The Lobbyist: Fine Hotel Dining at Triomphe

Triomphe, in the newly refurbished Iroquois Hotel on West 44th Street, is not like any hotel dining room I’ve been in before. This tiny gem of a restaurant is hidden behind a pocket-size bar off the lobby, a small, windowless space with a white-domed, neoclassical ceiling, a polished walnut floor and only 11 tables. Eating here is like being on a ship. You feel you ought to be, at the very least, on nodding acquaintance with the other customers–all the more since some of them look as though they came downstairs for dinner having just unpacked their luggage in their newly refurbished rooms. And indeed, why brave the cold and fight for a taxi when you can eat like this right in the hotel? For the food at Triomphe is not only better than what you’d get on a ship, it’s, as the Michelin Guide would say, worth a detour.

When I arrived for dinner with some friends, they were clearly wondering what I was getting them into–if not, as Robert Benchley once remarked, out of a wet coat and into a dry martini. The Iroquois Hotel has never been on anyone’s list for fine dining any more than the Algonquin down the block. (How, I wonder, did two hotels named after Indian tribes come to be on 44th Street?) In its previous incarnation, the restaurant–which got its name from a lottery among the hotel’s employees–was Judy’s Cabaret. But the $13 million renovation has obliterated all traces of Judy. I can’t imagine how she fit her act into the premises, which are probably not much bigger than the bedrooms upstairs. To the left as you enter Triomphe is a dark-brown and lemon-yellow banquette and shelves of bottles, backlit so they glow like semiprecious stones against the white wall. On the opposite wall is a giant mirror hung with velvet curtains to cleverly give the illusion of another room beyond, filled with tables set with white cloths, candles, an orange amaryllis–and you.

Chef Steve Zobel, who previously worked at Sign of the Dove and Contrapunto on the Upper East Side, has put together a small menu of French-American dishes that reflect the simplicity of the setting. Instead of the ubiquitous foie gras (which one trendy hotel restaurant I recently visited had sliced into macaroni and cheese for their take on luxury comfort food), Mr. Zobel kicked off with what some might also consider comfort food: chicken livers. He pan-fried them, lightly braised them in sherry and butter and heaped them on the plate with Spanish and pearl onions and frizzled leeks. Try these pink, creamy livers and you won’t miss foie gras.

Instead of gravlax, Mr. Zobel served a sushi-grade salmon cured à la minute with salt and sugar, garnished with pickled red onions. It came with a tart sauce, prepared with lemon, chicken stock and olive oil, that had the creamy consistency of mayonnaise. Wontons, stuffed with a thick, pleasantly sweet purée of roasted acorn squash, were poached in a rich chicken broth with fines herbs, chives and parsley and topped with tangy shaved Parmesan.

Compared with the wontons’ bold flavors, Mr. Zobel’s oyster stew was restrained, even wimpy. It was made in the traditional way with leeks, butter and potatoes, seasoned with Vermouth and cream and studded with nice brioche croutons, but it didn’t have much taste. Sea scallops, on the other hand, had an aroma that wafted clear across the table. Seared rare and served on a purée of cauliflower mixed with white truffle oil–the bits from the pan deglazed with green onions–they were wonderfully tender.

When sweetbreads show up on a menu, they are generally good for an argument since no one can agree on what they really are. Even waiters don’t seem to know half the time. (A few years ago, at a pretentious French restaurant, I asked if there was anything on the menu suitable for an 8-year-old, and after a quick look, the waiter replied, “Sweetbreads.” I realized later that he must have thought they were sweet.) My companion at Triomphe insisted that sweetbreads were the pancreas. I eventually managed to convince him that they were actually the thymus gland, which is in the calf’s neck (a fact you probably don’t need or wish to know). Undeterred, he ordered the glands, which Mr. Zobel prepared not in the usual cream sauce but with a Mexican touch, served crisp on a toasted baguette with an artichoke “guacamole” and topped with tomatoes, onions, jalapeño and cilantro. It was spicy, light and surprisingly good.

Mr. Zobel’s choice of companions for lobster eluded me, however. The lobster itself, poached in butter with turnips, carrots and shaved black truffles, was wonderfully tender. But I’m not sure that chewy brown rice laced with raw scallions is what I really want to eat with it.

On the other hand, the crespelle–soft Italian crêpes that arrived with rabbit cooked like coq au vin–added the perfect touch, soft pillows that soaked up the wonderful Burgundy sauce with cremini mushrooms and pearl onions. This was a great dish. Rare, meaty New Zealand lamb chops were good too, plated with white beans, Swiss chard and crisp slices of pancetta. In a lighter vein, the day’s market fish coated with a light “marinade” made with white-wine vinegar, sugar, soy sauce, chili and ginger reclined on a bed of jasmine rice and grilled leeks. It’s worth getting side orders of the delicious greens with garlic and oil or the fried mixed vegetables in an airy batter.

There are just a handful of desserts on the menu. A dark, almost flourless chocolate cake was extremely rich. In a strange but delicious pairing, crème brûlée came with Concord grapes and sugar cookies dabbed with apricot jam. And a tarte Tatin, filled with Golden Delicious apples, was made with feathery puff pastry and served with buttermilk ice cream. Mr. Zobel also has a serious cheese board: One night, the kitchen sent strong, creamy Morbier cheese and glasses of port to our table. Too bad we couldn’t head straight upstairs afterward.

There is a world of difference between a hotel restaurant and a restaurant that happens to be in a hotel. The former is a place you travel to by elevator when you’re too tired to go out. But Triomphe is an example of the latter: a place that people will gladly travel to from the other end of town.

Triomphe

* *

Iroquois Hotel, 49 West 44th Street

453-4233

Dress: Casual

Noise level: High when the restaurant is full

Wine list: Mostly Californian, reasonably priced

Credit cards: All major cards

Price range: Main courses lunch $14 to $28; dinner $23 to $32

Breakfast: Daily, 7 to 10:30 a.m.

Lunch: Monday to Saturday, 11:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Dinner: Monday to Saturday, 5:45 to 11 p.m.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor