Getting in on the Auction At Sotheby’s New Restaurant

As I sank into the leather banquette, the band struck up “Bewitched.” Next to me was a couple in late middle age, no longer bewitched but enjoying the golden years of a long companionship in the traditional manner: dead silence. A Sotheby’s catalog lay on the table between them. The wife, with a back like a ramrod and mouse-colored hair, could have been a small-town librarian, except she wore her reading glasses on top of her head. “The estate says we’ll have the first 10 million by Christmas,” she said. From her tone of voice, she could have been telling a reader the book he wanted was on the third shelf on the right.

Her husband, who sported an American flag on his lapel, grunted and continued reading the menu. As if on cue, the music switched to “La Vie en Rose.”

I was sitting in Bid, the new restaurant in the basement of Sotheby’s-which is in an anonymous modern building near two hospital complexes on a remote stretch of York Avenue that’s basically reachable only by taxi or limo. You enter through the lobby, pass the guard and the headless marble statue of Marcus Aurelius, then take the stairs down to Bid’s lounge and bar. Perhaps it’s the beaded curtains and the tan leather, but the large dining room reminds me more than a little of the Four Seasons. (The beaded curtains also provide a surreal view of the feet of passers-by in the street.) A rotating collection of art (Chuck Close and Roy Lichtenstein tonight) hangs between horizontal mirrors and Art Deco sconces on the muted taupe walls. Giant pillars punctuate the room, and light fixtures made from thick rings of steel hang from the ceiling. The lighting is low and the service very professional, starting with the waitress’ knowledge of the wine list, which has many out-of-the-ordinary choices.

André Soltner once said that the hardest thing for a restaurateur to find is a waiter who actually wants to be a waiter (even at Lutèce). Our waitress, whose short hair and glasses gave her the aspect of a pretty governess, didn’t recite the ingredients by rote when asked about a dish. She not only knew the food, but described it with such enthusiasm, verbal nimbleness and intelligence that we wanted to order everything she told us about. By my last visit, I was asking her questions simply to hear what she had to say. She was perhaps the best waitress I have ever encountered; she even knew about the paintings on the walls. But alas, she was not that rare and much sought-after commodity-a waitress who wants to be a waitress-but was studying for her Ph.D. in African art at Columbia University.

Chef Matt Seeber was formerly at Tabla and Gramercy Tavern, where he trained under Tom Colicchio. His seasonal American food shows the flair and respect for ingredients you’d expect from such a background. When you sit down, the kitchen sends out a plate of amuse-gueles: a demitasse of creamy butternut-squash soup laced with toasted pumpkin, and canapés made with sardine, mackerel and duck. They all have vivid, intense flavors, getting you ready for what’s to come.

Mr. Seeber mixes tastes and textures on the plate like an artist using a palette, contrasting salty tones with sharp, acidic with creamy. Tuna tartare was dressed with a subtle sea-urchin vinaigrette and sprinkled with shavings of bottarga, alongside a crunchy seaweed salad. Salmon was topped with salty beads of osetra caviar and paired with waxy fingerling potatoes, leeks, sorrel and crème fraîche. He brings out the flavor of roasted sea scallops by teaming them with a rich garnish of caramelized Jerusalem artichokes, salsify and mousseron mushrooms. While good, a crabmeat salad with red and golden beets in a truffle vinaigrette lacked the sharp focus of the other seafood appetizers.

I’ve never had lighter potato gnocchi, airy puffs the size of a fingernail, served with a lovely mix of fava beans, prosciutto, porcini and tomato confit. The sautéed quail, surrounded by black trumpet mushrooms, onions and turnips seasoned with apple cider, was perfectly cooked, with a rich sherry vinegar sauce and a couple of quail eggs decorating the plate. It was pleasant but unassuming, and I found it a bit heavy as a first course.

A friend who’d ordered lobster chowder for his main course put down his spoon after one mouthful and announced simply, “This is amazing.” It was, with celery root, fennel, dill and bacon in a complex sauce that was creamy without being the least cloying. Another remarkable dish that provoked exclamations was the roast squab, juicy and rare under its mahogany skin, served with potatoes boulangère and a relish of preserved lemon, dates and endive.

The chef also likes to combine meat or fish, cooked in different ways, in the same dish. Sautéed cod paired with brandade arrived on a pool of puréed parsley with a perky garnish of Niçoise olives, almonds and preserved lemon. Rare chunks of meaty sirloin were teamed with braised short ribs; a roast loin of lamb came with braised shoulder meat concealing a disc of brin d’amour cheese with rosemary and ratatouille underneath. Roast guinea hen, wrapped in pancetta, was a solid fall dish, with a confit of dark meat and glazed vegetables.

Pastry chef Chika Tillman’s desserts live up to the rest of the meal. We made the mistake of asking our waitress which was better, the baked figs or the tarte tatin. After she described them, we naturally ordered both. “Describe the chocolate tart,” one of my guests egged her on. When she got to the part about the dark chocolate sauce flecked with orange, we said, “Enough! Sold!” “I’ll bring you the tarte tatin as an extra, no charge,” she said sweetly. But before they arrived, she brought us an “amuse-dessert,” a delicate scoop of goat yogurt panna cotta with little chunks of honey-lime gelée floating in a grapefruit soup. It was terrific.

So were the baked figs in parchment, served with port-wine ice cream, and the pristine oeuf à la neige served on a bed of ice. The tarte tatin came with a Granny Smith granité that tasted like the essence of apple. The only dessert we didn’t like was the goat-cheese tart with candied quince and roasted chestnuts. “It tastes like warm Christmas stocking,” said my companion. “I can almost feel the wool in my throat.” But the steamed Earl Grey pudding with chocolate cream and ginger tea froth was extraordinary.

After you’ve eaten at the restaurant, which is open for lunch and dinner, you can run upstairs and make an impulse bid on that Richard Estes or Robert Motherwell you saw in the restaurant. But I’m going to wait for my first 10 million. I should get it by Christmas.

Bid **1/2

1334 York Avenue

988-7730

Dress : Dark suits

Noise Level : Low

Wine List : Interesting boutique wines, fairly priced

Credit Cards : All major

Price Range : Main courses, lunch, $21 to $26; dinner, $24 to $32

Lunch : Monday to Friday, noon to 2:30 p.m.

Dinner : Monday to Thursday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, to 11 p.m.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor

Getting in on the Auction At Sotheby’s New Restaurant