As I’ve noted before, longevity tends to bestow a kind of benign, sleepy aura on restaurants. Once they’ve been around long enough (say, 50 years), they cease to be restaurants in any normal sense. They become local landmarks, like churches or elderly roller coasters, and you visit them less to experience new thrills than to commune with the spirits of the past.
Recently, however, two of the city’s most venerable gustatory landmarks, P.J. Clarke’s and the main dining room at the Carlyle Hotel, have attempted to buck this immutable trend. At P.J. Clarke’s, on the corner of 55th Street and Third Avenue, they’ve added oysters Rockefeller to the menu after a decades-long diet of burgers and shepherd’s pie, and cleared out the old rooms upstairs to install an upmarket restaurant called Sidecar. At the Carlyle, the owners have hired Kate and Andy Spade to primp up the wait staff’s uniforms and asked the well-traveled French chef Jean-Louis Dumonet to refashion the menu. The results of these makeovers are mixed, but it was my pleasure to spend a week shuttling between these two grand institutions, communing with the old dishes and sampling the new ones, while changing manically from my dinner coat to my porkpie hat, then back again.
First stop was the Carlyle, where it was a comfort to see Bobby Short sorting through his mail in the little tearoom outside Bemelmans Bar. Mr. Short was dressed in full tuxedo regalia, as always, and the tearoom was decorated, as always, in baroque, matronly shades of scarlet and gold. The dining room, however, has been renamed Dumonet, in honor of the chef, and recast in subdued hues of chocolate brown. The new outfits haven’t arrived yet, but when they do, one waiter told me, they’ll also be a curious cocoa color, replete with champagne buttons and ties. Whatever their final appearance, they won’t be nearly as curious as the serving of sliced saucissons and fresh radishes that arrived at our table before the first course. “Radishes and salami,” exclaimed one of my highbrow guests. “Isn’t this a little common?”
The answer, I suppose, is yes, although when all is said and done, the Carlyle is still resolutely the Carlyle. Dumonet has injected fashionably rustic brasserie items into his new menu (morels when in season, daily specials like leg of lamb confit and pot au feu) while maintaining a roster of hotel classics like quenelles with lobster sauce and tournedos Rossini—costing, at $42, roughly $7 per bite. I made my wife order the quenelles; she didn’t seem to mind, although, being an incurable quenelle snob, I thought they were a little firm. Next up were an exceptionally fine slab of foie gras terrine and a kind of multitiered, meat-free Big Mac composed of satisfying amounts of smoked salmon, salmon roe, blinis, and crème fraîche. From the Fresh Morels menu we chose the asparagus covered in a creamy morel sauce, which was good, and the baked duck egg en cocotte, which would have been good, too, provided the duck egg hadn’t been baked to the consistency of vulcanized rubber.
The entrées tended to hover in a similar decent-to-middling range, with a few exceptions. One was my rusticated plate of veal cheeks, which were round, like plums, and almost as sweet in a satisfying, savory way. A piece of Pacific salmon (served in butter sauce tinged with sorrel) was perfectly cooked, as were the langoustines, which were roasted and placed over a pile of puffy, vaguely crunchy gnocchi flavored with Parmesan. In accordance with current foodie fashion, we were encouraged to mix and match these entrées with an array of side dishes, only one of which—a rich, chewy version of gratin dauphinois—was worth the additional $8 fee.
The desserts were a similar schizoid mix of old and new, like peach Melba (served with giant scoops of ice cream) and the chocolate plate, containing a quite tasty amalgam of all the latest fashions in chocolate. The best of the classic items was the crème caramel; the worst, unaccountably, was the chocolate soufflé, which was thick as an old Drake’s Devil Dog and about as tasty.
No soufflés were available at P.J. Clarke’s on the evenings I dropped in, but if current trends continue, it won’t be long before you can order one at the bar while taking in the last few races at Belmont. Thanks to an aggressive group of new owners (the actor Timothy Hutton among them), the famous little caboose of a pub now boasts a varied and expensive raw-bar menu replete with mealy stone-crab claws for $4.50 apiece; an excellent version of oysters Rockefeller, served on a bed of rock salt and crushed bay leaves; even little thimbles of béarnaise sauce (for $1.50 extra) to slosh on your cheeseburger and fries. The real high-roller action, however, is upstairs at a new faux-speakeasy enterprise called Sidecar. The upstairs rooms used to be small apartments, but they’ve been fashioned into a single impressive space, with a long, dimly lit bar, discreet banquettes, and big, beamy rafters, like you’d find in an Amish barn.
A giant slab of beef seemed like the proper thing to order in this setting. The prime shell steak was suitably large (fourteen ounces for $32), though no different in quality from the thousand or so other prime shell steaks served daily in the great, gray, expense-account-fueled canyons of midtown. Ditto the thick, tender lamb chops, which were almost worth their extravagant price ($36), and the filet mignon, which came in an overly dense balsamic reduction and was distinguished mostly by the deliciously fat bulb of garlic crushed on its top. The Sidecar version of steak tartare turned out to be a disastrous agglomeration of purplish burger meat bristling, hedgehog-style, with inedible, overly dry toast points.
If you want to order just one thing at Sidecar, try the scallops, which are plump, neatly seared, and taste pleasingly of lemons. Otherwise, stay downstairs, where the desserts are identical to the ones served upstairs (I liked the rice pudding and the steamy apple cobbler), the menu is more varied, and the $8.20 hamburger tastes quite fine, even without that sidecar of béarnaise.