Sometimes when you follow the chef, you pay no attention whatsoever to what the restaurant you're going to is all about; you just trust the man at the helm. Or in this case, the woman. And normally you're not going to encounter anything much that would throw you off.... a restaurant being a restaurant being a restaurant, and all. Well, I'll attribute my stint in Portland as to why I wasn't in on the buzz around The Darby, a buzz which is simply electric. At any rate, I ended up there sort of spur of the moment. I called to make a reservation (ah! New York! A city that will actually hold a table for you), and effortlessly procured a two-top, prime-time. I had actually tried here once before a few weeks back, only to be told that there was nothing available. So this time the facility of reserving actually gave me some hesitance... was The Darby not living up to the hype? We arrived at the restaurant to find the joint practically empty, with only two tables seated. More reason for pause. But the restaurant itself inspired surprise of a different sort. Dimly lit (dark, actually) and swanky, swathed in a metallic webbing across
the floors and ceiling, the room exudes a modern take on 1940's glamour and speakeasy sexiness. Glittering chandeliers of slinky silver chains drip from above, and flittering votive candles reflect their flickering light across the myriad shiny surfaces. We were seated just stage left of a swinging four piece band, who in the middle of their set, were creating a jubilant but cacophonous soundtrack for the evening. Luckily, as our waitress informed us, they played in spurts, so conversation COULD be had... it just had to wait for their set breaks. It was great once we knew what was going on, but a bit daunting given the impression that there was going to be zero audible conversation to be had throughout the night without yelling. And as it turned out, the music is fantastic. The glitzy decor starts to really make sense as soon as the evening's entertainment, singer Ron Grant, laid into some of his bluesy funk. The night was off to an exceptional start... and we hadn't even ordered yet.
With all the emphases on the live music and the gorgeous decor, I was a little fearful that the food might take second fiddle. I needn't have worried. Our waitress, however her sparkling eyes and dazzling smile suited the atmosphere, recited verbatim practically the entire menu, as if they were specials.... of which there are none. At first I peeled my ears against the music's volume and tried to determine if there was some difference between what she was saying and the printed matter in front of me, but as there was none, I just tuned her out and enjoyed some pre-prandial tunes. I still can't figure out why they
would have her (or why she took it upon herself) to reiterate the menu, but I suppose I'm getting away from the point. Alex Guarnaschelli, whom I initially met at Butter (still hers as well), presides over The Darby, offering an updated array of American classics (all of which are on the menu- your server will tell you nothing new). It's a simple enough menu with some luxurious flourish. We
started with the yellowfin tuna with fois gras on toast... thick, toasty bread cut into four generous chunks, slathered with fois and silky slices of lightly cured tuna. Easily a shareable appetizer. Raw is popular, with both a steak and a tuna tartare, daily special oysters, caviar service, as well as a small selection of charcuterie.
It will behoove you to embrace that the prices include the entertainment, because they might otherwise incur a bit of sticker-shock.
Main dishes are bereft of many sidekicks. Despite the '40's fabulousness, you'll find no meat and two sides. Colorado rack of lamb consists of two meaty ribs, juicy and plump, but little else on the plate. An afterthought of eggplant caponata cushions the meat, but there is barely enough to accompany each bite of lamb with a spoonful. The meat doesn't need much help, though; in terms of flavor, it can hold its own. Roasted beets from the side dish menu would round this out well. Grilled striped bass is similarly lonely on its plate, though its perfectly crisp skin is bedecked with gem-like pomegranate seeds and a ruby-tinged mince of crunchy rutabaga. I was glad for the brussels sprouts I ordered alongside, especially since they were buttery, nutty little devils, tender inside but their outer leaves crisped like chips. The bill can mount up, though, so try to opt for one of their more reasonably priced wines if you're tippling. There are two $100 dishes for two, and Mr. Cutlets himself raved about the Lobster Newburg over the seared dry-aged Tomahawk Steak (rest assured if Josh Ozersky prefers something over the meat that it must have something special going on). Not cheap, though, and we preferred to save a few pennies on regular entrees... and then blew them on dessert.
The dessert menu reads straight out of Joy of Cooking, First Edition. Classic American confections, but these too are tweaked. Each night offers up a Cake of the Day (this evening's was red velvet), but we were between the candied apple tart and the Baked Alaska. They just seemed too appropriate to surpass... so we ordered both. (The Darby inspires this kind of abandon.) The small, round tart is baked with four different kinds of local apples, each was its own particular flavor but enriched by a sticky, syrupy caramel glaze. A moat of custardy cream pools beneath- an a la mode where the melting's been done for you. All that's left to do is inhale it, which is easy enough. As for the Baked Alaska, it arrives like the world's cutest snowball, a little igloo crust
around a smooth, sassy orb of lemon sorbet. Its meringue shell of carefully piped florets, which looks like a tightly clustered mountain laurel, is baked to a soft, golden brown... and that's before they light it on fire. The mini-inferno is fleeting, but this is all part of the show. Which, at The Darby, is just the beginning of its magic.
244 W 14th St, New York 10011
Phone: (212) 242-4411