearty choices that go great with a dark lager and make you talk using your fork. Chicken-and-duck potpie sounds more enticing than it tastes, not really sure whether it wants to stroke or zap, filling but hardly thrilling. A filet mignon au poivre winds up the more exotic choice, its cognac-soaked peppercorns among the menu's only spicy items. All three pastas are clogged by overthick, underseasoned sauces, and the poor li'l rainbow trout can hardly find its way clear of its phyllo crust and vegetable ragout. But the smokiness of sautéed artichokes suavely romances the seared salmon with roasted tomatoes. Scallops, oddly enough, are the bell ringers here, thick, sweet, and topped by wild mushrooms with a sheen of walnut vinaigrette.
Desserts are polite. They need more gusto. The confections in the bakery cases seem bolder choices. The baked apple financier and bananas "Foster" come off a little wussy, like the candy-colored chandelier lampshades, especially when placed in a room where the energy is already so vibrant. Like the recently discovered baguette long lost from an heirloom engagement ring, Pershing Square is a pleasing sigh of a fit. No wonder the neighborhood has embraced it more quickly than Letterman's recovery. It is exactly where it belongs.
Pershing Square, 90 East 42nd Street (212-286-9600). Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Appetizers, $8 to $12; entrées, $14 to $24. All major credit cards.