It’s a testimony to the quick-change, upside-down nature of recession Manhattan that a joint that rose to prominence serving bootleg liquor during Prohibition now seeks to peddle gastronomic opulence on the sly, with a little wink, as if shaved white truffles and pats of overpriced foie gras have suddenly become some form of exotic contraband. But that seems to be the concept behind the Upstairs at ‘21,’ a small, one-room restaurant that opened a couple of months ago above the august old ‘21’ Club on 52nd Street. To get there, you’re ushered upstairs by the maître d’, who taps on a tall white door with furtive ceremony. “Welcome to the Upstairs,” says another maître d’ inside, as if you’re entering a special club, a kind of luxury speakeasy-in-reverse for these gloomy economic times.
There are a couple of potential problems with this conceit. First off, things can’t be that gloomy when your restaurant downstairs is still packed most evenings with raucous corporate patrons willing to drop several hundred dollars on a single meal, not to mention a single bottle of wine. Second, if you’re going to peddle absolute luxury in a town famous for it, everything you do better be impeccable, since all mistakes will be magnified. To this end, the proprietors have had glowing (though slightly Disneyesque) murals of Depression-era Manhattan painted on the restaurant’s walls. They’ve filled their almost-claustrophobic room with towering flower bouquets and perhaps a few too many obsequious waiters. And they have given their longtime executive chef, Erik Blauberg, licenseafter years of dutifully producing ‘21’ burgers and vats of the famous house chicken hashto go more or less hog-wild.
Upstairs is Blauberg’s personal sandbox, a place to indulge every imaginable luxury-food fantasy. Predictably, some of his choices seem to work, some seem a little dated, and a few are just plain weird. For a cool $85, diners get to choose three courses, plus dessert, but you get a glimpse of the chef’s manic aspirations with the amuse-bouches. There are bites of braised short rib and oxtail (tasty), silver slivers of shad on toast (delicious), and bits of scallop buried in citrus granité (weird). Then the first courses arrive: a densely flavorful confit of red mullet, a frisée salad decked with gamy bits of partridgenot to mention chanterelles, black truffles, and a parsley vinaigretteand a mini foie gras club flavored with apples, which you’re supposed to chase down with dainty sips of duck consommé.
As these ambitious dishes pile one on top of the other, a vague sense of fussiness and pretension begins to take hold. After nibbling happily on my foie gras club, I found myself peering at an unorthodox version of Dover sole flavored with celery root, savoy cabbage, and, of all things, grapefruit. My neighbor’s duck was deliciously cooked but could have done without the splash of lavender. The fennel-crusted lamb tasted properly lamby, but the rabbit I sampled (bathed in a rich Riesling sauce) tasted compulsively sweet, and not like rabbit at all. My favorite fish was a well-grilled piece of loup de mer, although it didn’t quite mesh with the accompanying squash ravioli. The best piece of meat I sampled was a medallion of spice-rubbed venison; the most disappointing was the Kobe beef (both came off the $125 tasting menu), which oozed fat in an unsettling way when I skewered it with my fork.
Kobe beef is supposed to ooze fat, of course, but as a form of chic gastronomic contraband, it went out of style sometime around 1982. Ditto that cloying substance lemon verbena, which shows up on the dessert menu at Upstairs mixed into a clementine-flavored soufflé. This confection sounded enticing but was similar in tasteif not textureto a bowl of Kellogg’s Froot Loops. My tiny wheel of apple confit was better, tasting of tangy, sugary Granny Smith apples, with a touch of sour cream. Then there was the obligatory gooey, melting chocolate dish, imaginatively packaged here in little purses of phyllo and dusted with powdered sugar. The chocolate comes with a scoop of lapsang souchong ice cream. Lapsang souchong ice cream tastes quite interesting, it turns out. But if you’re thinking that in this day and age, a scoop of plain vanilla would do just fine, you’d be right.