The dining room in a private club feels very different from that of a restaurant, even when it’s open to the public. At night, India House, which is not some relic of British colonialism but a club for businessmen located just south of Wall Street, springs into life as it opens its grand landmark doors to people like me. On a recent evening, some guests and I were admitted up the sweeping double mahogany staircase, past the dignified portraits of men at the pinnacles of their careers, past the swirling maritime paintings, past the ships under full sail in bottles (how do they get them in?), past the figurehead from the Glory of the Seas , to the dining room on the second floor.
“Where are we?” asked one of my guests, an artist who used to live in the neighborhood. “Plymouth? Boston? The Old South?”
We were shown to a round table for six that was set for four, so we asked for a smaller one that happened to be by the windows looking over Hanover Square. Once the center of commerce–since it was near the ship docks–the square is now deserted except for rows of parked limousines, their chauffeurs snoozing at the wheel. My artist friend, who had lived just a few blocks away on Fulton Street, looked bemused.
“When I lived down here I looked out on dumpsters, not limos,” he said. “Do you remember the night the dumpster outside my building caught on fire?”
Despite the more intimate scale of our table, the pretty soft silk curtains and the flickering candles, we felt a little stiff, as though we had been invited to a formal dinner in the house of someone we didn’t know.
And what a house it is. Bayard’s is named after merchant Nicholas Bayard, the owner of the previous house on the site, which blew up in 1835 when a gas pipe exploded and destroyed 600 buildings in the area. In 1851, the Hanover Bank built on the site a three-story brownstone, which became a gentlemen-only club called India House in 1914.
Last year, Peter Poulakakos took over the lease. His father, Harry Poulakakos, has owned the nearby Harry’s at Hanover Square, a clubby, basement-level, beef-and-martinis restaurant, for nearly three decades. The family has done an impressive job of restoration at Bayard’s. On the ground floor there is a lounge with mirrored mahogany bar curved like the body of a ship, and a cafe; the dining room is on the second floor; on the third floor are banquet rooms complete with fireplaces, including one painted sea-green with nautical rope molding and Victorian chandeliers decorated with silver seashells.
Tonight the dining room was busy. A group of eight young Wall Street guys, all wearing blue shirts, were having a jocular dinner at a long table, their jackets slung over the backs of their chairs, even though the room was rather chilly.
“Why do they always take off their jackets?” I wondered out loud.
“To show the bull’s out of the pen.”
As we looked at the menu, our waitress brought out an offering from the kitchen, a disk of asparagus mousse topped with crab. We could happily have eaten two.
The food at Bayard’s is sophisticated and complex with a presentation to match the setting, complete with silver domes over the plates, removed with a flourish at the count of three, and a sorbet between courses to cleanse the old palate. Chef Luc Dendievel, who is from Belgium, was the chef at Waterloo and before that Le Zoo; previously he worked with Alain Senderens at Lucas Carton in Paris and Michel Richard of Citronelle in Washington, D.C. A section of the menu is devoted to the ingredient that causes the sap to rise in every chef’s veins: foie gras. When it’s a bull market, get it roasted whole (for the table) and carved before you, served with pineapple, sherry and black peppercorns, for $25 a head. It also comes in a terrine with onion marmalade and currant brioche or sautéed with honey-glazed turnips and wild strawberry vinegar.
On the lighter side, there was a good, thick corn soup laced with lobster and fava beans and an excellent tuna tartare made with sparkling thick-cut chunks of fish with soy and ginger. The feuilleté of morels with white and green asparagus was exceptional, too, made with feather-light pastry.
One of Mr. Dendievel’s signature dishes is slow-poached, warm Atlantic salmon, which he served rare under a creamy fava bean sauce with black trumpet mushrooms and white asparagus and rhubarb, which cut the richness of the fish. The juicy free-range chicken was good too, with creamy soft polenta, morels, roasted beefsteak tomatoes and spinach.
Pan-roasted veal chop had a wonderful smoky flavor, and came with springtime garnishes of chanterelles, artichokes, pea shoots and a purée of fingerling potatoes. Baby rack of lamb was tender and meaty, crusted with mustard, chopped tarragon, basil and parsley.
Dessert included a hot dark chocolate cake, which arrived on what looked like a set for a Martha Graham ballet designed by Noguchi: It floated on a pool of green, decorated with a chocolate lattice shield, and was accompanied by a pistachio sorbet nestled in a tuille. When Bayard’s first opened several months ago, I had a wonderful sticky toffee pudding and a date soufflé, which I hope they bring back next winter.
After dinner, Harry Poulakakos made a round of the dining room, greeting guests and offering them after-dinner drinks. As we were leaving, he showed us around some of the other rooms in the house, which are filled with extraordinary maritime artifacts, Oriental art and more ships in bottles. For those who are still wondering how the latter is achieved, I can reveal the secret, since my father spent many obsessive hours as a boy doing just that. You lay the masts flat, he told me, and tie them with threads. When you’ve got the ship through the neck of the bottle, you simply pull the sails up by the threads. Nothing to it.
1 Hanover Square, near Pearl Street
Wine list: Very good, with interesting wines at low prices
Credit cards:All major
Price range: Dinner main courses $25 to $38
Dinner: Monday to Friday 5:30 P.M. to 10:30 P.M., Saturday to 11 P.M.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor