“Actually, it’s rather nice that it’s so quiet,” said my companion one afternoon after the only other customers in the dining room had left. “It makes me feel pleasantly sleepy and like taking a nap.”
We had just finished a lavish lunch in the newly refurbished restaurant at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée, so he could have headed right upstairs. Formerly known as Le Régence, it has reopened as Arabelle after a $2 million renovation–complete with a feng shui practitioner to make sure the vibes are right and a new menu that runs the gamut from “heirloom tomatoes: levels 1-8” to surf ‘n’ turf. I had forgotten about Le Régence, an ornate, Old World French restaurant where Daniel Boulud was launched over a decade ago. And so, it seems, had everyone else. When I looked it up in a guidebook, it was described as one of New York’s “best-kept secrets.”
Judging by the number of people gathered at cocktail time, the bar of the Plaza Athénée–which you enter through a gleaming white marble lobby–is no secret. Following its renovation, it looks like an English country house in the 1930’s, painted dark red and decorated with the sort of furniture the owner would have collected on his travels around the empire: Byzantine paintings and family portraits, bamboo furniture, velvet-covered ottomans, animal-print fabrics and onyx wall sconces. On a recent evening, it was packed with young Japanese businessmen, older denizens of Park Avenue in crumpled summer linens and a young Hasid in a tall black hat, fervently courting a woman in a sun dress. I felt as though I were at a costume party in England in the 30’s and we were about to play charades. An older couple perched side-by-side on an ottoman brought to mind Nancy Mitford’s comment about exchanging the hurly-burly of the chaise lounge for the domestic tranquillity of the marital bed, something they had clearly done years ago, for they barely exchanged a word.
Le Régence, as its name suggests, was a Louis XIV-style homage to gracious dining, done up in robin’s-egg blue with pearl-white trim and a curved ceiling painted to look like a cloud-dotted summer sky. Now it looks like Versailles if Robespierre had sent his men to tone it down. The clouds have been swept away (the ceiling is now an austere pale gold), but not the chandeliers, and the blue is now yellow with white molding. Crystal globe lights hang from metal poles suspended horizontally from the walls. One side of the room is lined with fake windows backlit so they look like part of a stage set, complete with swagged curtains. (You half-expect someone to poke their head in and ask, “Anyone for tennis?”) But it’s comfortable and certainly quiet. You can actually have a conversation without shouting yourself hoarse, which is more than you can say about many of the designer-hotel dining rooms with their black leather banquettes and steel or glass walls.
Arabelle’s decor may be on the baroque side, but there is nothing old-fashioned about the food. Raymond Saja worked at Jean Georges and at C.T. with Claude Troisgros. His food is basically French, with accents from Asia, the Mediterranean and the United States; his plates are works of art, like paintings by Tinguely, with playful designs and bright splashes of color. The menu is a veritable encyclopedia of fashionable food, from tuna sashimi with Chinese broccoli, rock shrimp, wood-ear mushrooms and Sicilian blood-orange ponzu to–inhale deeply–halibut with sunchokes, truffles, beans, pancetta and golden chanterelles. Forget about Escoffier’s maxim, “Faîtes simple.”
But Mr. Saja’s food is extremely good, starting with the oddly named “heirloom tomatoes: levels 1-8,” a play on all the things you can do with a tomato. To complete the course, you need to work through “simple, confit, ‘powder,’ gelée, water, sorbet, dried and oil.” The plate also contains a circle of tomato slices–red, yellow and green–piled on top of each other and topped with a plush, deep-red tomato sorbet. If you love tomatoes as much as I do, you will be in heaven.
Mr. Saja’s playful sense of humor is evident with the sautéed foie gras, which arrives looking like a Maurice Sendak creature, as though it possessed a row of brown teeth (actually toasted almonds). It comes with green onions, almond foam, duck consommé sauce and oloroso vinegar, which cuts the creamy richness of the liver.
The chef also combines seafood and meat in intriguing ways. Plump seared sea scallops are served with pickled beef brisket en gelée, arugula, horseradish and cauliflower. The sharpness of the horseradish and arugula brings out the deep flavors of the scallops and beef. Squab, meaty and rare, is paired with a delicate seafood sausage, the picture rounded out with crunchy pea shoots, pineapple, ginger and soy. His version of surf ‘n’ turf is made with Hereford tenderloin and sweet New Zealand langoustines, served with shimeji mushrooms that get a bitter accent from rapini and horseradish.
I also like the way he adds an extra touch to a simple dish, like roast poussin. Creamy mashed potatoes are piped alongside the perfectly cooked bird in a giant quotation mark; asparagus and corn dot the plate, which also comes with tiny, crisp, spring-roll-like strips of braised thigh meat. Even a green salad gets the treatment, arriving with a small gorgonzola soufflé, walnuts and batons of ripe pear in a cider vinaigrette.
Farm-raised salmon has become a bore, but Mr. Saja gets his wild from Nova Scotia. It’s a rosy chunk of lean, rare fish afloat on a sorrel nage, with a springlike garnish of sliced fingerling potatoes, favas, morels and melted leeks. His lamb travels to the Mediterranean, crusted with herbs and served with stewed eggplant, Ligurian olives, tomato confit and cumin-scented pine-nut jus.
Desserts are no let-down either, in taste or the quantity of ingredients. The cheesecake with black pepper is wonderful, and comes with a vanilla-pineapple compote, green-apple sorbet and pineapple chips. The chocolate “tasting” is good, too, with a fallen soufflé cake, a pot de crème served in a small coffee cup, and a milk jam sauce. Perhaps the most inventive is the sparkling champagne gelée with wild-strawberry soup, kaffir lime and basil sorbet, and vanilla fromage blanc, decorated with miniature basil leaves.
I’m sorry to give away a secret, but Arabelle offers terrific food and professional, old-school service. It’s also very expensive (apart from their $20.01 lunch, which runs through Labor Day)–and if you come here for lunch and end up making wine-driven impulse purchases down Madison Avenue afterwards, very expensive indeed. The food, at any rate, will have been worth it.
* * 1/2
Hôtel Plaza Athénée, 37 East 64th Street
Noise level: Quiet
Wine list: Extensive, expensive, well-chosen
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Main courses, lunch, $21 to $29; dinner, $27 to $38
Lunch: Tuesday to Saturday,
Noon to 2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Tuesday to Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor