Worshipping Food Where Once
Dollars Reigned Supreme
Next to a Chinese dress shop called the Well Timed Wedding (gowns start at $69.99), two stone lions guard the massive doorway that leads into the old Bowery Savings Bank. The building, which was designed over a century ago by Stanford White, occupies the entire block (you may remember it from those TV ads Joe DiMaggio did for the bank). But for the past 15 years or so, it was boarded up. Passers-by had no clue that behind the Chinese storefronts, clustered along its walls like the barnacles on a shipwreck, was concealed one of the grandest palaces in New York.
Inside, it’s all gold and marble, an awesome spectacle of Roman grandeur and Renaissance opulence, with soaring Doric columns, mosaic tile floors and coffered ceilings 65 feet high: a cathedral built for the worship of money.
It’s an inspired setting for chef Franklin Becker’smodern American food. The menu-which includes such dishes as grilled bison with chocolate oil, foie gras on ice wine gelée, and steamed black sea bass that’s served in a sake broth the waiter pours out from an iron Japanese teapot-lives up to its surroundings, which is quite a feat.
A square bar, made of back-lit onyx, has been installed at the entrance, under the legend “Your financial welfare is the business of the bank.” Now, instead of portraits of bank presidents, the walls are hung with creamy-gold tufted, upholstered panels that look like giant beds. There’s a whiff of Jeff Coons in these and other details: the long tubs of grass by the bar, the zebra- and pony-skin stools-all very 1980′s. Donald Trump would be right at home here, lounging on one of the circular banquettes with a bevy of supermodels.
We sat down at a table that was set with enormous gold-rimmed plates, huge crystal wine glasses and glowing Art Deco candleholders shaped like tulips. The maître d’ brought over the wine list, a leather-bound tome literally the size of a phone book, and my heart sank. I opened it expecting the lowest price to be in three digits. But the list is both impressive and intelligent, with many unusual choices, ranging from 12 Brunello di Montalcinos, to the Margaux and Haut Brions that only Donald Trump could afford. “There’s even a 1996 Taittinger rose brut for $350!” exclaimed one of my friends as he leafed through the selections. “That’s very hard to find.”
And not within our budget. Our choice was a Giacosa Dolcetto for $30, an Italian red. It went very well with Mr. Becker’s cooking, which is as confident and smart as the wine list.
Mr. Becker was formerly at Local and Cucina, and was also private chef for Revlon magnate Ronald Perelman. One night, as an amuse-bouche, the kitchen sent out crab spring rolls with ginger miso dressing, a sprinkling of sea salt and a cress salad. Another night, tiny salmon rillettes on a potato chip arrived on a plate sprinkled with a cider reduction and ginger crème fraîche. Capitale also serves excellent, house-baked crusty rolls and great olive bread that’s made with juicy whole black olives.
The borscht, a nod to the Lower East Side, is wonderful, made with a ginger-scented purée of beets so thick you can almost eat it with a fork. It’s laced with chunks of three kinds of beets and topped with a quail egg and ginger crème fraîche. The buttery Kobe beef with Perigeux sauce is also terrific, given the neighborhood touch with crisp potato-leek pierogi that come heaped in a cast-iron skillet.
Mr. Becker also combines Asian and Moroccan elements in his dishes. An escabeche of yellowtail snapper is perked up with black cumin and shiso leaves. Pan-roasted red shrimp and lentils are given a Latin zip, with chorizo and lemon oil. And the slow-cooked salmon-so light it’s almost ethereal-is sprinkled with Moroccan gremolata and served on pickled beets. The only disappointment is the bland blue crab rillettes served with small discs of socca, the Niçoise chickpea crêpe.
Bison with chocolate oil is not a combination that many people have tried. Served on a rich merlot reduction, with a smooth, sweet purée of parsnip and celery root that contrasts with the bitterness of sautéed mustard greens, it’s one of the best things on the menu. The rack of lamb is perfect, rosy and tender, with a robust spring vegetable pot au feu and boulangère potatoes.
In spite of some of his outlandish-sounding ingredients, Mr. Becker’s food is actually quite straightforward, with intense, bold flavors. The only dish I found strange was a sort of ham and cheese sandwich. It was made with taleggio cheese and prosciutto cotto on caramelized brioche, with a compote of strawberries cooked in red wine and vincotto. “It’s like something you get after a night on the town when you’re staying at one of the best hotels in Paris,” commented my companion. “You call down to the kitchen at 4 a.m. and say, ‘Send something up! We’re all starving!’”
Apart from a gummy apricot tarte Tatin, pastry chef John Lee’s desserts live up to the rest of the meal. Sonhos (tiny doughnuts) come with crème Catalan and a light blood-orange sauce with candied orange. The Meyer lemon custard-more of a chilled soufflé, in fact-is fancifully garnished with grapefruit, tangerine sorbet and pink peppercorns. The wittiest dessert is the chocolate soufflé with S’mores and an egg cream on the side, squirted with seltzer from an old-fashioned glass bottle.
Capitale is the third sumptuous Stanford White bank in New York that’s been turned into a banquet venue (the other two, one on East 42nd Street, the other on Wall Street, are owned by the Cipriani family). From the dining room, you can see through glass panels framed with red velvet curtains into an immense ballroom, and there are other, smaller rooms for private parties, including the bank vault.
I think White, who was quite a bon vivant, would have approved of Capitale. He was shot dead while dining in a rooftop restaurant at the original Madison Square Garden with “the girl in the red velvet swing,” who also happened to be the paramour of millionaire Harry K. Thaw. Thaw got off by pleading insanity. But several years later, my dinner companion told me, Thaw ran over my friend’s great-uncle Lou with his car. “Great-uncle Lou was dirt poor. So when Thaw paid him a very handsome compensation, he put all the money into the stock market.”
The year was 1928.
The Bowery, once one of the loveliest avenues in the city, never recovered from the Crash. But Capitale gives you an idea, for a couple of hours at least, of what life once was like. This bank may no longer give high interest rates, but as far as dinner is concerned, you get more than just a good return on your investment.