They really don’t make restaurants like Patina Restaurant Group’s Brasserie 8 1/2 anymore, especially in New York City. There’s a lot of “wow” factor as you walk through the large doors of the Solow Building and check in with two hosts, one upstairs and one after you’ve descended down an eye-catching spiral staircase and into a red-carpeted lounge area with original works by Matisse and Léger on the wall. The massive dining room is just beyond that, with plenty of white tablecloths and seating for several hundred, as well as another bar.
It’s a massive restaurant with a traditional French brasserie menu, and during a recent meal there I couldn’t help but think that I’d been transported 17 years into the past, into those heady first days of the new millennium, for better or worse. The restaurant itself doesn’t seem to mind not changing much at all in nearly 20 years; the website still proudly brags that it was “seen on Sex and the City.”
We’ve entered a new era of French dining in New York, with the arrival of showstoppers like Dirty French, Le Coucou, Batard, and Le Turtle, but if Brasserie 8 1/2 has updated its menu in recent years to reflect this, it’s not readily apparent. That’s not to say that the food isn’t good; we thoroughly enjoyed everything we ate, but there’s no new ground being broken here. French onion soup, served in a large traditional crock, was full of caramelized onion flavor and appropriately topped with an ample amount of bubbling Emmenthal and Gruyère. Frisee aux lardons hit all the right notes, but the egg and dressing were room temperature instead of warm. Steak frites came with a larger-than-anticipated dry-aged sirloin (always welcome), the fries were perfectly crisp, and a side of béarnaise was properly made. Duck two ways (roasted breast and confit leg) with bulgur wheat, rhubarb, and orange gastrique was nicely rendered and cooked to the requested temperature, and the gastrique lent it just the right amount of sweetness and acidity, but the bulgur was overloaded with mushy golden raisins.
The wine list is surprisingly small, with only 26 reds and 25 whites available, but our Oregon pinot from Sharecropper’s didn’t warrant any complaints. Service was professional if slightly aloof; when a glass of wine spilled, our server awkwardly watched as we attempted to mop it up (the tablecloth was soon replaced.
The crowd appeared to be an even mix of older regulars, tourists, and large groups of coworkers. Even though the space is absolutely gorgeous, making the most of the basement location (it’s a jewel in Patina’s crown), I got the impression that Brasserie 8 1/2 is resting on its laurels, and not quite living up to its potential. This location could easily be home to a flagship restaurant for a chef like Ducasse or Robuchon, and its ideal location on 57th Street is enviable. (To get an idea of its potential, look no further than Gabriel Kreuther, the ground-floor restaurant in Solow’s 42nd Street sister building, Grace, easily one of the best restaurants to open in the city in the past 5 years.) With a little imagination, Brasserie 8 1/2 could easily become a fine dining destination once again.