Most wine geeks of my acquaintance tend to telegraph their views silently, like bad poker players. They have signature tics, or “tells,” in poker parlance, which vary from one oenophile to the next. They twitch their noses as a sign of disdain, flutter their eyebrows with approval, puff out their cheeks in silent exasperation. A learned Californian gentleman I know performs the entire tasting ritual—sniffing the bouquet, inspecting the color—without tipping his hand until the very end. If he likes the vintage, he’ll maintain a stony-faced silence; if he doesn’t, he’ll frown slowly, then purse his lips outward like a frog.
My Californian friend was in town the other day, as it happens, and when I took him for a meal at the new Morrells Restaurant on lower Broadway, it wasn’t long before he was in full-blown frog mode. But then, the new spot (there’s a Morrell wine bar in Rockefeller Center) isn’t really designed with the effete wine connoisseur in mind. Morrell & Company is one of the oldest wine wholesalers in the region, and the new restaurant is part of a grand plan to spread the joys of what the company calls “the gourmet experience.” To this end, it’s appointed the tall, lofty space on lower Broadway with banquettes covered in soft, marigold-colored leather, and with a long wine bar lit eerily from below. Hovering over the room is a chicly utilitarian though somewhat clunky wine “catwalk,” at the end of which sits a sampling of the restaurant’s thousand or so bottles of wine. There’s even a themed menu that revolves unrelentingly around what my press release describes as a new “wine-inspired American cuisine.”
This is mostly advertising, of course. The food at Morrells is a mishmash of current and received restaurant wisdom, complete with pleasing torchons of foie gras from the Hudson Valley (garnished with a delicate Gewürztraminer gelée), a de rigueur short-ribs dish, even a signature hamburger served sliced in half, à la Mr. Boulud, on a brioche bun. Mr. California began his hesitant explorations with a simple though surprisingly nice crudo of yellowfin and yellowtail tuna intermingled with uni and bits of citrus, which he accompanied with a $12 glass of Chablis (Gerard Tremblay 2001) that he said was served too cold. I ordered the uninspiring crêpes, which contained bits of fatty rabbit, and washed them down with a portion of the mushroom chowder, which was filled with lots of fresh mushrooms, nice bits of apple-smoked bacon, and maybe one too many spoonfuls of sweet Madeira.
In general, the wine in chef Michael Haimowitz’s wine-centric dishes is more of a distraction than anything else. I liked his chewy cheese-and-potato frico (a kind of potato pancake marbled with cheese, served at the bar or during lunch); the juicy, mildly gamy loin of rabbit; the soft-shell-crab special, which came heaped over a fresh succotash; and the delicious lamb meat loaf with caramelized onions and creamy mashed potatoes (also available only at lunch). On the other hand, the “cabernet marinated” short ribs were strangely lacking in any semblance of rich Cabernet taste, and the Wagyu rib-eye (served Thursdays only and flavored with more Cabernet) was stringy. Sturgeon is a pleasure to see on any menu—it’s expertly pan-roasted in this case, and served with little lumps of bone marrow over fresh peas and fava beans—although Mr. California’s wan, drowned-looking piece of halibut prompted him to purse his lips and shake his head back and forth in a doleful, Eeyore-like manner.
None of the desserts produced such an extreme reaction—though the honey semifreddo was chalky, and the panna cotta was rock-hard and came with a weird assemblage of plums. But the wines were generally a treat. There are 150 glasses to choose from, each one described on the list in copious winespeak. You can pay $58 for a few sips of Mouton Rothschild ’97 (“a gem of a pour”), although the $28 glass of Williams-Selyem Pinot Noir (“a touch of smoke and barnyard”) tasted plenty good to me. True wine geeks may find the selection of bottled whites a little lacking (Mr. California did), but if you’re a normal person, you can’t miss.
The same is true at Amuse, the latest name for the restaurant on 18th Street off Sixth Avenue that, last time I checked, was called the Tonic. The ownership remains the same, but the chef (Gerry Hayden, formerly of Aureole) is new, and the ancient space—part of it has been either a bar or a restaurant for nearly a century now—has been rewired into a kind of kinetic, hyperglamorous, Sex and the City–style chicken coop. The lighting is now yellowish bordering on gold (it used to be dark and sedate), there’s a glossy print of a giant, vaguely erotic flower beyond the elegant old bar (there was no giant, vaguely erotic flower there before), and on crowded party evenings, the cacophony bouncing between the aged tile floor and the boxy white ceiling makes polite conversation nearly impossible. Luckily, the food, presented in the voguish mix-and-match style, is so decent that none of this really matters.
The only marginal dish on the menu (which is grouped into four sections: $5, $10, $15, and $20) was a glutinous shiitake-mushroom velouté that could have been recently removed from a Campbell’s soup can. But we forgot all about it when a stack of gougères filled with melted Gruyère and smoked ham arrived, followed by a gourmet pulled-pork tortilla spiked with cumin and black-eyed peas. Next, an elegant crudo construction of fluke and grapefruit emerged from the nightclub din, followed by two billiard-ball-size cod cakes sitting in pools of truffled tartar sauce. Among the $15 items, I liked the soba noodles (blended with yellowfin tuna in a lime-and-coriander dressing) best, and both the baby-chicken (heaped over whipped potatoes and snap peas) and the short-rib main courses were superior. The pint-size desserts were superior, too—particularly the dulce de leche sundae and the fluffy orange-flavored crème brûlée—and if you find, between bites, that you actually want to communicate with your friends at Amuse, then do what we did at our table: Fold a napkin behind your ears, lean forward, and shout.