The Underground Gourmet: Geoffrey Zakarian Goes to Town

I’ve always had a soft spot for 56th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues. It was where I had my first affordable French meal, at Larre’s, just across the street from Town (offically, it’s Town.; the logo, in these designer days, comes with a period). In the early 70’s, you could get a three-course lunch there for $2.25, served by rude French waitresses who would slap down a bubbling pan of snails loaded with garlic on the table–and follow you into the street if they weren’t happy with the tip. Now Larre’s is gone, but snails are back on the block. At Town, Geoffrey Zakarian’s restaurant in the Chambers Hotel, a waitress dressed in black Hugo Boss sets before you a small copper pot of snails laced with truffles and sweet garlic, along with a plate of plain risotto. “God in heaven!” exclaimed a friend after one mouthful. “This is one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten.”

Town, located in the basement of the new boutique hotel designed by David Rockwell, has been packed since it opened in March. Like the small, inexpensive but hip hotels started by Ian Schrager and Andre Balazs, it caters to a generation less interested in gilt chairs and chandeliers than in cutting-edge design in settings that are as unhotel-like as possible, and where the last thing you’re expected to wear is a tie. (Here, however, a standard room is a staggering $425 a night.) The building is the size of a large townhouse, with a white Nouveau Deco façade and immense gold doors whose claim to an imposing presence is eclipsed somewhat by the gold flags billowing outside Norma Kamali a few feet away. Town has a separate entrance that leads directly into a sleek, narrow bar, reminiscent of a 30’s Pullman club car. On the night I arrived, it was crowded with people who looked more commuter than cool, clutching martini glasses that glowed pink or pale green (one of the house cocktails is a blood-orange cosmopolitan). There are no bar stools, so after about 10 minutes waiting for a table, we repaired to the leather chairs in the lobby until a hostess could lead us down the steps to the basement.

Town’s dining room, also designed by Mr. Rockwell, doesn’t feel as though it’s in a basement. It’s a dramatic, soaring space, with 24-foot-high walls that curve behind leather banquettes and sprawling booths, and paneled with translucent, back-lit wooden screens and squares of taupe suede behind long, cascading strings of crystal beads. The lighting is soft and flattering, but finally the elegance of the room is more corporate than romantic. Nevertheless, my downtown friends were happy. “It’s so great to be in a restaurant where I’m practically the youngest person for a change,” said one. It was also great to be in a dining room where you could actually have a conversation without competing with a D.J.

Mr. Zakarian, who was the chef at 44 in its heyday (and later at Patroon), has put together an intriguing menu of his personal favorites with executive chef Fernando Zapata. (I learned a new term from the press release, which describes Mr. Zakarian’s cooking as “ingredient driven”–an interesting concept.) His foie gras terrine is nothing if not “ingredient driven,” made as it is with chunks of foie gras folded in mousse and topped with a thick yellow layer of fat. It comes with a sweet pepper jelly that cuts right through the richness. An emerald-green fresh pea soup is laced with peas and strips of crisp prosciutto; a meaty duck terrine is enlivened by ramps and dense parsley purée.

A sea scallop (only one, but it was admittedly quite large) was paired with a delicate scallop sausage that provided a textural contrast, but overall the dish was bland. Carpaccio of fluke couldn’t stand up to the stellar blood-orange-and-mint vinaigrette covering it; I would have loved it on a strong meat, like smoked duck. Grilled octopus was surprisingly dry and tough, floating in an acidic potato and lemongrass broth.

Even if the rooms upstairs are exorbitantly expensive, Town’s prices–while not exactly bargain-basement–are not. There are no main courses above $29, and there are many reasonably priced wines on the 200-plus-bottle list.

Mr. Zakarian does interesting things with fish, serving a snowy chunk of halibut with pan-roasted salsify and a mild porcini-curry foam. Cod was thinly coated in a truffled sourdough crust and served with roasted beets and black truffles. Sesame-studded tuna was a bit overcooked, fanned out over thickly cut wilted cucumbers and finished with an oddly unassertive sea-urchin sauce. But rare, meaty slices of spice-dusted duck steak were a perfect match for caramelized endive stuffed with apple and a robust buckwheat pilaf. Loin of lamb, crispy spaetzle, citrus and olives made for a jarring combination. Apart from the snails, the veal tongue was my favorite dish, though it was too much for friends who hadn’t grown up in a family like mine, which carved it whole at the table. Long, slow cooking had given Mr. Zakarian’s version a tender texture and smoky flavor, enhanced by roasted artichokes and radishes.

Pastry chef Nancy Kershner, who was at Brasserie and Brasserie 8-1/2, has put together five cheese plates paired with fruit or marmalade. She also makes wonderful chocolate beignets, dusted with powdered sugar and teamed with frozen café brûlot, a cocoa-coated dome of coffee ice cream flavored with rum and Grand Marnier. Light, breadlike sourdough chocolate cake was given a nostalgic twist by malted ice cream and pretzels; a gooey chocolate soufflé with tart blood-orange sorbet floated on a spun-sugar structure that looked like the skeleton of a rowboat. Toasted pound cake was good, too, with roasted pear and rum-raisin ice cream. A refreshing gratin of sliced red grapefruit was also remarkable, topped with flakes of crisp, candied grapefruit with a scoop of creamy ginseng sorbet.

Like many Italian restaurants, Town’s first courses and desserts outshone many of the entrées we tried. It’s a chic, business-like place with some great food. And it has a sense of humor: The bathrooms are decorated with scores of clear balls containing miniature Statues of Liberty. That’s probably the closest these customers will get to the real thing.

Town

* *

15 West 56th Street

582-4445

Dress: Business

Noise level: Low

Wine list: International

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Main courses lunch $18 to $21, dinner $21 to $29

Breakfast: Monday through Friday, 8 to 11:30 a.m.

Lunch: Monday through Friday, noon to 2 p.m.

Dinner: Monday through Saturday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday until 9 p.m.

* Good

* * Very good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No star: Poor