I've never had a New York apartment with a dining room. But then, almost nobody I know in Manhattan has a dining room. We have dining areas, or eat-in kitchens, breakfast nooks, side tables that convert, credenzas that pull out, or one of those cocktail tables with throw pillows on the floor surrounding it that leave you sorry you didn't come with a walker (either able-bodied male or hospital-issued) when it's time to say good-night. Occasionally, someone scores big. There might be a dinette -- a tight, windowless chamber that evokes such an avalanche of fifties sense memories that the room seems unfinished without a Formica tabletop and acres of wallpaper depicting fake brick or latticework with fruit-bearing vines. No wonder it's only out-of-towners who question why New Yorkers never invite anyone over for dinner.
Consequently, venturing to a place called the Dining Room could be a deflating exercise in misplaced longing. Hearing those two words when you don't have one conjures up an A. R. Gurney-approved environment of rectangular symmetry with mahogany veneer, a chandelier above, an Aubusson below, and a breakfront filled with Spode on the side. However, what you get is a narrow East Side duplex presenting more obstacles to refinement than dressing Lil' Kim for Ascot.
Whether prompted by necessity or exasperation, designer Larry Bogdanow's solution is more than smart; it's downright endearing. Rather than twist a clumsy, fractionated floor plan (formerly the home of Trois Jean) into some contrived illusion of unity, he has given each divided area its own intimacy. Downstairs offers both a street-side café framed in pale wood and quartzite, set on its own riser, and a backlit wall of booths dominated by a gracefully curved walnut bar. Upstairs is divided into thirds, and though the burgundy, rust, gold, and hunter-green palette is consistent throughout, fabrics and appointments are more complementary than copied. The result is five distinct but harmonious settings, all scaled to look right at home under your own roof -- if you had a roof to spare.
Finally, the dining room you never had, and you never have to vacuum it. And it's one where you won't have to make excuses for the food being served, either. In fact, if merely recalling the Markham turns you almost as misty-eyed as the "Tiny Dancer" scene in Almost Famous, you're in for a treat. For those who don't remember, the Markham was an almost-perfect clubhouse-restaurant. Friendly and inclusive, with a crowd-pleasing menu and Herb Ritts-ready lighting, it opened in 1994, and I hoped it would last forever. Management turmoil resulted in its closure after less than two years. To this day, many former regulars falter slightly when they walk on Fifth Avenue between 12th and 13th Streets. (Or maybe they just dread running into Steve Forbes.) The chef at the Markham was Mark Spangenthal.
The chef at the Dining Room is Mark Spangenthal. This is not surprising, as he also presided over owners Henry Hershkowitz, Steve Kantor, and Nancy Yaffa's other venture, the Screening Room. But that outpost has so much else going on that Spangenthal's cooking often didn't feel like the featured attraction. Once you're nestled in your nook uptown, however, you'll discover he is definitely ready for his close-up, because his deceptively simple, warmly appealing, and well-edited menu is actually better suited to his cozier new surroundings.
Spangenthal has always served his signature pan-fried artichokes. So maybe it's the low ceiling and tempered East Side manners that make them sound more crackling and their lemon-and-coriander-enhanced flavor appear bigger here. Except the grilled leeks layered with summer truffles alongside golden sautéed fingerlings are also wonderful. And a pan-roasted quail (with skin you'd be a fool to discard) gets a hearty boost from slivers of tasso, though dabbing it in the generous pool of cheddar-baked grits gets you wishing the damn birds were bigger. Heirloom tomatoes didn't belong in any scrapbook the first time, no matter how spunky the dressing. On second attempt, they honored their legacy. Lately, foie gras without fruit has become as unfathomable as Bob Costas's Olympian passivity (was he even in Sydney?). Spangenthal pairs his liver with grilled peaches, but the catalyst for the satisfying dish is the piquant counterpoint of pickled watermelon and molasses glaze. The tuna tartare is tart yet tame, easily eclipsed by the mixed-seafood seviche sparked with pickled jalapeño or the yellowtail sliced like carpaccio and brushed with just lemon, sea salt, and basil.
When only eight entrées are offered, either a chef is really confident, or his talent is not very broad. Just the aroma of cioppino broth bathing Spangenthal's steamed Maine lobster provides the answer. Tender as a baby's breath, it's accompanied by succulent shrimp, clams, and mussels; this is a splendid way to serve a critter whose quality is too often determined by weight. Equally superb is the duck: leg braised to tear-apart crispness, breast grilled to unexpected sweetness. Ruby-centered salmon is pan-roasted for a flash and served under a shower of seasonal vegetables. Striped bass is enveloped by a delicious pan roast of clams, bitter greens, and tomato. Rack of lamb is fine, but even up against its own corn pudding, it falls a bit slack, let alone when competing with the garlic-fragrant organic chicken across the table or a glazed snapper perked up by candied ginger.
If the aggressive diversity of most new restaurants tells us anything, it's that convoluted originality does not alone make a dessert. Thomas Hobbs's canny, unforced tweaks on familiar themes prove that eliciting a smile and a sigh beats provoking a furrowed brow and a huh? His berry shortcake is cleverly layered with crème brûlée. Baked peaches enjoy a spirited overlay of ginger. Bing cherries are handily turned into "tartare" and cantaloupe is sliced to "carpaccio," both enlivened by rich fruit sorbets. Icebox cake is kind of a cheat: It's really closer to a bombe, but it's so rich we'll forgive the false advertising. Coconut bread pudding almost works, pistachio soufflé is almost overkill, but chocolate soufflé is almost -- no, it is -- like ending dinner in heaven. But from all I learned in temple, you don't get your own dining room in the afterlife either. So the Dining Room may be as close as we're going to get. And I can live with that.
The Dining Room, 154 East 79th Street (212-327-2500). Lunch, Monday through Friday, noon-2:30 p.m.; dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5:45-11 p.m., Friday and Saturday till midnight. Appetizers, $7 to $14; entrées, $19 to $28. All major credit cards.