March 17, 2008 | Insatiable Critic

A Crazy Quilt of Mirrors Reflects My Flan

 Mirrors in patchwork enliven South Gate at the Essex House.  Photo: Steven Richter
Mirrors in patchwork enliven South Gate at the Essex House.  Photo: Steven Richter

        Jumeirah Essex House has found a solid, skilled veteran in Chef Kerry Heffernan, now turning out his signature gougères and savory flans in the new South Gate overlooking Central Park. Heffernan made his name downtown across the street from another park at Eleven Madison Park whose view was not nearly as stirring as the horse-drawn carriages and tree tops seen from here. I recall loving his elegant take on French classics for Danny Meyer in that grand soaring lobby so carefully designed to preserve its landmark chastity.

 Remarkable gougères, calamari and flan. Photo:: Steven Richter.

Designer Tony Chi's clever master plan to tame this sprawling space that was once Botanica with retro beige leather, mirrors in jazzy patchwork, and a wall of wine (a strikingly handsome version of this season’s design cliché) gives Heffernan a cool but lively backdrop for his well-bred cooking. Happily there are no cuisinary acrobatics or new age chemistry experiments here. I love the style and intensity of wild-mushroom soup in a martini glass with spinach fondue, a poached egg to poke, unleashing its yellow satin… and crisp pancetta chips propped up like cocktail stirrers. Cauliflower custard is a typical Heffernan touch on the seared calamari starter.

        Our vegetarian pal has his own flan, too - buttercup and butternut squash with fabulous brussel sprouts (he dutifully sets the prosciutto coverlet aside for the Road Food Warrior and me to share).  His delicious crisped cannelloni of kabocha squash and ricotta with mushrooms and fried sage is our favorite entrée. Not that most carnivores wouldn’t be perfectly content with my braised and roasted rib of beef with spaghetti squash and a whiff of allspice. Too bad there are bits of sand in the clams scattered about our flavorsome spice-rubbed cod with linguica sausage and mustard greens. The frozen blood orange parfait is not a parfait at all, not by a stretch. But we’re wild for that touch of salt in the chocolate-caramel tart with caramel ice cream. And the caramel truffle.

Delicious stuffed cannelloni are crisply browned. Photo: Steven Richter.

        It’s a luxury hotel dining room, after all. Still, entrées from $26 to $39 will seem almost gentle compared to the tariff we once paid at Alain Ducasse’s now-defunct nook in the rear. And that high-ticket spot had no view at all.

154 Central Park South near 7th Avenue. 212 484 5120


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