If you’re one of those sad, obsessive souls who spend their evenings wandering the city from one hot new restaurant to the next, the Great Bust of the late aughts was, in certain respects, a golden time. Prices were down all over town, formerly imperious waiters turned suitably groveling, and if you wanted a decent table at an exclusive restaurant, you were usually in luck. But there have been signs recently that this halcyon era is coming to an end. Downtown demigods like David Chang and April Bloomfield are opening ambitious new ventures farther uptown (Má Pêche, in the Chambers Hotel, and the Breslin, at the Ace), and for the first time in years, Danny Meyer is rolling out an ambitious upscale restaurant (Maialino, in the Gramercy Park Hotel) instead of a burger joint. And when I called to book a table at Le Caprice, the new high-end bistro at the Pierre, the uninterested voice on the other end of the line informed me that their tables were booked for the week. “What about next week?” I asked plaintively. “I’m sorry, sir,” said the voice. “That’s full up, too.”
Le Caprice is part of a group of swank London restaurants (including the Ivy and the original Le Caprice in Piccadilly), which may explain the patina of old-fashioned Euro snootiness that permeates the operation. Not that you’d expect anything less at the Pierre, which has recently undergone a $100 million renovation at the hands of its new Indian owners, the Taj Hotel group. This bistro has its own white-gloved doorman, and an awning leading onto Fifth Avenue with its name embroidered in gold. The long, low room looks like a grand, Gilded Age train car done over by Noël Coward and his friends in Art Deco tones of black and pearly white. The floors are fashioned from polished white marble, the black walls trimmed with glinting silver, and the lighting sconces made from stainless steel and chrome. The staff speak in a variety of Continental accents (French for our waiter, London posh for the maître d’), and no one at my table was surprised when the tinkling of live piano music began floating over the tables as cocktails were being served.
The owners have brought their chef, Michael Hartnell, from the Ivy, and the menu they’ve concocted (printed in royal-blue letters, with the instructions “please refrain from photography” at the bottom) is intended less to dazzle than to please. In the tradition of upscale London bistros, it contains a variety of classically executed Continental favorites—steak tartare, shellfish bisque, wild-mushroom risotto—interspersed with elevated examples of comforting English largesse, like salmon fish cake with sorrel sauce, and a decadent version of fish and chips. In general, the appetizers were the weak link in this progression, although my wife, seduced by piano music and a sip of Fifth Avenue Champagne, declared her octopus salad to be the best thing she’d ever tasted. The overthick shellfish bisque had no defenders at the table, however, and neither did the wizened little sea scallops, which were crowned with dry strips of pancetta. But if you have cash in your pocket and wish to rekindle the joys of boom-era Manhattan, you could do worse than the sautéed foie gras I enjoyed one evening, which the kitchen serves on a buttery tart crust, mingled with caramelized apples.
The more-ambitious entrées include a portion of flaky, ivory-white cod plated over a delicate stew of warm coco beans and nuggets of chorizo (“I’m coming back tomorrow,” my tipsy wife announced after one bite), and a smallish portion of “Thai baked” sea bass steamed in a banana leaf and presented with some conspicuously unsticky Thai rice. The well-marbled New York strip steak has a pleasingly fatty sheen to it, but the piece of meat I liked best was the veal chop, which is smothered in a sweet, beefy veal glaze and piled with cipollini onions and sautéed chanterelles. Among the less-expensive entrées, the most disappointing is the London-style chopped steak, which is essentially a bunless hamburger patty with some tomato relish on the side. The best are the opulently crunchy fish and chips (with a mound of mint-flavored puréed peas on the side) and the chicken Milanese, which is served with a rich garlic-and-parsley sauce presented at the table, with proper ceremony, in a silver gravy boat.
Little touches like this give the proceedings at Le Caprice a sense of casually stylish, old-world charm. Daily specials are scrawled on the margins of the menu (fat chunks of fluke dressed with salsa verde one night, a soft, expertly glazed wheel of osso buco with polenta the next), and on Sundays the kitchen serves a slap-up English-style brunch, replete with Welsh rarebit, kedgeree over poached eggs, and slabs of roast beef with Yorkshire pudding.
Predictably, Le Caprice is already being overrun by crowds of pink-faced, Champagne-swilling Englishmen and Fifth Avenue couples out on the town bundled in their fur coats. But this is the Pierre, after all, and after spending the better part of the Great Recession gnawing on burgers in the back rooms of downtown speakeasies, visiting a restaurant that attempts to strike a balance between casual, bistro-style intimacy and old-fashioned uptown grandeur is refreshing. At least that was my thought as I tucked into the first Pavlova I’ve encountered in years on a New York dessert menu (a featherlight méringue with cherry sauce), and a gently caramelized, Parisian-quality crème brûlée. The updated comfort items also include a sticky toffee pudding, accented with bananas, and a vanilla sundae dappled, pleasingly, with chunks of honeycomb. But the most emblematic dessert at Le Caprice is clearly the baked chocolate-pudding soufflé, which combines the goopy, crowd-pleasing elements of chocolate pudding with the wispy elegance of a soufflé.