Gray Kunz is indisputably a great chef, but I wonder if this restaurant is the best showcase for his talents. Apart from the food, much of which is superb, dining here can be a strange and incoherent experience. It was interesting on one of my visits to see the place through the eyes of friends visiting from abroad. They were already at the bar when I arrived at Café Gray, looking bemused. “Why are we having dinner in a shopping mall?” they asked.
New Yorkers have now become used to this aspect of the Time Warner Center’s pretentiously named “Restaurant Collection.” But my friends felt displaced, as though they’d landed not in the city but somewhere in the suburbs.
The next tremor of displacement came when, after a wait at the bar, we were shown at last to our table. Where was the view? Instead of looking out over Central Park, we found ourselves staring into an open kitchen. It runs the length of the room directly in front of the windows. This is one of the most perverse design elements I’ve ever come across in a restaurant. In the attempt to reduce cooking smells and smoke, a steady stream of cold air blew over the front of the kitchen and down the back of one of my friends, who was unlucky enough to be sitting right in its path. He complained several times but was unable to get it turned down.
As for the décor of the room, which seats 200, it could be anywhere, from Minneapolis to Milan. It looks less like a café than a cross between a discotheque and a hotel lobby from the 1960′s, with chocolate-brown banquettes, a leaf-patterned carpet, and smoked glass and mirrored panels reflecting dozens of exposed filament bulbs overhead. Quite a contrast to the fusty grandiosity of the Louis XV dining room at Lespinasse in the St. Regis Hotel, where Mr. Kunz last cooked.
He left the four-star Lespinasse six years ago. In the interim, rumors about his next project whirred, but nothing materialized. Now, with Café Gray, which is said to have been $6 million in the making, he has returned with food less formal than Lespinasse, but no less creative. Much of it is four-star cooking. And Mr. Gray casts his net far and wide, borrowing details from just about every cuisine-Asian, French, New American, Italian, Indian and even Southern.
A wonderful, earthy risotto is topped with chanterelles and sprinkled with truffle oil; it’s out of this world, each grain creamy and al dente. An unusual first course is made with thin, round sheets of pasta the size of a bread plate placed under and over a dense, pleasantly acidic concassée of tomatoes with thyme, rosemary and parmesan cheese. A lemongrass nage with bay scallops and lobster dances with myriad flavors: sour with sweet, peppery with lemony. A minimalist yellowtail himachi, sprinkled with flying fish roe, rock salt and chili oil, disappears in a bite. A circle of crunchy shrimp is arranged on a purée of crosnes (tubers that taste like artichokes) with a pickled papaya and coriander remoulade. A sexy lobster salad comes with curried apple, and salty shavings of bottarga give a new twist to vitello tonatto. But baked root vegetables, lined up on a long plate with mint and yogurt, are undercooked.
With flashes of brilliance, Mr. Kunz wraps fluke in a coating of puffed rice and serves it with preserved lemon brown butter and creamed spinach. He makes schnitzel with breaded skate instead of veal and serves it with fried capers on a bed of julienned jicama with walnuts and apple. This is food that makes you sit up.
Braised beef short ribs, a Kunz signature, are coated with a barbecue sauce made with tamarind, mango pickle and Asian spices. They’re a tad sweet but fall off the bone, and they come on a soft white pillow of grits with a Meaux mustard sauce. The venison is so tender you could cut it with a spoon, in a dark, glazed juniper and brandy sauce with roesti potatoes and savoy cabbage. The roast duck is too vinegary, although perfectly cooked, layered with endive and sprinkled with walnuts. Seared lamb roulade is unbelievably good, tender and pink, and it comes with borlotti and flageolet beans with a pepper coulis.
Would that the service was up to the food. There has been enough time since Café Gray opened six months ago for the wait staff to have been sorted out. Service is still as confused, distracted and slow as it was when I first came here in December. There were long waits before we ordered and again in between courses. A waiter poured wine to be tasted into a glass that already had wine in it, and he kept saying “Enjoy!” as plates were cheerfully set down in front of the wrong person. And since the food is sometimes unrecognizable at first glance, served in stunning arrangements and fanciful shapes on oversized white plates and shallow bowls, it would be nice if the waiter remembered who gets what.
Café Gray has a very good international wine list, not overpriced but not cheap either. It has a strong selection of Austrian and German wines, which should not be surprising since the sommelier, Alex Adlgasser, is Austrian.
Desserts, set down in the wrong order, include whiskey and molasses cheesecake with huckleberries, a sublime chocolate ganache tart, crème brûlée, and apple croustade and a tender poached pear. There is also a terrific ice cream sampler, with scoops served on a silver platter indented with shell shapes.
As we got up to leave, I looked towards the kitchen and managed to make out the statue of Columbus, looming like a ghost in a window that wasn’t totally obscured by pots and pans and cooks in white hats. There before us was proof that we were not in Minneapolis or Detroit, but in New York. And the city hasn’t been the same without the genius of Gray Kunz.