A strange alchemy takes place in the dining room of a grand hotel. Feasting amid the marbled columns and potted palms on overpriced caviar, say, or tepid beef Wellington, served from a silver trolley, even the most discriminating palates can melt into a kind of self-congratulatory trance. My own parents, discerning New Yorkers in almost every way, have a soft spot in their hearts for the Plaza Hotel. They spent their wedding night there, and they like to return, now and then, to mill around the lobby with all the out-of-towners from Saudi Arabia and Atlanta. Before its demise, my father liked to eat breakfast at the Plaza's Edwardian Room, a grand Oxonian ballroom space fronting Central Park South, and gaze out the giant arcade windows at the horse carriages clopping past. "The Plaza experience is looking out the window," he'd say. "You don't care so much about the food."
So when Alan Stillman, the maestro of highbrow beefeater cuisine (Smith and Wollensky, Cité, Park Avenue Café, etc.), opened his latest restaurant, ONEc.p.s., in the husk of the old Edwardian Room, I took my father down for a look. Adam D. Tihany, the mad colorist behind Le Cirque 2000, has pickled the old oaken walls in soft, caramel colors and placed huge scarlet lampshades over the room's eight original cannonball chandeliers. There are eight arcade windows also, and they're hung now with pendulous floral arrangements of pumpkins, and little trees sprouting from lemons floating in gallons of water. Instead of being presented with tasseled, ten-page menus, diners receive a single sheet of laminated paper, decorated with cartoon drawings of boisterous cows and kooky chefs. The wait staff are dressed in user-friendly denim shirts and brightly colored ties. "It's not the Edwardian Room," said my father as he took in this wild, new scene. "This is a restaurant with pretensions."
This is Stillman's backward tactic, of course. He wants New Yorkers to take his piece of the Plaza seriously, so he sends up the old hotel with a variety of gags. The denim-clad waiters ("New Cuisine Wranglers," one person at our table called them) perambulate the simplest plate of frites around the room on heavily linened trolley carts. The menu, as conceived by Stillman's longtime chef sidekick, David Burke, and executed by P. G. Gustafsson, formerly of Petrossian, is filled with strange old-world homages and asides, some of which sound like failed experiments from some demented country-club kitchen. On my first pass through the appetizers, I opted for the crabmeat-stuffed chicken wings with asparagus, a gooey, pointless concoction that tasted of mildly fishy chicken fat. Next came the macaroni-and-raclette-cheese tart, a pricey agglomeration ($13.50) of fifties-era homemaker foods that would have tasted okay if it hadn't been bombed with truffles.
Classic Plaza-era dishes like the shrimp bisque and the foie gras terrine were more successful. The bisque was loaded with chunks of shrimp, and the terrine tasted lightly of cranberries and was good enough to be served on its own, without the rest of the odd pupu platter of foie gras items that accompanied it. High-rollers can wallow in eight varieties of shellfish on the menu and two types of caviar, served four ways (including Beluga with potatoes and gold leaf, for a cool $100). I enjoyed a burger spiked with foie gras, which came replete with a toad-in-the-hole quail egg cooked into the toast. An equally exotic scrambled-egg dish larded with lobster and caviar was notable for the generous portions of lobster, but for the princely sum of $27.50, the eggs were a little runny.
Stillman's New Cuisine Wranglers are drilled on their separateness from the Plaza, and when you ask if the two institutions share the same kitchen, you'll get an energetic chorus of no's. They'll tell you the restaurant's bread and ice cream are made fresh on premises, and that ONEc.p.s. even has its own powder room downstairs, so needy diners don't have to wander through the hotel's lobby. But even these strict measures can't keep a certain robotic, franchised feel from seeping in. The most edible entrées follow the simple meat-and-potatoes formulas perfected in Stillman's stable of upscale surf-and-turf palaces. Carnivores will enjoy the steak-frites, a bone-in joint smothered in parsley fries, and my favorite dish on the menu, by far, was a densely seasoned rack of lamb, accompanied by a crispy disc of shepherd's pie.
But subtler recipes tend to get cooked into oblivion, or slathered to death with secret sauces. The crisp pressed duck was as big as the sole of my shoe, and so smothered in a sweet, tangled mass of cabbage I put it aside. The sea scallops were passable if you took out the treacled wheel of black bread pudding. Our table's disappointed vegetarian thought her mixed organic greens were too salty and compared her cannelloni (stuffed with ratatouille and roasted eggplant) to Alitalia Airline food, circa 1965. My father was kinder about his salt-cod-and-potato-pancake appetizer ("It's a triple-A cod cake," he crowed) but seemed bamboozled by a lobster dish ($34.50, with more frites) molded in the shape of a steak. He took refuge in a gimmicky bottle of Fat Bastard Chardonnay ($28, from the Loire, of all places) and, when he resurfaced, declared that Stillman was striving to create a homey, downscale ambience for the people of Lima, Ohio.
Perhaps that's where ONEc.p.s. is headed. For now, the great hall is dotted with all the creatures in the grand New York parade. Troll among the tables, and you'll see dowagers dressed in ermine coats, Japanese power couples with bouffant hairdos, lunching ladies clutching lizard handbags the color of the sky. They sip on flutes of Perrier-Jouët and pick at operatic desserts with names like profiterole swans and German chocolate carriage. There are also nice ice creams on offer, and an impressive Edwardian-style floating island, flecked with slivers of almond. My advice? Go easy on the sweets, order a soothing brandy, and gaze out the great windows, at the trees blowing in Central Park. You're at the Plaza, after all, and who goes there for the food?