Like a gentleman who cannot decide which suit to wear to dinner, Compass, the protean, three-year-old establishment near Lincoln Center, continues to seek an identity. Since opening three years ago, it has bid adieu to three chefs and in the process has seen more twists and turns than a slalom course. The latest culinary theme was described to me as “European-American fusion with a French accent.” Hmm. I couldn’t wait.
With its stout slate pillars, pinpoint lighting, frosted glass walls and large, red-toned abstract paintings, Compass could well be a tony-and expensive-Japanese restaurant. Up front is a sexy lounge sporting a 30-foot-long illuminated glass bar and cavernous red banquettes that, on weekends, attracts a young, ebullient crowd. The sizable dining room-and several handsome overflow rooms-seem to change clientele with the day, from trendy West Siders toward the end of the week to families with kids on Sundays. Noise is not a problem, except when annoying “light FM” pop tunes intrude from the lounge.
The bifurcated menu offers a selection of standard steakhouse victuals, which isn’t surprising considering that the chef, Valdo Figueiredo, was recruited from the historic Keens Steakhouse. You can have a perfectly fine dry-aged sirloin or rib eye ($35 and $36, respectively) or, if you’re in a flush mood, a domestic Kobe steak for $58.
On my first visit, I didn’t spot much “trans-Atlantic French fusion” on the menu, so I opted for satisfying American-style cauliflower-and-cheddar-cheese chowder. Crab cakes were a little pasty and otherwise unremarkable.
The best starter was a weighty and well-seasoned duck terrine that was elevated to stardom by layers of foie gras, leeks, wild mushrooms and pancetta. Tuna tartare didn’t rise above its cliché status; you’d be better off with fat and buttery sautéed sea scallops adrift on a subtle coconut-ginger sauce with spaghetti squash.
Service runs hot and cold, but for the most part the staff is friendly and earnest. Wine seemed to have taken an inordinately long time to secure, which is understandable considering the size of the selection, which runs into the many hundreds. Speaking of wine, hold on to your hat when you open the list. For a moderately priced restaurant, the extravagantly expensive wine selection is sheer overkill-like driving a dragster to the corner deli. The vast majority of selections exceed $80, with many in the high two-to-four digits. Among the few affordable selections (I am designating $60 and below affordable) are the Côtes du Rhône (a Gigondas and a Château de Beaucastel, each $60), the Loire and Alsace.
At the risk of looking like a rube, I drank by the glass.
Aside from steaks, a few other main courses can be recommended. Seared cod was exceptionally fresh and meaty, framed by potato purée and minced vegetables. The wild king salmon, perfectly cooked, picked up a pleasant touch of sweetness from cabbage and onions, along with a rich foie-gras-bound port wine reduction. It is rare that I’ve met a braised short rib I didn’t like, and this was no exception. Served off the bone, it’s lean but infused with aromatic braising flavors and accompanied by a delicious celery-root purée.
Many vegetables are à la carte, including a fine creamed spinach, simple steamed asparagus and roasted fingerling potatoes, all $7. The only disappointment, for $8, was a risotto and scallion hash brown that was mealy-textured.
Desserts are playful and generally pleasing. Best is a napoleon of puff pastry, sliced apples, candied orange ice cream and cranberries, the berries contributing a nice, tart counterpoint to the sweet ice cream. Another features a vertical cylinder of a sweetened milk semifreddo garnished with toasted marshmallows and bananas. The house special is called a chocolate whiskey ice-cream float. Prepared at tableside, it consists of a parfait glass that holds chocolate-whiskey ice cream and chocolate sauce, over which the server pours a shot and a half of Jack Daniels until it foams to the top.
Good idea. Bad habit.
It’s too soon to predict if the latest embodiment of Compass will sail true (and with a steady crew), but for now, at least, the dial is aiming in the right direction.