At the door of the dining room stands a scraggly metal bird perched on one leg. As we waited for our table, my husband, who had left his Peterson field guide at home, stared at the bird, then at its flock of silver cousins above the monumental fireplace and at the restaurant’s name on the matchbooks nearby, trying to make the connection. ” Qu’est-ce que c’est qu’un virot ?” he asked the hostess finally.
” Un virot …. ” She paused for a moment. ” C’est le nom du chef !”
Didier Virot, formerly executive chef at Jo Jo and Jean Georges, has opened his first restaurant, serving French food in a setting that is nothing if not eclectic. Virot is in the old ballroom of what was once the Chemists’ Club, a Beaux Arts building on East 41st Street, near Grand Central Terminal, that is now the boutique hotel the Dylan. The dining room, which has a 20-foot ceiling and a mezzanine bar and lounge, looks like a turn-of-the-century railway waiting room in a David Lynch movie. The walls are painted a cool, pale green. The lighting, from Japanese-style modern fixtures, is flat. And two giant mirrors on either side of the room reflect the coffered ceiling instead of extending your vision to the people below. Dark blue banquettes divide the room, which has silver and gold Grecian pillars, into three sections. But their backs are so high, you can’t see over the top. (Perhaps they should take a cue from Le Cirque 2000′s Sirio Maccioni, who immediately cut down the high backs of the restaurant’s chairs after opening, knowing that seeing and being seen is the whole point.) Still, it’s amusing to sit in this space and imagine chemists whooping it up in white ties and tails, even if the former ballroom now feels like the best new French restaurant in a provincial Bulgarian town.
Mr. Virot has organized his menus according to the main ingredient in each dish, listed in bold; he changes the garnishes frequently. His arrangements are wild and colorful works of art, served on giant rectangular, round or square plates, some made from glass in subtle hues of green, blue or mustard.
When we sat down, the kitchen sent out a small bowl of emerald-green asparagus soup, laced with bracing pieces of lime and purple chive blossom “to open the appetite,” our French waiter said (which it did). Foie gras looked like a furry bath mat, studded with pistachio, potato and quince crumble. I’ve never tasted anything quite like it; the crispy coating provided an intriguing foil to the buttery liver, its richness cut with a splash of balsamic vinegar. Slices of dark red tuna were treated like smoked salmon, marinated with cucumber strips and coriander with a tart sheep’s-milk yogurt sauce enlivened with a bite of fresh horseradish. Large, juicy shrimp came on a skewer with basil leaves, served with a slightly bitter salad of zucchini and red cabbage in a saffron-mustard dressing. Fat sea scallops were sautéed with cane sugar and chili peppers, and came with a green and red cabbage salad and lime emulsion. Sardines were nestled in a delicate tart shell with tomato marmalade, onion and tarragon; and green and white asparagus (not stringy, for once) were tossed with morels in a light cream sauce.
Mr. Virot excels at creating dishes that are subtle yet surprising. Lobster sautéed with cardomom, radishes and arugula was served with a basmati rice pancake and a caramel-ginger sauce that brought out the sweetness of the shellfish. Bass took on more assertive flavors, with braised carrots seasoned with oregano and Meyer lemon, glazed salsify and a rich, black Niçoise olive sauce. Venison–sent out one night with a cocoa-coffee sauce–was perfectly cooked but, being farm-raised, didn’t have a lot of flavor, unlike the squab, which was rare and meaty, paired with peppered scallions and an odd but pleasant cake made with oatmeal and porcini mushrooms. A terrific rack of lamb consisted of three rare chops on raisin-studded couscous, with yellow wax beans and a sauce made from braised lamb shank.
Virot has a particularly good wine list, with over 370 selections, many of them from the Loire Valley, Alsace and Southwestern France. There is also an extensive list of dessert wines. One evening, a Rivesaltes Domaine Cazes Hambre caught my companion’s eye. Our friendly French waiter urged us to try it, saying it was one of his favorites.
“The family, some of whom I knew in Venice, are descendants of the Marquis de Sade,” said my friend.
I replied that I thought he was a remarkable writer, much maligned.
“I’m fond of him, too,” said the waiter.
He was right about the wine, which my friend found “light, stylish, oxidized in a 19th-century style.” And it was perfect with the desserts. Jehangir Mehta, who previously worked at Jean Georges and Union Pacific, is one of the most daring and original pastry chefs I’ve come across in New York. His creations are from another planet (or the work of some ingenious alchemist): unexpected, but with coherence and personality. We ordered the “salty caramel tapioca tart” just because it sounded so odd, and odd it was, but wonderfully so. Little pearls of tapioca cooked in a caramel sauce and seasoned with sea salt were served in a light pastry shell under a slippery marinated mango topping. It was astonishing. So was another equally bizarre-sounding dessert, a soup made with Baileys’ Irish Cream. It was like a liquid milk-chocolate bar, floating with a zeppelin of chocolate cream, but not the least bit sickly sweet. On a more conventional note, there was a burnished cake made from ricotta and roasted pineapple, served with a tart pineapple sorbet, and a first-rate classic hazelnut soufflé with banana gratinée.
At the end of dinner, a platter of Turkish Delight, marshmallows and chocolate-covered almonds was set before us. Then the waiter appeared with a napkin folded around a pile of hot madeleines, each the size of a thumbnail.
“If Proust had eaten one of these, he would have written a novella,” my friend commented as he finished the last one.
Virot is an endearingly odd restaurant with some fine food. It’s quietly civilized but, like the building itself, full of surprises. Among the rooms at the Dylan is a Gothic chamber created in 1932 to replicate a medieval alchemist’s laboratory. How many hotels in town offer that?
Dylan Hotel 52 East 41st Street
Noise level: Low
Wine list: Excellent, over 370 wines, mostly French and American
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Lunch and dinner main courses, $24 to $39; two-course prix-fixe lunch $29; three-course prix-fixe dinner $49; six-course tasting menus, lunch and dinner, $65 (vegetarian) and $75
Breakfast: Monday to Friday, 6:30 to 10 a.m.; Saturday 8 a.m. To noon, Sunday to 2 p.m.
Lunch: Monday to Friday, noon to 3 p.m.
Dinner: Monday to Friday, 5:30 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11:30 p.m.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor