Gaudy revivals may work on Broadway, but they’re a hazardous proposition in restaurant land. Just ask the poor souls who put their dollars behind the star-crossed attempt to resuscitate the Russian Tea Room a couple of years ago. But if you are going to reprise a restaurant from the city’s dashing culinary past, you could do a lot worse than Joe Baum’s fabulous, Mad Men–era, three-martini-lunch spot, La Fonda del Sol. The original restaurant opened on the ground floor of the Time-Life Building in 1960, shortly after Baum had rolled out his famous over-the-top flop, the Forum of the Twelve Caesars, and his great masterpiece, The Four Seasons. Baum was the inventor of the theme restaurant, and La Fonda’s theme was Latin America (the name means “Inn of the Sun”), complete with a blue-tiled bar; tall, decorative, custom-made sangria pitchers; and special La Fonda swivel chairs, built for the room’s designer, Alexander Girard, by his colleagues Charles and Ray Eames. “It was like having lunch at a New York version of the Fontainebleau,” said one of my nostalgic guests as we examined the new incarnation of La Fonda del Sol, which opened a couple of months ago in a dark little corner of the Met Life Building, near the western entrance to Grand Central.
Like the old La Fonda del Sol, the new one is pitched with the savvy business crowd in mind, but there are no over-the-top Latin motifs in sight. The designer of the new space is Adam Tihany, who favors clean, utilitarian lines over ornate period looks. He has fashioned a big lounge-style “tapas” area in the front, with blond café tables and a long vanilla-colored bar fitted with a few too many flat-screen TVs. The smaller, more formal dining room is tucked up a little flight of stairs in the back, behind a wall of etched glass. It’s decorated in darkish, semi-brooding tones of cranberry and mauve, and except for a few lush, close-up photographs of bullfighters on the walls, there’s no overarching design theme to the space at all. “I feel like I’m in a nice airport restaurant in Barcelona,” my friend said as we waited in the café for the inevitable wave of tapas to arrive.
The original La Fonda del Sol served an array of stoutly reimagined Pan-Latino favorites, like stuffed Argentine beef and a delicate midtown version of lechoncito asada (suckling pig on a spit). The food at the new restaurant is the work of Josh DeChellis, a talented culinary chameleon who has cooked everything during the course of his commercially spotty New York career, from high-end seafood (Union Pacific) to Italian (Jovia) to excellent Japanese fusion (Sumile). DeChellis is originally from Colombia, and it turns out he’s as adept at turning out creative tapas facsimiles as he is at everything else. We liked the sweet short ribs braised in Tempranillo wine, the chewy, salty slices of Serrano ham, and the authentically crunchy wedges of toast called tomàquet, spread with a thin, rich film of crushed tomatoes. There are properly crumbly, cinnamon-flavored beef empanadas, too, croquettes stuffed with veal terrine, and mini Jean Georges–style tuna tacos filled with sashimi-grade tuna belly and a hint of pickled jalapeño.
More of these tapas dishes are available in the café area than in the dining room, where the appetizer-entrée rhythm of the meal follows a more predictable, prosaic path. The dimly lit room has all the default trappings of other standard upscale restaurants around midtown, including scraggly twig arrangements, closet-size bathrooms, and a glittering, exhibitionist steel-and-glass wine rack. The first appetizers I sampled included small, even meager shreds of raw kampachi with pickled pineapples and jícama, and a tasty though slightly chewy rendition of braised pork cheeks leavened with fat judiones beans and studded with bits of spicy sausage. The jumbo prawns à la plancha weren’t worth their $16 sticker price, so if you want a traditional Spanish meal, order the soft white calamari (which is also cooked à la plancha and drizzled with lemon), followed by a platter of the dense, salty jamón de Bellota, which comes from the famous acorn-fed “black-footed” hogs of old Iberia and until last year was illegal to import into America.
Iberian-food traditionalists won’t find much to get excited about among the entrées at La Fonda del Sol, however. Many of the dishes are standard expense-account favorites (steak, salmon, chicken, etc.), albeit gussied up by DeChellis in a generally successful attempt to appear enticing and new. The Spanish snobs at my table gave thumbs up to the loin of lamb (crusted in pumpkin seeds and served with a Tellicherry pepper), and to the salmon, which is rolled in chile pepper and set on a pile of softly cooked carrots and salsify. Those two midtown stalwarts, steak and chicken, are dependable, particularly the former, which you can get cut for two from a giant beef rib or as a nicely charred New York strip. But the cod (with baby clams and green parsley sauce) was sludgy and over-salted, and my friend the Pig Fiend, who’d traveled up from the South especially for this meal, gave two thumbs down to the chef’s minimalist interpretation of suckling pig, which, in his estimation, lacked the porky, crackly pleasures of the real thing.
The new version of a La Fonda del Sol martini costs $9.50, and I could have done without the olives stuffed with milky deposits of Cabrales cheese. But there’s nothing objectionable about the house sangria, which is served in traditional goblets brimming with fruit and which goes well with the elegantly hefty pulled-pork sandwich (with pickled fennel and romesco, on toasted ciabatta), which DeChellis puts on the menu lunchtimes in the café. Among the desserts, I have dim memories of a professionally made, if slightly tedious, apple tart, and a less tedious crèma catalana scented with oranges and served with a French-style brûlée top. If you like fried doughnut holes (I don’t), they’re called “Bunyols” here and are served with an array of dipping sauces. And if you like chocolate, I suggest the opulent “wicked” chocolate cake. It’s made with rich chocolate from Mexico and a hint of chile, and although it won’t evoke memories of old, Joe Baum–style grandeur, it will bring dinner to a conclusion in a painless, even pleasant way.