Saturday, December 10, 2005

Green Day New York City Entry #42

In my first 100 days in New York, I had studiously avoided entering New York's Neo-Geo Twin Towers: the once-and-future AOL Center, the Time-Warner Center: Manhattan Glitz Central.

I broke my fast with lunch at Café Gray, the namesake stake of Gray Kunz, the former chef at the much-loved Lespinasse. Café Gray is a down-market version of Lespinasse, but Chef Kunz's (and Chef de Cuisine Larry Finn's) artistry shines through.

Café Gray is dominated by its display kitchen - oddly situated in that the doings of the cooks block what is otherwise a stunning view of Columbus Circle. That kitchen owns Manhattan's most stunning view for culinary labor. Cooks typically suffer in cramped warrens or underground bunkers. What a gig!

Lunch at Café Gray mirrors dinner in the choices and in the prices charged. Some are priced identically, including a Alfred Portale vertically-inspired skyscraper salad ("Café Gray Bouquet of Greens"), while others are a buck cheaper at lunch, a tease for bargain hunting diners. For a lunch bargain try Gray's Papaya. Given the casual, if elegant, setting, a thirty-plus price tag for an entree at lunch is presumptuous, or would be anywhere other than in this cathedral of consumption. For those who won't venture outside of TWC, this is Filene's Basement compared to neighbors Masa and Per Se.

For this critic money is no object, although I stuck with one entree and a dessert, producing a truncated review. As my second (there was no first), I ordered Roast Col Vert Duckling with a Star Anise-Honey Glaze, served on a bed of chestnut and savoy cabbage. This was a characteristically Kunzian dish: a classical preparation with Asian tasting notes. The Col Vert Duckling is a smaller, less fatty bird than the standard Long Island duckling, and the flavor seemed more intense and gamy. The cooking was precise: not raw, but a half-notch beneath medium rare. Perfect. The star anise added an exotic excitement and the savoy cabbage/chestnut slaw provided a nod to classicism, serving as a bed for the medallions of breast and braised leg. I imagine after several servings, the dish might seem thickly sweet, but wisemen eat dessert first.

Dessert brought a deconstructed Baked Alaska. This was not a vexing experimental rendition, but a subtle symphony of the flavors of this most traditional of desserts with the addition of sage and mandarin, again the Kunz trademark (and that of pastry chef Chris Broberg). The heated meringue blanketed a sphere of rich milk chocolate ice cream with the orb in a sea of deep chocolate jus. On one side was mandarin gelee and the other a mandarin compote. It was as startling as it was classic, revealing the skills of a chef who loves the intersection of tradition and experiment.

A two course lunch with a glass of wine for $80 is a lot of green, but if the alternative is to shop shop shop, Café Gray might be the bargain of a New York December.

Café Gray
2 Columbus Center (Time Warner Center)
Manhattan (Midtown West)

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