The Condé Nast cafeteria has only been open a week, but it’s already clear which part is Siberia
The 10,000-square-foot, Frank Gehry-designed, track-lighted, fourth-floor space is dominated by a raised dining area enclosed by thick glass petals. The effect is slightly vaginal, accented by hanging chrome lamps which look like Fallopian tubes or sea anemones. Approximately two thirds of the restaurant’s 200 diners will be eating inside this elevated region. Huddled therein on an ecru banquette with one’s morning paper splayed out on a sunny yellow table, watching the late-morning rush of young mermaids picking up their fruit smoothies ($2.75) against a backdrop of sinuous titanium-blue walls, one might conclude that the architect had achieved a peaceful underwater effect.
But at the height of lunch hour, 1 P.M., noise collects inside the aquarium, and fast. Suddenly you’re trapped amid the peasantry, with its lunch pails and clattering forks. Glancing down at the unfinished pale wood floors, you realize you’re at the Royalton by way of Ikea. The occasional loudspeaker announcement of “fire drill on the 32nd floor” does not add to the atmosphere.
The cafeteria–called, of course, Cafeteria–is run by Restaurant Associates, a company which owns some dependable, two-star restaurants in New York such as Cafe Centro and Brasserie, and R.A. has stocked the room with lots of employees in matching gray shirts who lurk and linger, like a troop of super-efficient Oompa-Loompas, ready to wipe down your table the instant you make for the door. You bus your own table, by the way, depositing your tray on a three-tiered conveyer belt. Some Condé Nast employees seem to think this beneath them, and have already taken to leaving their trays and lunch carcasses on the table.
No, the prime seating will be on the lower deck, in one of the quiet, regal banquettes that snake along the windows of the north wall. Good luck getting one. As my companion and I emerged blinking from the food-pickup area, staggering under our laden, frosted-Lucite trays, a Restaurant Associates employee with a name tag reading “Wyatt” materialized from nowhere and guided us gently but firmly through the petals to a table with three other diners–utter strangers.
We might have been grateful for Wyatt in high school. Here we resented him. (Although the existence of Wyatt raises a fascinating question: how will Wyatt–or any of the other Oompa-Loompas–know which diners are just ordinary people, and which are “special” people, those higher-up Condé Nast editors whom one simply does not guide, firmly or gently, to a lousy table full of strangers? Surely some sort of photo flashcard test–’Quick, is this Linda Wells or just someone who looks like Linda Wells?’–will be administered.)
Anyway, our Asia de Cuba-like seating arrangements made for some good eavesdropping.
“So, Anne, what does your superior do?” a bronzed, Matthew McConaughey look-alike sitting at our six-top asked one of his lunch-mates.
“He’s a hard-ass,” she replied, looking up from her copy of Jane, a non-Condé Nast publication.
” Hiiiiii !” trilled a lithe filly trotting past. “How are you? I’ll call you! We’ll play !”
“Who was that ?” asked Anne.
“She was my assistant at Details ,” said Mr. Bronze.
“How old is she? She looks old .”
“She’s in her 20’s .”
We never found out where Mr. Bronze went after Details . We were too distracted by my first course, a tomato pennette with tomato basil sauce and shavings of real Parmesan. The pasta was soggy, sure, but the peppery sauce was a real kick in the pants. My friend’s fettucine with Parmesan cream sauce was a less felicitous match, but she had only herself to blame: Here at Cafeteria, a chef custom-builds your pasta and sauce ($5.25) in one of those open kitchens that are so trendy in Manhattan right now. That’s to your right as you enter. To your left: slab upon slab of pizza, calzone, etc.
During one lunch, Condé Nast chairman S.I. Newhouse shambled by, in a baggy grey sweatshirt, looking like a janitor. He passed through the upper deck unrecognized; he saw some people whom he knew in the lower deck, and waved Hi. His spectral presence brought conversation on the lower deck to a hush. Then he left without eating a thing.
I bit into a Sicilian-style slice with asparagus ($1.95). It was O.K.–ski-lodge pizza, with a thick, buttery crust and lavish blanket of cheese. Maybe too lavish. A sense of needless cornucopia pervades Cafeteria. There are racks brimming with yellow peppers, smug little Forelle pears, Kit Kats imported, like so many of the editors, from England (Why? Why?).
By the way, come stocked with crisp bills for the Debitek machines. Cafeteria does not take cash or checks or credit cards. The machines will spit you out your very own Condé Nast debit card, useless elsewhere, of course. The machine only takes bills of $5 and up. And bring a Condé Nast employee: unaccompanied outsiders are not welcome, and I don’t even want to speculate on the fate of lunchtime stowaways.
Welcome, now, to the salad bar, where the rolls are pecan raisin rolls from Eli’s, all the tomatoes are heirloom, and the greens are good-looking. Mesclun, dandelion, clover. Or was I hallucinating?
“This is out of control,” snorted a stymied, Pucci-clad editor, pausing by the Israeli couscous with sundried cherries. “I don’t know what to do.”
Perhaps she should have persisted past the pastas, to the grill, where for $5 or so you can get burgers cooked well-done or Anna Wintour rare, and French fries cooked in boiling oil while you watch. Further along are the more ambitious entrees. As with the Condé Nast magazines themselves, many of these rate high on presentation, short on substance.
On our first visit, we sampled the short ribs in merlot sauce. It was more gristle than meat; the roasted carrots glistened with fat and the so-called barley risotto, also bearing that suspicious sheen, did not resemble any risotto we have ever known, though it was generously flecked with onion. But at $5.25? It was tasty .
Similarly, when only $4.95 is being subtracted from your Debitek card, it seems churlish to point out that scallopini is a preparation, not a type of meat. It turned out to be chicken, served straight up with a round of lemon and a moistness that belied its stated caloric value of 170 calories, 2.56 grams of fat.
On our next visit I decided to indulge in a steak. A cook spread oil on the griddle, poked a “V” in the pounded meat to check for doneness, and slid it onto my plate. Another diner haughtily demanded her own hunk of protein cleaved into four parts. The cook obliged. (By the way, the entire staff, from the chefs to the cashiers, is one of the nicest and most responsive I’ve ever encountered. I wish one could say the same of the diners, several of whom seemed to have no qualms about barking orders at the “help.”)
A glitch: no serrated steak knives at Flatware-Condiments. The top Oompa- Loompa, identified by the addition of a blazer to his gray uniform, said he’d find me one, but I waved him away. It wasn’t needed. So maybe the sirloin wasn’t, strictly speaking, “grilled.” It was good! I gnawed at it greedily, feeling very Atkins Diet. Alas, the baked potato was pallid and tough, about as appealing as the proverbial flannel. But the “chef’s table” selection of pan-seared salmon with braised fennel ($7.95)? Moist and pink, with an iridescent skin beautifully crisped on top, dotted with tiny sections of orange, a lemony olive sauce, and sprinkles of baby mezzuna. A triumph.
There are also fancy sandwiches (prices vary) and styrofoam Souper Bowls ($2.95 to $3.25), which you can spirit away without shame in the mid-century modern, mint-colored doggie bag, bearing a crisp “CNP” (Condé Nast Publications) logo and looking very much like a small shopping bag from a SoHo boutique.
Dessert includes slightly glutinous fruit tarts ($2.25) with a hint of marzipan and a dense chocolate mousse with that inescapable chalky layer on top ($2.25). Try the deluxe Rice Krispie treat instead ($1.75).
There is no wine list: May we suggest a Fresh Samantha Protein Blast ($3.25) or perhaps some Evian ($1.35)? The cappuccino is dispensed from a machine, but it is faultless cappuccino.
Sadly, the frozen-yogurt machine was out of order. And one day in the middle of lunch the power went out–the room went dark, the conveyor belt ground to a halt, and there was a collective intake of breath. Then everything started up again, and the chocolate-dipped strawberries–unexceptional in every way but already the favorite of Vogue editors–began moving briskly, at $2.25 apiece .