Superfluous truffle-strewn dinners are the first thing to go during times of economic distress, along with the personal shopper and those extra six pairs of Christian Louboutin shoes. But this year in restaurant-land, this age-old pattern seems, curiously, to have been reversed. As the economy heads inexorably south, grandiose new restaurants have been proliferating around town like rabbits. Alain Ducasse and Daniel Boulud have both recently opened high-profile, high-end dining establishments. The old Oak Room, in the new Plaza condos, is scheduled to come back on line soon, and with John Fraser’s fine restaurant, Dovetail, it’s possible, for the first time in modern memory, to enjoy a three-star meal on the West Side above 64th Street. The latest arrival to the party is Eighty One, which has opened off the lobby of the Excelsior Hotel, on West 81st Street. As with many of the fancy new joints around town, there is a name chef in the kitchen—in this case, Ed Brown, who toiled most recently at the Sea Grill, in Rockefeller Center. Seven of the eight entrées on the menu cost over $30. And for an extra $42, you can scatter the finest black truffles on anything you choose.
There are usually two reasons to peddle food this expensive. The first is that good ingredients cost a lot; the second is that really expensive ingredients help to convince a certain kind of diner that what they’re eating is actually very good. Similar rules apply to the design of a restaurant, and at Eighty One no expense has been spared to create a certain swank, Michelin-approved look. The bar in the narrow, attractive lounge space is made from polished walnut and illuminated from above with rows of glowing lights of the sort you might find on the bridge of a semi-palatial cruise ship. There’s a wine cooler as big as an elephant in the dining room (which has been carefully sealed off from the seedy, Coen brothers–style lobby of the Excelsior), and panels have been placed along the ceiling to make the noise level just so and to cover the unsightly lines of the old exposed pipes. The tabletops are set with polished silver and rimmed with the kind of capacious crimson banquettes one sees in ancient French restaurants or the lounges of the finest retirement homes.
Brown, Eighty One’s chef and owner, is an accomplished veteran of New York’s high-roller restaurant circuit, and he executes his ambitious “Modern American” menu with an impressive expense-account panache. The restaurant gets its cache of black truffles from Provence, and its Osetra caviar straight from the Caspian Sea. There are frog’s legs from Florida, expensive pumpkin oil from Austria, even curls of rare cinnamon bark stealthily imported from Iran. My first dish was an opulent, $28 composition of softly cooked Jones Farm leeks (listed on the menu under the chef’s “Tasting Collection”) topped with truffles and that most fetishized of boutique barnyard ingredients, the soft-boiled “farm egg.” When I asked my attentive and well-informed waitperson where Jones Farm was, she said that it’s an organic farm in Ohio. The leeks, along with some of the restaurant’s other vegetables, are grown with loving care there and flown to Brown’s kitchen in New York.
Despite this imposing carbon footprint, it is my duty to report that if you’re willing to pay $28 for a ration of exceptionally tasty leeks, you won’t be disappointed. Among the other Tasting Collection recipes I tried, I also enjoyed my tuna tartare ($21 for three little wheels of tuna garnished with different esoteric toppings), although the chef’s signature “warm smoked salmon” (an overly salty mélange made more salty still by the Osetra caviar) wasn’t worth its outlandish $39 sticker price. The smoked-cod chowder is a more sensible deal ($15, including a righteous chopping of Niman Ranch bacon), and so are the fresh baby calamari, tossed with garlic chips, smoked paprika, and parsley. The most accomplished of the appetizers, my tasters and I agreed, was the ravioli, stuffed with sweet scallops and a hint of foie gras. Devoted barnyard snobs will also enjoy the pleasingly vinegary Berkshire-pork belly, and the poached hen egg, which is served over segments of soft, milky sweetbreads and toasted brioche.
Brown has a knack for this kind of artsy Greenmarket cooking, but when the entrées roll around, his old-fashioned instinct for the baroque tends to runs wild. The $37 sirloin would have worked better without the attendant short rib and olive “marmalade,” and my convoluted $39 serving of lamb “Three Ways” (mini-portions of loin, shoulder, and rack) could, more sensibly, have contained two cuts of lamb, or even one. Seafood is the chef’s strength, but the tuna entrée I sampled was buried in a pile of cassoulet beans, and my fishy portion of hamachi was lost in too many baby clams “pil-pil” and a greenish mix of parsley sauce. If you’re in the vicinity of the Natural History museum and feel like blowing $39 on an excellent piece of meat, the truncheon-size braised veal shank is the thing to get (it comes with an haute rendition of cheese grits, in a silver pot), and the seafood dish my tasters seemed to like best was the cod, which is flavored with a sake-wine sauce, among many other things, and decorated with a thatch of crispy shallots.
Like Dovetail around the corner, Eighty One is being bull-rushed, right now, by crowds of grateful neighborhood gastronomes. “It looks like a convention of dentists in here,” one of my Upper West Side friends observed, as she surveyed the sea of horn-rimmed glasses and $200 hairdos. The desserts appear to be fashioned with this kind of stolid sensibility in mind. There are a couple of standard chocolate items (the chocolate-and-hazelnut mille-feuille is the one to get), and a frozen “soufflé” flavored with Meyer lemon that isn’t really a soufflé at all. Every restaurant must have a silly fritter dessert these days, and the fritters here are rolled in cinnamon and spiked, unaccountably, with peanuts. Other odd flavor combinations include a crème brûlée made with butternut squash, and a hard little turret of banana-bread pudding soaked in bourbon. The safest choice is the pear tart, which is spiced nicely with a hint of caramel. It comes with a superfluous though pleasant goblet of hot pear cider, which you can sip decorously as you inspect your staggeringly large check.