Thursday, January 8, 2009

Friends, Family, Food

If you do not know what the restaurant term "friends and family" means, allow me to clarify here: before a restaurant opens to the public, they hold a soft opening in which they invite friends and family of the restaurant to dine for free. The length of friends and family varies from restaurant to restaurant. Some places will do a week or a few days. Still others will do one glorious night.

Included on the guests lists of these things are generally restaurant VIPs (chefs, general managers and sommeliers from other restaurants, investors) some members of the press (I've seen Ben Leventhal from at many a friends and family) and family members of the staff. And if you're wondering if everything is really free, well, yes, it is. Food, alcohol, everything. All you leave is the tip at meal's end.

Which brings me to last night. The fortuitous friendships I forged at Grayz, Gray Kunz's casual-ish spot (if you compare it to the now-closed Cafe Gray) secured me entrance into Atria last night. Grayz experienced a host of problems last year, the most dramatic of which included the investors' decision to extricate Gray Kunz from the restaurant and distribute the wealth to chef d' cuisine Martin Brock. Grayz closed and announced that they would re-open as Gneiss, a name that took more than a few blows in the New York press. A month or so later, Grayz/Gneiss released yet another press release, announcing that they would re-open in the winter as Atria.

So Atria it is. I will say what I've said before about the Grayz/Gneiss/Atria/once-upon-a-time Aquavit space: it is warm, atmospheric, inviting. The low ceilings of the bar area make it the perfect place in which to enjoy a cocktail when Jack Frost comes nipping. Downstairs--which was formerly the private dining room space and now, in a flip-flop, is officially the main dining room--a small anteroom opens into a cavernous atrium, where modern art mobiles hang above mesmerized diners. I didn't eat in the atrium because the maitre'd, a friend, wanted to keep me close. Actually, I didn't mind. I prefer the intimacy of the anteroom over the grandeur of the atrium.

All diners chose from a three course prix fixe menu (not that we were paying). We drank yeasty Cava and considered our choices, deciding on appetizers of a mache salad with frisee and lardon and a hanger steak wrap stuffed with pickled cucumbers. The salad was light, refreshing, and kissed with truffle oil. It was tasty, but my friend and I had the same reaction: isn't truffle oil passe by now? Never mind. The meat in my wrap was delectably rare, buttressed by that crunchy cucumber, chiffonaded mint, wide cilantro leaves, dime-sized radish. The sauce on which it sat was savory, spicy, sweet, and as irresistable as duck sauce on eggrolls. There. I said it. The wrap came with fingerling potato chips. I loved the dish, I really did, but it seemed incongruous, surrounded by more formal fare. Also, it was quite large for an appetizer. When I mentioned this to the general manager, he told me that it was an experiment for a burgeoning bar menu. Now that, when I considered it, seemed quite brilliant. Who wouldn't love to eat this little sandwich late night at a bar?

Entrees were good but intellectually uncomplicated. A lobster boullion was more sea than actual lobster, a coconut broth in which swam one shrimp, one sea scallop, a substantial piece of white fish (I'd guess bass if I had to guess) and a few vibrant pieces of asparagus. Braised flatiron steak had the consistency and flavor of a very good short rib and came over agrodolce pearl onions, baby mushrooms, potato, and Brussels sprouts. Both were delicious, neither were concepts never before undertaken in New York.

The desserts, like the wines (in addition to that Cava, I drank a very good pinot noir from the Eola Hills of Oregon), were well-chosen. A chocolate mousse arrived between two layers of crisp chocolate pastry and came topped with espresso powder and tiny coffee gelatins garnished with pistachio nuts. Caramel apples were not overcooked and came with a a salty apple cake and fresh apple sorbet, the perfect palate cleanser.

Flavors were unanimously clean and sharp and, knowing Martin Brock, they'll stay that way. What I wonder is whether or not a restaurant that has weathered so many incarnations can survive such desperate economic times. I suppose it remains to be seen.

13-15 W. 54th Street
New York, NY 10019

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