“Where did they get the name Della Femina?” asked one of my companions. “Doesn’t that mean ‘Of the woman’? Is this place trying to be like Le Madri?”
It was obvious that my friend, a painter, is not one of those who either pass their summers in the Hamptons or spend much time in front of the television, since she had got this far in life without ever having heard of Jerry Della Femina. At that moment, the man who brought you the Ziploc talking fingers, the Meow Mix singing cats and Joe Isuzu, swept by our table, goatee bristling, his frame encased in a well-cut gray-beige summer suit, his distinctive head gleaming like a well-polished wooden doorknob. He looked preoccupied. Not only was his restaurant, now almost two months old, completely full, there was a large dinner party going on in a room at the back and it was exceedingly noisy.
Too noisy for us. My guests, who live downtown, were looking a bit dazed after trying to find a cab on Broome Street, which was filled with the noise of jackhammers. On Prince Street, a Con Ed electric generator (or something) had blown up, plunging our block into darkness, and when we left, two hook and ladder trucks were pouring water into the gaping hole. Now the four of us, instead of relaxing, had to shout across the table to be heard.
“How about a bottle of Sancerre?” my husband asked John, our waiter. The latter hesitated.
“I think the ladies will like this,” he said, pointing to a Louis Latour Montagny. The ladies nodded enthusiastically. The wine turned out to be very good, at $38 one of the more modest choices on the list of mostly French and California vintages. The gentlemen liked it, too, although they reserved their highest praise for the Najola-Spencer zinfandel that we had with our main course.
On our way uptown I had been appalled to notice that my husband was not wearing socks. But when we got to the restaurant, many of the customers were not even wearing pants. They were in sandals and shorts, as if they’d just arrived on the Jitney. It’s no coincidence though that Della Femina feels like a restaurant near the beach, since its eponymous owner has another place just like it in East Hampton, designed by the same architect, Frank Greenwald.
When you walk into the restaurant, a beautiful Eurasian-looking hostess greets you at the door and shows you down a few steps into a lounge that has a large mahogany and oak bar hung with Sardi’s-style cartoons of various characters (including Mr. Della Femina’s wife, TV newscaster Judy Licht). It leads into an airy, beige-carpeted dining room with pale walls, palm fronds, a ceiling made from dark strips of wood, and wall sconces that look as though they have been fashioned from sheaves of reeds. At one side are white painted windows that suggest the view beyond their filmy white curtains should be the ocean instead of a wall. On the other side is a rustic breakpoint, filled with Italian pottery.
Executive chef Kevin Penner, who ran the East Hampton branch, is now producing the same sort of boldly seasoned American food–mostly fish–on East 54th Street. His dishes are well thought out and interesting with a clarity of flavors that makes them exciting. He knows just how far to go and when to stop.
He also knows how to get the best out of a summer truffle. His risotto is made with perfect, creamy al dente grains tossed with asparagus, morels, black truffles and truffle oil. You could smell it from across the table. A special of the day, a thick veal chop with layered potatoes, summer truffles and cheese was also wonderful. The roast langoustines were a masterpiece–and not just because they were loaded with truffles. The balance of textures and flavors–porcini, fava beans, shaved potatoes, the moist subtle sweetness of the langoustines–was brought out by the intense lobster and truffle sauce, which had a hint of cognac.
A refreshing first course consisted of pieces of lobster in a small salad with mango, avocado and Sevruga caviar surrounded by dark green dots of basil vinaigrette. Also good was the large juicy diver scallop that had been seared and was served on diced beets with beet oil, balanced with a bright citrus-ginger vinaigrette. Tomato soup, with avocado, basil and lemon, was nicely spicy. I loved Mr. Penner’s witty riff on fish sticks, which he made from Dover sole and served with a rémoulade sauce with caviar (so much nicer than tartar sauce in a little packet). He clearly loves cooking fish. Wild striped bass was marvelous, a thick snowy piece topped with a confit of plum tomatoes and served with a crisp potato onion cake and a sauce made with roasted garlic and scented with thyme. Roast turbot was also good, the delicate taste of the fish emphasized by a buttery veal jus and perfectly matched with peas, morels and tarragon (a nostalgic taste of spring).
For trenchermen, there was “cowboy” steak.
“I haven’t had that since I was in New Mexico, where it was half the size of the table,” said my friend’s husband enthusiastically. “For New York, it sounds pretty ambitious.” He went on to add that he and his wife were vegetarians–at home at least–where the reproving eye of their teenage children discouraged the consumption of meat. “Tonight, I’m having steak!”
The cowboy steak–actually a grilled rib eye on the bone–was not half the size of the table, but it was immense enough for him to take half of it home in a doggie bag. The steak was nicely charred, with good beefy taste, and a fine red wine shallot sauce. I don’t think grilled asparagus was the best choice of vegetable with it (red wine and asparagus aren’t great together) and the mashed potatoes with Roquefort were so-so. Grilled saddle of rabbit, cut off the bone in thin tender strips, was served with a quivering sweet corn custard and a ragout of bok choy that could have done with a little less bacon.
Apart from the gooey molten chocolate cake, desserts were not up to the rest of the meal. Financier with figs and chamomile ice cream was perfectly pleasant but tarte tatin with peaches was soggy. At the end of dinner, the waiter brought over some very good madeleine-like pastries topped with almonds.
All this, and we didn’t have to spend one minute on the L.I.E.
* * 1/2
131 East 54th Street, between Park and Lexington
Noise level: High
Wine list: Interesting, fairly high priced
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Lunch main courses $12 to $24; dinner $26 to $42
Lunch: Monday to Friday noon to 2:30 P.M. Dinner: Monday to Saturday 6 P.M. to 11 P.M. Closed Sunday
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor