November 12, 1990 | Vintage Insatiable
Venice Served

        Was Adam Tihany a dilettante or just another renaissance man? Who could know? It was in the eighties, that surreal hothouse of excess, that Tihany decided it was not sufficiently nourishing merely to design restaurants. He had to run one too. Remi on East 79th, with partner Francesco Antonucci in the kitchen, was the modest shakedown. Now Tihany-designed dreams Hubert's and Metro are stumbling or gone, but a new Remi is packing them in like calamari, grander than ever in a gawky midtown space – a fast dash from Broadway.

        And there is Adam, Transylvanian by descent, Israeli by nurture, Italian by love and osmosis – the quintessential New Yorker – schmoozing up the customers. Gilbert Le Coze, Sirio Maccioni with Daniel Boulud and crew, David Bouley – “four-star restaurateurs eating pasta on their night out,” says Tihany. “This is my nighttime job when I’m in town.”

        Is it location, location, location, as Crain’s suggests? Observing the tumult of tables turning at Remi? Yes, there is a mini-restaurant surge on the West Side, encouraged by the rent concessions of panicked landlords, the mushrooming of office space and hotel rooms, the magnet of Time Square struggling to be reborn. But at Remi, the lure is mostly good Italian food and Venetian airs at prices that are assertive but not cutthroat (pastas $11 to $15, entrées $15 to $18 at lunch; $14 to $16 and $18.50 to $24 at dinner).

        My bet is folks love the buzz of the place, the elegant feel-good of the entry, the most brilliant design of the most awkward space, especially magical by day, when filtered light smoothes stress-crinkled epidermis. Adam is in the details. I grant you, the mural is not exactly Michelangelo – or even Chia – and it looks as if it might fall and crush you at any moment except for the clever flying buttresses that save the day. The dark-and-light-striped wood flooring echoes nautical striped banquettes and the serving crew’s shirts, and what look like amber beads dangle from café curtains.

        Even at a banquette, your back to the bustle of lunchtime dealing (Orion is a tenant above, Time Warner not far away) and without an eye on the lazy bucolia of fresh-air-atrium diners (banished now for the winter), you feel a sense of privilege, a hum of energy and determined affluence that won’t surrender the city.

        In my notes, I find jottings of disappointment, but my overriding memory is contentment – perhaps because pleasures here outscore the flaws, and peak at the finale… ahh, that apple-mascarpone cheesecake. The seduction begins with a soft melt of goat and cream cheeses in a puddle of tomato sauce to spread on splendid sinewy rolls. The surprising punch of oven-dried tomatoes with mozzarella and shiitake offsets the banality of grilled vegetables. And the fiery zest of penne picante or the lushness of spinach gnocchi with salty ricotta is better than tamely gingered ravioli “Marco Polo.”

        Sweetly caramelized sea scallops spiked with prosecco vinaigrette on cannelloni beans, or the special shiitake in a nest of soft polenta, make a fine beginning. Or try a half-order of the buttery fusilli with radicchio and the smoke of Canadian bacon. Squid-ink risotto is soupy and rich (it’s impossible to eat more than a bite or two), best to share with three or four adventurers. The fettuccine with sea scallops and broccoli rabe is sadly wan.

        Garlicky lamb chops (rare as requested) need a pinch of seasoning, but the creamy scalloped potatoes are a comfort here: roasted with good honey-mustard-and-herb-grilled Cornish hen, mashed with an excellent grilled veal chop, sage-flecked to escort squab baked in red wine. Salmon, also rare as ordered, sits on lentils with fennel and fried artichokes, all very spicy. Near-sashimi tuna, sliced and fragrantly singed along the edges, would be news, I suspect, to a Venetian. A halibut special wears a delicious and savory swath of sun-dried tomato.

        Fight the impulse to be virtuous when the dessert list arrives. Surrender to good crème brûlée, fine apple strudel with white raisins and the best vanilla ice cream and fresh fruit – perhaps berries as big as small plums. It’s true, the big platter of cookies with almond brittle and candied-apricot strips you pay $8 for here would be a gift with coffee at Palio or San Domenico (where the liver is foie gras and costs $33.75 against Remi’s $18.50 price tag). But cookies are my weakness. If yours is grappa, there are 45 to choose from, or sip the murky opal nero, which tastes like melted licorice stick. I ask for mine served in a small crystal flute that rides in a red toy Ferrari (my favorite from Tihany’s collection of glasses).

Remi, 145 West 53rd Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues.

Muffy Lunches at Mark

        Did somebody say less is more? Recently, I mean. Well, more will never be enough for me. Especially if it’s English. That’s why my pulse races and my cholesterol surges as I walk into the Mark hotel. It’s how I will live when my new novel hits the best-seller list and I can afford to fringe my cushions. This is snap, the blur of white-gloved doorman as you pull up to the neo-Italianate Renaissance building off Madison.

        The miniature lobby seems almost devoured by an explosion of autumn – bittersweet and bright-orange lantern flowers – and more sartorial spiff bowing you into the mahogany-velvet-and-silk embrace of Mark’s, with its lacquer sideboards and antique prints, potted orchids and palms, engraved silver, Villeroy & Boch breakables, and bare pedestal tables set with oval linen placemats and perky posies in celadon pots. Down the stairs, up the stairs, scaling the subliminal “tea with Mumsy” architecture, propping your tricky sciatic nerve against interior designer Mimi Russell’s plump, fringed brocade pillows in the corner of each banquette.

        Instantly, you feel you are no longer Shirley or Joyce or Marilyn. You are Muffy, Morgan, Amanda, at home in the stylish perfection of Manhattan’s tiny new outpost in the Rafael hotel chain. (If you’re clever, you can start a flirtation here that might lead to a honeymoon or even just monkey business in the company’s Bora Bora or Phuket Island hideaways.)

        Of course there are snazzy waiters and captains and more – a nanny perhaps, or maîtresse d’hôtel, a woman who bustles about in black-and-white wraparound silk, something between classic Diane Von Furstenberg and a fancy housecoat. “Enjoy,” she says. Twice. You do enjoy. Fine cotton napkins. Eli’s nut-and-raisin-studded pumpernickel, rich as fruitcake. Across the aisle, a clarion voice speaking perfect uptown lockjaw. And the food? Fabulous at dinner, mysteriously uneven at brunch.

        At lunch, long ago, that bread was the highlight. Splendid onion soup and rich-as-Croesus tortellini with nuts and cheese in a swamp of heavy cream did not offset the drear of the bizarrely mated Caesar salad and shrimp quesadilla, a tasteless burger, soppy tiramisu.

        Brunch more recently was beautiful but off the mark, too: overcooked red snapper and shrimp, underdressed salad. Our trio of brunch devotees was charmed by the setting, admired the fruit soup, yet left unfulfilled by duck-confit hash, even though its poached-egg poach was undeniable perfection.

        What do make of Chef Phillipe Boulot, with his hallowed mentors (Alain Senderens and Joel Robuchon)? The press release hints at the symptoms as it struggles to categorize his style – “Cuisine Bourgeosie,” “Cuisine Marché,” “Pacific Rim.” The man is dizzy with jet lag, I decide.

       But friends kept raving about Mark’s, urging me to try again. And on my return, dinner is impressive. There are artists whose creative juices never flow till sundown, after all. Tonight, Boulot, is on a high, starting with the ghastly sounding amuse-bouche – smoked-salmon consommé in a demitasse – that thrills. His lobster wrapped in a crisp rice leaf” with carrot vinaigrette and vegetable julienne is a successful play on Far Eastern flavors. And plump, briny oysters are sufficiently perfumed to wear a spicy grated-horseradish crust and survive, picking up a kick from their rainbow bed of peppercorns (silly, yes, but functional). Parsley vinaigrette adds savor to the lentils under impeccably grilled prawns. And a luscious fricassee of wild mushrooms graces bowtie pasta with asparagus, snow peas, and a hit of garlic.

        The fashionable spud gets couturier ruffles here: butter-whipped potato in crusty skin carrying silken lobster. My expectations for pheasant are always low, but tonight’s is moist and flavorful with its celery root puree and baked lady apple. And the Road Food Warrior is pleased with excellent sirloin and garlic-potato cake. Given appetizers priced at $8 to $12.50 and entrées $18 o $32, dinner is a costly indulgence. But consider the pampering: This is a five-course extravaganza if you count the jasmine-scented finger bowls served twice, six -- if you include the coda of ginger cookies and chocolate truffles.

        You get a fresh ironed place mat before dessert even if you haven’t made a mess. Then, if you spill a smidgen of plum sorbet from that sublime, crumbly plum tart or a drop of bitter chocolate from the profiteroles or the brilliant chocolate-mousse sampler, the waiter will come by and flip your place mat. As a guest remarked, “I’ve been in the eating-out business for 50 years, and I’m stunned.”

        Move over, God and Adam. Mark is in the details, too. Spend a nigh at the Mark, and you’ll discover the standby roll of toilet paper is tied in black satin ribbon. Don’t ask me how I know.

Mark’s, 25 East 77th Street at Madison Avenue 


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