A Showcase for the Classics: French Food and Modern Art

Brasserie 8 1/2 is not named after the Fellini movie, but because it is underneath 9 West 57th Street, the curved skyscraper designed by Gordon Bunshaft. If you stand in front of this building and look up, you get the illusion that it’s slowly topplfing forward and about to crush you, along with the big red number nine on the street outside its front door. Having been thus put in your place, metaphorically speaking at least, you make your way through a glass lobby where a hostess, all smiles, directs you to a wide, semicircular, orange-carpeted staircase that leads down to the basement. You pause at the top for a second to get your bearings and then, like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard , you make your grand entrance.

Restaurant Associates, which also operates Brasserie in the Seagram Building, hired the firm of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer to design its latest restaurant. If you thought Brasserie, with its glass staircase and wall of digital photographs of customers coming through the door, was far out, wait till you see what Hugh Hardy has come up with. At the foot of the stairs is a long stainless-steel-and-ebony bar where I recognized the friend I was meeting only by his silhouette, which stood out against a wall of luminescent orange-yellow glass tiles (made with holographic backing). The lounge has a round, orange cast-glass ceiling lit from behind and supported by stainless steel ribs. It feels like the inside of a flying saucer. But instead of aliens from outer space, a surprisingly hip crowd was reclining in the leather chairs and sofas, looking as though they’d just landed on 57th Street from downtown.

The Matisse faces and Giacometti drawings hanging on the walls like booty from a trip to Earth are a very small part of the personal collection of the building’s owner, real estate developer Sheldon Solow. I asked a waitress the way to the bathroom. “Up the stairs by the red Matisse,” she replied, adding, “Mr. Solow sure likes his art.”

He sure does. If the stained glass panel in front of the kitchen looks familiar, it’s because you’ve seen the oil painting of the same picture at the Museum of Modern Art, Fernand Leger’s Les Constructeurs . The 180-seat dining room has leather booths topped with striped frosted-glass separators, walls covered with sea-green velvet and a ceiling made of layers of tiny colored-glass mosaic.

But if Brasserie 8 1/2′s decor is hardly that of your typical brasserie, the menu does have many classic dishes. Chef Julian Alonzo, who was most recently executive chef at Cafe Centro, serves onion soup, frisée salad aux lardons and suckling pig as well as esoteric combinations such as foie gras ravioli with cauliflower sauce, and baby squid with chorizo and avocado. There are also daily specials, among them Muscovy duck steak, figs and prosciutto on Wednesday, bouillabaisse on Friday and rack of lamb on Saturday. And there are side dishes more interesting than normal brasserie fare: Roquefort mashed potatoes, spinach with soy and sesame seeds and tempura of zucchini blossoms.

People used to say you could tell whether a restaurant was going to be any good as soon the bread arrived. But top-quality bread has become so routine in New York restaurants that this tenet no longer holds–and the bread usually goes unremarked. Brasserie 8 1/2′s crusty square rolls, topped with crystals of sea salt, are exceptional, and they’re served with chilled, unsalted butter, sliced through a wrapper that is left on, a super-cool interpretation of the old-style square of butter in a foil packet.

Mr. Alonzo was once chef de cuisine at the Sea Grill and seafood clearly inspires him, starting with the gift from the kitchen, shrimp and crab salad with mango sauce in an endive leaf. Ceviche is served in a small glass, a tartly refreshing mix of diced sea scallops tossed with lime, avocado, cilantro and green chili. A small bowl of it comes on the seafood platter, which is a generous spread of six oysters, four clams, three mussels, and three shrimp with cocktail, red wine and citrus sauces for $27. If you want lobster with it, it will cost another $15. Instead, I had my lobster with artichokes barigoule; it was sweet and tender, simmered with crunchy baby onions, adrift on a green pool of herb sauce. Mr. Alonzo also does an interesting riff on a Portuguese dish, putting chopped chorizo inside rounds of baby squid with avocado and tiny melon balls.

Fish arrived in huge white bowls with matching lids to be whisked off with a flourish. Every time I see this done in a restaurant, I think of Manuel, the waiter in Fawlty Towers , serving the health inspector and removing the dome to reveal a live rat. But there were no rats here. Instead, a glistening piece of pink salmon arrived rare and moist on a bed of puréed sorrel with tiny chanterelles. A fillet of halibut was boldly garnished with grilled octopus, artichokes, tomatoes and roasted garlic. Pepper-seared tuna with roasted corn and foie gras sounded intriguing but, oddly, didn’t have a lot of flavor.

When one, and only one, main course is in boldface on a menu, you assume it’s a dish the restaurant is especially proud of. Roasted portobello Napoleon with piquillo peppers, grilled red onion and rutabaga sounded like the sort of thing a chef might think up at the last minute when he’s heard that Mahatma Gandhi has just come in. It was surprisingly dull, however. Why was it singled out? The waitress said she had no idea. But at the other end of the spectrum was a fine steak frites served with hot, crisp fries (for 21 bucks–two dollars more than the portobello).

One evening we smelled the aroma of chocolate soufflé wafting from the next table, where two women were obviously regretting their decision to order one portion and two forks. It looked as though, at any moment, they were going to use the forks as English noblemen did when they were first introduced to England and fall upon each other in a pitched battle. When I tasted this dish, which looked like a little sand castle, I understood why. It was actually a hot steamed chocolate pudding, topped with pistachio ice cream and a pistachio brittle. It made me wonder what I ever saw in the ubiquitous molten chocolate cake. The rich, creamy dark chocolate custard under a crème brûlée topping was also worth crossing forks for. Pastry chef Nancy Kershner is also at Brasserie, and her desserts here are just as wonderful as they are there. How does she infuse such flavor into her watermelon soup? Her banana split was a deconstructed, postmodern version of the dish, served as separate components. The whipped cream has caramelized banana folded into it; slices of strawberries and pineapple were topped with small scoops of vanilla, strawberry and chocolate ice cream and hot fudge. After this, if the building topples over on you as you leave, you won’t even care.

Brasserie 8 1/2

* *

9 West 57th Street

829-0812

Dress: Casual

Noise level: Fine

Wine list: Broad and well chosen, with many inexpensive bottles

Credit cards: All major cards

Price range: Main courses: lunch $15 to $29, dinner $18 to $34

Breakfast: 7 to 10 a.m.

Weekdays; brunch 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Weekends

Lunch: Monday to Friday 11:30 a.m. To 3 p.m.

Dinner: Monday to Saturday 5:30 p.m. to midnight (lounge 11:30 a.m. to midnight), Sunday to 10 p.m. (lounge 11a.m. to 10 p.m.)

*Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor