A few years ago, a friend of mine who owns restaurants told me that if he wanted to sell a dish he only had to use adjectives like “green” or “organic.” These days, I would add the phrase “wood-roasted.”
Especially at Beacon, a new midtown restaurant that specializes in open-fire cooking. What they serve is a far cry from heated-up cans of beans or marshmallows toasted on the end of a stick. Anything from pork chops to peaches is cooked on the fire and it all sounds irresistible. Dinner kicks off with a platter of wood-roasted oysters, if you like; lunch with a bowl of wood- roasted tomato soup, followed by a wood-roasted lamb sandwich.
The audience for this simple fare is made up not of ranchers or Cub Scouts, but businessmen. Perhaps that’s why the banquettes in the dining rooms are covered with a black and white pinstripe fabric that makes men in pinstripes disappear like camouflaged salamanders, while women in bright colors stick out like tropical birds. The waiters are dressed in chef’s whites, which can be a trifle disconcerting.
“What are your favorite dishes?” I asked ours when he handed us the menus.
“The trout and the angel food cake.”
Trout sounded right. (I had visions of fly fishermen in waders staggering out of the river and tossing the fish, still flipping, into the frying pan.) But as for the angel food cake, somehow, I wasn’t convinced. It was the sort of dessert waiters like to suggest to female customers, akin to their general assumption that if you are a woman you only drink chardonnay.
We were sitting on the lower level of the restaurant, down a flight of stairs at the back, where we had a view of the actual chefs toiling over the flames. I had thought the central dining room with its large bar and lofty, two-story ceiling would be the best place to sit, but each of the dining rooms in this restaurant, which is on three levels, is equally pleasant and comfortable. The décor is sleek and minimal: white walls, polished cherry wood, framed mirrors and circular banquettes. “I love it,” said a friend, sinking down into a pinstripe banquette another evening after the hostess, instead of seating us near the kitchen, led us upstairs–which I had feared was Siberia. “It’s part Frank Lloyd Wright, part Japanese, part après-ski.”
The chef, Waldy Malouf, was formerly at the Rainbow Room and before that at the Hudson River Club. He has a real feel for American cooking and enormous knowledge of local ingredients (he is the author of The Hudson Valley Cookbook , an intriguing selection of recipes using raw materials from the region). Creating a restaurant that serves this kind of pure, simple food is a terrific idea and he pulls it off. (Much better than the couple of cooks upstate who once invited me to sample their hearth cooking in their Spartan 17th-century house, an evening that involved trying to mask my infuriation as we sat on stiff wooden chairs from 6 in the evening until midnight while they fiddled about making Shaker spoon bread and stuffed chicken in cast-iron pots over a smoldering fire).
The bread here, which is made on the premises, is wonderful. A selection flavored with black olive, sage, onion and sourdough, is placed by the busboy into a basket with a strange but appealing copper net.
The soups are interesting. Roasting intensified the flavor of the yellow tomatoes and added a smoky tang. A curious-sounding concoction of egg garlic broth with slices of sourdough toast turned out to be the open hearth’s answer to egg drop soup and very good it was, too. Lobster soup was rich and complex–and had no cream.
Roasted oysters were a little small and could have been plumper but they tasted good, served in their shells on a bed of shallots cooked in butter with white wine, celery and mushrooms. I also liked the wood-roasted asparagus and artichokes, garnished with little turnovers, and the “crisp Hudson Valley vegetables and potatoes,” which turned out to be french fries and fried zucchini served with a smoky ketchup. We ate the lot.
Mr. Malouf’s food has clean, clear flavors. The seafood salad made with grilled squid and baby octopus is topped with herbs in a lemon vinaigrette that balances the lightly charred taste of the seafood. The trout our waiter recommended was a little dry and was topped with a good, strong pesto made with ground chervil, cilantro, parsley and shallots with pan juices and verjus. (Someone told me recently they use lasers on trout farms to get out the tiny bones, which I found interesting.)
The open-face grilled sirloin steak sandwich with horseradish and crisp onion rings was charred and juicy. The lamb chop was outstanding. It had been rubbed with cumin and puréed picholine olives and then grilled with Niçoise black olives and pieces of lemon. Long Island duck, with grilled scallions and oranges, had been marinated and roasted on a spit, moist and tender under a skin that was as crisp as that of a Chinatown Peking duck.
Often when you order roast suckling pig it’s a disappointment, fatty and bland, with crackling like leather. But Mr. Malouf’s version, coated with a bitter chocolate rub (which you would be hard pressed to identify had you not read the description on the menu) is sweet and juicy, served with grilled apples and thin strips of deep-fried crackling that had a real snap.
When you sit down, the waiter asks if you would like a soufflé for dessert, a request I seldom turn down. Both the chocolate with chocolate chip and the mixed berry soufflés were delicious. There was also a honey-lemon custard topped with what looked like a light Jell-O, a clear pink sauce that turned out to be surprisingly subtle, made with moscato and blood oranges.
Our waiter was so charming that we succumbed on the issue of the angel food cake, mainly because my companions thought it would be somehow dietetic.
A huge portion arrived. It was a chocolate angel food cake, cut in half and filled with berries and whipped mascarpone.
“I’m only going to have a taste,” said one of my friends, digging in her fork.
The waiter stopped by after a few minutes had elapsed. “I guess you didn’t like your dessert,” he said looking at the plate. It was empty.
“We wanted to make it disappear so we wouldn’t have to look at it.”
He gave her a look that indicated that even though Beacon has only been open for a few weeks, he had already heard this a hundred times before.
25 West 56th Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues
Noise level: Fine
Wine list: Predictable and reasonably priced
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Main courses lunch $12 to $24, dinner $19 to $29
Lunch: Monday to Friday noon to 2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Monday to Saturday 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor