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Two's Company

If 222 is perfect for romantic tête-à-têtes and intimate celebrations, it's because sometimes elegant food and perfect presentation just aren't enough.

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"It's my anniversary next week," says a friend. "You love Jean Georges, right?" "You bet," I say. "Though maybe not for an anniversary."

"Why not?" she asks. "My husband's never been, and he's dying to go!"

"Then, by all means," I reply. But I think she should know that I prefer someplace a bit more intimate and romantic, somewhere you're tempted to play footsie under the table. Jean Georges is so deliberately constructed as a showcase for chef Vongerichten's apparently limitless culinary skills that to engage it as a backdrop for even the most cursory of PDAs (public displays of affection, for those either too young or too old) feels kind of sacrilegious, like copping a feel during High Mass.

"Well, I already made the reservation," she snaps. "So we're going!"

Never overestimate the power of good advice.

"So how'd it go?" I ask the day after.

"The meal was incredible," she replies with a smile so tight you couldn't jam a straw through it.

"Glad to hear it," say I, nodding blankly, knowing I'll soon be sorry I ever asked in the first place.

Sure enough, she unleashes it all. "Except my husband barely touched me. Every two seconds, someone was bowing or carving or pouring or crumbing or fussing. It was like having guests. We were never alone. Why didn't you tell me the evening wasn't ever going to be about me? It was all about the damned food."

That's not fair. It's too easy to blame the lithe, white-jacketed Frenchmen for not turning up the heat in their dining rooms to match the fire in their rotisseries. Because, frankly, diners are forever guilty of expecting great restaurants to do double time as candlelit Casbahs and are forever winding up crushed and dismayed upon realizing that even if the fare is nectar for the gods, Eros is a no-show.

The fact is, the phrase Isn't it romantic? gets sung more times a year at the Café Carlyle than it gets intoned in restaurants throughout this city, and while New York is virtually littered with great food and impressive rooms, it is achingly light on seductive settings -- places so cozy it would make a business meeting uncomfortable, with enough nooks and corners to entice you to say everything in a whisper, where candles are placed to flatter and the food, more lush than luxe, is served by people who know how to turn on the charm, then turn on a dime and mystically disappear. And one more thing: A romantic spot, like seduction -- or maybe even love itself -- should appear a little foolish. For those aiming to swoon, it's funny how the too precious somehow becomes totally endearing.

There are snow globes on each table at 222, and they're all different. Glass-encased polar bears, skaters, and dancers, forever enswirled in the strains of "Lara's Theme" and "New York, New York." Sounds silly, don't it? Well, I was with the right person, so I was a goner in about two minutes. There is also an extraordinary collection of Barbie dolls along the corridor. But 222 is not high-camp-ground. These are only two of many elements that await whoever opens its unobtrusive basement door to discover this deliciously weird amalgam of country inn, wood-paneled boudoir, and gypsy tea room.

Healthy it may be, but sushi is not a turn-on. So damned if 222 doesn't strive for succulence and overkill on its menu wherever possible, like the kind of table-for-two dinners Rhoda couldn't believe Mary would try to fix for a beau coming over. Of course mesclun salad has to have wild mushrooms. "Meltingly soft" (says the menu) broccoli is slathered in Bucheron goat cheese. Escargots are baked in Pernod, butter, fennel, and duxelles of mushrooms. Crabmeat is "jumbo," shrimps are labeled "colossal," oysters are "plump," and foie gras is drenched in currants and cassis. Naturally, Beluga comes with crème fraîche, and right now white truffles are being offered atop every dish, though preparations are already layered enough. Truffles actually go with none of them. (Have them on the side.) True, the fare may be no match for Jean Georges's, but there is something so sensual and cheekily naughty about eating such fragrantly gooey goat cheese, lapping up a squirt of luxuriant oyster juice, or being fed one of those big sweet shrimp in sugar-and-spice sauce that you'd swear Kim Cattrall's character in Sex and the City had a table here with her name on it.

Penne is awash in dense wild-mushroom ragú, a char-grilled sea bass is bathed in a spry puttanesca, a thick prime rib happily drowns in Madeira, a rack of Colorado prime lamb sits in a broth of well-balanced mint and garlic, salmon is crispy-skinned in a balsamic reduction, and one order of risotto boasts enough lobster and lump crabmeat to feed all the early birds at a Red Lobster. Each of these dishes is good, though each could be better with a little less of everything.

But that would be missing the point. In fact, the simpler dishes, like a sushi-rare tuna in mirin or an open-fired breast of duck in a lighter-than-expected orange sauce, seem out of place. They stir up no pheromones, provoke no finger-sucking. Perhaps they should be banished. Desserts, however, are exactly what they should be: creamy, flaky, chocolatey, dotted with berries, swirled in spun sugar. Except the place really is desperately in need of a hot-fudge sundae.

The place must be Heaven in the winter. It must be lovely as antique lace on New Year's Eve. The people who work here are as kind as your favorite relatives. If you're proud of your cynicism, don't come here to make fun. The other guests don't deserve it. If you're willing to be goofy in order to make someone happy, you're going to start giggling in ten minutes and end up nestled in someone's neck. And if you can never find the right place to start an affair, welcome home. Clandestinity has its place. If you're smart, it's sitting at 222 right next to you.

222, 222 West 79th Street (212-799-0400). Dinner only, Monday through Saturday, 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Appetizers, $12 to $35; entrées, $24 to $45. All major credit cards.


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