“You’re wasting my time. It’s all about beer! A really good beer!” chants the XXL-sweatshirted Brooklyn hitter in classic Car 54, Where are You? dialect. He flings his hands high and wide, gesturing to the earth-tone vastness of 27 Standard as Exhibit A. “You said we were coming to a jazz club,” he says to his shapely girlfriend, sitting next to him in a red jersey dress Mariah Carey might have thought a bit snug. “But I don’t hear no live music. I don’t see no drinking. No real drinking. I don’t trust a place that don’t know beer.”
He then summons the waitress with an effusive wave, requesting a deliberately obscure brew with an eye-narrowed I-know-the-Final Jeopardy!-answer grin. But before he can register delight at the bar’s inability to produce it, the young woman one-ups him by suggesting Hacker-Pschorr Weisse, a bracing German wheat beer that she recommends drinking with a squeeze of lemon. “Lemon? Yeah, right!” the hops connoisseur replies with a head bop and a snigger. “Bring it on.” She swiftly returns with an elegant glassful of gold pilsner, ridged by a yellow wedge. Flicking away the citrus and hoisting the glass in a theatrical arc, he chugs half the beer. The verdict is swift and surprisingly demure. “Here. Try it,” he says to his friends. “It’s okay … But forget the lemon crap.”
For a restaurant open only a month, 27 Standard exhibits unusual confidence. It also constitutes – along with Balthazar, Milos, Redeye Grill, and the now-opening-in-stages multi-million-dollar pan-Asian food court called Obeca-Li – undeniable evidence that the high-rafted, soccer-field-size grand café that defined dining out in the eighties has returned. Happily, Standard arrives with welcome modifications. In the daytime, the balconied space is softened by lots of natural light. At night, when the colors of its Tuscan-warehouse décor are more apparent, ambient lighting from frosted lamps enhances the pairing of amber, teal, and Georgia-clay red with dark cherrywood. And despite what the hitter thinks, there is music. Ella, Louis, McCoy, and Miles can be heard overhead, but that’s just a teaser: Downstairs, there’s a full-on jazz club – as large as the restaurant itself – with an impressive soundproofed ceiling.
In the front of the room, instead of the usual holding pen, generously upholstered sofas designate an ample lounge. There are no this-is-all-we-have-right-now “tushy view” tables for two slammed up against the bar. And, unlike in “the good old days,” when finding a path through the dining area recalled Alice stuck in the maze of hedges trying to escape the Red Queen, even the horizontally challenged will have no trouble navigating the space.
Even more comforting is that the staff is a bunch of smooth sailors. The beverage-wise waitress is not alone. Somebody actually trained these guys. And well. Standard offers a mean, tangy margarita, and while too many bartenders are getting away with Cosmopolitans that should be bottled by Ocean Spray, the one here evokes the lip-smacking “mwah!” that marks an Algonquin Round Table-worthy martini. At the table, the staff is aware, charming, and focused. Chef Michael Smith, who understudied at the Hudson River Club and the Rainbow Room, should be pleased that his menu is being presented with such respect and enthusiasm.
Having always found the fare of the Hudson River Club to aptly reflect the witless complexity of the conversations overheard there at lunch – and still not able to recall one meal at the Rainbow Room that was more memorable than the Fred-and-Ginger atmosphere – I must say that Smith’s sous-chef credentials did not have me in a spin. But out of his own kitchen, Smith produces some of that old magic called love. A seemingly weightless yet richly rewarding crab cake is almost animated by ginger. Wonderful fingerling potatoes soak up a bright sherry vinaigrette that has slipped through barbed arugula and soft Parmesan. Crème fraîche turns the muskiness of chestnut soup into luxury. A dense balsamic glaze and briny pancetta play a can’t-lose tug-of-war with the subtle, gamy quail. A truly succulent chicken breast – no mean feat – emerges from the warm cloak of sage sauce. There is duck-leg confit, dark, smoky, dense, and luscious; sensuous shards of braised lamb shank oozing delicious pan juices with each bite; tuna, thick and black and rubied as steak, crusted in Middle Eastern spices. Virtually every vegetable accompaniment – fennel and figs with the tuna, sweet lentils and saffroned onion alongside the lamb, red cabbage and acorn squash, red chard and root vegetables under the rabbit – either equaled or surpassed the plate’s main attraction.
To bring dinner to a satisfying coda, especially for those who get puppy-dog eyes at the mention of tapioca pudding, Standard has one with coconut that pushes all the childhood buttons. The blackberry cobbler will please an even larger assemblage. The lemon semifreddo is better than you think it’s going to be. But the molten chocolate cake overpowers the sweetly subtle cherry ice cream with which it’s served – the latter would be better off on its own.
All in all, it’s a fine start. What Smith has to do now is get his not-peppery-enough tender Angus sirloin to match the scarfable onion-and-watercress relish that comes with it; the salmon not to defer to the fine mix of salsify, mushroom, and leeks; the champagne glaze on the oysters to be creamy enough to head off the oniony perfume of leeks; the shrimp’s coriander crust to be gutsy enough to deserve the beet vinaigrette. While he’s at it, he might also want to cut the salt content of the white-bean soup in half and toss out the dull sea scallops with the curried apples, almonds, and basmati rice. If he manages all this, those jamming in the downstairs room will be hard pressed to match all that jazz happening on street level.
It’s rare for a restaurant, especially one as ambitious as 27 Standard, to develop such a sense of rhythm so early in its run. The hard part now, as any musician will attest, is making it all feel fresh and improvised while constantly reaching for a lock on that tempo, never overreaching, never falling behind. “Cool. This place is cool,” says the prince of Flatbush to the waitress as he exits with his Mariah wannabe and entourage. “Thanks for the tip about the beer. Almost as good a choice as mine.” She smiles at him and winks at us. Because he’ll never know. It’s even better with the lemon.
27 Standard, 116 East 27th Street (447-7733). Lunch, Monday through Friday noon to 2:30; Dinner, Monday through Thursday 6 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 10:30 p.m. Appetizers, $6.50-$12; entrées, $16-$27. All major credit cards.