November 10, 2014 | BITE: My Journal
Rainbow Room: The Decadent Brunch
I’m a fool for mostly New York cheeses from Murray’s in a state of glorious readiness.
Our ascendance to the new revitalized Rainbow Room that first Sunday just after noon was not promising. An NBC audience milling about in the lobby kept us from using the designated elevator. Security, we were told. We had to check our coats on the concourse and take a freight elevator, then transfer to yet another lift. Security! I was grumpy already. The truth is I’ve never been a brunch fan.
Chef Jonathan Wright himself tends to the slicing of a pig’s thigh, manicures smoked salmon.
On the 65th floor we stop…mesmerized by the sweep of our island from the bar. Maybe the minds in charge think the view and an outdoor terrace are decorative enough. SixtyFive, a new cocktail lounge, looks like an airplane terminal waiting room in a third world country. “Hopefully, they’re still working on it,” I mutter.
The brunch buffet is an over-the-top merry-go-round of breakfast merging with lunch.
And then to the left, the new entrance to the Rainbow Room. A trio of hosts greet us. Our quartet is among the first to arrive. As we are seated on the edge of the dance floor, I am distracted by the dense merry-go-round of the brunch buffet. It’s Tiffany of eats, a Brooklyn Smorgasbord on steroids, arranged like an octopus with dozens of chefs in white coats and captains in tunics standing inside each tentacle, ready to entice and slice, to slosh and slather.
Of course, the view has changed during the Rainbow’s five year rehab but not the thrill.
I recall the reopening party after an earlier rehab by Joe Baum. Leona Helmsley’s bare shoulders as she proudly danced with her Harry. I remember all the parties for Citymeals-on-Wheels Baum gave as a gift, a grace carried into the era of the Cipriani. I turn to the window looking downtown. It’s a glorious blue-sky day. I can’t name all the new towers that didn’t exist when the Rainbow Room shuttered in 2009 for its five-year makeover. But the thrill is the same. Mirrors make the windows seem larger, but I find the room too grey and missing some softness. Then I notice how new curtains of crystals reflecting the sun make miniature rainbows on the carpet. I stop looking for flaws.
Spare me your everyday classic gourgères. These are salmon-stuffed and pretzel-crumbed.
Steps from our blossom-bedecked table, I watch Executive Chef Jonathan Wright carving a pig’s thigh with a gleaming sword. Minutes later he turns his attention to manicuring slices of cured salmon. A waitress delivers gossamer puff pastry cheese sticks and two kinds of gourgères to us in a bowl -- salmon-stuffed puffs and pretzel-studded rounds.
“I was going to order a Bloody Mary, but maybe I won’t,” Peter says. “It’s early to start drinking.” I stifle a gasp – cocktails are $22 and up. My favorite Negroni is $26. Maybe I’ll just have a small glass of orange juice.
Chef Wright says he found these drawers for miniature muffins and breads shopping on the internet.
No cruise ship buffet I’ve stalked or five-star international hotel breakfast I have successfully mined has been this complex. It’s instantly clear there’s no way I can survive tasting everything, even with an assist from my three companions. I do a quick reconnaissance walk-around.
I’ve nothing against shellfish, but I’m rationing my capacity by focusing on carbohydrates.
I skip the tempting array of oysters because they were opened before we arrived. Mussels in the half shell don’t tempt me either. Waiting for the Japanese chef to put together three slices of sashimi, I pop a cut of spicy tuna sushi into my mouth. It’s soft and soggy. I drop a pot sticker and a Shanghai soup dumpling on my plate. One of my companions has pronounced them excellent. But she doesn’t live three blocks from the dim sum mastery of Red Farm as I do.
The sashimi is fine, but I’ll save my sushi business for the city’s superior Japanese sushi bars.
I’m more excited by miniature muffins tucked into the drawers of a small wooden chest. I collect all sorts of breakfast breads, rejecting the more mundane croissants and pain au chocolate for classic American goodies, whole-wheat banana bread, walnut-raisin multi-grain, a slice of cinnamon bun. This is Sunday breakfast, after all, a beatitude I avoid in favor of my usual no-fat yogurt and Kibbles’n’Bits.
I almost passed this post by except for the beckoning chef. That’s how I discovered the truffle egg.
There’s a whole bookshelf devoted to Indian food. (A friend at brunch yesterday reports the vegetable curry is exceptionally good.) I’ll check that out later. But I’m drawn by a row of stews and stuff in earthenware pots. The chef in charge explains. I should choose one or two or three -- Parmesan risotto, chorizo and potato ragout, pearl barley, cheese grits. “Grits…yes and wild mushroom stew.” He layers them in a bowl, then carefully cracks the shell of an egg and slides a trembling white orb on top. Brandishing a metal dispenser he shoots off a fusillade of truffled potato foam. Behind me stands a floor walker ready to shave truffles. “Yes, please.”
A dish to haunt: soft-boiled egg on cheese grits and wild mushrooms with truffled potato spume.
Back at the table, I inhale. I taste. The concoction is marvelous. Alert to my oohing and aahings, my tablemates want tastes. They disappear to put together their own truffled egg. One of them leaves behind a miniature chicken pot pie with black truffles. It’s marvelous too. I’m glad it’s just a share because I also savor the corned beef and root vegetable hash. Both are remarkable. And the thick triangle of French toast I find on my plate is maybe the best French toast I’ve ever tasted.
The $95 plus tip tab is modest if you start with breakfast and middle with a prime rib lunch.
Dining executives swarm our table. They have spotted my friend Harriette Rose Katz -- the wedding and bar mitzvah diva -- and are wooing her. If she were Cleopatra, they would bring a 24-karat necklace in the shape of an asp, but it’s party business they want. One of them delivers a thick slice of roast beef.
I skipped the Indian offerings. My friend back at brunch yesterday raves about the vegetable curry.
Although the Rainbow Lounge -- finished or not -- will welcome bar business weeknights, this new Rainbow room will be open only for dinner on Monday -- with live music and dancing -- and for this Sunday brunch. That leaves the landmarked circle, with its revolving dance floor, free for private events. And Katz can bring them. The beef is wonderfully rare and meaty. And yes, it’s time for lunch now. The prime rib platter in the roasts corner of the buffet is certainly tempting though alas, the Yorkshire pudding is as chewy as a pig’s ear. Anyway, I’m still panning a sublime breakfast.
A mix of tourists and locals means there’s no dress code. Expect spike heels and scuffies.
An early afternoon crowd works the buffet. They are a motley mix of tourists, some dressed for church, some for golf -- and what look like real New Yorkers, elderly couples who could have courted here, imagining themselves to be Fred Astaire and Ginger.
The char siu barbecued pork stuffed into a Chinese bun was one of my favorite tastes.
I find it easy to resist herb-roasted Amish chicken, smoked Skuna Bay salmon with mustard cream sauce and honey-baked ham with caramelized pineapple. I’m betting Chang Mai red duck curry cannot be better than Thai in Flushing. What I can’t pass by is char siu barbeque pork -- I ask the guardian of the roasts to slice me some of the caramelized bits. He stuffs them into a Chinese steamed bun, and offers pickled cucumber and Singapore fried noodles to go with.
For me the classic American breakfast breads beat out the French offerings.
I study the children’s offerings at a kid’s height buffet -- a burger, fries, cupcakes, wrapped candy. The few children here are mostly circling the main buffet. And some are stalking each other. I’m on my third round, or maybe the fourth, getting fussier. I consider a thick slice of Nueske's bacon. “You should try these eggs,” a captain suggests.
"I like my scrambled eggs very creamy, barely stirred,” I respond. “Those will be overcooked from sitting too long.”
“I don’t think so...” He stirs them. I take some, leaving bacon and roasted potatoes behind. He’s right. The eggs are my idea of perfection.
My second plate: cheese baton, char siu pork, dry chicken sausage, cinnamon pastry, harbison cheese, creamy eggs.
The salad bar is not tempting at all, although I am sure it will be a haven for vegans and congenital dieters. I am not a delicatessen fan either -- so I bypass the St. James smoked salmon, the Catsmo smoked sturgeon, the smoked white fish and cured gravlax so meticulously displayed, surrounded by the classics that might accompany them in various countries: red onion, capers, crème fraîche, melba toast, cornichons, olives.
So much pleasure in this mini chicken pot pie. I’m ignoring the curl of pork alongside.
I’ve saved a big wedge of my plate for cheese. Yes, of course, I could go back with a clean plate, but at this point of too-much, I’m balancing journalism and gluttony with thoughts of trying to work in the late afternoon. Still it’s cheese, a category I find hard to resist. I must have Jasper Hill Farm harbison, something called hooligan, a big cut of bandaged cheddar, a knuckle of Barden Blue and even brie, remembering the days when brie was the ultimate cheese one could aspire to. Especially I must have it since this brie is about to run right off its board.
A taste, a taste, and another taste on my dessert plate. I can never get enough peach crumble.
Physically I am running out of steam, but emotionally I need something sweet. Elizabeth Blau and her team, charged with hiring a chef and designing the brunch, has put all the desserts up a few carpeted steps on what was once the entrance to the room. I move past the fruit offerings to the ice cream stand -- vanilla and salted caramel with Chantilly cream and caramel sauce.
I focus my attention on parfaits, cheesecake, éclairs and profiteroles, nougat crunch cake, tartlets and chocolate in any guise. But then I find my appetite revived at the sight of peach cobbler and old-fashioned apple pie. My plate is full ,but I stop to survey the mignardises station. I pop a chocolate into my mouth. It’s so salty, I can’t taste the caramel.
Latecomers are drawn to the charcuterie and classic cured fish table, adjacent to the cheeses.
Back at the table, I find the waitress has dropped off apple cider donut holes. I taste one too and decide I better order a double espresso to get me up the landmarked stairs (there is no banister). Never mind if the new look is a little too grey and a tad stiff, the brunch has beguiled us all. The tab -- $95 plus tip ($65 for children under 12, free for children under 3) -- seems eminently fair for the majesty of this over-the-top buffet. Obviously not everything is equal. But we agree we’d all return for the truffled egg alone.
The Rainbow Room is back -- a great place to celebrate and be celebrated.
30 Rockefeller Center, 65th floor. 212 632 5000. Sunday brunch 11 am to 3 pm. Dinner with entertainment Monday, and on holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas, from 5:30 pm.
Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.
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