A Star’s on Board: Eberhard Müller at Bayard’s

One of Wall Street’s enduring traditions is its lack of first-rate places to eat. Bankers and investors looking for elegant restaurants in which to entertain clients are forced to travel to Tribeca, where they have to book far in advance. Two years ago, Bayard’s opened in the heart of the financial district, in a Greek revival mansion decorated like a luxury clipper, complete with nautical pictures and ships in bottles. The food and wine cellar were surprisingly good, but the place didn’t quite cohere. The room felt grandiose and awkward, marooned as we were one dinner in a sea of empty tables set with Windsor chairs, a fireplace flickering away at one end of the horizon.

Now, however, they’ve got one of New York’s great chefs on board. Eberhard Müller, who was formerly at Lutèce, has become a partner with Peter and Harry Poulakakos, whose family has owned Harry’s at Hanover Square on the ground floor for nearly three decades. (The trio plan to turn the space, where the martinis have been the nemesis of many a young broker, into a steak house). Jason Hice is his chef de cuisine.

I don’t know my way around this neighborhood, so I felt a bit like a navigator without a map as I set off one black night in a cab that weaved its way around Pearl and State streets like a bobbing rowboat in the rain, an incoherent driver on a cell phone at the helm. Eventually we pulled up in Hanover Square alongside India House, the landmark 1851 brownstone modeled on a Florentine palazzo that was formerly the Cotton Exchange. In 1914, it became a private club for businessmen in foreign trade–and at lunch time, it still is. Bayard’s, on the second floor, is named after the owner of the first house on the site (in 1686), which was destroyed in a gas-pipe explosion in 1835 along with 600 other buildings in the area.

Bayard’s is the antithesis of a downtown bistro, but it’s not like Lutèce, either. To reach the dining room, you must climb a sweeping mahogany double staircase along which hang dignified portraits and swirling maritime paintings. A large model ship hangs from the skylight at the restaurant’s threshold, which is set with tables for two as large as the Queen Mary–hardly the scale for an intimate tête-a-tête. But if you’re tired of dining rooms so loud you can’t have a conversation, or stark, minimalist decors of concrete floors and exposed light bulbs, or re-tooled “comfort foods” like macaroni and cheese with foie gras, or weird experiments in fusion cuisine, then Bayard’s is for you.

If anyone can get the Wall Street guys to eat their vegetables, Mr. Müller can. The restaurant’s produce is supplied by the 18-acre farm that he and his wife Paulette have on Long Island’s North Fork. His vegetables, many of them doll’s size–miniature carrots and parsnips, tiny greens with leaves the size of a fingernail–have a pure essence of flavor you don’t often find unless you’ve grown the things yourself, wiped off the dirt and eaten them within the hour of picking.

With ingredients like this, it’s not surprising that Mr. Müller’s cooking is so simple. Why muck food up, as my father would say? Steamed halibut in vegetable broth, for example, sounded like the least interesting dish on the menu. It was one of the best. The pristine, snowy fillet was served in a supernaturally delicious tarragon-scented broth in which each vegetable’s flavor came through pure and clean, with a crunch of fleur de sel to finish. A warm chanterelle salad was tossed with bonsai mesclun greens in a subtle hazelnut-oil dressing that brought out the tiny mushrooms’ deep flavor. Another first course consisted of a tender piece of lobster reclining on a bed of black trumpet mushrooms and pea shoots. Fried quail came cloaked with black truffles and was served with a slaw of sweet Savoy cabbage. But my favorite was the house-smoked codfish, silken pieces draped over a salad of arugula, pea shoots and celeriac, sprinkled with white truffle oil.

As we looked at the menu one night, a friend sighed with relief: “No tuna tartare, thank God. If I ever have to eat that dish again, I’ll get a gun and go to the top of a public building.” Minutes later, the waiter set down a plate in front of him sent from the kitchen. In the center was a mound of tuna tartare topped with the yolk of a quail egg. The waiter tossed it with the élan of an old-timer preparing ground raw meat for a chief executive at the ’21’ Club. My friend took a mouthful. “It’s the best I’ve ever had in my life,” he said, regretting his comment. “You can taste jalapeño, mint and cilantro–all very subtle.” Carpaccio of beef, another dish suffering from overkill, was paper-thin, getting a new lease on life from a chopped- egg salad in the center.

Of course, a place like this has plenty of foie gras. There was a touch of it in the chef’s amuse-gueule–a slice of beef terrine with triangles of foie gras and tiny pickled vegetables that cut the richness. A sautéed slab, served with roasted grapes and nano-greens in a perfectly salted and vinegared dressing, was like butter. And there was more foie gras, wrapped in cabbage leaves and poached in

another of Mr. Müller’s remarkably vivid broths, to accompany a breast of chicken.

Mr. Müller worked at Le Bernardin before he went to Lutèce, so it’s hardly surprising that his fish dishes are so splendid. Fleshy slices of turbotin came with a salad of warm cèpes dressed in a black truffle vinaigrette. Crisp black bass arrived with a roasted mini-pumpkin, inside of which was a ragout of carrots and butternut squash sharpened with verjus. Dry-aged New York strip steak, paired with cipollini onions and creamed spinach, was juicy and perfectly charred.

It’s hard to approach the wine list with quite the same gusto as the food. The wines are exceedingly expensive, with so few under $40 that I wouldn’t have been surprised if the wine waiter had refused to open a bottle at that price. But the cellar has some remarkable wines to offer those who can afford them.

Eric Bedoucha, who was also formerly at Lutèce, has created a roster of great desserts. A champagne sorbet was studded with apple crisps and looked like a magical pumpkin. A fall fruit soup with baked-apple sorbet and a spiced poached pear with caramel ice cream were sensational–but then, so were the praline and chocolate dome and the saffron parfait with chocolate cream, perched on a chocolate tuile in a pool of saffron sauce.

The Poulakakos family has done an impressive job of restoring the building, which also contains a lounge with a mirrored mahogany bar that curves like the hull of a ship, banquet rooms with fireplaces (including one painted sea green with nautical-rope molding) and Victorian chandeliers decorated with silver seashells. The artworks are major, as are the Japanese silks and Oriental carpets. After dinner, if you can still walk, a manager will probably be only too pleased to show you around. So if you’re looking for somewhere out of the ordinary (and far from the midtown holiday fray) that serves great food, Bayard’s is the place. It’s not hard to get a table now, but it will be.

Bayard’s

* * *

One Hanover Square

514-9454

Dress: Wall Street

Noise level: Low

Wine list: Very good but expensive, with few bottles around $40

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Dinner main courses $28 to $38

Dinner: Sunday to Friday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; Saturday, 5:30 to 11 p.m.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor