July 14, 2014 | BITE: My Journal
General Assembly: The Generic Restaurant
Uni toast with Robiolina cheese and tomato butter. The menu collects New Yorkers’ favorites.
It’s a hot corner and an expansive space, so if the world didn’t love Hurricane Club enough, the Stillman team, father Alan and son Michael, agreed it was time to rethink the concept. The dauphin had not trailed the napkin of father Alan for naught. His first move was to abandon the tropical game and try a new menu, a steakhouse riff. That wasn’t enough.
Our server, informal in blue denim ad bistro apron, was very attentive and agreeable.
It would take deep analysis and a major body lift, a radical new redesign by AvroKo to erase vestiges of the tropical tsunami and create General Assembly. Name deliberately generic. It sounds like the United Nations to me. The Stillmans think it evokes an American grill, “seasonal and local.” What else? Handsome new graphics too: monogram on the menu, the new china, and the table wrap.
Gnocchi and scallops are drowned in bacon buerre blanc under a colorful confetti of veggie bits.
Now the bar looks out at Park Avenue with backless seats. The dining room opens wide. There’s a slightly quieter corner up a few steps for the old folks. The menu says “neighborhood bistro,” according to Alan. “A local brasserie,” suggests Michael. It’s what people like to eat, familiars, proven favorites from their other restaurants, prices carefully calculated. Of course there will be some creative Stillman touches: frites three ways, éclairs in four flavors, $10 steakhouse sides, even though it is pointedly not a steakhouse.
I liked the look of the “Loose Cannon” tequila drink with its celery ribbon better than its taste.
Of course, there will be original cocktails. These range from $12 to $16. The Arnold Collins on the rocks with vodka and house-made Meyer lemon foam is not as pretty as the $16 Loose Cannon with tequila and celery ribbons on jalapeño cubes, but it’s nicely refreshing. We’ve already demolished the buttery Parker House balls still in the wrought iron pan that come before we’ve finished ordering.
Sweet caramelized beets sit in ginger-citrus yogurt with fried spinach on top.
The servers seem genuinely dedicated to serving. On a busy night, the bussers were slow to clear and seemed rudderless. But most of what I’ve tasted is good or very good. Our town is mad for sea urchin, so here is uni toast with Robiolina cheese and tomato butter. It’s really luscious. I wish I didn’t have to share, but we’re four and there are four pieces. Mostly portions are generous -- esculent roasted beets with a ginger-citrus yogurt are good to go for four of us. A large bowl of nicely-balanced tomato and watermelon gazpacho with floats of avocado and goat cheese seemed enough for two.
There’s a tasty balance of sweet and tart in the watermelon-tomato gazpacho with goat cheese floats.
Clever menus rack up extra cash with extra categories like snacks and cicchetti and small bar dishes. Here you might fall for an extra of crudité with a dip -- smoked tomato white bean, red quinoa, fava and avocado. At our table we’ve chosen house-made ricotta with local honey and chili oil. And long after my friends have had their share of dragging carrot sticks, cucumber batons and spears of freshly grilled flatbread through the cheese, I’m still spearing raw veggies.
Crudités and the house-made ricotta with honey and chili oil keep your mouth moving.
My friend Matt is so taken with soft shell crab Louie with asparagus in a green goddess puddle, I am lucky to get one crisp leg and a tipless spear. But I’ve had more than my share of the marvelous gnocchi and scallops in a killingly-rich bacon buerre blanc.
I’m not sure why anyone would actually choose to do a Caesar salad with soggy green romaine.
The GA Caesar with its green and soggy romaine tatters rather than crunchy white outer leaves is the only misstep on this first raucous evening. “What did you say?” asks the waiter. He can’t hear either.
A storm of meatballs and eggplant is certainly edible but they overwhelm the cavatelli
Rabbit Wellington is surprisingly good -- in its retro sherry cream sauce, it’s a gift from the 50s. Cavatelli is so generously loaded with meatballs and eggplant, you know it’s American not Italian. Falling-off-the-bone lamb ribs, sweetly caramelized with smoked cherries, parsnips and mint have a peppery after-kick. Does this sound overwrought? Yes, but it’s fun and delicious.
I prefer a little chew in the meat, but couldn’t resist these spicy falling-off-the-bone lamb ribs.
There’s a cheddar burger, of course. An American grill must have a burger. But in the menu category jokingly called “Frites,” there’s only a $29 New York strip, grilled branzino and a chewy Colorado lamb steak -- all delivered with excellent frites.
I fell for the corm crème brûlée at Quality Italian and here it is again. Sweet but irresistible.
The corn crème brûlée is a hit at Quality Italian, so why not here? It’s sweet, too sweet I suppose. But you need sugar to get that crackle. Still it’s creamy corn and I’ll have a second spoonful. Only the grilled asparagus is undisguised.
It is foolish to even consider resisting these tempting $6 éclairs.
As soon as the table is cleared and swabbed, our attentive waiter closes in with a show-and-tell tray of the house’s éclair selection. There are four, $6 each. My friends choose two: the chocolate peanut butter and a key lime meringue. I have never been a fancier of éclairs, but both of these are gems. One bite is perfect.
When challenged to select a single dessert for the table, I’m likely to succumb to the brownie.
I’m more seduced by the espresso brownie with dulce de leche ice cream and a chocolate banner on top. A bite of a sweet at the end of a meal for just $6 or $8 says “friendly” to me. Even the sticky toffee chocolate pudding and the apple tatin brûlée are just $10. Of course, it all adds up -- $85 per person tonight. But did you see what the stock market did today?
This is the smaller of the two “Shellfish Assemblies.” A perfect summer dinner.
I was back with three friends on July 3. Certain zip codes of the city were already deserted for the long 4th of July weekend, and a monsoon was threatening to strike at any moment. I asked for a table on the old folks balcony but was told it was closed. I was wary as we were led to the normally turbulant main room, but it was empty. And quiet.
The great American grill must have a roast chicken. This one comes with a pommery mustard sauce.
Maybe it was the barometer. I had a craving for raw seafood. I persuaded a friend to share the $52 shellfish platter with me. When she asked the captain about the oysters -- East and West Coast -- the manager sent out to the kitchen for more. Of course, my VIP friends and I were recognized -- and with only three tables occupied that night, there might have been an excess of bivalves needing to be consumed. The platter had clams too, a duo of large shrimp for each of us, ribbons of raw fluke and yellowtail crudo coated with elderberry, a small bowl of crab remoulade and another of grilled squid salad.
Maybe the lamb steak is a little chewy but the frites are first-rate.
I love that it took a long time to eat, giving me a chance to try cilantro aioli and Tabasco mayo. The grilled branzino ordered by a dieting friend seemed boring and overcooked and I could see why she was eating her excellent frites instead. I was dipping them in mustard and eating them too. Another friend, a white meat chicken lover, insisted I take the thigh and leg from his plate. I’d ordered gazpacho for my main course. It was definitely too much.
The soft shell crab Louie in spring dress is a marvel of crispness. It comes with asparagus
The thunderstorm landed just as we paid the bill. We decided to wait it out and two of my pals asked for cappuccino. “You’ll never hear it this quiet in here,” I told my friends. Full-page ads in the Times are designed to tell eaters General Assembly is not another steakhouse. But apparently enough noise complaints have reached Four Wall Restaurant’s corporate office. Soundproofing is on order, Michael Stillman assured me. It could be installed in the next two weeks. When life gives you lemons, make lemon sorbet.
360 Park Avenue South at the SW corner of 26th Street. 212 951 7111. Monday 11:30 to 10 pm. Tuesday through Thursday to 11 pm. Friday to midnight. Saturday 4 pm to midnight. Sunday 4 pm to 9:30 pm.
Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.
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