Friday, June 09, 2006

Breather New York City Entry #101 Country

The servers at Country, Chef Geoffrey Zakarian's new hotel restaurant, think of themselves as representatives of a glorious, dramatic, luxe restaurant. And they are right. Someone should inform the kitchen. All too often, such as A Voce, the creativity of the cooks leaves the servers in the dust, but at Country it is the food that requires panache. The service at this newly opened restaurant at the Carlton Hotel near Madison Park is as slick, convivial, and confident as that at any four star restaurant. The kitchen's handiwork, while never failing, lacks the flair of genius.

The space, like the service, claims attention. Country has high ceilings, commodious seating, and some astonishing glass art. True, the name conveys little, other than it is not Zakarian's Town, but whatever one might expect from a rustic appellation, Country is urbane, serving genteel food. However, no single dish persuaded my companions and me that a return is essential.

The problem was not Executive Chef Doug Psaltis's gaffes, but a deficit of delight, an absence of astonishment. Psaltis is a B+ chef. Psaltis is a pro at synthesizing high-middle cuisine, creating a restaurant free of complaint. Indeed, the high point of the evening was Country's "Carlton House Rolls," a soft, comforting, and polished bread modeled on the Parker House brand.

We began with a trio of canap├ęs. The best was a lovely caviar-mint-cream mille feuille. How could a bite could carry so much flavor. The other two were pleasant enough: chewy Japanese mushrooms swathed in bacon and a tiny, creamy spinach gougere.

As amuse, Chef Psaltis sent a beignet of frog's leg over garlic puree. The leg was moist and flavorful, but not a preparation that startled. The dish was structured so that the evocative garlic did not appear until the frog was consumed. Most striking was the silver on which the amuse appeared - a stunning lilypad with a cute and shining toad. When the plate overshadows what is on top, chefs should reconsider.

As first course of the spring prix fixe, I selected the Cepe Tart with Parmesan, Arugula, and Tomato Confit. Great tarts merge ingredients into a singular experience. In eating these preparation, the deconstruction was obvious, if unintended. While satisfying, there was not a woodsy oneness. The topping fell apart on the folk, emphasizing that the whole was less than the sum of some noble parts.

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Ouefs au Plat was the chef's tribute to Ham ‘n' Eggs, and it was a sturdy tribute with Berkshire Pork Confit, a Soft Boiled Egg, and Morels. Once again, the ingredients were superior, but they didn't combine into a transcendent experience. The plate was one thing after another. This was not a dish to return to the kitchen, but neither did it require an encore.

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As a main course, I selected a somewhat pedestrian Grilled Spring Chicken with Pinenuts, Bitter Greens, and Panisses (squares of starch of garbanzo bean flour). I wish that the chef had been more generous with both the bitter greens and the pinenuts, forcing us to consider the drama of taste. I particularly missed a play of bitter with the mild meaty sweetness of a good young bird. But this complexity was lacking in a dish that was comforting, but not challenging. It was a dish that few could dislike, but few would fall for. It was an entree for those who like their chicken without theory.

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As palate cleanser the kitchen sent a champagne gelee with strawberry sorbet and raspberry sections. The sorbet was tart, but neither the gelee or the berry was an inspired texture. I would have preferred a naked scoop of strawberry.

Almond Pithivier ended the evening. I love repeating "pithivier" (or did until I learned the weight of cholesterol involved). A pithivier is a puff pastry tart, often served with frangipane, and is a remarkably dense and rich construction. At Country, one selects accompaniments. I chose a somewhat ordinary vanilla ice cream and quite potent whiskey and cream sauce. Here was an dessert without reproach, but without inspiration.

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Country is a restaurant where the front and back of the house do not quite match. In a more modest space, Country would satisfy. The dishes have appeal, the ingredients please, and the flavors are pure, if mild. Doug Psaltis's food would pass muster at all but the most ambitious houses. Too bad no one told the savvy servers that they could take a breather.

Country
90 Madison Avenue (at 29th Street in the Carlton Hotel)
Manhattan (Gramercy Park)
212-889-7100

Sorry about the quality of the pictures. I'm learning my new camera.

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