November 14, 2011 | BITE: My Journal

Americano Is Mostly French

Chef Reginensi's farm-raised chicken with grilled romaine rutabaga chunks. Photo: Gael Greene
Chef Reginensi's farm-raised chicken with grilled romaine & rutabaga chunks. Photo: Gael Greene

       Welcome to Chelsea Riviera, the city’s newest, soon-to-be-hot neighborhood not far from the meandering High Line. We’re meeting friends for dinner at The Americano in the 56 room hotel by the same name. I may chortle disdainfully, imagining innocents lured by Riviera illusions on the hotel’s website. Guests are invited to swim on the roof and borrow bicycles to explore the Hudson River Greenway bike path from the Cloisters to the Statue of Liberty departure dock.  I guess I live on the Upper West Side Riviera myself.

Architect Enrique Norton’s design drops a wall of steel mesh over Hotel Americano. 

       My guy and I tread along heaving pavement, past bleak warehouses and abandoned garbage on the designated stretch of 27th Street between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues that was once nightclub alley. Bungalow 8, Pink Elephant and B.E.D are closed.  It’s not exactly the Promenade des Anglais, not yet, anyway. But first-nighters in the know have said the food is really good.

A spike-heeled brunette in black and white fur heats up the bar. Photo: Steve Richter

       From this approach we’re too close to get a hit of the architectural pow. We can’t see the dramatic mesh screen that shades the façade. But suddenly, as we near Tenth Avenue, there are signs of life, clusters of people, someone opening the door and welcoming us into a cowhide-draped bar, where a chiaroscuro of long-haired monkey fur wrapped around a stunning brunette confirms that we are in the right place, whatever that means.

Concrete floors and black mirror on a dreary evening leave me cold. Photo: Steven Richter

       And why shouldn’t the chef and restaurant major domos be French in Carlos Couturier’s Grupo Habita’s first U.S. boutique hotel, designed by Mexican Enrique Norten, developed by an Irishman from Black House Development just a “short” bike ride from Ellis Island in this melting pot we treasure? It’s altogether fitting that Slow-Cooked Halibut is written in English, Turbot a la Plancha in Spanish and Côte de Porc in French.

Tonight’s lobster, ordered by Josephine, is exquisitely tender. Photo: Steven Richter

       Our fervently Gallic waiter is a warrior. He’s not always there when we need him but I admire his Frenchness. “Would you rather have a wine glass?” he asks. “The designer wants you to drink your wine from that.” He points to a runty water glass, clearly disapproving.  And when I order chile relleno from a corner of the menu labeled “Latin Fare with a French Flair,” he seems anxious. “It’s very spicy,” he warns. I reassure him I can handle it, though it’s definitely not the chef’s best move. But at $10, it’s a bargain compared to most other appetizers from $10 to $21.

Octopus & calamari a la plancha with black beans and preserved lemon. Photo: Steven Richter

       Ceviche is everywhere these days. Americano’s, with hearts of palm and a side of carrot, avocado and cucumber salad, is good enough. Triangles of tortilla in a woven straw holder that come with it are useful for sopping up a United Nations of sauces.  I like the grilled octopus and calamari with black beans, arugula, preserved lemon and tomato confit. And I savor the slow poached egg, smashing it to run in rivulets over mushrooms and chicken wings in their braising broth, with chunks of brioche to wipe up what clings.

Brioche, chicken-mushroom ragout and a plump poached egg. Photo: Steven Richter

       But Chef Olivier Reginensi, veteran of Le Cirque, Daniel and the Alain Ducasse era at the Essex House, builds up his cred with a perfect roasting of farm-raised chicken with rutabaga and carrots, and sumptuous lobster – dazzlingly tender in a lobster emulsion with baby artichoke halves.  I look around. Have my friends noticed?  Can I eat more than my share? Marvelous pommes frites with the small Black Angus NY strip – an Entrecôte Grillé – quickly disappear. Ketchup with fries isn’t French so we have to ask for it.

Lobster and artichoke-chanterelle ragout in a classic lobster sauce. Photo: Steven Richter

       Across the room, a friend who’s a fanatic for fresh fish is raving about the turbot on olive-oil crushed potatoes.  She’ll be back, but I’m put off by the chill of the design: black walls, tinted mirrors, tables lined up in military formation, grey concrete floor.  I’m sure there’s a theme that dictates grey-and-white striped napkins. Surely it will seem happier when the daylight sun pours in or when it’s mild again, warm enough to spill out onto the outdoor terrace. At 11, modish young women move into the turning tables. This is a bustling zip code with smart new condos and gallery excitement nearby.  It’s already got buzz.  It’s just not my crowd, not my neighborhood, not really my buzz.  Although the chef says he’s starting to see faces from the Upper West Side now.

Too much squash and ricotta frosting is not Steven’s idea of pasta. Photo: Steven Richter

       But I won’t have any luck persuading the Road Food Warrior to return.  He craved pasta and was definitely bummed out by the penne buried in a soupy kabocha squash sauce, especially disliked the frosting of melted ricotta, though both our friend Josephine and I are seduced by the very same squash soupiness.

This lovely chestnut Mont Blanc is the chef being retro with desserts. Photo: Steven Richter

       Classic French desserts from an era before she was born excite her too. Husband Henry chooses the tarte à la banana with chocolate.  But she must have the Mont Blanc, with chestnut glace and Chantilly.  “I’ve only read about it,” she confides. The two of us finish it off.

        Chef Reginensi, ignoring the Mexican folklore he’s forced to produce at the moment, is thinking retro too.  “It’s time to go back to the French classics only lighter, of course,” he tells me over the phone after a busy brunch. “I am sad you didn’t taste my ile flottante".

        “I never really liked floating island,” I confess. “Actually the best I ever tasted was made by Paul Bocuse 45 years ago.” He laughs. “I use the same praline that Bocuse used. I tuck it into the egg whites.”

        I wonder if I might go back after all, if only to see what becomes of his dream.

518 East 27th Street between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues. 212 525 0000. Breakfast Monday to Friday 7 to 10 am. Lunch Monday to Friday noon to 3 pm, brunch Saturday and Sunday 8 am till 4 pm. Dinner Sunday through Thursday 6 to 11 pm. Friday and Saturday till midnight.


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