I dreaded dining at Guastavino's, like a gentile fiancé facing his second seder and the inevitability of more gefilte fish. What sparked this anxiety over entering the truly awesome (yes, the words actually apply here) space under the Queensboro Bridge that British designer-restaurateur Terence Conran has spectacularly rescued from almost 70 years of neglect? A site that possesses such inherent dramatic power that even the most whiny Oh-Pastis?-Not-again! of our citizens are bound to stand under this cathedral of vaulted cream-glazed terra-cotta arches and get that tingle that always comes when New Yorkers find one more reason not to move.
Could it be because Conran decided to preview this multi-million-dollar must-see this past January by hosting the New York Post's bash for our guiltiest of media pleasures, "Page Six"? The event made American Psycho seem contemporary. There was Donald ogling in overdrive and Rupert's scions trying to hang out like jus' folks. And stepping haltingly around them and over one another in a Casablanca-thick fog of held-high cigars were hundreds of non-bold-faced names frantic to get nowhere. Imagine opening the new Tappan Zee Bridge with a 47-car pileup.
Was it possible that after two decades of elaborate schemes for the Bridgemarket space, we'd wound up with an eighties-size grand-café hangout celebrating the rebirth of the high-rolling crap shooter, a bit of new Vegas under the bridge?
Two months later, I was still reluctant to do the time warp again. But upon entering, and strapping in, we discovered something else entirely. Well, almost.
The bar remains a Daytonian-spring-break beer blast with Windsor knots. A hand-over-fist gold mine. But when it comes to dining, Guastavino's wants respect. And recognition. And a place around the table of restaurants that matter. And considering the enormity of the enterprise (two dining rooms plus private spaces can accommodate 600), the house has moved at breakneck pace to produce proper credentials. Already, it boasts a staff that must have been drilled harder than Demi Moore in GI Jane to achieve this level of attention over this large a playing field. Unfailingly polite and informed, and often extremely tall, they almost physically yank the scale of the room down to manageable size.
Under a gently curved and acoustically powerful rosewood arc, the downstairs dining room offers an impressive, geographically scattered menu devised by chef Daniel Orr that lets you follow matzo-ball soup with pig's feet, or pair vegetarian moussaka with Cuban stew. A lot of gastronomic ground is covered, perhaps with a few too many sprints. Those matzo balls are good, the broth thick with vegetables, but is there a Jewish bubbe that ever used this little fat? The moussaka is pleasant and surprisingly ungooey, the vegetables almost crisply charred, and the stew of tripe, chorizo, short ribs, and oxtail is definitely thick and hearty. But there is a nagging lack of pungency. It is noticeable again in a rich yellow lentil bisque needing more than its half-blast of cilantro, a smoky, dense soupe de poisson that would soar if only the aïoli had more gumption, an incredibly tender lamb loin left unseasoned save for a hint-of-mint pesto, and two thick seared filets, garnet-red but as unseasoned as an intern at a law firm.
When poussin is cooked so sweetly in walnut-and-sage butter, and the spice rub that unfortunately covers only half the rib-eye kicks with just the right spark of fire, it's not odd to suspect that the chef is pulling punches, maybe because, having previously been at La Grenouille, he well knows the palate of timid urban eaters (many East Siders have been known to gag for breath on El Paso mild salsa). Or perhaps it's impossible to imbue a soulful touch equally over so vast a culinary map. Sometimes Orr compensates with too much salt. But when he hits it right, as in a velvety foie gras galantine with a divine deep fig jam for contrast, a crisp bean salad with briny smoked trout, or roasted cod fragrant with thyme, you wish he would spike the marinade for the pork chop a bit more, add a smidge more mustard to the handsome rabbit loin, and turn that chicken casserole from really good to gotta-have-it with a smash or two extra of garlic.
Upstairs, with a prix fixe menu, Orr exhibits more flair and success. A shellfish bisque is elegant without being dense. Frog's legs are really fun, a bit messy and suckingly sharp with garlic, tomato, and parsley. Venison carpaccio disappears faster than Bambi's dad, and the crispness of the roast quail invites the lush darkness of dates and blood pudding.
Scallops, caramelized and abetted by salsify, sparkle; wild boar's warm, gamy appeal is enhanced by sage and currants; calf's brains are smart with brown butter and capers. But too often, other entrées upstairs repeat downstairs' tentativeness. A grilled strip steak leaps only where the peppered searing is apparent, a veal chop succeeds merely because of the meat's quality, and a snapper's red-pepper purée is hardly there. Guastavino's pastry chef, Nicole Plue, appears less hesitant. Downstairs, her Pavlova with strawberries is a gleeful treat. The apple tart is an eagerly devoured pleaser. Meyer-lemon tart and sticky gingerbread may be the two spikiest dishes on the menu and two of the most welcome. A terrine merely tastes like melted chocolate, but the Noilly Prat granité with ruby grapefruit is one of the most refreshing ways to end a meal this side of a Tiffany box.
Upstairs, her mango-and-coconut terrine and chocolate-almond cake almost stir gift-given smiles, and everyone else did love the rice pudding. But when you know about how much chicken fat goes in Bubbe's soup, rice pudding is rarely your thing.
Orr may know his clientele better than I do. I'm hoping that time pushes him nearer to the spice rack, 'cause he's on to something here. A grand café with a grand set of choices. But I'm more concerned about two drastic structural problems the house's diligent management needs to solve. The suspended beauty of dining upstairs comes at the expense of no acoustical buffer, and when the bar is clamorous, the sound rises up, rounds the arches, and comes crashing onto this suspended atoll like a final smackdown.
Downstairs, the wall that separates dining room from bar is no more than five feet high, low enough for the continuous cloud of cigar smoke to ascend just enough to sail over and knock the aromas right off your table. If it was just a hangout, who would care? But Guastavino's wants to be more. And since my dread has turned to admiration, I hope solutions are found. It would be a shame to see such a beautiful effort at raising the roof wind up a room of fallen arches.
Guastavino's, 409 East 59th Street (212-980-2455). Open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Appetizers, $7 to $21; entrées, $14 to $32. All major credit cards.