Compared with the normal brief life of fads and trends in this town, the boutique-hotel restaurant has enjoyed a formidable run. Grand hotel-restaurant dining began in Continental spots like Claridge’s and the Ritz, of course. But the modern, bull-market version of this trend probably originated in the early nineties, when Brian McNally opened 44 in Ian Schrager’s Royalton Hotel. The genre reached its fashionable zenith several years later, with the arrival of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s signature restaurant in the Trump International Hotel. Since then, new hotels and their high-profile restaurants have proliferated around town like guppies. Alain Ducasse took up residence in the rear of the Essex House last year, a few months before Todd English opened his New York version of Olives in the W Hotel on Union Square and Jeffery Chodorow created a new kind of culinary mob scene in the lobby of Schrager’s Hudson Hotel.
To chart these trajectories of fashion and taste, sociologists have invented the “diffusion curve.” At the bottom of the curve are “innovators,” who create the trend, followed by “early adopters,” who begin to popularize it. In sociological terms, McNally was an early adopter, and Jean-Georges was a member of the “early majority,” who solidify a trend and take it mainstream. McNally’s now rumored to be planning a new venture on the Lower East Side, where real innovators like Gabrielle Hamilton (Prune) and Wylie Dufresne (Clinton Fresh Foods) appeared two years ago. Chef Vongerichten’s next venture, characteristically, is a step or two behind McNally’s, in the restaurant-saturated meatpacking district. Which means those who followed him into the hotel-restaurant business are either members of the “late majority” or they are “laggards,” who are the last to co-opt a particular fashion. When there are more laggards at the party than anyone else, the party is officially over.
Virot, which opened a month or so ago on the ground floor of the new Dylan hotel, in midtown, looks like a laggard to me. The restaurant is named for Didier Virot, a talented sous chef who spent five years in Vongerichten’s kitchens (first JoJo, then Jean Georges) before striking out on his own. The venue he’s chosen couldn’t be less auspicious. It’s a tall, drafty ballroom in the Dylan, which occupies a smallish building on a bleak stretch of 41st Street, formerly called the Chemists’ Club. The Chemists’ Club used to be a place where groups of elderly chemists convened for a good time, and despite the efforts of designer Jeffrey Beers, it still looks that way. The room is dimly lit and dominated by great bronze-topped columns and a defunct Edwardian fireplace. Beers has installed a series of dark banquettes around these impediments and spiked them with tall, conical lamps. Unless you’re seated in the bright space under the bar mezzanine, the effect is strangely enervating, like dining after-hours in the lobby of an upscale institutional bank.
Chef Virot’s Vongerichten-inspired cooking doesn’t quite overcome this glum setting, and in some cases even contributes to it. One delicate foodie aristocrat at our table was shocked to the core when the chanterelles on her otherwise expertly prepared tart turned out to be rancid. I had the tart on another evening and it was fine, but other potentially delicious appetizers, like avocado-and-Peekytoe-crabmeat soup, and fried cromesqui flavored with caviar, fell consistently flat. The avocado soup was too sludgy to enhance the taste of the crabmeat, and the cromesqui, which should be subtle little beignets, had skins as thick as hushpuppies. An odd latticed arrangement of ahi tuna and cucumber strips (doused in sheep’s-milk yogurt and horseradish sauce) was a little more successful, as were the shrimp, which were flat-fried in a soft cornmeal crust. My favorite, though, was a simple foie gras terrine, cut in velvet pink slabs, with dense deposits of artichoke and rutabaga in the middle.
Many of Virot’s creations appear on colorful tilelike platters that look like they’ve been ripped from some garish Mediterranean bathhouse. This vivid tableware was supposed to highlight the food, but the results aren’t always so flattering. My tough portion of sea bass was framed on a toxic-yellow background, with weirdly purple carrots on the side, and brackish niçoise-olive sauce. A pricey lobster creation (sautéed in cardamom, with a caramel-ginger sauce) looked – and tasted – more or less inert against a sea of cerulean blue. The best seafood dish was a simple cut of salmon, baked to baby pinkness, with a mix of peas and beans on the side. Virot’s lamb was blandly unremarkable, as was the venison, even with outlandish accompaniments like a quince-beet strudel and an odd coffee-cocoa sauce. The best of these experiments was the squab, which was served atop a brownish porcini-mushroom cake. “It looks like a cowpat,” said the decorous Englishman who ordered it, “but it tastes good.”
The desserts, by pastry chef Jehangir Mehta, are a hodgepodge of commendable old favorites (shelled chocolate cake, hazelnut soufflé) and ambitious, fusion-inspired disasters. The first was a souplike mixture of chocolate, Bailey’s Irish crème, and Yuzu foam, of all things. It might have worked in a smaller dose, but served in a spaghetti bowl, it tasted like a bottle of cough syrup poured over a chocolate malt. Then came a slippery tapioca tart, flavored with caramel – a sliver of mango pulled away to reveal pearls of voguish Asian tapioca inside, the sight of which one squeamish friend compared to a batch of frog embryos. This froggy gooeyness didn’t quite mesh with the flaky crust, and the caramel seemed more salty than sweet. The pastry tasted like a dissertation on the perils of overly fashionable cooking, which is as good an epithet as any for the food at Virot.
Virot, 52 East 41st Street (646-658-0266). Lunch, Monday through Friday noon to 3 p.m.; dinner, Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday till 11:30. Prix fixe $49. A.E., D.C., M.C., V.