It never takes long for the phone to ring. Not when there are those so quick to judge: “Yeah, we went. It’s nice, kinda weird-looking. Food’s good, but I wasn’t blown away. And it’s hard to hang out in, not like Pastis or 66.” Followed by: “You’re not missing anything. The menu’s nice, but so totally simple. Noisy—and no windows.” And finally: “It’s no Four Seasons. I’ll tell you that.”
Well, there you have it. Why bother doing what I do when so many do it quicker and more decisively. Lever House? Three verdicts. No problem. Next victim.
Except the first two were rendered during its opening week, while the final, oracular proclamation—my favorite—was handed down right after the pre-opening, invited-guests-only tasting.
Restaurant groupies should know better than to render snap judgments, but they do it anyway. They’re like big-busted gals who insist on wearing flat-knit turtlenecks no matter how many women’s magazines beg them not to. But the truth is, anyone going to a restaurant within its first month of operation deserves everything that’s coming to him. Unlike a film premiere or gallery opening, you will not experience a final print.
The first nights at Lever House were prickly. Clashing cultures warily circled the hexagonally obsessed space. Lines of power were fuzzily drawn. Junior VPs commandeered tables while senior partners waited uneasily for theirs at the bar. It didn’t help that the overly assertive 1964 World’s Fair Pavilion décor, though exquisitely rendered, is more impressive than accommodating. It’s quite comfortable once one settles in, but because it’s too humorlessly retro and not luxuriant enough for any group to eagerly claim as its own, the room seemed more fun to see than to be seen in. The food apparently wasn’t ready to challenge it for attention, either. Dishes exuded polish and professionalism, but rarely pop. Oddly enough, from the beginning, the staff seemed totally at home, moving through the room as if they’d happily held the mortgage on it for a year.
But Lever House has smart, restless owners. Lighting was adjusted. A growing bar crowd discouraged. Demographics shifted and fell into place. Those who love table-hopping at 66 and lounging for hours in a booth at Pastis went back where they belong. Now that everyone is seated, you can appreciate the room’s wonderful sight lines. More important, once a restaurant establishes its core clientele—and this one is just past young, just shy of very wealthy, and on a first-name basis with Dr. Patricia Wexler—it gets its rhythm. After two months, Lever House is dancing.
It turns out chef Dan Silverman knows some fancy footwork, too. His straightforward flavors and composition have become sharp and clean. You immediately know what you’re eating, and you almost always really like it. A refreshing meeting of spring onion and orange buoys a silken fluke tartare. Kumamoto oysters are enhanced by just enough brine in their mignonette. Lean slices of Peking duck are lavished with tart cherries. Crunchy fried okra is spiked by nutty Romano beans. Cilantro and lime transform salmon into a surprisingly bright seviche. Lobster tempura isn’t coy or cute. It’s just a terrific idea.
Satisfying grilled entrées promise to spare untold amounts of grief during family gatherings (good luck with Mom negotiating the “time tunnel” entrance, however). But there is greater delight in a gloriously golden, pressed pan-roasted poussin reveling in a foie gras sauce, salmon gone sweet on herb butter and carrots, tender Colorado lamb sitting on a superb salad of big fava beans and arugula and a risotto, prepared skillfully enough to let you savor each kernel as well as the lush wild mushrooms.
Deborah Snyder’s desserts have leapt equal bounds. A gorgeously rich corn ice cream adorns a down-home fig-and-cornmeal cake. Cranberry pecan tart is exactly what dessert in an American restaurant should be. Spiced panna cotta may not be what you crave, but you’ll like it anyway. And you can’t fool me: Apple beignets are great doughnuts without the hole. Bring ’em on. Along with some of her rich, splendid sorbets.
Now, go to Lever House. See, good things do come to those who wait. And as for that comment that it’s no competition for what’s down the street, The Four Seasons opened in 1959. Maybe one should wait a few years before shooting off one’s mouth.
Lever House, 390 Park Avenue, near 54th Street (212-888-2700). Lunch, noon to 3 p.m. daily. Dinner, 5:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. daily. Appetizers, $12 to $18; entrées, $26 to $76. All major credit cards.