The chef and co-owner of the new West Village scene restaurant the Lion is John DeLucie, who made his reputation at the Waverly Inn, the place where the nouveau-speakeasy restaurant model first entered the collective food consciousness. That formula has since been expanded (at the Monkey Bar, among other places) and more or less perfected (by Keith McNally at Minetta Tavern), and at this point its components are clear. The entrance to your establishment must be unmarked or have a stoic doorman posted outside (at the Lion, it’s both). There should be no reservations, or you should have to grovel to obtain them (“We only have tables at 5:30 and 10:30, sir” is the mantra I heard whenever I tried to book a table at the Lion). And never, ever, underestimate the importance of a dungeonlike lounge area–slash–Siberia. This limbo, where a rabble of assorted frumps and arrivistes congregate, sets the tone for the evening, and helps give your main (and, one hopes, celebrity-stocked) dining room its crucial sense of occasion and, of course, heat.
At the Lion, this dreaded nether region is called the Tavern, and like lots of things about this restaurant, there’s a connect-the-dots quality to it, a sense, as you wait cowering in the semi-darkness, that you’re dining in the TV-sitcom version of what a real New York–style restaurant no-man’s-land might be. The Tavern has low, raftered ceilings, and the walls are painted black. The copper-topped tables are set too close together, for maximum discomfort, and peopled, on the nights I was there, with knots of desperately sweating tourists and packs of loudly guffawing young banker interns sporting their radioactive summer tans. As at the Waverly or Minetta, you get tantalizing glimpses, from your cramped stool at the bar, of the brightly lit dining room and all the glittering people within. But unlike at those places, when (and if) you finally manage to reach your table in the Promised Land, you will find that this room looks distressingly like a stage set, too.
“These are all the people who couldn’t get into Minetta tonight,” whispered one of my catty guests, which is not quite fair. It was 5:30, after all, in the depths of July. The room—which is decorated, in Ye Old London club style, with round wood chandeliers and a grand jumble of photos on the walls—was mostly empty. But the similarities between DeLucie’s and the other semi-private dining clubs downtown is evident on the menu. The Lion serves its own $18 “Special Blend” burger garnished, disastrously, with a flabby chunk of fried pork belly. There are several French-accented bistro dishes (white asparagus with hollandaise, a decent slab of foie gras, a dreckish lobster bisque that looks like it just emerged from the Automat), and several cuts of beef. The first one we sampled was the $98 rib eye for two. We specified medium rare, but the beef was purple. When it returned from the kitchen, it was burned to a greasy crisp.
Of course, this is the price you tend to pay for entry, however brief, into select dining clubs like this. But at the Lion, as it’s currently constituted, I can’t say it’s worth it. On my first visit, the menu was full of flowery, extraneous items, the silliest of which was a helping of gooey cannelloni tubes, bombed with truffles, for an insane $55. The since-revised menu is smaller and easier to navigate, but the memorable items are still few and far between. The cannelloni (a conspicuous play on the popular truffled macaroni and cheese at the Waverly) has mercifully disappeared, and the grim lobster bisque has been replaced with a smooth, seasonal corn soup flavored, not unpleasantly, with crème fraîche and more truffles. But the appetizer of artichoke fritters tasted more of potatoes than artichokes, the baby beets in my baby-beet salad were slightly mushy, and the sticky yellowfin-tuna tartare had no real tuna taste at all.
The service on my visits was generally exemplary, but the wait between courses routinely stretched on for too long, during which time the noise bouncing around the little Hobbit Hall dining room grew from a low murmur to a hysterical din. “Put it in your article: This is the most obnoxious restaurant in America,” shouted one of my debonair uptown guests as she took possession of her $25 Amish chicken, which consisted of a single well-prepared breast cut in half to make it look slightly larger than it actually was. The double-cut pork chop tasted pretty good (it’s drizzled with black-garlic butter and smoked with oak chips), but is also puny for its $39 price tag. If you’re in the mood for heft, order the fat cavatelli pasta (crowned with sheep’s-milk ricotta, for $22), or the steamy lobster potpie (an alternative to the chicken potpie at the Waverly), which is covered in a fresh, buttery crust but contains roughly three times more vegetables than lobster.
There is a slim, slightly pretentious wine list to help ease you through your laborious dinner at the Lion, and the fairly rudimentary cocktail list, by today’s lofty mixologist standards, includes a refreshing rendition of that old speakeasy favorite, the Dark and Stormy. The only functional desserts we could find on the menu were lemon-meringue custard and a plate of apple beignets, which had a nice frittery crunch to them. The other dessert choices included a ham-fisted creation called Cheesecake in a Jar (cheesecake filling poured in a Mason jar), a fallen chocolate soufflé, and a messy seventies-style assemblage of crêpes topped with bananas and stuffed with Nutella. And what about the celebrity scene at the Lion? I’m afraid I never got a chance to find out. Like I said, it’s summertime. The glittering hordes have migrated to the Hamptons. By 8:30 in the evening, there was another group hunkered in the Tavern, waiting edgily for our table, and all my guests wanted to go home.