Stunning Biltmore Room’s Got
Something Old, Something New A grungy block opposite a Chelsea housing development on Eighth Avenue is the last place you’d expect to find a restaurant like this. The Biltmore Room evokes an era when women wore strapless gowns with long gloves to dinner, the men were dressed in black tie, and everyone smoked between courses.
The iron gate and bronze revolving doors at the restaurant’s entrance come from the old Biltmore Hotel, which opened in 1913 near Grand Central Terminal. In the early 1980′s, developers beat last-minute attempts to designate the hotel’s magnificent marble lobby a landmark, and reclad it in a sickening shiny brown granite veneer (they also got rid of the famous clock, which was for years a favorite meeting place, especially for students). Now, the old Biltmore’s tall, brass-framed French doors lead from the lounge into the new restaurant’s dining room, where the walls and floor are made from polished Italian Carrera and rose marble, also salvaged from the old Biltmore.
It’s hard to believe that this building, which dates back to 1845, was once a speakeasy and, in its last incarnation, a transvestite club with a room downstairs that, one of the waitresses told me, was known as “The Dungeon.” There are enormous mirrors, giant flower arrangements, and the banquettes are upholstered in pewter-colored leather. Crystal chandeliers hang from the mahogany ceiling, and there’s even a working fireplace with a marble mantle, above which stands a small clock in homage to the famous hotel landmark.
“It’s Kay Francis meets Pompeii!” commented one of my friends, looking out at all this opulence as he drank a glass of champagne.
In such a setting, you’d expect beef carved from the trolley or pheasant under glass, served by old codgers in tailcoats. Instead, there are “giant prawns in sarong”: two enormous specimens wrapped in thin crispy noodles (that look like golden wires) and served with ruby-red nuggets of beets with a honey-ginger vinaigrette, an avocado and tomato salad and mango mint salsa. “Tataki” of bluefin tuna comes with cucumber-ginger sorbet, a crunchy fennel-jicama salad and a scarlet splash of cayenne pepper oil. The food, Asian fusion with the occasional Latino or North African touch, can certainly compete with the flamboyance of the décor.
The chef at the Biltmore Room is the talented Gary Robins, who has worked at Aja, Match and Mi and is a partner with the owners, Boston restaurateurs Jeffrey Mills and Chris Medeiros. I was introduced to Mr. Robins’ food at Aja, where he was one of the first in town to pair Asian spices, herbs and cooking styles with American ingredients. He is brilliant at juxtaposing unexpected textures and tastes-sweet with salty, spicy with tart, hot with cold. His food gets your attention without being forced or outlandish.
One of my favorite dishes at the Biltmore Room is the large, deep-fried squash blossom. Mr. Robins doesn’t prepare it the Italian way, stuffed with mozzarella and anchovy, but makes an American dish out of it, using Maryland crab instead, and serving it with a sweet corn and avocado salad-an Asian touch-with a mango-chili dipping sauce added for good measure. A buttery slab of seared foie gras gets a fiery mango dipping sauce, too, and it also cuts the richness of the liver, which comes with black Thai rice salad.
Mr. Robins takes the notion of mixed green salad to another stratosphere with a beautiful arrangement of different-colored leaves tossed in a delicate dressing made with aged sherry vinegar and garnished with pears, persimmons, figs, duck prosciutto and spiced almonds. His lime-cured salmon is conceived along more conventional lines, but it’s equally good, with ginger crème fraîche and crisp potato latkes. Mr. Robins can’t help but jazz things up, though, and he adds a radish salad and papaya pickle to the plate.
There are just six main courses (and eight first courses) on the menu, and I didn’t find a clinker among them. Miso brings an Asian note to the marinated Alaskan black cod, which comes with Japanese eggplant, a fiery red pepper jus and a somen noodle salad. Wild salmon, which gets an Indian touch with warm spices, arrived on a bed of marvelous red lentils, with watermelon pickle, steamed spinach and spicy carrot butter. Algerian spices coat the rack of lamb, which is perfectly cooked and served with couscous (sprinkled with dried figs) and a sweet-sour tomato eggplant chutney. Free-range chicken is marinated in Thai spices and then goes all over the planet with “sesame-whipped” potatoes, sweet corn and chanterelles with baby bok choy. The lavender-honey glazed duck is simply wonderful, with endive, sugar snaps, truffled cauliflower purée and figs roasted in port.
Desserts are less elaborate, but no less stellar. The financier-made with plums one evening, pears on another, sunken in a puffed almond pastry-is great. So is the panna cotta: The waiter lifts the lid off a small white bowl and there it is, a quivering disc in all its pristine beauty, served alongside a scoop of shiny dark blueberry sorbet that looks oddly like a freshly peeled beet. The friend who had ordered the warm chocolate torte described it as unthinkably delicious. But in a dining room such as this, a soufflé is de rigueur . It’s perfect, made with passion fruit, topped with a sprinkling of candied ginger and served with a scoop of creamy coconut sorbet.
Even though I didn’t see any customers in strapless cocktail dresses or black tie, there was plenty at the Biltmore Room in the way of people-watching. In the old days at the hotel, the waiter probably brought the phone to your table if you wished to make a call. But this new restaurant has the city’s first cell-phone booth, made of brass padded with beige leather. And during dinner recently, it was put to frequent use by a buxom young woman in a clingy pink backless strap dress that matched her skin color exactly and was decorated with a few strategically placed spangles. She strutted back and forth to the booth several times, and each time people stopped eating, literally holding their forks in the air.