Posted 11 October 2004 - 11:04 AM
Fashionably late is a tricky thing to pull off: there’s the danger that, if delayed too long, an entrance can outlive its interest, no matter how dazzling the entrant or how hot the hype surrounding same. I can’t help wondering if this might not be the case with Café Gray, which, when I visited it with three friends last Wednesday on its second day open, was about half full the entire night. Its possible that Kunz is keeping reservations low so as not to overwhelm his staff early on in the game, although the bartender said that they’ve been doing Friends and Family runs for several weeks now. Its also possible that, given the incessant delays in opening since the originally anticipated date in February, many potential customers have simply lost interest in what was beginning to look like a hopeless cause. No doubt with the announcement in the Times that day, reservations have taken off.
The purists amongst my gullet colleagues will rejoice in my intention to not waste time and space discussing the décor, which was not to my taste, so I don’t want to unduly prejudice potential visitors. The bar up front is awfully dark, more so than preferred even by those of us tenebrous-benefitting souls. And was it cold! Neither conditions conducive to people watching, which is after all one of the reasons for going to such a place. There are, one companion estimated, at least three servers for every customer, and certainly all those weeks of drilling show in choreography that is overall smooth and impeccable, supervised by a battalion of eagle-eyed captains posted about the dining room. Everyone is faultlessly polite and pleasant and eager – almost anxious, I felt, though this is maybe not surprising given Chef Kunz’ notorious fastidiousness. The concept is very high-end: lots of changes of flatware and little dishes and display. The glassware is gorgeous, feather light.
This was my first experience with Chef Kunz (I couldn’t afford Lespinasse till after Delouvrier’s arrival, and Spice Market doesn’t really count), so I came open-minded and without preconceptions.
The cocktails are subdued, not too silly. I had a Tamarind Tango -- Tanqueray and tamarind juice and cointreau – which was fine, subtle, didn't pack much of a punch. Someone else had a Kaffir Lime Mojito which I didn't get to taste but she liked it. The bar serves fresh crisp flatbread strips topped with all kindsa stuff, caraway seeds, chile, cumin, garlic, pepper, a few other things, I think I might have liked them a little more if they weren't quite so busy. House-made bread at the table suffers from the same thing, and had a faintly fishy taste in it.
Starters: wild mushroom truffle risotto, luscious and pefect, most excellent. Seafood bisque, lovely and briny and just right. Grilled lemongrass shrimp on a bed of corn was fine, though the corn at this season was a bit tough and chewy. Same corn problem in the lobster ravioli, the whisper thin wrappers very impressive but also not much flavor.
Entrees: Lobster and watermelon salad, nice and zesty but could have used a little kick to it, a little chile heat or lime juice or something. Langoustine, I don't remember the details, it came in a bowl on a bed of lentils with an acidic dressing which I liked despite a faint redolence of ammonia, my friend who had ordered it hated it and sulked. Fluke crusted with puffed rice, this was terrific and very flavorful. The topper was my short ribs on grits with a few shreds of collard greens, most extremely excellent. Portions are smallish but very rich. The sommelier, faced with a challenging range of dishes, recommended a $54 bottle of Bordeaux, Aux Duresses something or other, which worked as well as anything was going to.
Dessert: a huge assortment of sorbets and ice creams: cherry, carrot, sour cream, can't remember them all, a killer chocolate sorbet and a grapefruit granite I would have been happy to take cartons of home. My hazelnut souffle was classic and lovely. A phyllo and caramelized apple croustade was beautiful. The chocolate marquise with lime and banana was not happy, but I'm not a chocolate and fruit fan.
$108 a person including tip.
Overall it was very good, everything was correct, but not mind-blowing, though why I should have expected it to be I can’t tell you – again, too much hype about stuff Kunz undoubtedly never intended. Those interested in sampling all of New York’s high end properties should make this a definite must.
Food, glorious food!
“Eat! Eat! May you be destroyed if you don’t eat! What sin have I committed that God should punish me with you! Eat! What will become of you if you don’t eat! Imp of darkness, may you sink 10 fathoms into the earth if you don’t eat! Eat!” (A. Kazin)