Cuisine: European , French
Menu: View the Menu
It started off as just another Saturday night at the Mall. I pushed through the revolving doors, and rode the sky-high escalator to the 3rd floor, and in an instant, I was back in high school, shopping at Roosevelt Field with my girlfriends and giggling about boys. But then, reality hit and I realized I was not 18 (pity). I was 35, with my dear friend Steven, celebrating his 45 th birthday with a crew of his closest friends in tow (but still giggling about boys).Review By: Andrea Strong
We walked past Armani, strolled past the Preppy-chic mannequins in the windows of J. Crew. But we were not moved by shrunken blazers or woolen ponchos. Our eyes were focused on another prize. Like most New Yorkers who enter the Time Warner Mall after 8pm, we were not here to shop. We were here to eat.
Soon, the entrance was in our sights. It was a few feet ahead, just past Montmarte. As we came closer, the tall heavy ebony doors parted, and like the children from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe intrepidly slipping through a crease in reality and into a world of fantasy, we entered Café Gray.
We walked up the hallway on a floor paved with tiny square porcelain tiles—like something out of a dreamy Roman bathhouse—topped with a soft runner of espresso-toned carpeting. At the top of the hallway, we were welcomed by a sea of happy faces and led to the Lavender Bar (as the front room is called), where we found a stunning and sultry den lined with wide plush circular banquettes and lit with a soft glow from bare amber bulbs reflecting off of beveled mirrors that lined the walls in Deco cubes. The bartender, an adorable smiling lad, served us perfect Martinis. Each came on its own silver tray, complete with shaker and a small bowl of spiced and salted roasted pumpkin seeds and corn kernels—a wildly addictive little snack that makes for quick drinking. (If there is a God, this mix will somehow replace popcorn in movie theatres.)
While waiting for our table, we grabbed an open banquette in the bar, and our drinks were brought over to us. I was sure we would be asked to get up, but no. We were encouraged to relax and enjoy our cocktails. We would be seated when we were ready. I watched the waiters serving guests in the bar—a reservation-free zone where the entire dinner menu plus a wicked selection of bar snacks —pink lentil-crusted chicken wings with hot-sour chili sauce ($12), "La Mahjune" Pizza topped with ratatouille, sumac, lamb, and beef ($8)—are served. The waiters, decked out in handsome bistro aprons, looked delighted as well. Indeed, in the 15 minutes since we had arrived at Café Gray I did not spy one frown, one frantic hostess, one sideways glance, or one ounce of attitude. At Café Gray, there is nothing but pleasure from the moment you pass through those doors. This is a place of joy and wonder. And we haven't even gotten to the food yet.
The dining room, while vast, feels intimate and small, even. It is filled with chocolate brown banquettes, and has relatively low ceilings and that same lovely amber light reflecting off mirrored pillars; the open kitchen lines the entire back wall of windows overlooking the Park. Indeed, while Per Se feels serene, serious and quite spacious, Café Gray feels alive with an almost jolly energy that makes it feel even a bit crowded, but crowded with life. You could sit at your table and just absorb the energy of the room and the brilliance of the flavors in your mouth and you really would never need to speak, though if you were able to keep your mouth shut after experiencing some of Gray's food, you are far more restrained than me.
There is one menu and one menu only at Café Gray. There are no tasting menus, no prix fixe options, no vegetable journeys or seasonal medleys. The current Indian Summer Menu offers a choice of nine appetizers ($11-19) and 10 entrees ($22-34). We were six at the table—a chef, two food writers, two publicists and a foodie (I know it sounds like the beginning of a bad joke). We ordered all but three items.
Dinner starts with fresh hot loaves of flax seed bread that arrive tucked snugly into wooden baskets on silver platters. (The crusty outside/soft inside loaves are baked for Café Gray by Blue Ribbon Bakery.) While one use for the bread is as a platform for the heavenly butter (it is cultured, European-style, from Vermont Butter and Cheese Company) on the table, another is as a sponge for the sauce surrounding the sweet corn and truffle ravioli ($17)— miraculously delicate corn-filled pouches, set in a silky sauce of butter that embraces its fresh corn flavor so dearly that it almost brought me to tears. Risotto with mushroom fricasee ($19), was served in two parts—a bowl of perfectly al dente risotto—creamy but not overly so—and a stunning silver pot of wildly earthy mushroom fricassee to spoon over and fold into the risotto. (If you are sly, you can lick the silver pot, which is worth the stares.) Kalamansi-cured yellowtail with rock salt and chile oil ($16) was among the top favorites of the table—sheer sleek slices of fish in a sweet-tart marinade, perfectly balanced against a spicy punch of chiles. Of the two soups we sampled, the Lobster Chowder ($13) was good—though a tad too creamy for my tastes—but the hands down star was the chilled coulis of two tomatoes and three basils garnished with fried eggplant. Cool, fresh, and disarmingly simple, the coulis fills your mouth and your mind with the essence of the late summer tomato—sweet, bright, sunny fruit. This dish was exquisite.
Moving into main courses brings the need for more superlatives though. Incredibly moist and tender pork shank ($28) is simmered in stout with maple syrup and served on a savory bean stew reminiscent of cassoulet. This is a must have. It is hearty hit that goes straight for the comfort zone, tasting like it has been stewed over a blazing hearth on the clear and cold winter night. Langoustines and seared salt cod with leeks, roasted sweet potatoes, lime and port ($29) takes you in the complete opposite direction as the pork shank. You go from earthy, savory and familiar, to sweet and sour, and very avant-garde. I liked this dish a lot—the unapologetically sweet and sour notes against the cod and lobster—but there were some at the table who were not as taken with the dish, claiming it was too cloying. The same argument was made about the braised shortribs with meaux mustard sauce and soft grits ($34), but I aggressively disagreed with my friend the chef on this one. I loved the pungent tamarind-tomato chutney-like sauce that topped off the ridiculously tender shortribs. And the contrast with the mustard sauce was right on. It reminded me of Persian food where richly spiced sweet-tart flavors often dress slow-cooked meats.
On the other hand the sautéed lamb chops ($31) found no negative voices. Juicy in the center and nicely seared, they are served on a vibrant Moroccan-spiced carrot emulsion and a gorgeous eggplant tart—circular ribbons of eggplant folded in on one another to form a stunning vegetable tart like something by the nature artist Andy Goldsworthy. But let us not forget the puffed rice crusted fluke ($24)—perhaps my favorite dish on the menu—a meaty and moist plank of fluke robed in crunchy rice that is surprisingly (and successfully) given the steakhouse treatment when plated on a bed of bury-me-in-this creamed spinach and a racy puree of preserved lemons. This last element is quite clever—the concentrated acid of the lemon actually lightens the weight of that gloriously creamy spinach and lifts the flavors of everything on the plate, sharpening the focus of the dish, like finally getting the right prescription for eyeglasses.
Pastry chef Chris Broberg, who worked with Gray at Lespinasse, is quite talented but he is in the unfortunate position of serving people like us, who are too sated and delirious from dinner to appreciate any more food. Being heathens, though, we did manage to order several desserts and agreed that the crème brulée ($12) was perfection, and that the baked caramel pear ($11) and the hazelnut soufflé ($15) were worth having to go up a size in your jeans. (Though after this meal, I'll be lucky if it's only one.)
Café Gray is a dream come true for Gray Kunz, the four-star chef who struggled for five long years to open his own restaurant. I believe it brilliantly represents him—his hospitality, his whimsy, his talent, and his steadfast vision. He has created a place of refuge, a place beyond retail, beyond white lights and mile-high escalators—a place that rests snugly in that wrinkle in reality that is fantasy.
Neighborhood: West 50s
Entree Price: >$30
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