“Check out the women at table 22. They’re fabulous!” I heard one of the waiters call out to another as I walked into Fred’s, the restaurant in the basement of Barneys department store on a recent afternoon.
I didn’t have to look far. Two voluptuous young Asian women (Hawaiian perhaps, or Polynesian), one all in white with her hair braided and wrapped into “earphones” at the side of her head, the other all in black with a mane that fell over the table like a waterfall, were finishing a late lunch. As they stood up to go, each brandishing a very small clutch purse, they waved at the waiters like Marilyn Monroe seeing off a trainload of soldiers. “Byee!”
The waiters grinned and waved their napkins. “Byeee!”
The women teetered off, presumably headed for the fifth floor, where they would pick out a little Dries van Noten or Alexander McQueen number from among the racks of skimpy black, brown and gray dresses parked around the vast showroom floor (just the thing after a light lunch of seafood risotto, Tuscan pot roast and bread pudding).
Nearby, an elderly woman whose wealth was emphasized by the very expensive handbag she kept tightly by her side on top of the table, was having a painful lunch with her daughter. Not a single word was exchanged, and the daughter stared glassily around the room.
At least there was plenty to look at. At one end of the dining room is a takeout counter, stacked with displays of salads and pasta dishes, bottles of fancy tomato sauce, olive oil and vinegar, with a wood-burning pizza oven flaming away in the back. Next to this is a wine bar, still going full throttle in mid-afternoon, and on the opposite side, a lunch counter and espresso bar. The ceiling is an atrium that opens onto the main floor of Barneys department store (concealed at night with folds of gray and blue striped deck chair material). The chairs and banquettes are comfortable and elegantly upholstered in beige and dun colors; the menu covers are lipstick red.
Fred’s, named after the Pressman paterfamilias, was Mad. 61 until a couple of years ago when Pino Luongo and the Pressman family, who own Barneys and the restaurant, parted ways. It is now run by chef-operator Mark Strausman of Campagna, who devised its brasserie menu. You can reach the restaurant directly from the side street or, if you are not afraid of making some blurry impulse purchase after a bottle of wine, you can walk through the ground floor of the store, past the displays of interesting designer jewelry–much of it in the four figures–and the rather terrifying makeup counters. (I always think it takes a particular kind or courage for a woman to allow herself to be made up on the floor of a department store, as a friend of mine used to say, “in front of God and everybody.”)
Apart from Gypsy Kings on the sound system, dinner is quieter than lunch. The food was very good indeed, with Mr. Strausman’s earthy, rustic touch well in evidence. We began with a wonderful fritto misto, laced with fried capers and lemon, the seafood very fresh and the batter light and piping hot. The portion was generous, too, big enough to keep Kate Moss alive for a year. It was a better choice than the sautéed Baltimore crabcake, which was overwhelmed by its sauce, a beurre blanc made very salty by the normally welcome presence of caviar.
Mr. Strausman makes enticing antipasti of salads and grilled vegetables (the antipasto platter is perfect for sharing at lunch). The frisée and watercress salad is good, too, a nice, light dish with pieces of ripe pear and blue cheese in a walnut vinaigrette.
If you are intending to squeeze into one of those dresses that look like nightgowns (to be worn with a $2,000 cashmere cardigan and sneakers), don’t order the pizza with robiola and white truffle oil (“Ciro’s invention and an old classic,” according to the menu). It is just too good. The aroma of truffles when the waiter arrived with it was as powerful as anything on the perfume counter upstairs. The pizza was made like a sandwich, the cheese melted inside two layers of thin, crisp crust, which were cut in triangles and piled up in a basket. We could not stop eating it.
“Who is Ciro?” I asked when the waiter returned.
“He started this pizza and it’s the best in town,” he replied. “He has his own place, Ciro’s on 31st Street.” (I looked it up later but was unable to find it in the telephone book.)
At Fred’s, there are over half a dozen different pizzas to choose from and a good selection of pasta dishes–among them the orecchiette, which was served with chopped sausage and peas in a delicate tomato sauce, and the pappardelle with oxtail stew.
The roasted fish of the day was halibut, a nice moist piece topped with a frizzle of leeks like a thatched roof, afloat on a raft of asparagus over a creamy asparagus sauce.
Meats are listed under a section of the menu somewhat brusquely entitled “Butchery.” They include a first-rate grilled veal chop, which was pink and tender, served with wonderful roesti potatoes made with leeks, and a red wine porcini sauce. I liked the braised lamb shank, too, which came on a bed of creamy white polenta with batons of root vegetables that had been roasted until almost caramelized.
For dessert, we opted for a tasting platter. It included the restaurant’s greatest hits: a warm dark chocolate galette with chocolate sauce, a lemon meringue tart, a rich marbled cheesecake and a fine plum tart. The cookies were excellent, too, especially the macaroons and the hazelnut biscotti. It was just as well, when we left, that the store was closed.
FRED’S AT BARNEYS
10 East 61 Street
Dress: Chanel, etc.
Noise level: Fine
Wine list: Good Italian and American choices
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Main courses lunch $15 to $26, dinner $18 to $32
Lunch: Monday to Saturday 11:30 P.M. to 3 P.M., light menu until 5:30 P.M.
Dinner: Monday to Saturday 5:30 to 10 P.M., Sunday noon to 6 P.M.