April 26, 2010 | BITE: My Journal

Who’s Home at Wall & Water?

Seared scallops with peppers and mussels make a splendid starter. Photo: Steven Richter
Seared scallops with peppers and mussels make a splendid starter. Photo: Steven Richter

       “A man seldom thinks with more earnestness of anything than he does of his dinner,” Samuel Johnson is quoted atop the menu at Wall & Water. Indeed, the minions of dining in Hyatt’s new downtown Andaz Hotel seem earnestly focused on details once we get their attention, though not much on dinner. The woman pouring our delicious Petite Syrah (“I’m out of what you ordered, but you’ll like this”) has memorized all the details of David Rockwell’s rich, sly and handsome design: the floor pieced from old wine casks, spikes high above evoking the seal on the dollar bill, the watermarks repeated everywhere, curtains and columns with abstract floral patterns like the backgrounds of stock certificates, bubbly hand-blown pearl-like sconces for, what else, proximity to Pearl Street.

Dollar signs are in the details of the handsome Rockwell designed room. Photo: Steven Richter

        Ideally, if the fates conspire, eating in the dimmed dining room could feel rich and sexy, a smart setting for seduction, romantic or financial. Sitting at the Chef’s Table behind the exposed flames of the kitchen might make you feel powerful or coddled, hungry if the food takes too long. And what I’ve tasted here is mostly good, even very good, and not aggressively expensive. Plus-size starters at dinner range from $8 to $19 but almost all entrees are less than $30.

This is the wonderful charcuterie board the house sent to keep us quiet. Photo: Steven Richter

        First though you have to reel in a server. The gas mysteriously sputtered out just as someone finally appeared to take our order the mid-March evening I first came by.  Everything had to be cooked on an electric hot plate, we were told. The reality of that didn’t sink in at first. Hungrily we gossiped and put away two deliveries of bread. Then it occurred to management that a wooden board paved with charcuterie, cheese, prune marmalade and house pickled vegetables might quiet raging hunger and even anoyance.  We finished it and waited some more. Should we leave? We considered. The six of us had come so far in pouring rain from uptown digs in three cars, parked at real or imagined risk. Where would we go? We’d already been there an hour. I notice chef Maximo Lopez May stripped out of his whites and abandoning the kitchen for supper in a booth behind us, leaving his cooks to improvise. A star on Latin American TV, he moved here after five years in his native Buenos Aires as chef de cuisine at Palacio Duhau-Park Hyatt.  Does that mean he’s optimistic or just getting a free supper?

Big and blowsy mushroom toss in the house’s abundant style. Photo: Steven Richter

        Then, at last, starters: Roast pumpkin soup (it could be hotter).  A satisfying mass of mushrooms with red onion, arugula, and roasted garlic. A blowsy white truffle-scented endive salad with beet leaves, blue cheese and crisps. Very good spiced lamb sausage with baked Jerusalem artichoke wreathed in mint and lime. After another extended intermission with no further attempts by the house to soothe and two bottles of wine downed, entrees arrive. Though grumpy, I can taste promise, especially in rich braised veal cheeks, rare and meaty venison with berries, and huge coils of sausage for two in a wrought iron skillet. It doesn’t seem fair to write a BITE based on a catastrophe. I decide to give the place more time to rehearse before an encore.

Sausages for two in the wrought iron skillet. Photo: Steven Richter.

        It’s a challenge to find friends game to trek all the way to the island’s tip. “Not in the rain.”  “Not in the heat.”  “Not on the subway.” The usual excuses. But we’re back a month later and the place is busy. It’s income tax day. A good time to celebrate if you still have any cash.

        "We’ve been seated for twenty minutes and we still haven’t a clue if anyone is serving us,” says one of our companions. I wave my arm in the air but no one seems to be looking.  Even a man gazing into the room with an official air manages not to see my windmill frenzy. 

Pull up a stool for an aperitif and a dish from the cold table. Photo: Steven Richter

        “Are there any servers in this restaurant?” we call out to him.

        “I’m just the hotel manager,” he apologizes. “But I’ll answer your questions.”

        The chef passes by delivering food to a table.  It’s half way between charming and ridiculous. And the restaurant manager stops by.  “There are only two of us serving,” she admits, finally taking our order.

       It’s spring most everywhere else but still winter tonight at W&W. The sensational barley soup studded with bits of smoked salami in scarcely any liquid and topped with sour cream will be banished by now for a springier potato and sorrel version with duck salami and sour cream. But tonight’s likeable vegetable pot pie with parmesan cream survives for the new season. The lush braised veal cheeks with black cabbage I recall fondly from the first fuel-challenged evening returns on the new menu with carrots, celery and grits. I’m making three vegetable sides my entree tonight: roasted root vegetables, black cabbage, and marvelous parmesan laced grits.

The vegetable pot pie is definitely recommended. Photo: Steven Richter

        “You don’t expect to find grits on Wall Street,” says one of my fellow diners. “Especially on a day the Dow hit 11,000.” 

        Even if the Dow falters, we can still afford the $6 grits.

        Instead of white beans and Brussels sprouts with a bizarre crown of blue berries that chef Lopez May has chosen to jazz up the chicken breast for us tonight, he’s now dispensing stinging nettles, peas, favas, ramps and morels to celebrate spring’s bird. The romaine and frisee salad with poached egg, anchovies and capers we sent back for a replacement because the romaine was rusty has retired.  Grilled zucchini with blood orange, cucumber salad with crisps and caper berries or roasted stone fruits with aged goat cheese, lemon preserves and maple syrup now represent early spring.

Berry crumble in wrought iron baking pan, a recurring theme at Wall & Water. Photo: Steven Richter

        Wall & Water should have a lively midday in an area that’s not very rich in style and content at lunchtime, at $29 for two courses or $37 for three (including coffee or tea) and sandwiches at $14 to $16. And drinkers need bars. Small plates at the white marble larder bar at the top of the stairs will appeal to grazers. But the area’s pioneer dwellers have yet to reach critical mass and may not be counted on. Perhaps brunch with its $15 bottomless bar will breed regulars. The full $28 brunch offers a hot entrée plus all you can eat from the larder table and the communal table: breads, pastries, cereals, a raw bar, poached shrimp, smoked salmon. It’s $22 without an entrée.

       I try to imagine who will be booking Andaz rooms: Congressional investigators, Wall Street hopefuls, innocents who think the secret of America is on Wall Street, hot sheet adventurers from offices nearby, traders who guessed wrong and want to jump.  I remember how Windows on the World signaled extraordinary optimism at the end of a recession in 1976. Granted Wall & Water isn’t even close to Windows except possibly in the fine detail of its design. But downtown is already greening on the Battery. Farmers' markets are taking root. Once Wall & Water solves its service dilemma, it might be a contender.

Andaz Hotel 75 Wall Street. 212 590 1234. Breakfast Monday to Friday 6:30 to 11 a.m. Lunch Monday to Friday 11:30 am to 3 pm. Dinner 5:30 to 11pm.  Brunch Saturday and Sunday 7 am to 3 pm.