Love It or Lever It:
Mod Boîte Makes Waves
So which side are you on-do you love it or hate it? Since it opened last fall in Gordon Bunshaft’s modernist green glass tower on Park Avenue, Lever House restaurant has generated almost as much controversy as the building itself when it went up in 1952. “The food was terrific, but I’ll never go back there,” commented one friend. “I felt I was eating in a 747.”
I managed to get a table at 10:30 p.m., a time when most restaurants in this midtown neighborhoodhave packed up for the night. But when we arrived (after an evening at the New York City Ballet), guests were still coming in for dinner.
Wecheckedour coats in the austere black-granite lobby and proceeded down along white chute, as if we were time-traveling to another age. The chute empties out into a narrow, beige, windowless dining room designed by Marc Newson. It looks like a set from Dr. No . The futuristic silver ceiling has rounded edges and is inset with hexagonalpatterns, some of which are lights.
There are hexagons everywhere: on the beige carpets, on the mirrors and ceilings, on the raised, recessed booths that line one wall. If you pressed one of these shapes, you wouldn’t be surprised if the ceiling opened up and the fearsome Bond villain himself, flanked by his henchmen, was lowered down.
Or perhaps he’d suddenly appear in the strange elevated dining room at the rear, which is glassed in, like a shop window. From our table, we had a good view of a business dinner that was taking place inside, which appeared to be in its final stages. The effect was eerie, since you couldn’t hear the people’s voices but could watch their every move. A pale, dark-haired woman in a frumpy beige suit stood apart from the other guests, clutching the flower arrangement she’d taken from the table. She stared out at the main dining room, like Hedda Gabler, alone and seemingly impervious to the men around her, who were slapping each other on the back and pumping hands. Quite suddenly, a beige curtain was drawn and we could see no more.
Too bad. For seeing and being seen is the very essence of Lever House. Despite its downtown hours and its downtown owners, John McDonald (MercBar, Canteen) and Josh Pickard (Joe’s Pub), it very much attracts an uptown group, all well-off and well-dressed, and of all ages. “Lawyers, bankers and accountants,” commented my companion, looking around the room. “All the people Martha needs to help her are right here. Chute right on down to the powerhouse!”
Chef Dan Silverman’s New American cuisine fits right into the setting. It’s straightforward enough not to interrupt the sealing of business deals, yet, at the same time, it makes a powerful statement with its respect for fresh, seasonal food: When a plate arrives, you don’t have to stare at it for half an hour trying to figure out what it was you ordered because everything on it has been twisted into weird, unrecognizable shapes. Mr. Silverman was formerly at Union Square Café, which is two steps away from the Greenmarket. He’s accustomed to letting the ingredients speak for themselves, and they speak plainly.
Lever House’s menu is short and clever, beginning with a choice of a half-dozen raw dishes. Fluke is cut in small chunks and piled in a disk with just enough spring onion and orange to bring out the flavor without overwhelming it. Beef carpaccio comes with a robust arugula salsa verde and shaved Parmesan. The tuna carpaccio is the best I’ve tasted: It’s spread in a single thin layer that takes up the whole plate and is dotted with wasabi crème fraîche and crunchy wasabi tobiko.
Instead of butter or olive oil, with your bread you’re served a thick walnut-garlic paste. It’s so good you want to spread it on everything. My companion spread it on her grilled shrimp, even though they needed no help: They were enormous, and came wrapped in a pancetta crust. Suck the heads, Hemingway style. Delicious!
Fried okra arrives coated in a delicate batter and comes with a yellow and green bean salad so fresh it squeaks. Lobster is taken out of its shell and fried in tempura batter; it’s juicy and tender and served with a good old-fashioned tartar sauce.
Vitello tonnato, a dish from the 60’s that fits nicely into this context, is updated with grilled leeks and roast peppers. A fillet of Arctic char, like a soft, pink pillow, is topped with wild herb butter and accompanied by sweet, tender carrots and pungent wild mushrooms, while cod gets a sauce made with alfonso olives and is dressed up with a cube of fried polenta and an onion confit. A very rich wild mushroom risotto, loaded with butter and Parmesan cheese, is perfectly cooked, each kernel al dente.
Mr. Silverman splits and sears a poussin, getting a skin as crisp as a Peking duck’s while keeping the flesh juicy underneath. He pours a light foie gras over the top and garnishes the plate with tiny Brussels sprouts and wild mushrooms. It’s simple, familiar, yet raised to new heights with the foie gras.
Pastry chef Deborah Snyder, also formerly of Union Square Café, makes classic, elegant and playful desserts, all of which are accompanied by some form of ice cream or sorbet. A disk of lemon meringue tart comes with a rich creamsicle gelée and orange sherbet. A perfect panna cotta is garnished with four kinds of citrus and a lemon sorbet, and the chocolate-peanut butter dome, decorated with a spun sugar squiggle, gets a dollop of peanut-butter ice cream. The milk-and-dark-bitter-chocolate tart, soft and melting in the center, is surrounded by kumquats and comes with a fabulous malted vanilla ice cream. For first place in my book, it’s a toss-up between this and the warm, sticky toffee pudding-that stalwart of English businessmen’s clubs-whichisserved here withpoachedpearsand crème fraîche ice cream instead of treacle sauce.
Lever House is not the most comfortable restaurant-the all-black, dimly lit bathrooms are a nightmare, and at lunch the dining room’s lighting is flat and cafeteria-like. But the place, with its quirky décor, is fun. So is the people-watching-and the food is terrific.