January 21, 2019 | About Gael
Pomona: Goddess of Abundance Goes Underground
The menu says chicken. No warning that it’s just the breast.
My friends and I started hanging out at Henry’s in the Life Hotel because we liked the clubby lobby feel and Chef Michael Vignola’s style of cooking.
West 31st Street was a major detour for me but I kept coming back, even after writing my Henry’s BITE raving over Vignola’s chicken thighs, the savory shrimp-grouper sausage with smoked bacon, and the garlicky Mexican shrimp pizza with chile-roasted escarole.
The city’s night crawlers have discovered Pomona’s bar.
Then Steve Hanson sold his share of the hotel, and Vignola disappeared. I finally found him refashioning the underground space next to the Paris movie house on West 58th Street, and the week the doors opened, I was there.
Bright posters on the wall try to distract from the beigeness of the room.
The two flights of steep steps were annoying, especially the last few risers with no rail. Installed on a U-shaped butterscotch leather banquette in a secluded corner, I found the room boringly beige and brown. But Vignola had recruited several veterans of Henry’s to join him and it already felt like family.
A round of warm house-made bread comes already sliced with cultured butter on the side.
The kitchen seemed a little slow, leaving me too much time for the seductive house baked-bread served with apple butter and cultured butter. It needed neither, the bread was just so good.
Butternut squash is piled with the house-made burrata in a Calabrian chile vinaigrette.
Chunks of king crab are topped with green apple and brushed with citrus mustard.
Maybe prices were aggressive for basement digs. Nineteen dollars for a glass of sauvignon blanc and $24 for king crab with green apple. I also felt cheated that the seawater-brined chicken turned out to be an arid breast with not a thigh in sight.
The confit’d duck leg burger in lapped with grapefruit jam and served alongside a hill of fries.
But braised celery and castelvetrano green olive chamomile broth added a weave of green flavors to the usual halibut. And I might consider coming back just for the duck burger, a juicy layering of confit’d leg and grapefruit jam on an orange brioche alongside a heap of unusually meaty fries.
Flaming the baked Alaska grabs our attention even though we said, “No dessert.”
We decided to skip dessert, but it came anyway and, of course, all of us tasted. Celery root apple crisp with walnut crumble and calvados ice cream, and the baked Alaska filled with marshmallow and spiced milk chocolate on a graham cracker crust.
A week later when we returned, restaurant first-nighters were discovering the signature cocktails and Negroni variations at the bar and then collapsing at nearby tables for dinner.
Warm potato and mackerel terrine with hazelnuts and crème friache is a Vignola original.
I couldn’t persuade anyone at my table to share the $44 Bordeaux-poached filet mignon-oxtail-celeriac shepherd’s pie or the $78 seafood stew with lobster and grouper-shrimp sausage in charred tomato broth. So I ordered duck burger again and could barely finish half after I discovered the crispy ripped sunchokes smothered with pecorino.
That first evening the kitchen sends a gift of scallops and avocado as an amuse.
A few weeks ago a sulky young hostess tried to seat me in a back room “Because you’re early,” she explained. I resisted, much to her annoyance, and with reinforcement from the kitchen, landed at my usual corner table.
The spicy carrot cavatelli with rock shrimp and mint is a dish to share and to order again.
I ordered the chicory and charred endive salad with fig, pecorino and anchovy croutons on every visit.
That was the night four of us shared the spicy carrot cavatelli and the chicory and charred endive salad to start. I took a few bites of the duck burger, but what I really wanted for dinner was crispy sunchokes, a whole bowl, all to myself. I was willing to share the goose fat potatoes.
What do you do to those fried sunchokes to make them so addictive, I asked. I haven’t had an answer yet.
Goose fat potatoes with sour cream is another irresistible side.
Around 8:30 the room was filling with men in black. It looked like a party. “Are they wrestlers?” I asked the captain. “They look like wrestlers.” A photographer arrived and started shooting men in black. Not us. We were somewhat sheltered from the tumult in our corner.
We just happened to mention our guest’s birthday and this chocolate cake arrived with a candle to blow out.
Michael Vignola came out of the kitchen to tell us he would be leaving for surgery and even though he was a partner, he couldn’t say what would happen in the kitchen in his absence.
“Simpler food,” he told me Friday after he came out of the recovery room. I’ll let you know when I know more.
8 West 58th Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues, 212 753 1200. Tuesday through Saturday from 5:30 pm to 11 pm.
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