90 Madison Ave (29th St)
City: New York, NY
Phone: (212) 889-7100
Site: Visit the restaurant site
Chef: Blake Joyal
Cuisine: New American
Area: Murray Hill
Entree Price: >$30
“How long do you think that bone is?” my dinner companion asked me as we took our seats in the upstairs dining room at Country, Geoffrey Zakarian’s supremely civilized eating salon. I looked at it. It was long. “Maybe 13 inches?” I replied, taking a stab in the dark. He shook his head. “No darling. I think it’s more like 18 inches.” He smiled. I smiled. Our wine was poured. Things were off to a rare start.
Yes, you might say it is unusual for a dinner to begin with a discussion of bone size but so things went the other night at Country, when Scott, a friend and a fellow Brooklyn Law alumnus and I met for dinner. But we honestly couldn’t help it. The bone was massive, and elegantly Frenched so it was ivory and bare, and it was protruding from a large cut of cote de boeuf—a sizzling thick slab of beef that was being shown off, like the steak version of Best in Show. It inspired more than a few conversations, you can be sure of that. After our waiter offered to measure the bone for us (he was only half joking), an offer we politely refused (measuring is so gauche), we did agree that we had to have the beef attached to said bone. And when we found out that it was part of the chef’s seasonal tasting menu ($135 per person), we had no choice but to sign on for hedonism in six movements.
That is the way things go at upstairs at Country, the more elegant half of Zakarian’s two-part dining equation that opened last year at the David Rockwell renovated Carlton Hotel. While I have eaten in the café, and had many cocktails at the marble champagne bar in the mezzanine space (the grapefruit-infused Lunch in Marseilles is one of my favorite cocktails), I had not eaten upstairs. When Scott suggested we try it, he wanted to take me out to thank me for referring some business his way, I was only too glad to accept his invitation. I would like to thank him here again for taking me. It was a divine dinner.
Country is truly a fine dining experience. It is elegant without feeling too stuffy, and it is a place that begs for celebrations and special occasions. I have rarely experienced such attentive, warm and certain service. And service aside, I would have been happy just sitting in the dining room by myself. It is a gorgeous, sophisticated space, warmed in chocolate, tan, and cream tones, with original mosaic-tiled floors and a domed ceiling inset with Tiffany glass. It is a room that feels regal and proper, but also intimate and soft. The seats are covered in crushed velvet so they are cushy and cozy; the lighting had me falling in love with myself. It is nice to go to dinner and feel pampered and beautiful. If only I could figure out how to do that at home.
Our meal matched the surroundings. Chef Doug Psaltis, Zakarian’s chef de cuisine, oversees a team of toque-topped chefs busy at work in a multi-million dollar show kitchen tiled in seafoam green. It’s a miraculous stage to observe and it is quite humbling to see how much work goes into producing what you will be eating.
At Country, everyone starts with two items that had me at hello. The first was the bread, a sort of brioche-as-challah shaped like a tall cake, glossed with butter and sprinkled with herbs and sea salt. It is puffy and warm and devilishly good. At one point I wondered how long it would take to wind up on my ass. I believe it has arrived.
After the bread-cake, we were served a playful little amuse bouche of frog’s legs, well, more accurately the frog’s leg, which was a lovely morsel. The leg is small and fat and sweet, like a petite chicken wing, plunked down into a little silver eggcup filled with creamy garlicky rouile, resting on a silver Lilly pad topped with a small silver frog. Baby, that frog can be my prince anytime.
Our first course was bay scallops, three buds the size of pencil erasers. These were sweet and delicate, served in shells that act as saucers. But I thought the scallops were almost too delicate. I would have liked a bit more seasoning in the buttery bread crumb topping. There was nothing to say about the next course because it rendered us both speechless. I am not sure how much longer it will be on the menu, so try and go now, as it is made from the last of summer’s corn. Psaltis turns ears of corn into a lusciously silky pudding, a kind of savory version of crème brulee that he calls a royale. He tops the corn royale with a healthy spoonful of American paddlefish caviar, a note that breaks up the sweetness and gives you a great little pop of salt. A similar push-pull tug of flavor was happening in the clam ravioli: pretty little ruffled circles of pasta browned in butter and served with briny Geuduck clam and nuggets of crisp, smoky Berkshire pork in a sweet creamy puddle of butter and lemon.
The bone and the beef came next, presented to us tableside and then removed to the kitchen to be sliced and plated with a simple salad of arugula and Parmesan. Sadly, when the beef was returned to us plated and ready to eat, the bone was gone. It stayed in the kitchen. Perhaps the chef has a very happy puppy. Nonetheless, even without the bone, the beef was divine—salty and meaty, just rare enough, and more than tender enough.
If you are a fan of cheese (as I am), you can indulge in a few at this point. We had a plate that included stinky, mild, and bold and everywhere in between, served with housemade onion rolls and lemon confit. The cheese was followed by desserts and the realization that I might actually have to buy larger pants (preferably with some stretch) the next morning. Pastry chef Craig Harzewski offers a cool dessert called a Pithivier—a sort of flaky croissant crust filled with almond frangiopane. I loved it. A more simple dessert was the puffy sugared apple beignet served with walnut ice cream.
The food at Country is very good. I’m not going to say that it’s anything wildly exciting that will change your world (I am thinking of the cavatelli at Little Owl, which can) but it is beautifully prepared, and quite enjoyable to devour. But it’s not the food alone that makes this experience one I would like to repeat. There’s serious, genuine hospitality happening here, dished out in a space that invites conversation, slowness, and contentment. That is a rare combination in these days of mega-spaces set to the latest iPod playlist with service that is harried, rushed and often lacking. There is a serenity at Country that adds a sort of old-world civility to the evening. And civility aside, there’s also a super juicy steak, with one very long bone.
Review By: Andrea Strong