July 30, 1984 | Vintage Insatiable
Rockefeller Center Renaissance
What snobs we New Yorkers can be…quite willing to abandon a corner of paradise to the touring barbarians rather than suffer their yodels and drawls, their whining babes, their rippled thighs and hairy calves bared in the briefs some folk sport for exploring Gotham on a summer day.
Well, a power of Rockefellers and the once humbled now rejuvenated Restaurant Associates are out to woo us back to the sunken valley below the granite cliffs of Rockefeller center. Out of a fusty outmoded feeding enclave – late the Promenade Café – they have sculpted a bright, skylit celebration of American dining: the posh Sea Grill, the American Festival Café, and Savories, a coffee-shop-plus-carryout, each with its measure of alfresco. And it can be heaven.
On a sultry scorcher, the Summer Garden may be forbidding even shaded by umbrellas in cooling tones of raspberry and lime sherbet. But so far, nights have been silken. A fresh breeze and the tiniest spray from Prometheus’ waterfall temper the heat of July lunchtime at Savories. And settling at an outdoor table in the sweetness of morning for breakfast at the American Festival reminds me of a Caribbean honeymoon. There are a lot of bewildered little gremlins wandering around paradise. They are the staff. They are young. They would rather be surfing. Most will be gone tomorrow. A few are charming enough to be forgiven. The food is highly stylized – nouvelle, nouveau, Helmut Newton – brilliant, and cute, from shrimp in chive bondage to an Italian Dagwood sandwich in green tissue paper to huevos rancheros in a tasteless fried tortilla “bowl”. Alas, the American Festival has more misses than hits. Savories is fun at a decent price, though the carryout is more oops than ups. But the Sea Grill is already refining its touch, scoring occasional triumphs, and I’ve started urging my friends to try it – warning that they risk cuisinary stumbles and the comedy of rookies in attendance. It’s so young. Let’s give it a chance.
Fountains above and below, carpets and banquettes in all the colors of the sea, glass – exposed kitchen, and a still life of sea creatures and produce behind glass…it’s easy to see where the money went in the Sea Grill. Alas, the Laurel and Hardy level of service – no matter how amiable – is not easy to forgive with a meal for two likely to run $100. What did R.A. tell these raw recruits in the rigorous training sessions they talk about? Never mind the name of the wine. “I go by the number,” our waiter chides. It may take twenty minutes to find the bottle. “They lock things up at night around here,” another waiter explains. Being sensitive, you look away as he struggles with the cork. These poor ingénues. They are so nervous they can’t even get the custom-made Fiesta Ware plates squarely on the compact garden table: Everything perches three inches over the edge. And no one seems to notice the pileup of cleared dishes on the sideboard (is there no supervision?).
By contrast, the confident blonde who handles the bubble-gum drama deserves a merit raise. The offending pink wad has come affixed to the bottom of a plate and attached itself to the tablecloth. “That is disgusting,” she says. “That should not happen. I beg your forgiveness,” and she scrapes it away.
The bubble-gum lunch in the Sea Grill’s posh corner of the garden is impressive…not perfect. The angel’s-hair pasta ($7.50) is clumped gluily together, though it’s thumbnail tiny clams are sublime. Cold corn-and-crab soup ($3.75), a daily special, is closer to a sauce but delicious, as is a headily garlicked clam stew ($8), tart with a kick of Pinot Blanc. Oysters Rockefeller ($7.75) embalmed in faded spinach are an insult (and provoked such an in-house protest – “After all, this is Rockefeller Center” – the kitchen promised to take more care). And delicately grilled giant shrimp ($22), with a light orange sauce that needs acid balance, and sweet, deliciously caramelized baby scallops on tuffets of custard squash ($18.50) are so pleasing my lunch companion decides to return the next night for dinner.
There’s not much you can count on here. Except the service: It will probably be amusing if not maddening. And the wine list: It’s splendid, all-American, with a fair number of half-bottles and not too greedy prices. House wine by the glass is poured from the bottle. The flat bread is irresistible. Order club soda or Perrier and you’ll get salt -free Saratoga water. It’s American.
But there are moments of pleasure. The Sea Grill chowder ($6), a menagerie of clams, mussels, and tiny scallops, is creatively sparked with bits of corn, tomato, and okra. No complaints about the mussels ($8) except that they lack the tiniest hint of their advertised cilantro. But the sandy-bottomed mignonette sauce with its odd tasting vinegar is like a polluted sea to the luxury of Cotuit, Wellfleet, and Apalachicola oysters ($8.75). The seafood sausage ($6.50) with its two sauces and a frizzle of greasy fried collard – green ribbons has no taste at all. And the giant shrimp with Texas champagne sauce ($10.50) taste fresher at lunch than at dinner.
A special one evening, roulade of bass ($19) handsomely stuffed with fennel and served cold, has picked up an unpleasant taste in the cold box. But I cannot imagine lobster more delicate than in this summer salad (about $22) garnished with a crush of ginger in a hollowed-out lime (“green lemon,” the menu calls it, a quirky affectation, as is listing what Americans call chicory as “curly endive”). For lobster this celestial, I forgive them. A daily special, blackfish ($18) , sadly unseasoned, is impeccably just-cooked and graced with a zestiness of lightly candied ginger, snow peas, ribbons of sweet red and yellow peppers, field greens, and a shock of tart candied kumquat. A lovely perfume of the grill does not overwhelm moist, fresh tuna ($21), served with a decent tomato vinaigrette. But remarkably tasty salmon ($20) has been left too long on the fire. At least three out of four times, though, my request for a sea creature “rare” or “undercooked” is honored.
There are non – aquatic possibilities for incurable carnivores. Golden oak mushrooms are served with exquisite American duck liver ($11.50), sheer velvet. Perfectly poached eggs ride on a slightly watery mushroom “steak” in a rich gratiné sauce ($14.50). There are omelets ($12 to $14.50), grilled steak ($22) and chicken ($18), and tender, fatty, savorless duck ($18) served with a sweet rhubarb in a sugary meringue shell – sheer silliness.
The pancake of julienne potatoes is expensive ($4.50) but good, whether of not the kitchen remembers the sour cream. Alas, a service of three vegetables ($3.50) is a lesson in how not to do the vegetables (undercook, remove color, do not season). Grilled zucchini rounds ($2.75) need to be cut with a knife.
Even desserts are erratic. Every waitperson I encounter in each of these restaurants recommends the creamy Key lime pie ($3.50), sometimes with credentials: “And I know because I lived in Key West.” Once it seems really limy; six other times, not. The chocolate concord cake ($4.25) with its crackles of meringue is lovely at lunch in a sampler of desserts put together in the American Festival Café (I was recognized).
Next night in the Sea Grill, it has lost its crisp charm. Ices ($4.50) are truly icy. Sour cherry is intense. Homemade ice creams ($4.50) can be good: vanilla, chocolate studded bananas Foster, triple chocolate, served on a disk of marzipan. Raspberries ($5.50) are doused with two chocolate sauces, black and white, a marriage I object to. You may not. Pound cake ($3) is baked around a core of almond paste, served with chocolate sauce on the side, the dark chocolate feathered with white. And the Sea Grill fruit tart ($4.25) may or may not be fine. Decaffeinated coffee is brewed here.
All these possibilities plus wine and a few extras can easily send the check soaring. (Prices are the same at lunch and dinner except for the oysters Rockefeller, which cost 25 cents more at noontime.) If you’re seated by 6:30, you can have a pre-theater dinner – three courses and coffee -- for $28 (includes free parking).
The Sea Grill 19 West 49th Street, 212 332 7610
AMERICAN FESTIVAL CAFÉ
Not so long ago, American folk art sold for a song and friends would have roared if you took them out to taste the cuisine of New Jersey or Philadelphia pepper pot. Today, we have serious gastronomes lyricizing about crisp fried pickles, and a hundred imitations of Paul Prudhomme’s blackened redfish (thank you Restaurants Associates for sparing us another). A splintery whirligig salvaged from some barnyard will set you back thousands. And the barbecue smokehouse runs amok in our land.
It took a year of negotiations with the Museum of American Folk Art to borrow the whimsical treasures that grace Phil George’s handsome design for the American Festival Café. He especially wanted the eagle over the bar, but it was already promised to the embassy in Moscow, so he found a wood carver to duplicate it. The floors mimic American quilts in tile, and the glass-bottomed fountains above make reflecting skylights that are cozy by day, cold by night. Tables are reservable indoors, but you queue at the top of the steps midway between the 49th and 50th if you want a perch in the Summer Garden. Late at night, the hopeful stand reading the engraved words of John D. Rockefeller Jr. about the blessing of work.
Isn’t this what you’d want in a restaurant? A casual, middle – priced brasserie for lunch any hour of the day (well, at least till half after midnight), fast bar sandwich, an after – theater snack, a gung ho celebration of Americana, all the homegrown harvest of our land: sweet onions from Vidalia, farm fresh eggs guaranteed never to be more than 24 hours old, country ham and Petaluma smoked ducks, garlic from Gilroy, California, and herbs from the Bronx. It makes you want to stand up and sing the national anthem. Oh, if only the food were better,
Not that it doesn’t look great. Talk about style. This food is haute couture. New potatoes are carved to look like mushrooms. Fiery red peppers poke out of lemon baskets like nasty little adders’ tongues – witty and decorative. What the doily is to the tearoom, red tinged leaf lettuce is to the American Festival. Gargantuan shrimp, chili with guacamole, and huevos rancheros all come in a fried tortilla “bowl”, each graced with pumpkin seed studded sour cream – never mind that the chili is pedestrian, the guacamole wimpy, the bowl itself soggy and tasteless. Feeling neglected on your birthday? Go to the Festival and order a muffuletta ($8.50), layers of Italian delicatessen mats and cheese with pepper-and-olive salad in a soft roll. It comes wrapped in bright – green tissue paper. It’s good. You’ll know somebody cares.
It’s risky to make recommendations when performance varies day to day. Perhaps the kitchen will pull itself together. The sopa de tortilla ($3.50), corn-and-onion soup with a melt of cheese would be heavenly if it weren’t tepid. I like the chopped pork wrapped in plantains ($4.25), with its ginger kick, sweet as it is, and the barbecued ribs ($7 the half slab, $14.75 the whole). A pure bristle brush is provided to dab on more sauce. The salmon salad ($14.25) is full of flavor if you don’t mind salmon cooked dry.
Alas, the vegetable sausage ($4.50) has about as much savor as sawdust. Somebody must have thought honey-dipped potato skins ($2) would be clever. They’re clever but not edible. What does the chef do the hamburger ($8.75) to get it so compressed? The salmagundi salad ($10.95) would delight a lover of smoked meats; it has too many odd tastes for me. There are three coleslaws ($1.95), one less appealing than the next, but the prize for raw courage against all odds goes to tiny, waterlogged half moon shrimp lying dead atop tasteless cabbage shreds.
There is hope for grilled swordfish and salmon squares ($14). One day you may ask for them not too cooked and a chef may get the message. Whole buttermilk – fried baby chicken 9$12.25) could ultimately be good if it were less greasy.
Even if I weren’t wild about the man I share my American Festival breakfast with, I’d be wild about breakfast in the garden. Not even a sudden outbreak of prepubescent tourists can break the spell. The orange juice ($2.50) is fresh squeezed. And the grapefruit, too. The morning fruit salad ($2.75) is lush with supernal strawberries, fresh pineapple, cantaloupe, blueberries, and kiwi. And the scrambled eggs (with ham, $5.75) are soft and wet as requested. Not loving corncob ham is my provincialism, perhaps. Someone has made an anti-salt decision. So there’s no salt in the eggs and none in the delicious seven -grain and whole wheat breads that are great toasted and would be even better with just a pinch. I guess the maple butter is for toast. It is outrageously sweet, but I don’t go into a diabetic coma even though I thought I would. As for huevos rancheros on refried beans in the fried-tortilla “bowl” ($5.25): the eggs are clear-eyed, the guacamole is a rude awakening at 9 a.m. The coffee is good. And there’s espresso, too, plus a fancy three-course breakfast at $12.50.
The garden frazzles my nerves one night. Perhaps we are too close to the full roar of the fountain. With the screech of traffic plus Muzak plus the silent screams of the bewildered waiter. I forget this is paradise. Our addled waiter has a tough time finding the Cabernet (from the same excellent wine lists at the Sea Grill), he confesses, and just as he reduces the cork to a crumble, he has the good grace to flee. (Once, I had recognized, and a seriously gifted waiter took our table. When I hesitate over wine, he suggests Ridge white Zinfandel by the glass, $3. I would have loved it even if it hadn’t been pale pink.
Surely the service will get better. Could it really get worse? We try the tall pastel cocktails ($4.75) all the after-theater latecomers are sipping. Both the strawberry daiquiri and pina colada taste like the snows of Kilimanjaro—hopelessly diluted with ice.
Lunch in the café’s Bar-Carvery is still rehearsal. Our waitress looks dazed when we ask her to steady the shaky table, as if we were speaking Urdu. “Don’t blame her,” my companion says, with the charity men can so easily find for good-looking blondes. “It’s her first job out of Vassar.”
Chefs so dashing they could have come direct from Central Casting, rally around the bar carving roasts by the platter ($9.50 and up) and for sandwiches on the house-baked breads (from $7.95). Each day there is a special -- today’s is turkey, dry as paper with a too sweet raisin-corn-bread dressing -- and always there is lean, indeed juiceless, smoked brisket. Cold poached salmon ($14.75) is a summer constant. A complimentary dab or two of the sweet jalapeno jelly, lackadaisical relish, and pickled okra would enhance the meat platters. At 95 cents each, they’re a rip-off. Mushy potato salad ($1.25), the trio of slaws previously found wanting, and anemic tomatoes and onions in a zipless dressing ($1.75) are options. And there are a baker’s dozen of beers for solace.
20 West 50th Street,
212 246 6699
From the tiny garden of Savories, the spiffy luncheonette and carryout shop, we can see American Festival $1.95 iced tea being served in mile-high glasses with great sprigs of mint. We are mintless and stubby-glassed, but our tea is only 90 cents. Our waitress runs on all cylinders. And we’re inches from Prometheus’ toe. Ah, felicity.
There’s some discipline on the floor here. The young brass are proud and polite. Today’s cream-of-tomato soup ($2.50) isn’t bad, even if it does remind me of Campbell’s. A spinach-and-bacon omelet ($4.75), ordered soft and wet, is unsalted, neatly turned, carefully cooked. Only a purist would want it moister. Not even Halloween-orange Cheddar and wan tomatoes can obscure the splendor of fine tuna salad in a melt on giant English muffins ($4.95). A bizarre blend of honey and sesame haunts chicken-and-pineapple salad on splendid pumpernickel bread ($4.75). Of the three little sandwiches ($5.50), only the smoked turkey shines.
The roast beef is a bore, and the baby shrimp must go. “Barbara’s favorite salad” ($6.50) tastes like the Festival’s salmagundi, fine if you like smoked meats, but it needs a zingier dressing. Today’s pot pie ($4.95) is not a disgrace -- lots of lean beef, scattered carrots, indifferent peas under a crisp pastry roof. Besides the desserts shared with the café and grill (here at bargain prices), Savories offers the splendid cakes of Mise en Place—Valencia-orange ($2.25) and dark, moist midnight chocolate ($1.95). A Continental breakfast is $3.50. The Danish are a better bet than big, rather arid muffins. Orange and grapefruit juice ($2) are fresh-squeezed, and eggs seem to provoke intense respect.
Inside, there’s counter service, homemade ice cream in cones to go, and all the sweet-tooth-stunning notions and eccentricities of American taste can be bottled, bagged, and jarred: dilly beans and pickled okra, Confederate cannonballs, peppery Benne wafers I love, pecan-crickle bits, all-American jams and preserves (some of the worst of them cutely packaged to distract from basic mediocrity). Vinegars are presented as if they were vintage wines, and the American olive oils are boutique and so precious one calls itself “oil of the olive”. Too bad only two of Grand Finale’s sublime sauces are here.
Prepared in the kitchen and sold here to go are fine breads ($1.50 to $2.95) needing a bit of salt, pretty pastry, tasteless overprocessed seafood terrines that are exquisitely decorated and meat terrines that are savory indeed (both, $1.50 a slice), and juicy, delicious spareribs ($12 a pound). A tiny squab chicken ($3.50) is undistinguished. Except for that splendid tuna salad ($7 a pound) and a fine salmon one ($12 a pound), every salad I sampled -- rice, cucumber, pasta, mixed bean, potato, coleslaw, marinated vegetable -- needs to be revised and restated. So many good ideas and noble intentions cry out for a palate with taste to perfect them.
30 Rockefeller Plaza, lower level
What in the world provoked the Rockefeller Group to undertake such a costly spruce-up? (We’re talking $26 million, “give or take a million,” according to Nick Valenti, the senior vice-president who developed the dining complex for R.A. “$23 million “if you want a round figure,” says Dick Voell, chief executive of the Rockefeller Group, formerly Rockefeller Center, Inc.)
It couldn’t be that upstart Donald Trump with his flashy pink-marble shoporama up the street. (“We don’t want any of that Rodeo Drive glitz,” interior designer Phil George says he was cautioned.) After all, the Rockefellers were playing with granite long before Trump got his first Erector set. That’s just it. Rock Center creaked with age.
R.A. had been running the Promenade Café since 1968, at a thrill level of a yawn and a half. Then, in early 1980, the Rockefeller landlord, and especially Uncle David (as Phil George calls the reigning Rockefeller), expressed a longing for change. Warner Le Roy, Peter Aschkenasy, and Scandinavian Airlines together with Joe Baum submitted proposals. But the winner was R.A., with its insistence that an American landmark owned by a great American family needed an American celebration. It was a great vote of confidence for the Hardy Boys now running R.A. Having dazzled the restaurant world with its brilliance in the sixties and fallen into the depths in the seventies, the company had been concentrating on franchise eateries, institutional and stadium feeding, and newsstands.
Blueprints were drawn up and demolition was already underway when suddenly the landlord grew more ambitious. “Uncle David had a friend,” George recalls. The friend was John Portman. Dark marble must go. Daylight must pierce the darkened bowls of the center’s subterranean maze. Nothing was too bold: serpentine glass walls, glass-bottomed fountains, carving eighteen inches out of granite walls for a serous view. “The idea is to make you think you’re at street level.” George explains. No one would be satisfied just to wow the tourists or keep the tenants captive. New Yorkers are notoriously disdainful of underground dining. They need to be lured across the river Styx.
Classic Portman see-through elevators might do the trick. Of course, landmark protectionists might not like the elevators suddenly popping out of midtown sidewalk. Plywood mock-ups were installed at dawn one morning. David Rockefeller drove up, approved, the mock-ups disappeared…and not long after, as if by magic, there were two glass elevators set back in the sidewalk greenery, one descending to the 49th Street Sea Grill. The other to the American Festival Café opposite. Keeping the disparate egos happy wasn’t as difficult as sane management minds had envisioned. “Portman did the marble mausoleum right up to the wall, and we did everything inside,” George says.
So New York City’s “most visited, most trafficked, most photographed” landmark, according to Rockefeller V.P. Voell, has an “all-day, almost all-night meeting, greeting, eating spot”…in the center of the center of New York (which in my chauvinist myopia is the center of the world).
Will you want to ride Mr. Portman’s elevators when chilly days banish the gardens paradise and the skating rinks returns? It’s too soon to know.