You’ve got to love a restaurant that has its own cell-phone booth. All plushly tufted, nearly soundproof, resembling a prime set piece from some fixed fifties quiz show, this former coin booth stands ready and waiting for the profusion of calls that ring around the Biltmore Room that obviously just can’t wait. If you haven’t been here yet, you’ve no idea what a pleasure it is to lean over as someone at the next table is bellowing for an incoming caller to talk louder and graciously inform her (or him—we’re no better) that there is a place where one can not only effortlessly hear but scream to one’s oblivious heart’s content. Repeatedly, all return aglow with the same response, “I am so loving that!” Who knew such civility could be found in a part of town that doesn’t even rate a name?
In fact, nothing about the Biltmore Room’s rapid ascent to perpetual-busy-signal reservation line appears to have been anticipated by its now-eager-to-be-regulars. It’s at one of those bleak no-other-reason-to-go-there locations. (One broker christened the area North Chelsea. Nice try.) The entrance is up an ungainly concrete slab that looks like a loading dock. The darkly handsome bar—and much of its fervent crowd—has zip in common with the glory-that-was-Rome, veined-marble-walled dining room behind it. Its crystal chandeliers are more discount Bowery lighting store than salvaged Biltmore Hotel (where the polished slabs came from). And the chosen chef is one of the industry’s often pursued but most persistent runaway brides.
Yet, from the beginning, the Biltmore team opened jitter-free. Obviously knowing something way before we did, they have operated with enough self-assurance to humble Tony Robbins. Your welcome is so gracious you’ll swear they’ve confused you with the editor of Food & Wine. The seating is always a comfy banquette or slipper chair that sinks just low enough to adjust the room’s proportions to something less stentorian than you thought on first impression. And thanks to its unglamorous address, there is a constantly shifting but saucy mix of Manhattanites. No particular demographic pie slice holds court—yet.
But someone does dominate the room. Here comes the “bride”again. So vivacious and invigorating are Gary Robins’s flavors, so global his gleaning of them and distinct his intent, that his talent is as pronounced as a first blush. And because Robins possesses such a spirited yet evenhanded gift for instilling dishes with sparks and tingles never to be found under merely one flag, yet exhibits such an enviable discipline at controlling each exotic passion so none ever spirals into indulgence, it would be lovely if he would finally hang around long enough to garner the praise and attention his easy-to-appreciate skills deserve. Since many chefs are unwitting slaves to their obsessions, one marvels at a sense of balance worthy of Cirque du Soleil when devouring a forkful of giant prawn swiped through mint-tinged mango and beets marinated in a ginger vinaigrette tempered by honey. The tastes are not merely harmonious, they’re electrifying, like sequential fireworks. More important, there is nothing cerebral about the experience. Instead, here’s a delicious reminder of how much fun it is to eat.
Over and over, as a tart sumac coating on grilled quail contrasts with a pumpkin risotto spiked by apple-smoked bacon, as tataki of bluefin tuna is set between the heat of cayenne-pepper oil and the zing of cucumber-ginger sorbet, as an untapped lightness is released in cured salmon with both chili and lime, Robins seduces all conversation to hover around his nearly twinkling plates. But frankly, not much will take anyone’s mind off his mango chili-dabbed crab cake slyly hiding out in a crispy fried-squash blossom. Unless someone is on one knee holding a ring box or pushing a blank check across the table, why be distracted?
I’m not sure what the Algerian spices are that perfume his roast rack of lamb on an airy bed of couscous with dried figs, but they called to me. Or how cocoa dust can make venison taste richer, but ignorance can be bliss. Robins is certainly not the first to marinate chicken in a Thai sauce, or cod in miso. He merely, but lusciously, reaffirms why everyone wanted to do it in the first place.
Desserts are less adventuresome but hardly less satisfying. It’s a rare financier that tastes this lush with pear and ginger ice cream. Or a panna cotta that might require tethering if served outdoors. And there’s a warm chocolate torte that is, well, as the lady at the deuce next to us was telling whoever had just called, “totally to die for. Wait ’til you taste it. Like sex. But less sweaty and aggravating.” Okay, so sometimes it’s fun to eavesdrop. But I still love that cell-phone booth.
By now, I’m sure everyone has quoted Thomas Wolfe to Mark Strausman and Pino Luongo more times than George Bush denounces “evil” in a week. But while it lasts, chef Strausman’s going home again to Luongo’s original Coco Pazzo is the daydreamiest thing that’s happened to Italian food since Sophia Loren claimed her beauty secret was a daily diet of spaghetti. Geoffrey Zakarian, the esteemed chef of Town, maintains that the successful combination of these two men at Coco Pazzo in 1990 prompted the still-unabated citywide stampede to open high-end Italian restaurants. And after returning to sample the house’s succulent, grilled homemade sausages, cracking fried mushrooms, dangerously lush lasagne with coral-hued tomato sauce, huge, juicy lamb chops pelted with cipollini onions, simple and simply wonderful striped bass with peperonata sauce, and, of course, spaghetti delightfully drowned in meatballs, tomato sauce, and oregano, I believe Zakarian speaks the truth. Wouldn’t it be nice to believe that, against all odds and egos, Mr. Wolfe can finally be proved wrong.