Back in the sixties, while traveling cross-country, I spit out the first bite of a burger bagged in Yuma, Arizona. The patty was covered in mustard. “What is this?” I asked the girl behind the counter. “How come this has ketchup and mustard?” She looked at me as if I’d asked whether Cher’s exotic beauty was really the result of genetics: “What do you mean? That’s the way the burger comes.” “Not in New York,” I replied. “Well,” she said, “you’re not in New York now, baby, are you?”
If a name as globally branded as McDonald’s finds it necessary to make adjustments according to territory, can any restaurant pick itself up and drop itself somewhere else with no alterations? Della Femina, just opened in midtown, is deliberately designed to transport Jerry Della Femina’s regulars back to Long Island’s South Fork, home of his original eponymous restaurant. However, for those of us who find both relief and pride in not being able to recognize more than three of the caricatures of Della Femina’s East Hamptonian regulars hanging behind the bar, this is nowhere we want to be beamed to. Though now is the perfect time to insert them, I must regrettably refrain from making summer-in-the-Hamptons jokes, not because they’re too easy but because they always carry a whiff of snarky bitterness about them, like George Stephanopoulos’s smug assessments of the Clintons. And I have nothing against Mr. Della Femina . . .
… Other than the fact that I can’t stand the décor of his Manhattan dining space. Except for the series of spectacular sheaflike sconces that ring the room, here is a textbook example of everything that city folk do wrong when they get their hands on a beach house – equating pale Sheetrock, sisal carpeting, and beige monochromatism with “paring down” in their efforts to evoke the simple life. But this is not at one with the beach. It’s just dull. Then again, perhaps incorporating real seaside hues, like those found in azure skies, midnight-blue water, lavender-to-vermilion sunsets, and a hundred shades of green, might throw Della Femina’s current white-bread-and-butter patrons for a loop, considering they seem to be under the impression that it’s always “Two-for-One Khakis Night.” Forget Water Mill – this would be a stiff bunch for Kennebunkport.
So what do I have for Mr. Della Femina? A deep bow of admiration for being able to put together an attentive, thoroughly seasoned, and charming staff in record time. And I’ve a much bigger and almost embarrassingly voracious gimme-more appreciation of his chef Kevin Penner, who, unlike Femina’s designer, knows the seductive difference between sparseness-posing-as-style and clarity.
The journey back into town must suit him, for Penner’s plates exhibit enormous confidence. Rare is the extraneous taste or visual that begs for attention. What’s called poached-lobster salad is, in fact, a deceptively tasteful, hockey-puck-size concentration of avocado, mango, Sevruga, greens, and expertly poached lobster that, when pierced by a fork, expands with unexpected, feisty heartiness. The same delicate balance of just enough big flavors enhances a diver scallop with beets and citrus-ginger vinaigrette; briny fresh crabmeat bathing in a smooth chilled cucumber soup; a dangerously dense risotto of morels, black truffles, and asparagus bound by Parmesan; and a tongue-lashing tartare of Hawaiian tuna with a fiery wakame salad and Japanese horseradish. Another critic recently wrote that he was tempted to eat the “fish sticks” of Dover sole in a caviar rémoulade with his fingers. You’d be a fool not to. And you’d be a fool to offer someone else a bite. Aside from his luscious seared foie gras that shouldn’t have to choose between a banana pancake and roasted pineapple, Kevin Penner is at one with my hunger pangs.
His day-boat halibut deserves to be a signature dish, especially when its succulent torn-silk texture is dragged through both a delicious wild-mushroom broth and a luxuriantly dense potato purée. The wild striped bass is more burnished and elegant, sweetened by a lovely tomato confit and garlic sauce. Roasted langoustines, a bit mushy one night, fine the next, benefit from a pungent and insistent black-truffle-and-lobster sauce. There are beauteous garnets of Colorado lamb, begging for more black olive in the herb sauce; tasty roasted-chicken confit with a superb wild-mushroom-and-potato egg roll; a surprisingly uncumbersome saddle of grilled rabbit in a strong ragout of bacon and bok choy; and a cowboy rib eye that had better be this good – at 42 smackers for a slab of beef, this is another form of mad-cow disease.
One dessert, the chocolate box, is as sluggish as the weekend driver behind the wheel of his Range Rover, the box too high, the Valrhona pudding too faint, and the buttermilk impossible to get to. It would be best if the chef imagined chocolate for someone in Gucci stilettos, not Top-Siders. Otherwise, the cool, breath-freshening melon soup with lemon-yogurt sorbet; the dense but simple Mission-fig financier; a thick, glazed peach tarte Tatin; excellent fruit sorbets; and an unexpectedly gutsy steamed lemon pudding, while not as compelling as prior courses, blessedly avoid the obsessive trickiness that is ruining many other restaurants’ final act.
The Horn & Hardart people once claimed that “you can’t eat atmosphere.” But anyone who has ever taken a share in a saltbox house just north of Route 27 in Sagaponack knows you can’t pretend you’re summering along the shore when you’re surrounded by sassafras trees, just a Frisbee toss from a Mercedes dealer. I try not to eat with my head buried in my plate. Makes you look like an urchin from the cast of Oliver. But dining at Della Femina is liable to give me something of a hunch. Luckily, since it’s a pleasure to look deep into these dishes and up into the warm faces of the wait staff, that’s enough to prompt return visits without hesitation. But it would be nice to sit up straight once in a while and equally enjoy the view. If Jerry ever opens one morning and discovers his walls have been painted pumpkin and the floors are covered with vegetable-dyed kilims, he’ll know whom to finger.
Della Femina, 131 East 54th Street (752-0111). Lunch, Monday through Friday, noon to 2:30 p.m.; dinner, Monday through Saturday, 6 to 11 p.m. Appetizers, $10 to $19, entrées, $26 to $42. All major credit cards.