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On the Town

Chef Geoffrey Zakarian, formerly of Patroon, just opened a new restaurant, but it already feels as familiar and inviting as home.

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Sometimes it just clicks. True, it happens as rarely as Nathan Lane misses a chance for a double take, but when it does, you sense it even before someone asks you to choose between olive and sourdough. It's more than merely sniffing the sweet smell of success; it's that all-too-infrequent feeling when you know you're going to be glad you came.

And unless you've just been to a performance of The Producers that began with "Ladies and gentlemen, tonight the role of Max Bialystock will be played by . . . ," this delightful sensation is going to embrace you the moment you descend the staircase into Town. Little touches trigger it, like the blissful absence of the now-popular front desk that's furiously engaged in activity not remotely about helping you. Coat check is so swiftly achieved it approaches grace. A waiter nearly trails your entrance, offering drinks while you settle in.

Big elements support it, too, like the least theatrical but most dramatically sophisticated space the tireless David Rockwell has yet designed: a two-story-high dining arc, swathed in warm browns and ochers, its curved walls starlit by waterfalls of Elsa Peretti-inspired glass-orbed chains. While the effect is modern, it disdains the current Liaigre-Starck aesthetic that says "Put your feet up if you want to." These contours aren't yielding an inch. Instead, Town feels curl-up-on-the-sofa cozy. It is the first fuss-free, truly elegant -- no, better still, truly romantic -- restaurant to be built anywhere on this island in ages (though the noise from the bar upstairs after 10 p.m. may become the snake in the Garden). And because it's completely without formality, the woman in cropped pants and stretch poplin is no more likely to get dissed than the one dripping in sable and citrine. Plus, there is no D.J. So if you think your voice may be music to someone's ears, Town is your big chance to "sing out, Louise!"

However, be warned: You may have to belt a torch song up to that balcony bar to drown out the praises being hosannaed onto chef-owner Geoffrey Zakarian. For, as smoothly as Town's new staff glides, as troth-pledging a backdrop as this lush but sleek room provides, it is Zakarian's unhesitant confidence and his staff's full-throttle trust in his seasoned conviction that sustain Town's restorative sense of well-being. But then, when it comes to pleasing the local populace, no one has been better taught by the experts, so to speak. Prior to Town, Zakarian ran the kitchen at "44" when it glinted with icy sparkle as the de facto Condé Nast cafeteria, and then moved over to Patroon, where he transformed that substitute "21" for cigar-chomping East Side media machers into one of the city's best two-fisted eateries.

Town's menu boasts none of the quizzical mystery of Babbo or Nobu. It all seems soothing and familiar. When you take the quail for a swirl around its pool of orange-and-lime reduction, sip a spoonful of chilled pea soup not merely scented by thyme but spikily sweetened with a dash of wood sorrel, and taste the sweet garlic as it happily marries the heady scents of black truffles and escargot in a risotto lusher than Barry Manilow's string section at Westbury, you instantaneously realize that Zakarian is that most satisfying of chefs: the glorious sneak.

Sashimi-quality tuna, which is sadly becoming as ubiquitous as canned tuna at Mid-City Gym, is deliciously rescued by a marinade of toasted-almond rémoulade. Sea scallops wind up playing second fiddle to pillow-soft poached pearls of scallop sausages bonded by truffle and cream. Fluke carpaccio is refreshed by a faint shower of blood-orange vinaigrette with fresh mint. Zakarian's sense of balance can even approach a Cirque du Soleil sense of daring. What could possibly stand up to the formidable trio of licorice, crispy fennel, and celery? Smoked salmon can, and it has never come off less bossy or more appealing.

How does one make chicken taste like it's roasted for hours in Mom's kitchen? By cheating with lard paysanne, a lustrous amalgam of smoked bacon in court bouillon and maple syrup. The result? Bone-sucking nostalgia without the butter, or the nagging. How do you make skate palatable as popcorn? By a light roasting, a faint dusting, and a piquant addition of shinsu apples and sweet-pea purée. How do you make veal tongue a crowd pleaser? No way is that going to happen. But for the adventurous, it's served tender, prosciutto-thin, and heartily roasted with artichokes and radishes.

For anyone who loves fowl, duck steak is simply fantastic, a novel and irresistible presentation of succulent, meaty jewels of duck breast in a purée of artichoke-and-lemon confit atop a bed of buckwheat pilaf that could prompt block-long lines of vegans outside Angelica Kitchen. If it weren't for Town's no-cigar policy, the rib-eye with ribs could do serious damage to Patroon's list of big shots. For lighter fare, the following fish are listed in ascending order of preference, from merely enjoyable to enviable: halibut with salsify in porcini foam, cod bread-and-butter-style, salmon in lobster essence, and tuna in a brackishly sharp ramp-and-sea-urchin sauce.

How could anyone stay glad if dessert disappointed? The cheese courses, from Pierre Robert to Gouda with apple-and-maple strudel, enchanted even those at the table who eschew anything more complex than a wheel of brie. Chocolate gratin brings dark density to an orange sherbet. Rich sourdough-chocolate cake, blessedly glop-free, treats with a bonus of pretzels. Only a moonlight swim might be more refreshing after dinner than red-grapefruit gratin and ginseng sorbet, and the frozen café brulot was so good we forgot about the chocolate beignets it had come with. Then the waiter moved them to the center of the table and we devoured them too.

The place is still new. Minor elements flip and flop. Salads don't match other appetizers. A lamb dish isn't stellar. But each of six meals has gotten progressively more wondrous and more wonderful. So I can't wait to go down the steps to Town again, so Geoffrey Zakarian can take me higher. Because when a place clicks, that's the sweetest music there is.

Town, 15 West 56th Street (212-582-4445). Breakfast, 8-11:30 a.m. daily; lunch, noon-2 p.m. Monday through Friday; brunch, 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; dinner, 5:30-10:30 p.m. daily. Appetizers, $9-$18; entrées, $21-$29.


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