Larry Forgione’s Latest: When It’s Good, It’s Great

Every time I go down to the World Financial Center, I am of two minds. On the one hand, it’s clean and, at first glance, even architecturally impressive; on the other hand, there is something artificial and almost suburban about it. This is New York without the dirt and decay, but also without the character. The place can give you an eerie feeling, too, as it did the other night when my husband and I rode the escalator up to the Grill Room, a new steakhouse on the second floor. As we passed the towering indoor palm trees in the vast marble and glass of the building’s Winter Garden lobby, he told me they had recently been replaced at great expense for the second or third time because, not being giant houseplants, they keep dying.

The Grill Room has moved into the former premises of Le Pactole, a French restaurant where we had gone for dinner several years earlier. Now at the entrance, instead of a table spread with hors d’oeuvres, there was an enormous oval wooden bar packed with stockbrokers, lawyers and accountants drinking martinis and gazing at the party boats bobbing in the marina below. On the bar, which was under an old railway station clock (in perfect time with the red neon Colgate clock across the river), sat a humidor containing cigars, starting at $9.50 each. My husband stared at it wistfully. He used to get the Kremlin’s surplus Cuban cigars from a Russian émigré in Brooklyn for 80 cents each, but after Mikhail Gorbachev departed office, the supply dried up.

It was a clever idea of Larry Forgione’s to open a steakhouse in this part of town, now that the last of the old places like Whyte’s have disappeared. He is also the chef and owner of An American Place and the Beekman 1776 Tavern in upstate Rhinebeck, and if anyone understands straightforward American cooking, it is he. He knows what this audience likes. Miniature vegetables and lemongrass broth infusions are as out of place at the Grill Room as soft pink lighting and discreetly patterned silks. No hot, young, up-to-the-minute restaurant designer has set his hand on this room, with its vaguely masculine wood paneling and forgettable paintings. “It looks like the dining room of an office building-which, I guess, it is,” said my husband, looking around. But all is saved by the view across the Hudson. One night, there was a spectacular thunderstorm over New Jersey, with flashes of lightning and torrential rains that lashed the boats below, one of which had a helicopter parked precariously on its deck and boudoir lamps in the cabins.

My ambivalence about the World Financial Center also, alas, extends to the Grill Room, where I had two totally different experiences. On my first visit, the food was wonderful, beginning with the basket of crumbly, warm biscuits that was set on our table. Mr. Forgione, who has a reputation as a stickler for impeccable ingredients, knows that those are what will make people come back for such golden oldies as lobster cocktail in green goddess dressing, shrimp Louie, Caesar salad and pot roast of short ribs. A simple combination of ripe golden beefsteak tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and meaty leaves of arugula with shavings of air-dried sausage and grilled Vidalia onions could not have been better. The shrimp cocktail, not normally one of my favorite dishes, for once had real taste. I also liked the napoleon of smoked salmon and American sturgeon caviar, prettily layered with lemon cream and crisp potato gaufrettes.

My husband had not been along on my first visit, which had been such a success, so he was as surprised as I was when we realized (according to the Colgate clock across the river) that we had waited nearly an hour for the arrival of our first course, a plate of fried Ipswich clams that seemed to consist almost entirely of cornmeal. Our waiter wandered off, never to be seen again, having forgotten to bring mineral water and a glass of white wine. He was eventually replaced by someone else without a word of explanation. The buzzing disco music on the sound system made us feel we were in a Marriott-as, unfortunately, did our neighbors.

At the next table sat a party of men who had, typically, slung their jackets over the backs of their chairs and were obviously enjoying the benefits of their expense accounts. They exchanged loud, boastful stories about their exploits on the road: “Barry slept in my room that night, remember? You were next door with a girl when your wife called!”

Since this is a steakhouse, the meat is served in Mesozoic portions, and includes dry-aged Cowboy Prime Rib and a shell steak served with barbecued onions. Main courses are served steakhouse style, with vegetables such as creamed spinach, hash browns and Yukon gold mashed potatoes extra (and with steaks around the $30 range, side orders at $6.50 and the expensive American wines, prices here add up fast).

My husband’s shell steak, which he ordered very rare, arrived lukewarm, which was a shame because the meat was good. The grilled mignon of lamb with minted lamb “jus” had been so tender on my first visit that you could cut it with a spoon. That night, a special, wolf fish with wild mushrooms, had been delicious, too, as was the roast cod, perfectly cooked and served with roasted golden beets and summer savory. But the night I was with my husband, I ordered the tuna, served in an interesting sauce of olives and wild leeks, and it was overcooked.

The very American desserts include a creamy cheesecake, old-fashioned chocolate pudding in a glass and raspberry peach pie. As we tucked into a chocolate macadamia pie that tasted like a candy bar, I wondered what had happened to the restaurant since the wonderful meal I had had a month earlier.

“With this crowd,” said my husband looking around the room, “they probably just gave up.”

I doubt that is true. But it is too bad the Grill Room’s food is so erratic. For when it is good, it can be great.

The Grill Room **

2 World Financial Center,

225 Liberty Street, 945-9400

dress: Business

noise level: Fine

wine list: American and expensive

credit cards: All major

price range: Main courses $24 to $34

lunch: Monday to Friday 11:30 A.M. to 4 P.M.

dinner: Monday to Friday 5:30 P.M. to 9 P.M.

* good

** very good

*** excellent

**** outstanding

no star poor