The friend who drove me to Brasserie for dinner was not in great shape. The previous evening he had been to a banquet at the Puck Building in SoHo put on by Slow Food, a worthy anti-McDonald’s movement founded in Italy. But the dishes at the dinner took so long to come out that he drank too much wine between courses (one of the hazards of slow food), and later wound up in a basement lounge a few doors down, at Pravda, where a sultry pencil-thin waitress served him scrambled eggs and whisky. “That’s what finally did me in,” he said as we swung into a parking space on Park Avenue in front of the Seagram building.
Four, three or even two decades ago, before downtown was a state of mind as well as a place, this is where he would have headed after a night’s excess.
The Brasserie, which opened in the basement of the landmark Mies van der Rohe building in 1959, hung onto its reputation as one of the city’s trendiest late-night hot spots for an astonishing number of years, given the fickleness of New York’s restaurant scene. Designed by Philip Johnson and operated by Restaurant Associates, it served food around the clock. It was very fashionable, particularly late at night when it drew in a mix of celebrities, jazz musicians, socialites and other revelers who couldn’t go home to bed without lining their stomachs with onion soup and steak tartare.
But when you get close to 40, you are hitting a dangerous age, especially in the restaurant business. By the 90’s the Brasserie’s luster had gone and so had the papparazzi, and the food was unspeakable. It closed five years ago after a fire.
Now it’s back after a $5-million redesign by Ricardo Scofidio and Elizabeth Diller, avant-garde architects who are known for their mixed-media installations. It’s been called “Midtown’s downtown restaurant.” What higher praise than that!
You enter through a revolving glass door, just like the old days. But replacing the vertiginous Philip Johnson staircase is a new one made of solid glass with wide steps leading down to the main dining room, so you can make your grand entrance one giant step at a time. To the right, as you descend, a strip of video monitors above the bar displays flash-frozen images of you and others entering the front door. It’s the new millennium’s answer to the autographed celebrity photo on the restaurant wall (they should sell stills of the images to customers on their way out). A thin, curved shell of shiny rust-brown pearwood wraps the main dining space, which is smaller than I remembered. It has terazzo floors and a row of booths on one side. Behind the bar, fronted by stools with silicon seats and set with a magnificent, tall steel vase of white gladioli (Dame Edna’s favorite flowers), is a translucent glass wall that seems to float with blurry wine and liquor bottles suspended behind it.
The tables, set with white Saarinen chairs, are made of pale-green translucent resin so that plates and glasses appear to be floating. The same touch of wit is displayed in the men’s and women’s bathrooms, where a red cast-resin sink is built so that it runs through a sink-level opening in the wall, serving both sides who can’t see each other as they wash their hands. The dining room is theatrical, the decor clever and amusing. But unless you are lucky enough to be sitting at one of the coveted booths on the edges of the room, it’s hard to hear and conversation is exhausting. The lighting is rather bright and flat. A candle would be nice at dinnertime.
So is this a downtown restaurant in Midtown? Perhaps, if you live on 86th Street. Looking around the room, the people in their business suits seem more likely to be discussing the future of the euro than the future of night life. There aren’t many models in strappy dresses or guys with collarless shirts. But maybe they come later. At the bar, where you can eat, a fellow in an open-neck shirt listens to books on tape. And if I see only one mobile phone user in the room at lunch, I wonder if it’s because they don’t work here.
I first went to Brasserie in the old days, when I was barely 18, with a group of French people I found terrifyingly sophisticated but I now realize were just being French. The evening had kicked off badly at the host’s apartment where, to make conversation, I had admired a poster of a painting of a clown by Bernard Buffet hanging in the kitchen. I wasn’t to know the apartment was a sublet. “Isn’t she sweet!” he said, “She likes clown paintings.” At Brasserie, with all the naïveté of a girl fresh out of an English boarding school (whose favorite dish was a pork chop cooked in Campbell’s mushroom soup), I ordered steak tartare and, to my horror, was served a mound of raw meat to which the waiter added a raw egg yolk.
There is no steak tartare on the current menu, but there is tuna tartare. Chef Luc Dimnet, formerly of Les Célébrités, has put together a menu with many of the classic dishes that you would have found at the old Brasserie: onion soup, crêpes, omelettes and mussels, along with some of his own specialties. There are jumbo shrimp and oysters, the latter served, oddly, with cocktail sauce (a perfectly decent one, but with oysters?) and a rather good, peppery granita mignonette. Snails come lodged inside Yukon Gold potatoes that have been hollowed out so they look deceptively like marrow bones. The snails were plump, served in a garlicky butter sauce. The thought of raw tuna would have horrified me even more than raw beef in my early days at Brasserie, and the tuna tartare served here wouldn’t have been a great introduction. It was bland, just faintly flavored with lime and cilantro. Blandness was the downfall of the Provençale fish soup too, which was thin, without enough seafood, and needed salt. But mussels marinière in a delicate creamy sauce were delicious, served with an enormous pile of crisp fries salted with fleur de sel. As a first course for lunch, you get enough for two.
The size of the portions of some of the dishes at the Brasserie is baffling. For a main course, one of us got a ribeye that looked like dinner for the Flintstones. It didn’t have a great deal of flavor, but was nicely charred. It was funny to watch a woman tackling this while the man next to her, my friend from the Slow Food dinner, was served two tiny crabcakes for his main course. They were crispy, perfectly pleasant, but they were gone in a few bites (hardly slow food).
The menu has a changing list of daily specials, among them coq au vin. It was a little chewy and not quite integrated with its sauce. The lobster salad was a misconception, chopped up with frisée. But the Chilean sea bass with lemon grass and lime was a lovely moist piece of fish, perfectly cooked.
Nancy Kershner’s desserts are wonderful, beginning with the hot, light beignets oozing with chocolate, served with the perfect caramel ice cream accompaniment. A creamy chocolate mousse came with an unusual peanut ganache, and a crisp topped with a scoop of dark chocolate ice cream was also delicious, as was the caramelized mango and banana tarte tatin. The lemon profiteroles with candied lemon sent everyone into raptures.
The new Brasserie doesn’t keep hours around the clock anymore. Nor for that matter do the people I know, the ones who might have tumbled uptown years ago for the less sleek, but less tame old Brasserie.
100 East 53rd Street
Wine list: Well priced, interesting choices
Noise level: High
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Main courses, lunch $12 to $24, dinner $14 to $28
Hours: Monday to Friday 7:00 A.M. to 1:00 A.M.
Saturday 11:00 A.M. to 1:00 A.M.
Sunday 11:00 A.M. to 10:00 P.M.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor