Above (from left): Christina Aliberti, Daniel Boulud and Jean-François Bruel of DB.
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When you consider that so many of America's best restaurants are in hotels -- The Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, Masa's in San Francisco, Seasons in Chicago and Picasso in Las Vegas, to name a few -- it's odd how the onus of being a "hotel dining room" persists. One secret to being a successful hotel dining room is to avoid looking like one.
In the past year, several savvy New York hoteliers have managed the deception quite well, seducing celebrated chefs to move in -- while keeping separate beds, seemingly for appearances' sake. (Not surprisingly, press releases for these new restaurants discreetly fail to mention their relationships to the hotels.)
In SoHo, 60 Thompson Hotel imported Miami spice-meister Jonathan Eismann to Thom. The Muse hotel brought in Sam DeMarco from downtown's hip East Village to open District in Midtown. West 44th Street hotels have blossomed with fresh talent -- Steven Zobel at Triomphe in The Iroquois, Claude Troisgros at 44 restaurant in the Royalton, and Daniel Boulud at DB Bistro Moderne in the City Club Hotel. Boulud's place is especially good, as is Ilo, in the Bryant Park Hotel, and Town, located in the Chamber Hotel on West 56th.
In the case of DB, it's amazing what clout two little initials can carry. Boulud is, of course, maestro of namesake restaurants Daniel and Café Boulud (both in Upper East Side hotels), and with this bistro, he brings his luster to the Theater District. It certainly is "modern," but it is as much a traditional French bistro as a Mercedes-Benz S600 is a family car. There are no red banquettes or any of the other familiar trappings that you find at New York's Balthazar and Paris' Benoit.
You push through a glass door into a café set with low, leather chairs and fiery, flowery artwork, onward past a wire-rack wine wall, and up a couple of steps to a convivial hostess who seats you in a dining room where tables barely allow space for waiters to slip by. The service staff is well-trained, and handles even the pre-theater crush with grace. The piped-in music, however, is a bit invasive in this crowded environment.
Boulud's menu, executed by chef de cuisine Jean-Francois Bruel, is broken out by ingredients -- "asperges," "homard," "saumon," for instance. Bistro high-points include a fine, ruddy lobster bisque with a tarragon flan, a delicious, juicy fricassée persillade of snails and wild mushrooms, and an old-fashioned boeuf en gelée with a side of foie gras and horseradish cream. The plats du jour are pure French comfort food done with panache: breast of pork with truffled lentils, confit of duck with garlicky potatoes, roast perch with chanterelles and bouillabaisse. There are happy turns on old favorites; for instance, the Italian classic vitello tonnato (veal with tuna sauce) is transformed into tuna tartare with crispy sweetbreads.
And then there's the DB burger -- a $28 billiard ball of beef filled with braised short ribs, foie gras and truffles in a red wine sauce and set upon a parmesan roll. It's a tour de force that, to my mind, misses the whole point of a good burger: simple perfection. This soft-core version -- more a variant of tournedos Rossini than a burger -- is so rich it requires the digestive stamina of a New York Jets linebacker. Still, like the classic burger at '21' Club, DB's is a best-selling item.
Desserts are all very good. It's nearly impossible to choose between a mille-feuille of figs and ricotta and a chocolate praline cake. The predominantly French wine list pairs very well with the food at DB, with the most interesting selections coming from the Rhône, including Alain Voge Cornas Cuvée Vieilles Vignes '98 ($97). But the interesting bottles are not limited to that region -- the list also offers Kunin Stoplman Vineyard '00 ($69), a Viognier from the Santa Ynez Valley. There is also a category called "Wines From My Homeland," with well-priced bottlings such as Domaine de la Roche Brouilly St.-Martin Jean-Jacques Béréziat '00 at $31 and Eric Texier Cassis Blanc '00 at $45. They have good, thin wineglasses at DB, but you have to ask for them.
Across from the New York Public Library, Rick Laakkonen's restaurant has a vitality that goes well with its name, Ilo, a Finnish word for "happy well-being." From the moment you enter this large, open space in the Bryant Park Hotel, you experience a sense of civilized calm.
The decor is reminiscent of an elegantly appointed first-class airport lounge, circa 1962 -- three tiers of tiled columns, big roomy booths and a great long bar. Ilo is buoyed by one of the best-trained, most knowledgeable front-of-the-house staffs in New York, and boasts two sommeliers -- Kim Anderson and Rebecca Foster. With more than 225 labels, their selections will stir discussion among even erudite enophiles -- Antichi Vigneti di Cantalupo Ghemme '90 ($66), Prince Florent de Mèrode Corton-Bressandes '98 ($87), Kumeu River Chardonnay '99 ($55), Ben Rye Pantelleria Donnafugata '99 ($65 per half-bottle) and seven different Vega Sicilias. Seventeen wines are available "by the measure" -- a generous one-third of a bottle.
Laakkonen, a former star of the River Café in Brooklyn, N.Y., demonstrates exquisite finesse in his signature "Tidal Pool" of Olympia oysters, barnacles, sea urchin, wakame and wild mushrooms in broth. His seven-course "For Beef Lovers Only" menu includes roast marrow bone with tomato and thyme, honeycomb tripe with black chickpeas and Sherry sauce, and braised stuffed flank steak with pickled green onions. Expect the unexpected: Filet of pork, charred on the outside but perfectly pink and juicy within, is served with roast endive, bacon and tamarind reduction. Silky black cod comes arrayed with starches -- saffron Yukon potatoes, sunchokes and lima beans -- and a saline side of truffled finnan haddie.
Ilo has an excellent cheese service, and pastry chef Patrick Coston follows through with irresistible sweets. His fabulous tasting of eight citrus desserts on one plate, including a warm orange cake and a blood orange granité, is the highlight.
A short walk to the north is Town. It is in the bosom of the Chambers Hotel, down a dramatic flight of stairs off the lobby. The windowless dining room, designed by David Rockwell, feels remarkably open with its high ceilings, curved wooden walls, and long strings of crystal beads hung like draperies. At lunch, making the journey downstairs is rather wondrous, since the room runs at a civilized decibel-level at that time of day -- the lovely clink of glasses and silverware, the patter of conversation. But after 6 p.m. the bar and balcony lounge above are jammed with Sex and the City wannabes, and the noise of their partying, together with the incessant boom-ba-da-boom of the sound system, can wreak havoc on a genteel evening below.
Fortunately, thanks to chef Geoffrey Zakarian (formerly of Patroon and 44 restaurant), you'll eat splendidly at either time of day. Zakarian is not interested in wowing you, he just wants to feed you very well. His grilled salmon needs nothing more than a crush of cucumbers and dates. The fattest soft-shell crabs of the season will be married to a tomato vinaigrette in a simple ceremony. In the evening, things get a bit richer, like beautifully cooked, impeccably seasoned duck breast served with an artichoke-and-lemon confit. Skate is lightly sautéed and paired with shinshu apples and lovely pistachio salad, and roast chicken comes with a leek and squash ravioli and gossamer, bacony "lard paysanne." For dessert, go with the perfect nougatine tart or the chocolate beignets with frozen café brélot -- either could start a fight at any table.
The wine list, selected by Steve Dowd, is rich in every category and intelligently titled by style. Wines under the "light/ zesty/pucker up" heading include plenty of good buys less than $45, such as Blockheadia Ringnosii Sauvignon Blanc '99 ($40). "Floral/curious/lively" describes offerings like Charles Schleret Muscat d'Alsace '99 ($37). Big, bold, unusual wines such as Grosset Meritage Clare Valley '97 ($70), Gustavo Thrace Zinfandel '98 ($52) and Long Meadow Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon '97 ($145) are listed under "tropical/exotic/adventurous." There are 18 half-bottles and a substantial page of "sweet/concentrated/ viscous" bottlings, such as Kracher Beerenauslese Cuvée '99 ($40 for a half-bottle), while Domaine de la Rectorie Banyuls Cuvée Léon Parcé 1996 ($12 per glass) is one of 10 wines available by the glass.
None of these new restaurants is formal -- no crystal chandeliers, no Villeroy & Boch china, no tuxedo-clad waiters. Instead they are as representative of the new, more casual sophistication as any in America -- places with the kind of buzz and first-rate modern cooking that make going downstairs to dine one of the unexpected pleasures of staying at a New York hotel.
John and Galina Mariani's new book is The Italian-American Cookbook (Harvard Common Press).
DB Bistro Moderne
455 W. 44th St.
Open Lunch, Monday to Saturday; dinner, Tuesday to Sunday
Credit Cards All major
40 W. 40th St.
Telephone (212) 642-2255
Open Breakfast, daily; lunch Monday to Friday; dinner, daily
Cost Expensive; fixed price menu, 3 courses, $38; 8 courses, $110
Credit Cards All major
15 W. 56th St.
Telephone (212) 582-4445
Open Breakfast, lunch and dinner, daily
Credit Cards All major