I'm going to go ahead and write this, knowing full well that lunch outside is NOT the same as dinner in the dining room. And dinner is where a NYC restaurant's focus lies. But on a sunny early summer afternoon, when the weather was cooperative to outdoor dining, an invitation to lunch at the prestigious address presented itself. The open-air plaza on Park Avenue services a natty lunch crowd: lots of suits and foreign accents, modernist white chairs and a sleek black bar. Apparently happy hour here is quite the scene. It's a hyper-popular destination for soccer games, and they even have a d.j. spinning late in the afternoon on Fridays for a sort of makeshift TGIF Euro-boogie tea party event. Our host waxed poetica about the event, piquing my curiosity. So with all the sort of "attractions", you might wonder if the food falls short. Fortunately, it does not.
The lunch and dinner menus are not comprehensively different, although a prix-fixe lunch option at $46 for two courses could save you a few dollars, but only if you order smartly. Casa Lever is not for the light of pocketbook: this place is expense-account/special-occasion only. Which is a little tricky, since (at least after lunch al fresco), it didn't seem special enough to warrant such astronomical price tags. Service was cordial but certainly not exceptional. I guess a lot of it has to do with the neighborhood, relying on the purses of the Madison Avenue crowd and nearby financial firms.
The menu is typical fancy Italian: a Google search caption nails it with the description "Manhattan sophistication meets superb Milanese classics". The signature Casa Lever salad is a standard heap of mixed greens (organic, at least) with olives and cherry tomatoes, and a nice pillow of soft, milky mozzarella. Carciofi was the traditional mix of thinly sliced raw artichoke and shaved parmesan. Both salads were dressed a tavola, with a marvelous syrupy balsamic and bright emerald evoo- both poured generously. The zuppa del giorno might have been the best dish of all: a creamless puree of celery and green apple, luxuriously smooth, but robustly vegetal: dense in flavor and texture. Ordering this and a salad makes a wonderful lunch and foregoes some of the sticker shock.
Amongst primi, the bolognese is a compact spool of tagliatelle sauced in a veal ragu, perfectly balanced in Italian proportions of sauce to noodle. The sauce has a vibrant tomatoey tang, cutting the richness of ample ground veal. Seafood ravioli may have been the plumpest little packages I've ever seen: the ample filling of snapper and artichoke bulged proudly from its tender pasta casing. Eight hefty ravioli surrounded a small tumble of seppia and shrimp amid their oceany broth.
The only secondo sampled was the grilled branzino. I'm making a mental note at this juncture, too, to remind myself that branzino is not my favorite fish: I prefer flakier varieties. This was perfectly executed, though, with smoky char-marks criss-crossing its skin, and served with an invigorating citronelle sauce of juicy grapefruit and lemon in a slurry of olive oil. These beautifully simplistic preparations are intrinsically Italian, so a nice grigliata di verdure balanced things out a bit.
It being lunch, we shared a single dessert amongst the table: a decadent gianduja layered with rich hazelnut wafer, smooth chocolate ganache and dollops of unctuous hazelnut cream, flanked by crunchy roasted nuts wallowing in a drizzled of buttery caramel. The Italians know their sweets well.
I'm sure this was an entirely different experience from dinner in the sleek, modernist dining room that looks strikingly like the interior of some Italian magistrate's private jet. That Casa Lever, the inside version, is infamous for important business lunches and anniversary dinners. But I'm not sure that lunch al fresco isn't altogether more pleasurable; I'm afraid that all the pomp and bella figura might render an anticipated dinner here a little disappointing if dinner's array is commensurate to lunch's. There is a guarantee that I will return here, though, despite any of that. Perhaps not for any particular meal, but if the Friday post-work party lives up to the description our suave maitre d' provided... bells and whistles, baby. Bells and whistles.