It was pouring, and two pretty young Brazilian women in furs stepped forward eagerly as we alighted from our cab under the awning of L’Actuel. They jumped in, unaware that the driver, an Indian on his first night on the job, knew Manhattan even less than they did. Only a minute or two earlier, in fact, he had discovered that there was a ramp around Grand Central Terminal. We entered the restaurant, which is in a small midtown hotel called the Kimberly.
L’Actuel means “right now,” and it certainly looks up to the minute, fitting into this neighborhood like the latest Armani dress from Saks just two blocks away. It embraces all the new trends like a compendium of this season’s hits in restaurant design: chrome and orange suede bar stools, silhouetted bottles floating against a backlit bar, bronze mesh netting, orchids, polished tabletops, golden beechwood, Japanese lampshades and a black wooden floor. The smart cocktail lounge in front has low, oval stone tables where “French tapas” and fruits de mer are served. A limestone canopy seems to float in the air over the long bar that has a seafood display on ice near the entrance.
The maître d’ led us past the bar into the main dining room and sat us down at a table by two gigantic wine cabinets covered with bronze mesh. Across the room, above green banquettes, hang giant platinum mirrors inset with little squares and rectangles like Mondrians, only instead of blocks of color, they are panels of light. The room, which seats about 120 people, is pleasant. It doesn’t have a lot of character, but doesn’t feel forced or artificial, either; it’s not noisy, and the lighting is good. A sedate corporate type would not feel challenged in this setting, nor would someone in a day-old beard and nose-rings.
The food is also very much with it, without calling too much attention to itself. Tapas are in. There are “French tapas.” Seafood bars are in. There’s a substantial raw bar. Pizza is in. There’s Alsatian pizza, also known as tarte flambée –and even one with Barry Wine’s topping of tuna and wasabi, just like the kind they serve at Mercer Kitchen. Cheese platters are in. You can get an order of up to eight “home selected and affinated,” or aged, cheeses. And the food is served on amazing plates that, like many of the restaurant’s appointments, could come straight out of Moss Design on Greene Street: curved glass squares, swirling teardrops, jagged edge tiles, deep white bowls, all kinds of fanciful shapes and styles, including shot glasses for tartare and other little dishes to go with cocktails.
Our waiter brought over a whole warmed baguette and set it down with a mortar and pestle filled with olive oil in which a large basil leaf floated. You grind the leaf into the oil and voilà! Basil oil. I’m sure it won’t be long before we see this imitated all over town.
L’Actuel is owned by Christophe Lhopitault, director, and Jean-Yves Schillinger, executive chef, who also own Destinée, a French restaurant on the Upper East Side. But the food at L’Actuel is less complex and less French than Destinée’s. One side of the menu is devoted entirely to dishes that can be ordered in the cocktail lounge and which are priced reasonably. A plateau de fruits de mer for two that includes two half-lobsters, eight oysters, six shrimp and four clams costs $36, and there are half a dozen different kinds of oysters by the piece. There are also sandwiches such as croque Madame, beef pot-au-feu , and steak tartare at prices ranging between $9 and $13.
“French tapas” are new to me, and in fact, they are not much different from Spanish tapas–just put together by a French chef. They include beef carpaccio topped with slivered Parmesan, which is Italian, wonderful charred, grilled and stuffed calamari, and skewers of plump garlicky snails or juicy curried chicken. The potato and mushroom tortilla is a little bland, but the codfish brandade is creamy and delicious. You can also order small portions of salmon tartare, chunks of marinated herring with apple, or scrambled eggs with caviar.
Chef Schillinger comes from Alsace, where his father had a two-star restaurant, so it is hardly surprising that his tarte flambée should be so extraordinary, with a feathery, light crust, brought to the table sizzling, topped with onion and cheese, if you order the classic one. The tarte also comes topped with chorizo and ham, or salmon and mushrooms. I’d go to L’Actuel just for the pizza.
First courses served in the dining room, which has a full menu (including the cocktail-lounge dishes), feature a confit of autumn vegetables–zucchini, tomatoes and yellow squash with feta cheese on a melting pastry crust. A terrine of tart goat cheese and leeks vinaigrette was good, too, arranged in an attractive mosaic and served with mesclun salad. A large, crisp, flat crab cake, pleasantly moist inside, was cut in half and served with guacamole, which seems to be the de rigueur garnish these days.
The choice of main dishes is a little strange (on the meat side the selection was beef goulash, fricassée of veal in a wok, chicken steamed in banana leaf with gnocchi, and roast lamb) and the food could have used more seasoning. Beef goulash arrived in a Moroccan earthenware tajine with a conical lid that the waiter lifted up to reveal a white bowl of the stew set inside. The goulash was tender and nicely peppery, but served with homemade spaetzle that was unfortunately cold. The fillet of roast lamb was perfectly cooked, pink and juicy, served with eggplant moussaka and rather greasy soufflé potatoes puffed up like zeppelins–and also cold.
Roast Chilean sea bass on a bed of salt was juicy and moist, paired with braised endives that complemented the fish ideally. And since there’s no steak on the menu, you can get your fix with a chunk of tuna grilled like an old-fashioned French beefsteak, served rare with béarnaise sauce and fingerling potatoes, along with onion marmalade and mesclun salad.
Desserts were pretty conventional and unassuming. The dark, rich molten chocolate cake with coconut ice cream is on the menu all over town, but I still love it, and the version served at L’Actuel is no exception. A traditional Alsatian apple tart was inspired, thin slices of apple on a fine pastry shell with vanilla ice cream. I also liked the selection of mini crèmes brûlées–vanilla, coffee, basil, thyme, citrus and honey–garnished with half an eggshell filled with custard (to make a point about eggs, I guess) and the creamy cappuccino mousse.
When we went outside after dinner, a taxi drew up right away, disgorging the same two Brazilian women we had seen on our way in. The cab had a different driver, so obviously they hadn’t been blundering around town for the past two or three hours. They smiled and waved as they disappeared into the Kimberly Hotel.
145 East 50th Street
Noise level: Fine
Wine list: Moderately priced, international selection
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Main courses lunch $14 to $24, dinner $22 to $24
Breakfast: Daily 7 A.M. to 10 A.M.
Lunch: Monday to Saturday noon to 3 P.M.
Dinner: Monday to Saturday 5 P.M. to midnight
* * Very good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No star: Poor