Photographs by Danny Kim
Until recently, Danny Meyer was famous for being the most local of all big-city restaurateurs. With the exception of the Modern uptown, you could spend several enjoyable days perambulating among his various dining establishments around Union Square without eating the same meal or visiting the same Danny Meyer restaurant twice. But lately, the borders of Meyer’s familiar culinary neighborhood have begun to expand and blur. In the last two years, he’s closed one restaurant off Madison Park (Tabla) and sold another (Eleven Madison Park). You can now enjoy the Kansas City–style ribs from Blue Smoke barbecue in the Flatiron district and in Battery Park City, not to mention at select sports stadiums around the country. More recently, Meyer opened an indistinct new café at the Whitney, and his booming neighborhood burger franchise, Shake Shack, now has outlets in far-flung places like the Upper West Side, Washington, D.C., and Dubai.
Meyer’s latest venture is called the North End Grill, and although it isn’t located among the anonymous office towers of Dubai, to admirers of the other great Meyer restaurants, it can feel that way. The restaurant occupies a ground-floor space in a featureless building in Battery Park City that also houses the new Conrad Hotel. In contrast to the cozy “tavern”-style rooms in other Meyer restaurants, there is a perfunctory bar in the front of the house designed for the consumption of pricey single-malt whiskeys. The open kitchen fronts a long dining counter, which leads to a main dining room decorated in utilitarian, even corporate shades of black and white. The tables and chairs are close together, like in a busy hotel restaurant; the walls are hung with large black-and-white photos of familiar barnyard icons (a rooster’s head, an egg, a giant oyster); and if you sit by the window at night, your food is bathed in the pale, yellowy reflection of the streetlights outside.
“I feel like I’m on a business trip to Kansas City,” said one of the Danny Meyer devotees at the table as we surveyed the room, which was crammed on this evening with boisterous Wall Street folk unwinding after work (“Dave?!” someone at the next table cried. “I know Dave! Dave’s an asshole!”) and slightly dazed-looking tourists from the hotel next door. The chef in the kitchen is the talented Floyd Cardoz, who made his reputation twirling out exotic South Asian–fusion recipes at Tabla. But the era of exotic fusion recipes has long passed in New York (as it has in Kansas City), and so Cardoz has cobbled together a clean, straightforward menu featuring old gourmet favorites (a smooth anise-flavored foie gras), a variety of grilled proteins (pricey, slightly flaccid cuts of dry-aged steak, a Berkshire pork chop, chicken for two), and a fashionably rustic stand-alone “Egg” section for Wall Street diners who may have missed the great farm-to-table revolution.
These dishes are professionally prepared, for the most part, but if you’re an experienced New York eater, there isn’t much at the North End Grill that you haven’t seen before. The fluke-crudo appetizer I ordered one evening was spritzed with lime instead of lemon and scattered with bits of smoked bacon, but it still tasted, my guests and I agreed, like a garden-variety version of fluke crudo. The charred, spicy clam pizza was similarly uninspired, as was that old bistro favorite roasted marrow bones, which Cardoz enlivens, in fairness, with a salty, popping garnish of trout roe. My frisée salad was enlivened, not entirely successfully, with grilled sardines, and if you order the tuna tartare, you’ll find that it’s feathered, oddly, with bits of seaweed. The big hit of the “Egg” section, everyone agreed, was the coddled variety (with grits, bacon, and crab), although a limp dish of “soft” scrambled eggs (with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms) tasted, as one of my guests put it, “like first-class airline food.”
The most successful entrées at North End Grill tend to be in the delicate realm of seafood, where Cardoz can demonstrate his signature light touch with fusion flavors and spices. The Berkshire chop (with Tuscan white beans and chorizo) was overdone when I ordered it, and the tubular, deboned lamb loin with preserved lemon hadn’t been trimmed of enough of its fat. The $88 New York strip for two took too long to cook (it’s grilled, put in the oven, then finished on the grill again) and arrived at the table underdone, and the chicken for two is notable mostly for the mountain of richly buttery crouton stuffing on which it’s served. If you can negotiate the impressive network of bones, however, the meaty, well-grilled turbot for two is worth the effort (if maybe not the $62 price), and so is the Nova Scotia halibut, which Cardoz pairs with a pile of fresh clams in a smoky broth flavored with anise and a dash of Mexican chile.
The food at this latest Danny Meyer outlet is served by the usual fleet of diligently cheerful waiters, dressed in the standard-issue Meyer uniform of cotton white shirts, aprons, and tastefully patterned ties. In contrast to the seamless operations uptown, however, there are occasional glitches. Plates sometimes languish on the table between courses, and on one early visit, our waiter became flustered by the barrage of restaurant-critic orders and forgot to bring our appetizers altogether. The comfort-oriented, ready-made desserts include a fluffy wedge of lemon-meringue pie and stolid renditions of those Old English favorites sticky-toffee pudding and the Eccles cake. Uptown dessert snobs might object to the bamboo skewer of marshmallows that comes with the butterscotch pot du crème. But if you live in the neighborhood and have been subsisting for years on candy bars from the local deli, this smooth, salty-sweet confection will make your day.