In Paris, “Bar Americain” means a place that serves liquor as well as wine and beer. So the first thing that catches your eye when you walk into celebrity chef Bobby Flay’s new restaurant is the enormous zinc bar, smack in the center of the 200-seat dining room. The cocktails here, developed by partner Laurence Kretchmer, aren’t those gimmicky concoctions created for clubgoers raised on sticky sodas; they’re designed for grown-ups. (John O’Hara or John Cheever would be right at home here.) Over 50 are offered, including Manhattans, mint juleps, “Hemingway” daiquiris (rum, fresh grapefruit juice and lime), Ramos fizzes and even Bronx cocktails (invented at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1899 for the opening of the Bronx Zoo) made with gin, two kinds of vermouth and bitters.
As Dorothy Parker famously remarked, “One more drink and I’ll be under the host.”
But there’s also food, an even bigger draw. Mr. Flay traveled around the country for over a year, researching regional American cooking for a television series. Now he’s serving his version of these dishes at Bar Americain, using only homegrown ingredients.
It’s been 14 years since Mr. Flay introduced New Yorkers to his dazzling take on Southwestern food when he opened Mesa Grill downtown. He followed this success with Spanish cuisine at Bolo in the Flatiron district, and last year he opened a branch of Mesa Grill at Caesar’s Palace. (Is there a celebrity chef left who hasn’t yet notched his belt with a restaurant in Las Vegas?)
Bar Americain’s 200-seat dining room, designed by David Rockwell in the premises that used to be Judson Grill, is airy and open. It has a curved bronze ceiling like an airplane hangar, and a raw bar in front of an open kitchen where you can see Mr. Flay himself directing the action. Light fixtures six feet in diameter hang like giant drums above 30′s-style round banquettes upholstered in rust-brown leather. The floor is covered with diamond-patterned tiles-white, gold, orange and charcoal-that wrap up to become the front of the bar.
Tables for two, set along the walls, are narrow so more can be fit in, but they get extra space on the length. This isn’t a success: You’re so far from the person sitting across from you that it’s hard to hold a conversation without shouting. The tables in the back near the kitchen are quite claustrophobic; people sitting on the outside get to stare at a blank wall, those on the inside get only a partial view of the dining room, obscured by wooden separators placed along the banquettes.
One day at lunch, the restaurant was packed solid. Two businessmen sitting at the next-door table in the back of the dining room were getting impatient. One of them finally became irate and called over one of the managers. “Just give us the bill and we’ll go,” he said. “We’ve been waiting for our food for 50 minutes.”
“Forty minutes,” corrected the manager.
The ensuing argument over exactly how many minutes the men had been waiting after their order was punched in was interrupted by the arrival of their lunch. Grudgingly, they decided to stay.
I imagine it would be hard to remain angry for long after you tasted the food Mr. Flay is serving at Bar Americain. (I didn’t have to wait for mine; I was recognized-but nevertheless, I never received a breadbasket.) His dishes are executed not only with flair and wit, but also with a flawless hand for seasoning and combining ingredients, beginning with the wonderful shellfish cocktails. I chose a tasting of all three ($19). They’re served in glasses lined up on a plate: lobster in a creamy dressing tossed with chunks of avocado, two shrimp with a sharp tomatillo sauce, and crabmeat and coconut with diced mango.
I nearly didn’t order the tuna tartare, because it’s been worked to death in so many restaurants. I was glad I changed my mind. The tuna is cut in chunks, subtly spiced and shaped in a patty garnished like a traditional steak tartare with capers, finely chopped onion and hard-boiled egg, served with grilled country bread. It’s outstanding. At lunch, red snapper comes with soft tortillas and a trio of salsas; you place a filet on a tortilla, top it with a lemony coleslaw and some salsa, and roll it up. Delicious.
A tasting of Kentucky ham is a witty concept, too, showcasing the ham in three different ways. It comes on a long plate divided into sections: Slices are served with pear chutney and micro greens, layered with mozzarella, and tucked inside a small biscuit spread with honey mustard.
Mr. Flay presents American ingredients at their best and spices them in ways that bring out rather than mask their flavor. Smoked trout from Carolina comes with a tart vinaigrette made with meyer lemons; a griddle cake is made with crawfish and Dungeness crab, with basil and a red-pepper relish. Wild salmon, on a bed of cracked wheat and hazelnuts, is complemented by a glossy pinot noir sauce. Skate is served with smoked chili butter instead of the usual beurre noisette, with capers, tarragons and crisp hominy grits.
Duck cooked two ways-a crispy leg and rare breast-is also very good, with dirty wild rice (a bit gummy) and a dark, sweetish bourbon sauce.
There’s a choice of four steaks on the menu (under the heading “The Steaks”). To go with them are side dishes such as creamed corn with green chilies, a cauliflower gratin made with goat cheese instead of Kraft cheddar, and hot potato chips with blue cheese.
Pastry chef Vicki Wells’ desserts include a sublime peach tart on a thin, buttery crust topped with peach sorbet and delicate strawberry-rhubarb crêpes. The blackberry soufflé is a triumph.
Bar Americain provides a fine context for Mr. Flay’s clever ideas and interesting food. It’s also a nice place, to paraphrase Robert Benchley, to take off your raincoat and slip into a dry martini.