How many New Yorkers do you know who actually possess a dining room? Most of us are grateful if we have an apartment that boasts a so-called breakfast nook. But then, if statistics are to be believed, fewer and fewer people eat dinner at home nowadays (unless they’re in front of the television–always good for the digestion). So when a restaurant calls itself, somewhat portentously, the Dining Room, certain expectations are aroused–all the more if it occupies two floors of a townhouse on the Upper East Side. I went there for dinner recently, thinking I’d be eating off polished mahogany under a chandelier. So I was quite surprised when I found myself in what looked like the dining car of a Pullman train. Moreover, the passengers, it seemed, had boarded in Greenwich, Conn.: blond women with velvet headbands and fur coats, men in pin-striped suits and dark blue shirts (come summer, these are the men who will be wearing loafers without socks).
We were sitting upstairs in a booth in a long, narrow room hung with hand-printed wallpaper and heavy, rust-colored Ultra suede curtains. Our waiter, who wore a white open-neck shirt and black pants, set down a bottle of “J” Russian River Pinot Noir–one of the cheaper selections on the short but interesting international list–and proceeded to uncork it. He looked at the label and sighed. “That’s Jordan!” he said. “He got divorced from his wife and all he got left with was the ‘J.'”
The Dining Room is the uptown sibling of the Screening Room in Tribeca, both owned by Henry Hershkowitz, Steven Kantor and Nancy Yaffa. Designer Larry Bogdanow has transformed the awkward space that was formerly the bistro Trois Jean into a contemporary American setting made up of separate dining areas. Downstairs has windows that look onto the street and a row of booths along pale wood-paneled walls in front of a small, curved bar. Upstairs (the Pullman car) opens into a larger dining area with picture windows. The colors are muted–burgundy, soft gold and greenish-browns–and the effect is warm and clubby.
The kitchens of both restaurants are overseen by executive chef Mark Spangenthal. I still remember the pan-fried artichokes he served at the Markham in the Village. (What a great loss it was when the Markham closed in 1996 due to in-fighting among the owners. It was like a friendly club, with beautiful lighting and first-rate food.) The artichokes were cut into slivers, fried golden and crisp, flavored with toasted coriander seed and lemon and topped with shavings of Parmesan. They were as addictive as the best French fries. Mr. Spangenthal later replicated the dish at the Screening Room, but I don’t think it’s ever tasted better than it does now uptown. Nor has any of his cooking. At the Screening Room, where a prix-fixe dinner includes a movie ticket, the food’s not the main focus among the younger clientele. At the quietly civilized Dining Room, it takes center stage. Each dish on the short menu (only eight main courses) is well thought out, deceptively simple but enticing, as well as beautiful to look at.
The small raw bar includes a tartare of diced sushi-grade tuna, spiked with wasabi and served with a slush of cucumber and radish vinaigrette. Seafood ceviche is made with shrimp, scallops and red snapper tossed with avocado in grapefruit and lime juice and perked up with pickled jalapeños. Thick slices of yellowtail carpaccio are seasoned only with lemon-fused olive oil and sea salt, garnished with a handful of baby arugula. You can get a taste of all three of these dishes on a sampler plate.
A winter vegetable salad is like a display of jewels, with artichokes, mushrooms, beets and fingerling potatoes in a dark-red fennel and pomegranate-molasses vinaigrette presenting a myriad of contrasting flavors and textures. Juicy, lightly seared diver scallops are also wonderful on a bed of leeks with fingerling sand white truffle oil. Pan-roasted quail is wrapped in a thin layer of crackling tasso ham and set on a bed of grits flavored with cheddar cheese; wild mushrooms and pickled watermelon rinds complete the picture. Who ever would have thought of tossing pickled watermelon rind into this dish?
Braised wild striped bassis topped with pan-roasted clams and set on bitter greens with tomato vinaigrette. Glazed red snapper arrives on nutty black rice (obscurely described on the menu as “forbidden rice”) with candied ginger. It’s all about texture, as well as setting sweet against sour.
These fish dishes pale in comparison to Mr. Spangenthal’s meat preparations. He hunkers down with a plate of tender, caramelized braised rib meat, which he serves alongside a roasted rib eye, Savoyard potatoes, onion marmalade and wild mushrooms. A crisp-skinned, braised duck leg is paired with the rare breast, accompanied by a wintry mix of Swiss chard, chestnuts, butternut squash and fingerlings in a dark red wine sauce. The roast venison is tender enough to cut with a spoon, as are the soft mushroom bread pudding, baby Brussels sprouts and honey-roasted Seckel pear alongside it.
Thomas Hobbs’ desserts are equally at home in the Dining Room. I love any kind of bread pudding, so I ordered his version, made intriguingly with coconut and pineapple chutney.
“It’s the curse of Martha Stewart!” said our waiter as he flew back from the kitchen a few minutes later. “We ran out of bread pudding the night she was here, and we’re out again tonight.”
Martha Stewart’s curse was in full effect that evening. We waited almost half an hour for our desserts. Something had clearly gone wrong in the kitchen. Eventually they arrived, along with an apologetic hostess who refused to let us pay for them. But they were worth the wait. The chocolate-caramel icebox cake, actually a bombe, is made with layers of chocolate, meringue, caramel and shortbread in a pool of caramel and chocolate sauces. A refreshing pineapple carpaccio comes with strawberry, papaya and mint. Pistachio soufflé is a bit damp, but the bread pudding is great. I tasted it on another occasion, when Martha’s curse was off the kitchen (did they hang a wreath of Spam around the door?). It is soaked in coconut milk and served on pineapple chutney with ginger ice cream and a tuile.
The Dining Room is a near-perfect gem of a restaurant. But it would make a nice train, too. You could doze off to the sound of the wheels clacking “Be a ballerina, be a ballerina, be a ballerina …” and wake up in time for lunch and pan-fried artichokes.
The Dining Room
154 East 79th Street
Dress: Upper East Side
Noise level: Fine
Wine list: International, reasonably priced
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Main courses $22 to $29
Lunch: Monday to Friday, noon to 2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Sunday to Thursday, 5:45 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday to midnight
Brunch: Saturday and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor