Bette Davis Keeps Watch
Over Soho’s V.I.P.-less Cub Room
If you are a close follower of restaurant reviews, you might think the business is all about novelty-new chefs serving exotic new ingredients in new and ever wilder settings. And since trendy bars and fashionable restaurants have a notoriously short life span in the city, there are always plenty of new ones to write about in their place. But some establishments do last. One of them is the Cub Room in Soho, which celebrates its 10th birthday this year.
The Cub Room’s bar has been going strong since Day 1. In warm weather, its windows are flung open onto the street, beautiful women can be seen lounging on sofas, sipping cocktails dating back to the 1930’s, and there are the requisite young bankers in suits, bellying up to the bar after work.
The adjacent café often has a line outside on weekends, with people waiting to get in for brunch. As for the main dining room, it’s set apart from the hoi polloi, tucked away in the back. So was the original Cub Room in the Stork Club on East 53rd Street, one of the most famous nightclubs in the world, which lasted from the 1920’s to the 1960’s. The club had a private inner chamber reserved by the club’s owner, Sherman Billingsley (an ex-bootlegger), for V.I.P.’s. It was nicknamed the “Snub Room,” and the clientele included everyone from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to Walter Winchell, Herbert Hoover and Bing Crosby.
When you walk into Soho’s Cub Room now, the first thing you see is a reminder of its glorious past: a framed photograph on the wall of Bette Davis, in a scene from All About Eve , ensconced at a table and making a champagne toast at the old club.
It was 8:45 p.m. when I arrived, and the hostess standing over the computer at the reservations desk seemed confused. A man emerged from the shadows, and she whispered: “Shall I seat them?” There was a pause. Was I being denied entry to the Snub Room? A sigh of relief … I was shown in, quite expecting to be squeezed in at the last remaining table in the dining room. Instead, the place was empty. No glamorous women in strapless gowns; no jostling gossip columnists. In fact, no one at all. I was seated at a table near the kitchen, and as soon as the hostess left, I moved.
The dining room, alas, bears no resemblance to the original, which was done up in silk, satin and gold, with giant mirrors and chandeliers. This Cub Room, designed by Larry Bogdanow, is all open brickwork and polished wood. It looks like a cross between a men’s lunch club and a dining room at an Aspen ski resort. The furniture, however, is beautiful: In the center of the room, four semi-circular banquettes fan out from a wooden centerpiece topped with a giant vase of flowers. The plain tables are set with simple, elegant wooden chairs, and floor-to-ceiling windows look out onto the townhouses of Sullivan Street; but if you’re seated facing the other way, you get a view of computer screens and the kitchen.
I had eaten here the previous week at the ungodly hour of 6 o’clock, on my way to the theater. There was only one other couple in the restaurant, which is what you’d expect at this time in Soho. We had a fine meal that evening (the current chef, Benjamin Paris Grossman, was formerly at Picholine and La Grenouille), so I decided to come back at a more reasonable hour. But on my second visit, the food-modern American-was so uneven that I strongly suspected that the chef, depressed by the lack of customers, had gone home.
The meal gets off to a good start with a basket of first-rate breads-grissini, whole-wheat rolls and flat bread-along with a choice of three oils, set in a white rectangular dish with compartments like an artist’s palette: pale hues of green (rosemary), yellow (roast garlic) and pink (chili). You can begin with a mound of snowy, fresh jumbo lump crabmeat, layered with avocado, cucumber and tomato piled in a neat heap and seasoned with lemon, lime, orange juice and orange zest. A “gateau” is also layered-roasted beets alternating with a rich goat cheese and a crunchy walnut praline, garnished with leaves of frisée and unpleasantly soft lardons. Calamari are rolled in a light coating of cornmeal and come with a dip of creamy avocado sauce and a lemon vinaigrette and parsley sauce.
One of the best dishes on the menu is the short-rib tortellini, large, floppy envelopes of pasta filled with shredded beef and seasoned with Moroccan spices in a bordelaise sauce. They’re wonderful. So is the house-made ricotta gnocchi, enormous airy pillows in a truffle-flavored sauce topped with a ragout of mushrooms. The risotto is superb, al dente grains tossed with duck confit, fava beans, morels and asparagus, liberally seasoned with Parmesan cheese. All of this, I’m sure, would have gone down just fine at the old Cub Room. And so would the chicken, roasted under a brick, which has a golden, crackling skin.
But the “Cub steak” is a dry, stringy, tasteless filet mignon served with overcooked spinach and a salty potato gratin. The halibut too is dry, garnished with a confused mélange of vegetables topped with desiccated shavings of roasted carrots.
Like the old Cub Room, you can order a soufflé for dessert. I decided to try the peanut butter soufflé, which comes with raspberry sauce. A mistake: It tastes like a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich with the guts torn out. The “Smore” is worse than anything your average summer camper ever cooked up around the fire. It’s inedible, made with stolid lumps of chocolate sorbet on ginger sponge under a layer of melted marshmallow that’s so rubbery you can’t get your fork through it. It’s hard to believe that these awful desserts came from the same kitchen as the warm dark-chocolate cake with caramelized bananas and macadamia-nut ice cream, or the lovely apple tart, which has a crunchy pistachio-nut crust and is topped with cinnamon ice cream and rum-raisin sauce.
If you choose the right dishes, you can have a terrific meal at the Cub Room. And its probably one of the few decent restaurants in Soho where you can get a table on a Saturday night.