Country reminds me of the time when the Soviet Bloc nations were building glitzy showcase palaces to impress visiting Westerners. It’s not just the sight of middle-aged men dining in shirtsleeves in a roomful of chandeliers that transports me to an East German hotel circa 1990. It’s also the newly-restored Beaux-Arts grandeur, the green-and-white glass Tiffany-style dome, the mosaic marble floors, the beige paneled walls and columns, and the molded ceiling hung with bright modernist chandeliers made of frosted cubes. Shiny strands of crystal droplets are draped around the room over light fixtures and lined up in rows over counters near the kitchen. The Dolce & Gabbana–suited staff wheel carts and lift silver domes with the pomp of pre-revolutionary days. You can almost imagine them thinking, “We’ll show those foreign bourgeois revisionists what sophisticated means!”
The Carlton Hotel, on lower Madison Avenue, was once a notorious prostitutes’ hangout. Now it’s been lavishly redone by the firm of David Rockwell, with a café, a bar/lounge and a fancy restaurant, Country, that serves only dinner. Why the name Country? Because chef and owner Geoffrey Zakarian’s other restaurant is called Town. Mr. Zakarian (who has just published a cookbook called Town/Country) first came upon the scene at 44 in its Condé Nast heyday. He went on to become the chef at Patroon and then opened the highly successful Town five years ago in the Chambers Hotel. His executive chef, Doug Psaltis, worked at Alain Ducasse and was previously at Mix, which has closed.
The menu at Country adds another tremor to the feeling of displacement. Considering the price—$85 prix fixe—it is startlingly short, with a choice of just four or five dishes in each category and seven for dessert.
But there are nice touches, beginning with the frog’s leg beignet in garlic cream sauce that arrives when you sit down, followed by a cotillion of hors d’oeuvres: cheese goujons, halibut with a sliver of green chili and a layered crêpe with caviar and garlic. The bread is a large salted Parker House roll you break off into sections, and it’s splendid.
You can eye the chefs at work in the green-tiled open kitchen hanging with gleaming copper pans at the back of the dining room. Dressed in pristine whites and pleated toques, they appear to be moving about silently in an atmosphere of unhurried calm.
But they’re preparing some of the busiest food you’ve ever eaten. They can’t leave well enough alone. “Warm” sea urchins would have been nice on a simple bed of plain pasta. Instead, they come on top of doughy rectangles stuffed with something vaguely fishy. Meyer lemon and slivers of black truffle complete the dish, and the end result is that everything cancels everything else out. You stare down at your food and struggle to remember what you ordered. Squid? A tangle of shredded stuff, peppers and an overwhelming amount of prosciutto arrives. Threads of squid are somewhere in the mess. Asparagus? The spears get lost under a foamed asparagus mousseline, surrounded by dots of olive vinaigrette and garnished with a Parmesan crisp and lemon confit.
“Bottarga!” A young Frenchman emerged with a grater and sprinkled the dried fish eggs over blue-fin tuna, which is cut in rare chunks alternating with potatoes. I love bottarga, but it didn’t disguise the dullness of the tuna. He grated it over seared squid on squiggly black-tie pasta with Meyer lemon.
“There’s too much going on,” complained a friend. “It’s like typesetting: You should never use more than three fonts on the page.”
On the other hand, the foie gras terrine with caramelized orange and fennel jam and grilled country bread is wonderful—and simple. The shellfish velouté is also stellar, a creamy soup topped with an egg yolk on a slice of toasted brioche. Sea scallops, perfectly cooked, come with a delicate artichoke barigoule and niçoise olives.
To get to the main dining room, you walk through a dark, loud subterranean café (where I had quite a good meal last fall; the squid with cuttlefish, black rice and chorizo was wonderful) and up a flight of stairs. One night, we were seated at the edge of the dining room near the balcony. As the evening wore on, we got the benefit of the increasingly raucous noise from the café and from the “champagne bar” down the hall. It was like sitting in a lobby outside a discotheque. Luckily, we were able to move to a table further inside the restaurant. But apart from that noisy spot, Country is a comfortable place. The tables, set with tall candles, beige cloths and a silver dish of kumquats topped with a blood orange, are positioned far apart; the room is quiet, and the staff are friendly and efficient.
The problems are mostly with the food. Much of it is old-fashioned and rich. Berkshire pork with mustard-glazed apples and gnocchi is cloyingly sweet; grilled beef is over-salted and served with doughy ricotta raviolini. Halibut with herbs, potatoes and clams is tepid (this must have been deliberate; I tried it twice).
I did like the deconstructed blanquette de veau, though. The pieces of veal and vegetable are arranged on the bottom of a large white casserole. The blanquette part comes separately in a little jug. Poached lobster with salsify and cèpes is also delicious, but so rich that my companion couldn’t finish it.
The desserts from pastry chef Craig Harzewski, who was previously at Le Cirque, wind up the meal on a distinctly high note. He turns out a sublime bitter chocolate and preserved cherry tart (a sort of upmarket Black Forest gâteau) and an ethereal oeuf à la neige with citrus salad. A parfait is made with strips of braised rhubarb curled around an orange custard, dotted with tapioca pearls and served with crème fraîche ice cream. Almond pithiviers is served cut in a large diner-style slab, out of scale with the rest of the desserts, but it’s very good, packed with crushed almonds. Revisionist bourgeois sympathizers will love it. And they will find much else to like at Country too.