Bad Food, Lousy Service, High Prices … but Fun

At Harry Cipriani on a recent afternoon I thought, of all things, of the artist Bruce Nauman. I had gone to the opening of the new Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams over the weekend and one of the exhibits had been a plywood room by Mr. Nauman which upsets your balance and sense of space. Cipriani’s restaurants, like Mr. Nauman’s rooms, are out of kilter. The tables are deliberately low, set with chairs that have short little legs. The waiters and the people waiting to be seated look enormous–and, for at least a few seconds, when you stand up, you feel like a basketball player.

From this kindergartner’s vantage point a friend and I sat one afternoon over a glass of the house white wine, which was served (rather aptly) in doll’s-size glasses. As we observed the rich and the louche at play–the parade of bone-thin women, silk cardigans tossed over the shoulders of their flowing chiffon dresses, and men in pinstripe suits–we tried not to devour the delicious croissantlike rolls, crusty sliced bread and grissini that the busboy had put before us.

“What a wonderful smell!” said my friend, pricking up her nostrils. “Is that a cigar?

Behind her with his back to the wall, a man was puffing on a fat corona. With his slicked-back hair, he was dressed in the sort of white shirt housewives hold up proudly in detergent ads and a very well-cut pale green jacket and dark blue silk tie, and he had none of the furtive, beaten-down look of the American smoker. He was thoroughly enjoying himself, oblivious to the fact that on the wall right by his shoulder it said “No Smoking.” After he left, my friend asked the waiter if people were ever required to obey the sign. The waiter laughed. “Not unless they speak English.”

My friend ordered the house salad, a desultory mix of shredded carrots, radicchio, lettuce and frisée, which she didn’t finish. My salad, by contrast, was delicious: a small bowl of diced avocado and shaved raw artichokes in a lemon-and-olive-oil dressing topped with a few shavings of Parmesan. Unfortunately I didn’t finish, either. Before I had a chance, the waiter cleared it away and brought our main courses, which were already waiting on a tray.

“Who’s having the fish?” he asked, holding out a fillet of grouper on a large mound of rice. That was hers: It turned out to be a bit greasy but very fresh, served with capers and lemons and a generous mound of nicely cooked rice. I was having fish, too, tuna tartare. This wasn’t as good: a small patty of diced raw tuna, decorated in a perfunctory fashion with two halves of tomato, a sprig of green and half a slice of lemon. It seemed to have been seasoned with little else but mustard. But, like the grouper, it was priced at an incredible $37.95.

“Do you mind if I order another thimbleful of wine?” asked my companion as we wound up lunch with a shared slice of lemon meringue pie. It was very good, not too sweet, with an airy pillow of meringue on top and a light pastry shell underneath. Then, as the waiter set down a plate of little cookies and some espresso, my friend rolled her eyes at the next table where a young woman sported a flock of pink plastic butterflies that appeared to have just landed in her hair. (Perhaps they had flown from the large shopping bag from Bergdorf’s set by her side.)

Cipriani is a trip. It’s crowded and noisy and you’re pressed together with your knees under your chin; and when the waiter clears the table next to you, he pulls off the extraordinarily fine linen cloth and–what the hell–reveals the beat-up surface underneath for all to see. The cooking, which can be erratic, is basically comfort food for the rich, and the prices are astronomical. But the waiters are charming and the scene is vintage Fellini. You either like being there or you don’t.

I did. And when I returned a few days later for dinner the place was packed, as usual, with a constant stream of people coming and going through the revolving door. They were greeted by the maître d’, who bustled around them like a chief of protocol. I began with a few slices of raw salmon as thin as a $100 bill (and not much larger), with two spears of asparagus lurking underneath. The salmon was superb, silky but not fatty, with real taste. Fresh sardines “en saor,” a Venetian dish in which the fish is pickled in vinegar, were chopped and heaped in a mound: I had never had them this way and they were rather good. So were the vegetables peperonata in a roasted red pepper sauce, and the celery soup. But when you’re forking out 14 bucks for a bowl of soup, I think it should be better than good.

There is no denying that the prices at Cipriani are astounding: $21.95 for the small salad of artichokes and avocado, $47.95 for a sliced veal shank that looks like the daily special from some vestigial Blarney Stone, topped with gravy and accompanied by steamed crinkle-cut carrots and zucchini batons with a standard dollop of mashed potato with grill marks on top.

Whatever its price tag, when the food is not good here it can be pretty awful. Some of the pasta can be first-rate like the tagliolini with ham, with a baked crust and a lovely, creamy interior, but the tagliardi, a wide flat pasta, was served with a veal ragú that was so bland it would not even have passed muster in the nursery. In the past, I’ve loved the shrimp curry Cipriani makes, but the chicken curry I tasted this time was dreary; the sauce was spooned over mushy chunks of chicken that had obviously been cooked separately.

After dinner, the waiter appeared at our table, bearing a couple of large white cakes covered with cream. One was filled with a light, pale zabaglione and surrounded by meringues, the other was a gooey vanilla cream and sponge. Both were very good, and better choices than the so-so mocha cake and watery coconut sorbet.

“In a sense, Harry Cipriani is a brand name like Louis Vuitton,” said one of my friends, gazing idly at the next table where a prematurely gray man in a blue work shirt reached for his constantly ringing cellular phone, apparently doing business on California time (and ignoring the note on the menu that says that the use of cell phones interferes with the preparation of risotto). My friend was right. The people who come here–the older woman toying with a Bellini, showing off her tan with a low-cut white blouse and matching capri pants; the model in a strapless sarong who must have been at least 6 feet tall and left her table halfway through dinner to take her hair down, to the evident delight of her companion–do so not in spite of but partly because of the prices. The price of a dish no doubt is irrelevant to them in monetary terms (they’re rich), but it isn’t irrelevant in terms of their self-image.

Harry Cipriani is hardly the place to come for a nice spaghetti dinner unless you’re a contessa. But like a Vuitton bag or any other superluxury goods, for some people Cipriani is indispensable.

Harry Cipriani

* 1/2

Sherry Netherland Hotel, 59th Street at Fifth Avenue

753-5566

Dress: Expensive

Noise Level: High

Wine list: Expensive, some interesting Italian vintages

Credit Cards: All major

Price range: Lunch and dinner main courses $25 to $48

Breakfast: Daily 7 A.M. to 10:30 A.M.

Lunch: Daily noon to 3 P.M.

Dinner: Daily 6 P.M. to 11 P.M.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor