February 2, 2009 | BITE: My Journal
La Fonda del Sol: Go Icarus

Chef De Chellis does great Peruvian-Japanese jazz wth kampachi. Photo: Steven Richter.
Chef De Chellis does great Peruvian-Japanese jazz wth kampachi. Photo: Steven Richter.

        The headline is this: Josh De Chellis seems to have found his cooking mojo again – sophisticated but more accessible than Sumile – and it’s only a week into La Fonda Del Sol. I can’t quite imagine the trendetti automatons stuffed into Double Crown right this minute or pulling strings for a spot at uber-booked John Dory storming Adam Tihany’s stodgy dining room, elegant as it is; not even for the chef’s splendid calamari, smoky from the plancha, or the raw sea scallop tiradito wreathed in a chorus of flavors, at markedly restrained prices.

        But I’ll be back with friends who appreciate layered flavors and intimations of Spain’s lively cocina minus excessive chemistry. With its sound-muffling carpet, autumn leaf-striped banquettes and bullfighter photographs – an upscale hotel dining aura – this 21st century “Inn of the Sun” could become the safe room for expense-account-challenged business lunchers.

Adam Tihany’s sedate dining room looks into the lively lounge. Photo: Steven Richter

        I’m confessing right now I definitely have a chip on my shoulder about this place. I loved the original, designer Alexander Girard’s fantasy of a Central American village in an awkward corner of the Time Inc. building with its charming pink hacienda of a bar and open kitchen, born along with The Four Seasons and the wondrously over-the-top Forum of the Twelve Caesars in 1961, when Joe Baum was the irrepressible impresario of Restaurant Associates. Even La Fonda’s bathrooms were beautiful, pink, too, with smiling suns on the faucets. As a frustrated collector of folk art – my hunger was always bigger than my savings account – I was wildly covetous of the Central and South American toys and dolls and religious puppets on display in illuminated recessed boxes cut into the walls – a folk art wedding, a church procession, a mercado.

        Girard, director of textile design for Herman Miller, seems to have been assigned to do everything – tabletop, graphics, signs, furniture, uniforms, 24 different matchbook designs. He turned to pals from the Cranbrook Academy design stew, Charles and Ray Eames, for a custom version of their famous pedestal chair. La Fonda lived for a decade, growing boozier and darker matembre (Argentine stuffed steak), suckling pig on a spit and Brazilian farofa not widely appreciated in the early days of the city’s dining innocence. “Ahead of its time” is the phrase you hear whenever it’s mentioned.

The sweetness of scallop and tomato tang play against chile and citrus. Photo: Steven Richter

        Now its time is here, but my dream that Patina Group (the descendent of RA) would resurrect it with marvelous pan-Latino food in pink adobe faded when Patino’s chief Nick Valenti decided to go Spanish. Who can blame him? It’s Spain’s era. The rain in Spain is mainly on the plain, after all. And there’s not a single folk art tableau or Alexander Girard salt and pepper shaker for auld lang syne.

        Anonymous on the phone, I am refused a table. “We’re booked for two weeks,” the reservationist says. I suspect the house is under-booking to give the crew rehearsal time but determine to go anyway. “If we can’t get a table in the dining room, we’ll sit in the bar,” I assure my friends.

        Well, never mind. The bar and lounge are jumping at 8:15 on Friday night but we can have almost any post in the dining room, a serenity zone a few steps up, where only three tables are occupied, some of them looking into the bar scene through glass etched with a “sun.” We decide to order almost everything on the tapas menu, priced from $12 to $18, in two waves, as dinner.   

This strapping prawn could be a linebacker. Photo: Steven Richter

        And with that, the seduction begins. An agreeable waiter, a textbook martini, excellent olive mini-baguettes, and the surprise of the food itself as we pass it around the table. Those scallops, layered to “cook” in tomato, citrus and chiles, and bread crumbs tossed with garlic, peppers and lemon zest enhance the smokiness of the calamari with salad greens. Marvelous kampachi tiradito with pickled pineapple and jicama shows De Chellis taking a Peruvian-Japanese liberty as might the more experimental chefs he worked with in Spain – Adolfo Muñoz in Toledo, Martin Berasategui, Juan Mari and Elena Arzak in San Sebastien. We are stunned by the size of the overgrown prawn. Split, painted with a spicy sofrito and grilled on the plancha, it’s as big as a guinea pig. Even a side of caramelized Brussels sprouts is deliciously complex.       

        The sommelier stops by to deliver our red wines by the glass and insists on pouring two extra selections, “so you can taste” (in case I thought I was anonymous). There is little that is obvious in the collection selected by Nicholas Nahigian, a savvy and serious transplant from San Francisco. Our friends, winemakers themselves, and I are especially taken by a deep purple 2004 Tempranillo, Bodega Victoria’s Dominio de Longaz from Cariñena.

A chorus of rustic ingredents animate this amazing oxtail soup. Photo: Steven Richter

        Thin squares of jamon de Bellota – the famous acorn-fed Iberian ham – is the most expensive of the starters we’re sharing as entrees. A modest portion of juicy braised pork cheeks with beans, sausage and parsnip is just enough for three of us to taste. “It’s a dry soup,” the waiter warns, as I order the oxtail “sopa seca.” Immediately I have an image of the best Tuscan ribollita. This casserole full of winter greens, white beans, chunks of oxtail, big cubes of bread and melted ewe milk sheep is sensational. What began as a modest pinch penny exercise suggests we should splurge a little and return for main courses, just nine of them offered, $24 for a breast of chicken, suckling pig with smoked dates at $28, to $39 for steak with a spicy red mojo,  prime rib for two at $48 per person.

How proudly that sugar wrapped basil flag waves in the last gleaming. Photo: Steven Richter

        I let the others choose desert: Mexican chocolate coffee ice cream, lush and rich. And the Road Food Warrior’s inevitable sorbets, passion fruit and lemon basil.

        “I thought you hate lawn clippings in dessert,” I chide him.

        “I don’t mind basil if I can’t taste it,” he responds. Alas, we can, only slightly spoiling the lemon rush and somehow less offensive atop mango salad with the fruit in long candied julienne and a sugar-dipped basil flag on top.

        In this coolly considered 21st century edition, La Fonda del Sol will not stir the ghosts of Joe Baum or Alexander Girard, but it definitely adds luster to the chefs aura. If, like me, you long to wallow in nostalgia, check out the La Fonda del Sol website of Patti Hauseman to see her collection of vintage Girard design and restaurant memorabilia. And next time you’re in Santa Fe you can revisit Girard’s folk art at the Museum of International Folk Art. Or stop by my office to see my own eccentric little folk art collection. As the years went on, my allowance had more stretch.

200 Park Avenue. Entrance on Vanderbilt Avenue at 44th Street. 212 867 6767. Open Monday through Saturday 11:30 to 10:30 pm. Dining room closed from 3 to 5 (tapas room open). Dining room closed for lunch on Saturdays and all day Sunday.


Low Rent Lobster at Compass 

An abstract expressionist lobster thermidor is as good as it looks. Photo: Steven Richter

        My mouth was all set for the three-pound grilled lobster at Compass, a $39 come-on in their “Winter Lobster Festival” – a definite lure in these tightwad times. And smart, too, with lobsters in unique abundance and shockingly cheap for a luxury crustacean. Tidal waves of lobster flowed through the house’s $35 Restaurant Week menu too, the press release said. On the coldest night of the year with streets treacherously icy and Compass three blocks from my door, how could I resist?

        We’re three in a cushy booth but I can’t persuade anyone to share that lobster with me. Not that we aren’t all into lobster. Ava’s lobster tamarind salad with blood orange in a Thai chili vinaigrette with mint and Thai basil is a flutter of flavors preceeding her expertly turned out crispy skate with rock shrimp and a vegetable fricassee on the $35 menu. I’m not wild about the flavors in the Road Food Warrior’s lobster chowder on the discount prix fixe, but his foamy lobster potato gnocchi with clams, mussels and chorizo is a winner. Three foam haters, poised to pounce on the lobster saffron foam on principle, all bow to its serious pow. My lobster thermidor, perched on a savory layer of mushrooms with Serrano ham and bread crumbs, is photo-perfect in a bifurcated pool of orange (sauce Americain) and green (tarragon-tomalley-cream).

Gnocchi and seafood with a saffron foam I am forced to admire. Photo: Steven Richter

        Lobster truffle ravioli with salsify and heirloom beets, napped with a tangy, beet-tinged sherry vinaigrette arrives as a gift of executive chef Milton Enriquez. It’s a fine dish that lifts us over the line into excess. But mad as I am for macaroni, a $7 side of truffled macaroni and cheese with lobster ($3 extra) is scant on pasta and too soupy for me.

        Compass is growing on me. I can count on its cheerful welcome, the somewhat intimate but professional service. As chefs have come and gone and come again, the house has never abandoned ambitious three-star gambits. For starters, the cheddar corn bread and herb biscuits served with a round of butter atop a spoonful of honey. Always a small amuse: tonight, a teeny triangle of seared tuna on a fabulous puddle of spicy piquillo pepper and smoked almonds. Quite a lot of thought and effort for half a teaspoon of sauce.

        Then there’s the dessert before dessert from pastry chef April Robinson, hopefully a tart palate cleanser like tonight's cranberry-orange sherbet. Chocolate chip cookies served with a chocolate-covered kulfi ice cream pop and luscious spiced chestnut cake with orange confit and chocolate sorbet end the $35 dinner on a high. As always there is a little something with the check: tonight it’s chocolate walnut caramels. And in a small shopping bag to take home, winter fruit coffee cake wrapped in cellophane, a touch of sweet excess for tomorrow morning’s spartan no-fat yogurt with kibbles and bits.

208 West 70th Street, west of Amsterdam. 212 875 8600.


Deals, Deals, Deals.

These are days when we need the comfort of Artisanal’s grilled cheese sandwich.

        Tuesday seems to be a night when restaurants feel especially unloved. Tuesday is a no-corkage fee night at Capsuto Frères (451 Washington Street in Tribeca) when all bottles in the cellar are discounted 20 per cent as well. Tuesday is also "All You Can Eat Pizza" night at Campo (2888 Broadway near 112th Street). For $21.90 get unlimited grilled pizzas, salad, dessert and a microbrew on the house - available at lunch, dinner and late night.

        Monday night is Comfort Food Night at Artisanal Bistro (2 Park Avenue, entrance on 32nd Street) with lamb meatloaf and roasted chicken (all entrees under $20). The new bar menu focuses on grilled cheese in myriad guises and a Pommes Frites lineup.

        Chef Ryan Skeen’s fabulous flap burger is the centerpiece of Burger + Beer Mondays at Irving Mill (116 East 16th Street). The celebrated meat comes with a Sixpoint brew for $15. The gastropub Spitzer’s Corner (101 Rivington at Ludlow) now has $3 beers on tap from noon to 7 p.m. Monday to Friday. Olana (72 Madison Avenue near 28th Street) will extend its Restaurant Week’s $24.07 lunch and $35 dinner for all of 2009. Chef Al Di Meglio’s menu will change with the seasons. Jenifer and George Lang want Café des Artistes fans to know they have a three course $35 prix fixe dinner all year round.  Their re-creation of the dinner from the film Babette’s Feast for a Zagat’s event last month was so successful, the Langs are offering to do it for any guest who asks ahead. The price is $165 per person with wine, $100 without. (1 West 67th Street near Central Park West).