Mad.61: Dressing on the Side

        It’s the latest theater in the round… mad.61, the sunken feeding pit at the new Barneys, a mutation of the Royalton crossed with the Four Seasons Pool Room. So far, no one’s leapt over the rail from Barneys proper into the fountain and been impaled on a bamboo stalk. But this is definitely a see-moi, feel-moi, touch-moi crowd, so we’ll give it time. Anyway, the pool will be more tempting once it’s got water again. (Someone forgot to connect a drain, and the leak sabotaged an electronic substation in a cellar, muting phones in two buildings.)

        Ready or not, it was opening day. Tutti-frutti New York descended like hormone-addled pubescents in Fort Lauderdale. The Olympic shopping squad. I shop, therefore I am. The compulsive extras who flock to wherever it’s at. The folks who tag along so they can say, “What are we doing here?”

        Imagine shaking down in the vortex of a tornado. Mad, indeed. And it’s not seasoned yet. But we’re all here anyway. Gianni Versace at lunch, Beth de Woody, Vera Wang at a high-voltage table for dinner, Ron Perelman back again, Christie and Billy. All of us sharing classic pizzas at boutique prices as Pino Luongo fine-tunes the asylum.

        We’ve come a millennium beyond the lamented Charleston Garden at Altman’s and Lord & Taylor’s Bird Cage, frilly retreats for pre-feminist ladies to lunch. Banish the memory. No guy need feel like an intruder here. Not on that modish heavyweight hulk of a chair from Jordan Mozer – it looks like an old Packard seat bulked up by steroids.

        But you won’t book back-street tetê-a- têtes here. It’s so public, with gawkers above and strolling gourmands everywhere. They stand at the espresso bar, trying desperately to be recognized, or stop at the Wine Spectator Bar for a tasting from the cuvinet. Both the Wildhurst Zinfandel and the Carneros Creek Pinot Noir are delicious with this robust fare.

        Then there are the snackers exploring “Cheese and Charcuterie for Meditation,” sandwiches and antipasti from the discounted Market menu, with items $5 to $16. Dieting? Feast your eyes on boxes of two-foot-long linguine and such staples as white truffle oil ($30.75 for eight ounces). And the serving crew is discreetly friendly, real, accessible, not the haughty chicer-than-thou one might expect, even quoting prices of the daily specials. A cheerful contrast to Roxanne Lowit’s photographs of old friends, mostly dead. Warhol, Halston, Diana Vreeland, Malcolm Forbes, Tina Chow, Robert Mapplethorpe, with their subliminal message: Eat. Shop. Fast. Who knows when it will end?

        Probably you’re wondering when I’ll get to the food. Well, that first early Sunday night, with only a few tables claimed, the kitchen impresses. What a feast. My favorite early foccccia stuffed with robiola cheese and drizzled with truffle oil. Smoky octopus with red-onion swirls. Squid plumped with couscous. Properly soupy vegetable risotto. Crisped, garlicky chicken with fabulous shoestrings. Lamb osso buco with roasted tomatoes and runner beans. Yes, the pheasant with its oyster stuffing is a shade dry. And the faultlessly cooked cod with mashed potatoes and celery-root chips has no flavor till you drag it through two savory sauces. Minor flaws overall.

        Later, in the full press of lunch and a crowded dinner (entrées $15 to $27), the kitchen falters. Chef John Schenk’s winsome flourishes are all here – tender lettuce fronds and crackles of carrot strings, puddles of herb oils in tangy vinaigrettes – but the food we fell in love with at West Broadway is now uneven. With chef Marta Pulini saucing the pastas style, and Ciro Verde manning the pizza oven, and Pino Luongo calling the drill, too many cooks are muddying broth. So much taleggio cheese makes for a sticky radicchio risotto, and the wonderful doughy twists called garganelli suffer also, with only slightly underdone onions to relieve the fontina glue. At lunch the lamb salad needs to be rarer, the lentils not quite so mushy.

        Of course, we’ve been spotted, and that manic cheese whiz Steve Jenkins send an offering from his extraordinary treasury. Plus pickled peppers stuffed with anchovy – “so sweet,” he promises, “you’ll want to mash it and use it for toothpaste.” His precious couturier cheeses, paired with fruit and dates, olives and almonds, or prosciutto and salami, mix and match with the breads of Paula Oland (late of Ecce Panis). As for Stacie Pierce’s desserts, her almondy apple tart and the old-fashioned angel-food cake are sweet and ambrosial, the sorbets intense and tart, the cookies impossible to resist.

        Will mad.61 work at night, when Barneys is deserted? With the canvas ceiling cranked shut, the restaurant feels more serene, intimate, a welcome option in a neighborhood without many. As for daytime’s three-ring circus, don’t send in the clowns – they’re already here.

10 East 61st Street, 212 833 2200.


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