Lobster bisque and tournedos Rossini in a velvet-walled restaurant — don't knock it if you haven't tried it.
Lobster bisque. Dover sole. Bouillabaisse. Roast cornish game hen. Coq au vin. Tournedos Rossini, for heaven's sake. Be honest, now, modern urban restaurant-goer: When's the last time you sampled any of these old-fashioned but (when made right) thoroughly satisfying delights? Or have you ever?
And if you haven't, you might well ask, why would you want to? Maybe just because, while they seemed like tired clichés 10 or 15 years ago, today they are so uncommon and frankly so little-known, except perhaps by reputation, that they can actually seem fresh, even a little daring.
That's what I was thinking, at any rate, when I sat in the opulent, resolutely un-trendy-looking dining room at the Carlyle Hotel on Manhattan's Upper East Side not long ago. The Carlyle, to put it mildly, isn't a hipster hangout. The lobby doesn't double as a bar scene; there's no hypnotically throbbing lounge-house soundtrack; the staff isn't dressed in black pajamas. This is old school — the kind of place where the floors are either high-gloss or lushly carpeted, the furnishings are of the "Old Money" brand, and the cheap (sorry, "classic") rooms go for $800 a night.
The Carlyle restaurant, designed by French-born architect and artist Thierry Despont, has the kind of look your rich WASP uncle would love: plush pillow-strewn banquettes, velvet-covered walls hung with English hunting prints and Redouté lily watercolors, crown molding and Egyptianate flat columns, dramatic floral arrangements… You sort of know before you even sit down that this isn't the kind of place where you're likely to get pig's ear sliders or fluke tacos.
What the Carlyle does offer is an elegant dining experience, in an age when "elegance" and "dining" are two words seldom seen in the same sentence. To begin with, the room is very comfortable; the chairs and banquettes feel good, the lighting is warm and flattering, the sound level is perfectly balanced between buzz and tranquility. The service is attentive and professional. And the food — by French-born executive chef Jacques Sorci, whose American career has included posts at several Ritz-Carlton hotels — is exactly what it should be under the circumstances: unchallenging but based on very good raw materials and cooked exactly right.
The lobster bisque is classic, dense, and very lobstery in flavor, with a faint taste of tarragon and a mild cognac burn. A risotto of wild mushrooms and salsify generously covered with shaved white truffle — part of a special white truffle menu being served through mid-December — is earthy and foresty and delicious. Another white-truffled delight is a raft of perfectly cooked jumbo asparagus dusted with shaved pecorino before the truffles are applied. Dover sole, that most refined of fish, is of excellent quality, firm and faintly sweet, cosseted perfectly in butter and served with roasted fingerling potatoes and buttery leeks. Tournedos Rossini is a very old-fashioned dish, rich and extravagant — basically a filet mignon sautéed in butter, posed on a crouton of fried bread, topped with a slice of foie gras, garnished with black truffle, and moistened with sauce perigourdine (reduced red wine, madeira, and brown veal stock with more truffles). It was supposedly invented by Escoffier himself at the request of composer Gioachino Rossini, a fabled gourmand. Sorci offers a faithful interpretation of the recipe, but relegates the truffles to a potato mousseline (lovely), and serves sautéed asparagus on the side. (On Sunday nights, Sorci serves another archaic but immensely satisfying dish, beef Wellington, which is more or less tournedos Rossini wrapped in pastry dough.) Desserts? New York cheesecake, crème brûlée, chocolate mousse… What did you expect?
This is serious food, rich and presented in generous portions. It is possible to eat more lightly here: there are oysters, shrimp cocktail, Caesar salad, ahi tuna carpaccio, branzino provençal, a pan-roasted veal chop, and there are main course salads at lunchtime. But this is a place to come when you want to dress up a little, act like a grown-up, and eat food with a history, but also with the ability to please and satisfy today.