Restaurants are as susceptible to fashion as anything else in this fashion-obsessed city, although news of the latest trends tends to reach some parts of town slower than others. This is famously true of the Upper West Side, of course, which is to the more stylish downtown dining precincts of New York what Canada’s vast, ice-bound Yukon Territory is to, say, Montreal. In recent years, however, practiced downtown chefs like Tom Valenti (Ouest) and Didier Virot (Aix) have had success peddling their versions of trendy cooking in this formerly stark environment.
Now comes Bill Telepan, whose eponymous restaurant opened several weeks ago on a quiet stretch of West 69th Street. Telepan, who made his reputation at the once-popular and now-defunct JUdson Grill in midtown, turns out to be an avowed Greenmarketeer, which means Upper West Siders, at long last, can enjoy the kind of preciously highbrow seasonal cooking that has been on display for several years now at fashionable downtown establishments like Blue Hill and Craft.
Of course, if there were ever a dining trend tailor-made to the appetites of stolid Upper West Side burghers, it’s this one. At Telepan, you can get coddled eggs served with a retro breakfast delicacy called scrapple, old-fashioned blini made with buckwheat or sweet potatoes (Telepan hails from a long line of blini-hungry Hungarians), and rigorously organic pork products cooked many different ways. To convey a sense of bucolic earthiness, the restaurant’s menu is patterned with oak leaves, and the walls of the rooms are colored in a soothing, mossy green. There’s a big fuzzy photo of red apples on one wall and a curved wooden bar in the front of the room, where you can enjoy an array of diverse and not always inexpensive international wines. Before the meal begins, diners are presented with puffy little Cheddar gougères and little teacups of truffled salsify purée, all tastefully placed on pieces of wood-floor panel gouged up during the restaurant’s renovation, then cut and polished by the chef himself.
To further convey a sense of artisanal bounty, and in accordance with another downtown restaurant trend—menu inflation—there are some 27 dishes available at Telepan, not including dessert. Luckily, this menu bloat (wedged between the appetizers and entrées are nine “mid-courses”) doesn’t matter too much, because Telepan’s food is generally very good. I began my explorations with a serving of yellowtail sushi, inventively laid over a kind of farro tabbouleh mixed with olive oil and fresh mint. After that came a nice little casserole of bay scallops (soaked in a butter-cream sauce with roast garlic and spinach) and a tiny beet salad obscured by a generous wheel of breaded pig’s foot. A de rigueur hen-of-the-woods-mushroom dish also appears on the appetizer menu (hen-of-the-woods-mushroom appetizers being to haute Greenmarket cuisine what the frisée salad is to the French brasserie), but the best thing of all was the great mound of smoked trout, tossed with olive oil and chives and piled over one of Telepan’s buckwheat blini.
There’s a nicely crisped stack of sweet-potato blini on the mid-course menu (it’s layered with spaghetti squash and crushed almonds), and if that doesn’t fill you up, you can plow through a whole range of rib-sticking dishes like fat little pacchetti (Italian for “packets”) of pasta stuffed with tasty slow-cooked pork; pierogi infused with black truffles; and braised short ribs presented, in the Eastern European style, in a puddle of delicate little potato dumplings and borscht. The pierogi seemed doughy and overlarge, while the short ribs were nicely braised, but so nourishing they might have done better as an entrée. Ditto the lobster Bolognese, which is too big for an appetizer but too small to share and doesn’t quite pack the punch (my dish contained just half a lobster tail) to justify its $26 price tag. The best of these muddled mid-course offerings are the eggs, in particular Telepan’s coddled eggs, which are served over a bed of scrapple (made the way they make it in Pennsylvania, with a mash of cornmeal and pork) and collard greens, and touched with the faintest taste of vinegar.
Earthy, robust flavors are one of the staples of high Greenmarket cooking, but Telepan seems more at home with lightness and subtlety. Among the entrées, my pork medley (loin, belly, sausage) wasn’t nearly as interesting as the little pot of cassoulet beans accompanying it, and the slabs of $36 sirloin tasted dull. But the seafood dishes I tasted were close to excellent. A trio of big, sweet scallops were served up with a peppery, buttery tangle of fresh-made linguine flavored with Meyer lemons. Monkfish paprikás is another one of Telepan’s Hungarian fantasies, consisting of nicely pan-roasted monkfish and delicate little cabbage cigars rolled around deposits of barley and crushed kielbasa. My portion of white tuna was soft and fresh enough to eat with a spoon (it’s also dusted with bread crumbs, and served with baby fennel and blue potatoes), and so was the lobster-braised halibut, an opulent dish garnished with puréed potatoes, a silky Chardonnay sauce, and a single lobster claw.