If this restaurant were in France, you would be driving across the country to find it, your dog-eared Guide Michelin on the dashboard. The journey I made from downtown to Eighty One was also long, but rather different. I took the subway, where I sat opposite some French tourists who were reading the Guide Michelin to New York. But at 81st Street, they headed for the Hayden Planetarium, and I strolled on past the gardens of the Museum of Natural History to the Excelsior Hotel, where Eighty One opened in February.
It’s an odd space. A long, wide bar at the entrance leads into a vast dining room punctuated by immense square pillars. The predominant color is red. Padded red velvet banquettes extend all the way to the ceiling, where wrought iron chandeliers are decked with balls of bevelled glass. Heavy red velvet curtains hang at the center of the room, which is bifurcated by a cluster of high, round banquettes and a giant display of orchids. When you sit down, you can’t see across the room.
Le Cirque 2000 had to cut down the backs of its chairs when customers complained that they couldn’t “see and be seen.” But at Eighty One, no one is complaining: It’s the Upper West Side, after all—home not to Botoxed faces and blonded hair, but to professorial beards and open-neck shirts. These diners are here for the food.
And, apparently, for the waitstaff.
Just after I’d sat down to dinner one night, a waiter greeted a customer at the next table and handed him a menu. The customer looked up. “What’s your name?” he asked the waiter, who looked taken aback at the question. “John? Well, Hi, John! I’m Joe”—he motioned to his companion—“and this is Julie!”
Nothing like heading them off at the pass! I wouldn’t have been surprised if Joe had asked the waiter to pull up a chair.
Eighty One is owned by a star chef, Ed Brown, who was executive chef for the past 14 years at the Sea Grill in Rockefeller Center. Juan José Cuevas, his chef de cuisine, most recently ran the kitchen at Blue Hill and has also worked in top Michelin-starred restaurants in Spain. So it’s hardly surprising that the cooking at Eighty One is on such a high level.
But don’t expect anything radical. This isn’t Dovetail (the Upper West Side’s other recent addition to its burgeoning list of good restaurants). The food is simple, straightforward, designed to show off the very best ingredients Brown can buy. Even the peppercorns are hand-picked; the beans, of course, are heirloom. This comes at a price—main courses start at $29. But there is also a “tasting collection” of small plates from $15 to $19 (apart from the smoked salmon, topped with the restaurant’s private label Osetra, which will set you back $39).
If you’re in the mood for soft-shell crabs, be prepared to shell out $34. But they’ll probably be among the best you’ve ever eaten: three small ones, set rakishly on their sides, are flash-fried so they’re crunchy, but the flesh inside is moist. They’re served with a shallot grapefruit marmalade, pea shoots and a spicy maftoul couscous salad.
There is much on the menu that would “vaut le voyage”—be worth the trip—as the Guide Michelin puts it. A poached egg oozes onto a bed of asparagus, morels and chervil, marvelous in its simplicity and the tastes of spring it delivers. And nothing could be more springlike than the green risotto with sweet young peas, ramps and ricotta. I liked this dish better than the pea soup, which was thin, albeit served with a nice crabmeat fritter. Earlier in the season there was a wonderful creamy smoked cod chowder laced with parsley and nuggets of Niman Ranch bacon. A plate of four of the thickest pieces of hamachi I’ve ever had the joy of eating were seasoned with nothing more than a lemony olive oil and a crunch of sel de mer. All that’s missing is the beach.
EIGHTY ONE HAS a challenging wine list. I turned the pages with a sinking feeling, not because the choices weren’t impressive, which they most certainly were, but because there were so few bottles under $60. (A $2,000 bottle of Petrus, anyone?) I scanned the pages from the right side down. The Oregon Willamette Pinot Noir Four Graces, at $58, is one of the cheapest reds, and it’s very good. A pleasant Foris Vineyard pinot gris, from Rogue Valley in Oregon, is available by the glass for $9.
Given Brown’s pedigree, you’d expect the fish here to be superior, and it is. A silken piece of cod arrived in a black bean and sake wine broth, with orange lentils and couscous, topped with crispy shallots. Wild striped bass was served with cranberry beans, clams and octopus and a rich, buttery clam reduction.
The meat was equally impressive, such as the lamb I tasted in winter, done three ways—loin, braised shoulder, and a small chop, all perfectly cooked and served with exquisite soft brown ricotta gnocchi that resembled kids’ Lincoln Logs. Now these cuts of lamb appear with all the requisite spring garnishes: fiddleheads, favas, artichokes, ramps, and a cannelloni of spring greens.
Pastry chef John Miele’s sleek, angular desserts include a desconstructed chocolate-and-hazelnut mille-feuille that looks like a Donald Judd sculpture, made with three cubes of delectable chocolate and a swath of dark chocolate sauce. Skip the dull peanut fritters and get the Greek yogurt cheesecake with muscat grape, rhubarb and Madagascar peppercorn ice cream, or the frozen lemon soufflé, which is really a mousse, cut in a wedge and served with panna cotta.
By the bar one night we caught the tail end of a comment by a woman who was leaving. “… no good restaurants on the Upper West Side …”
Enough! Whatever the rest of her sentence was, we don’t want to hear it anymore. Eighty One has laid that claim to rest once and for all.