At lunchtime on a recent Monday, the dining room in Nicole Farhi’s new store at 60th Street and Madison Avenue was full. At the table next to me, a middle-aged couple clad in tasteful gray cashmere sweaters were having lunch with their grown daughter, who was in black. They exchanged few words during the meal, but from time to time the father and the daughter punched the keys of their respective cell phones and placed them back on the table, looking exasperated. On the other side of me on the banquette sat a woman whose ghost-white face and jet black hair could only have belonged to Mary McFadden, who was punching away at her cell phone with increasing irritation.
“It’s the granite,” explained the waiter as he set down a plate of chocolate cake between her and her companion. “Granite walls on both sides you see, so cell phones don’t work.”
Some restaurateurs will go to any lengths to stop the use of cell phones in their dining room.
Nicole’s is in the basement of the 20,000-square-foot store opened by the British designer who formerly worked for French Connection. In the premises that formerly housed the Copacabana nightclub, it was designed by architect Michael Gabellini (who also did the Giorgio Armani and Jil Sander stores and the Guggenheim extension). You enter through glass doors over a glass-edged wooden bridge and look down through a high atrium to the dining room below. You can look across and see clothes hanging on rails on the other side; black, gray and brown enlivened here and there by a splash of lime green or orange. The restaurant is at the foot of a wooden staircase.
From the entrance, I could see into what looked like a lab, but is actually a gleaming kitchen bustling with cooks in pristine whites. It is placed inside a brightly lit glass tube that overlooks the entire dining room. Down a few steps on the right is a wide bar about 30 feet long, lit underneath so that it glows like iridescent marble. People were perched on barstools having drinks and snacks from the afternoon bar menu.
The dining room, with its high ceiling and wood floors, is spacious and minimal, with banquettes down one plain white wall. Pale blue lighting reflected on our faces from below and made one of my friends, whose hair has turned a premature white, look as though he’d had a blue rinse. The effect is disconcerting. (Who would ever want to look at themselves in this light?) Even the candles at night cast a blue glow, placed as they are in little glass holders filled with blue liquid. The banquettes are rather uncomfortable, catching your back in just the wrong place, and the sound bounces up from the floors, making the room quite noisy. But these caveats aside, the space is sleek and impressive–and a far, far cry from the way dining rooms in clothing shops used to be.
The old department store restaurants were the province of women in from the suburbs for the sales, dressed in Peck & Peck suits, who dined on shrimp and pineapple platters washed down with watery coffee served in thick cups. But either the stores have closed or their restaurants have been done over, their chicken salads replaced by grilled fish, foccaccia and risotto.
Ms. Farhi has a highly successful restaurant in her London boutique, and she brought in her head chef Annie Wayte to oversee the new place with Anna Kovel–a protégée of Alice Waters’ at Chez Panisse in Berkeley–as chef. The menu is simple but eclectic, and the kitchen makes lavish use of produce from local producers and farmer’s markets. It is terrific food, starting with the excellent selection of breads: olive bread, country loaf, challah and foccaccia served with a wonderful green, fruity olive oil that is brought to the table when you sit down.
The salads are particularly imaginative and original (and, needless to say, made with the freshest ingredients). Shards of crisp fried prosciutto come with baby leeks and watercress tossed in a sharp mustard dressing. It’s a delicious combination. So is the mizuna salad, spiky pale-green leaves under a perfectly ripened slice of goat cheese with warm toasted almonds and haricots verts. Marinated wild mushrooms are thinly sliced and mixed with frisée and baby greens, sprinkled with shaved Parmesan. The herb-cured wild salmon is as good as I’ve had anywhere, matched with pickled cucumber, sliced Rose Finn Apple potatoes and onion, flavored with mint. Instead of a shrimp and pineapple platter, there is lump crabmeat seasoned with herbs (including lots of dill), piled into a crab shell. It comes with a lemony fresh mayonnaise, marinated zucchini and green beans, and a crunchy flatbread. When I was there for lunch one afternoon, just about everyone seemed to be eating it.
Risotto of the day, made on this occasion with tomato, was a disappointment. The rice was properly cooked but bland and in need of seasoning. But not so the riff on English fish and chips that the kitchen turns out: chunks of snowy, deep-fried monkfish with fries the size of the columns in a child’s building blocks.
The hanger steak was nicely charred and rare, matched with a creamy potato artichoke gratin, and the grilled veal chop was juicy, with pronounced flavor, served with chanterelles and potato gratin. The roasted duck breast is one of the kitchen’s most inspired dishes: surrounded by a ring of spicy red mustard leaves with roasted onions, figs and bacon, the whole thing brought together with a rich balsamic vinegar sauce.
Desserts were not conceived with the idea of fitting into a size six, or even a size eight. A plate of poached Seckel pears stuffed with mascarpone and biscotti was described, appropriately, by the person who was eating it one evening as “one of the best desserts I ever had in my life.” The caramelized plums in a flaky crust with almond ice cream were also great. Crema Catalana is a smooth, fennel-flavored custard you can’t stop eating, served with delicate hazelnut cookies. The chocolate cake is dark, rich and fluffy. It would be the star dish on some restaurant’s menus, but here it seems almost ordinary compared with the other desserts (it comes with a fine-tasting brittle, too).
Ms. Farhi says she likes casual, easy clothes. But even so, it’s probably better to eat here after you’ve worked up an appetite browsing through the bulky sweaters and leather tank tops in the store, rather than before. And a glass or two of wine (from the expensive list) might lead to blurry impulse purchases on the way out. A lime-green leather tank top! What was I thinking?
10 East 60th Street
Dress: Preferably Nicole Farhi
Noise level: Quite loud
Wine list: Very expensive
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Main courses lunch and dinner $20 to $32
Brunch: Sunday (coming soon)
Lunch: Monday to Saturday noon to 3 P.M., tea 3 P.M. to 5:30 P.M.
Dinner: Monday to Saturday 6 P.M. to 10 P.M.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor