Dining out with Moira Hodgson

Wining and Dining: A Menu With

a Berry Nose

A model with long black hair, sporting a mink aviator jacket, jeans and four-inch heels, strode through the glass front doors of Morrells, a brand-new restaurant in the Flatiron district. Her friends, all young and beautiful, were packed into a booth in the dining room, next to a group of men who looked fresh from the tanning parlor and were dressed from head to toe in black. There was only one table in the place where the occupants looked as though they’d seen 40, and they were wearing black tie-definitely wine buffs.

Swirl, swirl … hold it up to the light … sniff, sniff …. “Hints of violets and lots of red fruits” …. “Dark, gamy, virile, with overtones of plum, black currant and ‘barnyard'” … another sniff …. “Lavender, olives, laurel and bacon … telltale lychee notes …. ” Read the notes on the list of wines by the glass-typical oeneophile’s prose-and you’ll get a good sense of what wine can do to your brain! Wine also plays a major role in chef and partner Michael Haimowitz’s American cooking, with such dishes as coq au riesling (“overtones of barnyard”), chianti-braised osso buco and champagne fricassee of lobster on the menu.

The original Morrell is a much-venerated wine store that moved a few years ago from its Upper East Side premises to Rockefeller Center, opening a highly successful bar and café next-door. The store also regularly auctions off its stocks, so I came to the new restaurant expecting to find not only some of the greatest wines in the world, but some bargains as well.

Morrells is so cool and minimalist you’d never guess it was in a Stanford White building. (The setting is the exact opposite of the palatial Capitale, in White’s Bowery Savings Bank building downtown, which I reviewed last week.) Designer Larry Bogdanow has given it a sleek industrial look, with overhead refrigerated steel wine racks that are reached by a catwalk. Over the bar is an illuminated acrylic top that looks like crushed ice supported between panels of translucent orange fiberglass.

You enter the dining room by passing under a bridge made of subway grating, and immediately the mood changes. Whereas the bar is lively and loud, here it’s calm, almost serene. The off-white walls are illuminated with glowing strips of orange-red light, and there’s a hanging orange glass panel in the back, next to a vase of cherry blossoms. The friendly staff wear white shirts, black ties and long white bistro aprons; the tables are set with white linen and one enormous wine glass stamped with the initial M. The point of the large glasses, of course, is to give the wine ample room to breathe and to enable the taster to roll it around and sniff the bouquet (“a buttery wine with layers of fruit and a nutty finish”) without dumping any of it on the table.

One evening, instead of ordering a bottle, two of us decided to sample some of the wines offered by the glass. I started with a Chablis (“lush and deep with true Chablis mineral flavors”), one of the cheapest selections at $12. Our waitress poured a couple of inches into the bottom of the big wine glass.

“That’s not very much, is it?” I said. It looked about a third less than you normally get when you order wine by the glass.

“That’s the ‘pour’,” she replied.

Later, I decided to see if the Meursault (“perfectly balanced with bright acidity and good fruit-and a very judicious use of oak at that”) was worth $17 a glass. I found it tight and acidic. The waitress returned with the sommelier. I knew what he was thinking: female white-wine drinker, probably goes for cheap California chardonnay at cocktail parties. “You started with Chablis, which is probably why you find this seems acidic,” he said reasonably.

But I held my ground and asked to try the Chassagne-Montrachet.

“I’ll give it to you, but you won’t like it,” he warned me. “It’s not the direction you want to go in.”

Not the price direction I wanted to go in, perhaps, but it was much better-eminently drinkable, in fact-at $21 a “pour.”

The food is served on beautiful, oversized plates, with an emphasis on fresh, simple ingredients. A small Napoleon made with squares of hamachi and tuna was topped with green flying-fish roe, surrounded by a thin drizzle of a creamy uni sauce and garnished with pickled lemon peel. It was a lovely, delicate dish. A salad of shredded endive and watercress with goat cheese and toasted pecans was made with the freshest ingredients, but the roasted pear vinaigrette lacked character. The confit of salmon, decorated with bright slices of radish, oranges and avocado, was perfectly cooked, with a soft, velvety texture. White asparagus was tender and sweet, but the shaved cèpes sprinkled on the plate had little taste, and the goat-cheese tartlet served on the side was dry.

Branzini, a special of the day, was perfectly cooked and so fresh you could have been eating it at the seaside. It came with marvelous sliced roasted potatoes seasoned with sea salt. The red mullet was also inspired, sautéed fillets with braised peppers, fennel and herbs and a light citrus syrup that cut the richness of the fish. Pan-roasted Columbia River sturgeon was excellent, with sugar snap peas and a rich bone-marrow and sweet-pea broth. Alas, the grilled, cabernet-marinated short ribs were gamy and stringy, but came with nice silver-dollar pancakes made with Jerusalem artichokes.

The cheese platter, an assortment of three to 12 ripened cheeses, was good, but the desserts I tried needed work. The seven-layer hazelnut cake with gianduja mousse was cloyingly sweet. The chocolate tart, on the other hand, was not sweet enough, but pasty and dry. It was redeemed somewhat by a chocolate tuile on a white chocolate mousse with cookies. Pistachio panna cotta had the consistency of freshly poured concrete, but was served with a good compote of plums and a tangy plum-wine sorbet. After dinner, the waiter brought out two milk chocolates shaped like champagne corks and infused, he said, with Taittinger. They reminded me of Cadbury’s, and I loved them.

Mr. Haimowitz’s kitchen is still settling down, and I’m sure the glitches will quickly be ironed out. Morrells’ wine list is staggering. If you can afford a bottle of Penfolds shiraz for $900 or a $1,600 Hermitage, more power to you. There are good choices in the low two figures, but not enough. This attitude toward price is pretty much summed up in the gift shop next-door. Here the impulse shopper, light-headed after a bottle or two of a 1961 Lynch-Bages, can pick up some useful items for the home, such as an Aspry funnel for $350, a $44 olive oil, or a Fiji water gift box for $29.45-just the thing to take the edge off once your Lynch-Bages euphoria subsides. Dining out with Moira Hodgson