The elevator, which was packed, shook like an old Russian Fiat as it hurtled to the 107th floor. Thoroughly shaken myself by the time the doors finally opened, I stepped off to face a glowing blue glass wall. There was a long desk in front of it and a blond receptionist who was dressed in a blue and pink striped suit that looked like a bee costume. She greeted
us with the manner of a bouncer in a Soviet discotheque. “Bar and lounge on left,” she barked in a thick Russian accent.
We were not in a disco in some old missile silo in Moscow, however, but on top of the World Trade Center. Our other fellow passengers, most of them foreigners, headed for the Greatest Bar on Earth. We turned right instead and walked up a ramp to Wild Blue, the restaurant that now occupies the space that was formerly Cellar in the Sky.
Going up there has always been a somewhat surreal experience. My last visit was years ago for cocktails in the Hors D’Oeuvrerie, a place that had dancing from 5 P.M. to 7 P.M. Louise Nevelson was there on that occasion, flashing long mink eyelashes and skipping around the floor like a teenager with a young man who looked like he was a teenager. A bank of clouds had settled over the building so there was no view at all, just a vision of white, as though we had all gone to heaven.
The view most recently, as I settled into my chair at Wild Blue, was every bit as spectacular as I’d hoped. It had rained earlier in the day and the Statue of Liberty and New York Harbor were clear and glistening under the lights. My friends were already seated at a table by the window. They said they hadn’t been up there since the 70’s, the days when Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception was required reading. “It was the last time we took mescaline,” said F. “I knew then that our psychedelic career was over. We had gotten to the point where everything was so familiar and tired we decided we had to come to the 107th floor. Everyone was praying in the elevator; but we were praying out loud.”
What makes the World Trade Center is not the building’s architecture, which is hideous, but its view. Larry Bogdanow has redecorated Wild Blue’s strange, clubby dining room (which even has beamed ceilings) in soft mustard and rust colors, with a rose-colored stone floor and fabric-covered walls hung with etchings that look like bad illustrations for a Bobby Flay cookbook–or a hotel lobby in Albuquerque. As you eat there looking out across the world, you feel as though you’re dining in a first-class cabin that’s been lavishly redone to make it feel less like that of an airplane. Fortunately, there is nothing of the airline in the food.
With so many tourists coming, it was a good idea to focus on regional American cooking, which is what Michael Lomonaco, chef and director of Windows on the World and Wild Blue, has done. Formerly a chef at the “21” Club, he is known for his gutsy interpretations of American dishes. He is also an avid supporter of the city’s greenmarkets. While the previous restaurant served fancy cuisine to go with its wine collection, the food here is now more steakhouse in style–roasted, grilled and rotisserie-cooked–straightforward and informal, but with bold flavors. The wine list is still impressive (1,500 bottles, put together from the Windows cellar), and there are 47 wines by the glass. One of my favorites is Albariño, an unusual Spanish white wine with an oaky taste, but more structured than chardonnay.
You can begin dinner with a selection of heirloom tomatoes from the greenmarket in different varieties and colors from green to deep red, piled on the plate and perked up with a little Maytag Blue cheese (the dish could have done with more cheese, actually). A lovely salad of wild mushrooms is tossed in a truffle vinaigrette with baby Hudson Valley greens.
The first course arrives disconcertingly fast, but no matter, for the fried oysters in a buttermilk butter are light, crisp and briny, with a salsa of avocado and bacon topped with more of those tiny greens. Duck foie gras terrine is made with rich chunks of liver (“like meat butter,” said one of my companions) and paired with an onion confit. The giant sea scallops are wonderful, sautéed with lemon brown butter and capers and topped with fried parsley.
During dinner the background music, although unobtrusive, seemed to become increasingly hectic. At one point, it turned Middle Eastern. “It’s a little like tripping,” said F., who was making her way through a plate of roasted blue prawns with mango-chile salsa.
“A flashback!” replied her husband.
There are specials of the day such as double rib eye (for two), roast lamb and squab. This night was roast suckling pig, in pale tender slices with crisp crackling. I was disappointed with the lamb T-bone chops, which were a bit dull and were served with a mountain of onion rings that didn’t really go with them. Honey-roasted magret duck steak was rather chewy and also on the dull side. In contrast, two seafood dishes, which were more elaborate in concept, were much more interesting. Pan-roasted wild striped bass came topped with cockles in their shells and flavored with fresh oregano and smoked bacon. The lobster was sweet and tender, served out of the shell in a delicate warm tarragon vinaigrette that was more like a broth, with leeks and fava beans.
“The vegetables, I warn you, come in large, family-style portions,” said our waiter when we expressed an interest in several side dishes–roasted beets seasoned with mustard and honey, a casserole of thin asparagus spears topped with sizzling crumb crust and underseasoned fried okra. He wasn’t kidding.
Pastry chef Morgan Larsson’s building-block desserts include a luscious frozen nougat cut in the shape of twin towers and laced with pistachio and praline chunks. A curling orange pepper tuile decorates the space in between. A heaped-up strawberry napoleon with coconut crème brûlée and muscat ice cream stands in a jade green circle of Thai basil sauce. The chocolate cake is ordinary, but it’s worth ordering for the banana passion-fruit sorbet that comes with it. And the mango sundae with coconut ice cream and chile macadamia brittle set off all my fillings, but it’s great.
After dinner, I left down the ramp, past the Russian bee at the reception desk and the Greatest Bar on Earth, which was going full blast with pounding disco music and dozens of young Japanese, German and Spanish tourists. In the bathroom, the scene was like a high school prom, with women slumped in the corner clutching ice buckets.
When we were finally disgorged into the white marble lobby downstairs, after another character-building trip in the elevator, I realized I had left my umbrella 107 floors up in Wild Blue.
1 World Trade Center, West Street, 107th floor
Dress: No sneakers or blue jeans
Noise level: Low
Wine list: Extensive and reasonably priced
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Main courses $18 to $28
Dinner: Monday to Saturday 5:30 P.M. to 10 P.M.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor