It was a cool evening when I arrived for dinner at Heartbeat in the W New York hotel on Lexington Avenue and 49th Street. Young men and women in dark suits were lolling around on sofas clutching cocktails or reading magazines in front of a large fireplace. It was going full blast, but the fire was gas, reminding me of the line from a John Betjeman poem: “Switch on the logs in the grate, dear …”
We walked through the lobby to the dining room, which has a long zinc-topped bar decorated with a hanging cluster of colored lights shaped like fruit. My friends were waiting there for me, looking bemused. “A nice hotel, but kinda far from the beach,” said one, glancing toward the dining room. It is dominated by columns encased in glittery colored mosaic tile, topped with large flat circles concealing lights underneath. On one wall is a 50′s-style mural of patterns and colors, and across the way is what at first glance appears to be an aquarium but is actually a window with a sheet of water running down it. The décor would be right at home in Miami Beach. In fact, this hotel was formerly a Doral Inn and David Rockwell’s design is a clever takeoff on the 1950′s. I like the dining room; it is pleasant and comfortable; the light is diffused, the tables far apart, and it’s not noisy.
Despite its 50′s look, Heartbeat is not named after a line in a Buddy Holly song. The hotel is dedicated, according to the press release, “to balance and well-being,” and the restaurant serves a sort of spa cuisine–good for your heart and all that. In other words, you are in one of those trendy hotels created along Ian Schrager lines, catering to a younger, hipper clientele than you’d find at, say, the St. Regis or the Carlyle.
Actually, there was an odd mix of customers. At the adjacent table sat three businessmen clearly dedicated to well-being, but not, alas, to balance. They were falling all over themselves to impress a blonde in a white T-shirt whose silicone implants were having an unsettling effect not only on them but on the people at nearby tables.
The wine list makes much of the beneficial properties of wine. Falling in with the program, we ordered a bottle of an organic red, Frog’s Leap Zinfandel, which had “ribbit” written on the cork. It was delicious.
Heartbeat is owned by Drew Nieporent’s Myriad Restaurant Group, and the chef Michel Nischan has put together an extremely interesting menu using reduced stocks and juices, organic fruits and vegetables. Of course, there is tofu on the menu, and I had it for lunch one day, grilled with scallion miso, brown rice and shredded cucumber. (This sounds punishing, but it was very good.) But when the waiter starts his list of specials with “rosewater head-on shrimp, pickled cucumber and sea urchin sauce,” you know you are in for something more. How about a plump, juicy roast quail reclining like a nude by Ingres on bed of hash made with dates and wild mushrooms? Or sea scallops with shrimp tied together with a chive string, seared and served with tamari? The presentations are beautiful. A pristine ceviche of mackerel with lemon and chervil sauce arrived on a translucent rectangular plate that looked like a sheet of ice. Equally lovely was the tuna, served on similar plates, thick red slices arranged on top of thin radish slices and drizzled with a green wasabi yuzu sauce.
I don’t usually like monkfish, but this version was an exception: very fresh, pan-roasted and combined with fingerling potatoes in a spicy shellfish broth. It was a better choice than the casserole of squid, mussels and clams, laced with olives, that I had one day for lunch. The tomato-herb broth was very thin. “Too spa-like,” my companion pronounced it, just after she’d asked the waiter to take away the rolls.
A few minutes later, the chef appeared, an imposing but certainly not rotund figure in whites and clogs.
“Is the food really healthy?” asked two men at a nearby table who had eaten with unstinting appetites.
“Yeah,” he replied. “No butter or cream. It masks the flavor.”
Be that as it may, there is nothing spa-like about the amount of meat on the menu. Of course, we had to have grilled rack of lamb, the chops as pink and juicy as you could wish for, with kumquat chutney, sliced Yukon gold potatoes and delicious grilled Brussels sprouts. An Australian friend found the latter particularly appealing because “the flavor doesn’t stick in your mouth and dominate, the way it usually does with sprouts.”
The rare beef tenderloin was also excellent, with wild mushrooms and baked potato. And the roast chicken is the best I have had in a long time, coated with a pistachio crust and served with a crisp hash brown potato cake filled with onions and tomatoes.
For dessert, a tart made with roasted green apples and ginger would have been better were it not so cold from the refrigerator. I preferred the flourless hazelnut cake and the chocolate mousse dome, which was laced with cherries and almonds and served with cherry sorbet.
“Would you like to see our tea sommelier?” asked the waiter after dinner one evening. I had never heard of a tea sommelier before, let alone clapped eyes upon one, so I replied that I certainly would. He arrived bearing a selection of dried leaves and described each one with the loving, hyperbolic prose normally reserved for wine stewards. I chose chrysanthemum and the waiter enthusiastically poured out what looked to be a nice cup of hot water. But one taste, and I was convinced. It was indeed “light, refreshing and flowery.” And the next morning I felt a lot more balance and well-being than when I’ve wound up dinner with a glass of Beaumes-de-Venise.
W hotel, 149 East 49th Street
Noise level: Fine
Wine list: Well chosen, reasonable
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Main courses lunch $18 to $24, dinner $22 to $32
Breakfast: Monday to Friday 6:30 A.M. to 11 A.M., Saturday and
Sunday 8 A.M. to 11 A.M.
Brunch: Saturday and Sunday 11 A.M. to 2 P.M.
Lunch: Monday to Friday noon to 3 P.M.
Dinner: Monday to Thursday 5:30 P.M. to 10:30 P.M., Friday and
Saturday to 11:30 P.M., Sunday to 9:30 P.M.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor