Desmond’s, which opened for business a month or so ago on a gloomy stretch of 60th Street, across from the loading dock at Bloomingdale’s, aspires to be the kind of restaurant that your sophisticated grandmother used to enjoy on her stately forays into the big city. The tables in the high-ceilinged former carriage-house space are covered with white linen and decorated with little silver lamps shaped like pineapples. The waiters are dressed in suitably subdued tones of white and charcoal gray, and several of them speak with comforting (if slightly indistinct) Continental accents. There’s a version of Waldorf salad on the menu (tossed with sliced Concord grapes, the way your grandmother used to like it) and a passable Dover sole. If you’re in the mood for a stout pretheater Edwardian feast, you can even dine on a beef Wellington big enough to feed a party of six.
Desmond’s proprietors (Indochine veteran John Loeffler, former Soho House London cook David Hart, and Richard O’Hagan from London’s Annabel’s) appear to be aiming for something like a latter-day Stork Club atmosphere. But the restaurant’s timeless, slightly archaic charms are diminished somewhat by the acoustics in the echoey room (after it was a carriage house, it was a bank), not to mention the lighting, which is catacomb-gray in the afternoons and tomblike in the evenings. Then there’s the location, next to the back end of Bloomingdale’s. The spot might be convenient for a quick after-work drink or a nice shopping lunch in midtown, but it’s beset by a steady stream of traffic during the day and strewn with garbage bags from local fast-food joints (a pizza parlor next door, a Subway sandwich franchise down the street) at night.
Not that my slightly shell-shocked out-of-town cousins had anything bad to say about their midtown lunch, which began, the way so many such luncheons do, with a Cobb salad (here with chunks of fresh lobster) and a perfectly acceptable tuna tartare dressed with bits of ginger. A soft block of pork belly, with an apple salad and a salty-sweet caramel sauce, is also available as an appetizer, along with scrambled eggs, that other ageless grandmother favorite, which were served to us, in the mostly deserted dining room, on a thin blanket of smoked salmon with a spoonful of caviar on top. The cheese soufflé I ordered one evening was less a soufflé than a wizened little cheese tart (ringed, in a wan British way, with pickled beets), although the risottos I sampled (one folded with crab for the exorbitant price of $29, the other with spring vegetables) were decent renditions of that deceptively tricky dish.
Decent is as good an adjective as any to describe most of the food at this inoffensive, slightly pricey new midtown restaurant. You can obtain a decent lobster (char-grilled, with drawn butter and crunchy French fries) and a decent salmon fillet, plated with lettuce and a curry vinaigrette. The Dover sole was muffled in a dreary shrimp-flavored butter sauce the evening I tried it, but if you’re in the mood for meat, there’s decent filet mignon on the menu (with Béarnaise sauce and cracked marrow bones) and excellent grilled lamb chops, served uncut on a butcher’s board. The desserts include a salted chocolate tart with a scoop of malt ice cream, a rhubarb crumble with lemon-verbena ice cream, and a delicate version of that old midtown classic Black Forest cake, flavored with cherries.
Jesús Núñez’s flamboyant little brownstone restaurant, Graffit, which opened several months ago on a staid, very unflamboyant block of West 69th Street near Broadway, is really two restaurants in one. The first is effectively a tapas bar in the front of the house, where you can perch at a white-stone counter and sip well-chosen glasses of Rioja or Tempranillo while picking at more or less recognizable Spanish classics, like crunchy Ibérico ham croquettes, and stewed octopus and potatoes sprinkled with Spanish smoked paprika. Then there’s the proper, sit-down operation in the back, where the walls are painted with giant toreadors (actually, one giant toreador) and where Núñez, who’s operated two popular Mediterranean-fusion restaurants in Madrid, indulges his passion for splashing all sorts of strange and eclectic colors on the plate. Except for a few early dishes, however (white-bean stew with chorizo, an imaginative savory carrot “cake”), many of these experiments seemed to be colored in hues of beige or swampy green. At various points in our meal, there were muddy oxtail ravioli wrapped in floppy wonton skins (they tasted better than they looked), fake truffles made with falafel and something called “edible earth” (which tasted less good), seared duck breast (very good but very brown), and a lamb creation (seared loin, and rolled eggplant smothered in another muddy sauce) that was so transcendently ugly that I had to snap a picture of it. The archly named desserts (“A Study of Spanish Moscatel,” a chaotic creation called “Spring”) are mostly a mess, so take refuge in the Spanish cheeses, which you can complement with shavings of excellent Ibérico ham served with slices of tomato-covered Catalonian toast.