At Murray Hill’s Coach House, Forgione’s Hommage to Beard

Recently, I ate in what was formerly the Coach House in Greenwich Village, now an Italian restaurant called Babbo. The next week, I went to the new Coach House, which has opened in Murray Hill. I wondered, as I looked around the room, if the venerable name signified anything at all to the people having dinner there. The original restaurant, with its red brick walls and 19th-century English oil paintings, still inspires misty recollections among those who frequented it in its heyday (two, maybe three decades ago), when it was considered one of the city’s best. Its most well-known patron was James Beard, who came for the famous black bean soup, corn sticks, rack of lamb and mocha dacquoise–all of which are on the menu of the new Coach House.

The old restaurant was in a real coach house, and it even possessed a hayloft. The new one is in a nondescript hotel and has one of the ugliest dining rooms I have ever sat in. Red brick walls were obviously out of the question, so they settled instead for dark wood men’s club paneling, along with fake coach lanterns, smoked glass mirrors and large framed sepia photographs of old New York. The carpet is patterned, the chairs are patterned, the banquettes are patterned. It’s like eating in the lobby of a French provincial hotel (the kind where the rooms have beds an inch away from the cupboard door).

When we arrived, we were shown to a table in the center of the long, narrow room beneath a chandelier and a bright circle of lights. It felt like an operating theater. When we asked if the lights could be dimmed, the hostess–who was in fact extremely friendly and accommodating–said they could not because we were in a hotel. “We have to keep the lights bright in case of fire.”

She moved us to a table where the glare was slightly less aggressive.

“Well, at least it’s quiet,” said one of my companions.

The Coach House is owned by Beard’s protégé Larry Forgione, also a tireless champion of American food, who owns two other restaurants in Manhattan, An American Place and Rosehill, and the Beekman Arms in Rhinebeck, N.Y. I have always liked his interpretation of classic American cooking, with big, bold flavors and interesting multicultural twists. His dishes aren’t merely clever. He turns out food you want to eat.

Like the big bowl of homemade potato chips that is brought when you sit down, along with a heap of warm spiced almonds. We kept pushing them around the table so as not to finish the lot before dinner. After we had tucked into the wonderful Parker House rolls (named after the distinguished Boston hotel that opened in 1856 where Emerson, Longfellow and Hawthorne used to dine) and the crunchy corn sticks, their sweet, soft insides flecked with herbs, the waiter set down some small coffee cups before us. This was what is called, for want of a better expression, an amuse-bouche (or amuse-gueule , depending on how far your little finger can be crooked), sent gratis from the kitchen. It was a treat: an intense, deep beef consommé with diced vegetables, which we sipped with cheese biscuits laced with ham and scallions.

“That was great,” I said, putting down my spoon and wiping away the last crumbs of biscuit. “I’m done.”

But we were just getting started.

American food today is nothing if not melting-pot cuisine, so the lobster cocktail at the new Coach House comes flavored with lemongrass, served in a martini glass with the sake poured over from a cocktail shaker. It’s both fun and delicious. So are the potato knishes–not the greasy, leaden things you often come across in New York, but crisp and light, served with house-smoked salmon, osetra caviar and lemon clabber cream.

“Pulled pot-roasted buffalo” (quite an image) is a rich beefy stew, served with airy little dumplings filled with stewed white beans. I liked this dish much better than a special of the day, a lobster-filled giant raviolo. It looked like a frilly nightcap and was set on a bed of wild mushrooms with a powerful aroma that overwhelmed the lobster so that you couldn’t taste it at all.

The same dishes tend to show up in Mr. Forgione’s various restaurants, one of them being fried Ipswich clams, which were crisp and juicy, and served with tartar sauce. Tuna tartare (well, what restaurant doesn’t serve tuna tartare these days?) was also good, with toasted sesame crisps adding a nice contrast of texture.

Mr. Forgione and his chef de cuisine David Roberts cultivate the best purveyors, and nowhere is this more evident than in the quality of the seafood and meat at the former’s restaurants. For a main course, pristine tuna is served in rare chunks with beet oil and beets on a crunchy potato cake with grilled Vidalia onions. A special of wonderfully fresh sea scallops arrives on a bed of noodles, in a rather murky sauce with crisp spears of baby broccoli and asparagus.

There are nice touches on the plates, like the little skewers of vegetables seasoned with soy that accompanied the Long Island duck, which had a well-done leg, a rather tough breast and a crunchy risotto cake scented with herbs. Lovely, sticky hash browns came with the roast rack of Shenandoah Valley lamb–three rare double chops–with ratatouille. The juicy veal chop held center stage, of course, but had a lively backup of roast garlic, smashed potatoes, chanterelles, bacon and spinach. This is not mincing food.

The service is knowledgeable and efficient, even if the hostess, who took our order, said “excellent!” every time she approved of our choices. She was good on the wines, too–which come from an almost exclusively American list and are served in glasses that can easily accommodate more than half a bottle at a time. At the time of writing, the price of dinner was high–$59 prix fixe for three courses–but that has been changed to an à la carte fall menu, with prices for main courses ranging from $25 to $32.

No one loved dessert more than the late James Beard. “A gourmet who thinks of calories is like a tart who looks at her watch,” he once said, a remark that probably would not pass without comment were he to utter it today. I was disappointed in the summer pudding, which was terrible, pallid and wet, and the lackluster banana brown betty, with its desultory layer of gingersnap topping. But there are two great desserts on the menu. “Jim’s fresh berry shortcake” (Mr. Beard to us) is a masterpiece that has now become a Forgione signature. So is the Coach House mocha dacquoise with chocolate sauce. Was it really as good as this at the old Coach House?

The Coach House

* *

16 East 32nd Street

696-1800

Dress: Business

Noise level: Low

Wine list: American and interesting, reasonably priced

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Main courses $18 to $24, dinner $25 to $32

Lunch: Monday to Friday 11:30 A.M. to 3 P.M.

Dinner: Monday to Saturday 5:30 to 10 P.M.

Supper: Sunday 3 to 8 P.M.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor