Monday, July 20, 2015

UNTITLED at The Whitney

Just the name Michael Anthony sets its own bar very high- a good thing for a restaurant that kind of doesn't have a name of its own.   In collaboration with iconic restaurateur Danny Meyer and situated in the renowned Whitney Museum, though, I could hardly keep my expectations from soaring.  The early word, however, had been hit and miss- most confoundingly, as it were, for the service.   But if those premature critiques had any merit to them at all, they would be attributed solely to opening jitters.  The service was as adept as the restaurant is lovely, and the food worthy in both taste and appearance of the masterpieces displayed in the museum adjacent.

The walls are glass, creating only nominal divide between indoor and outdoor seating (of which there is both).  By the time prime dining hour rolled around, not a table was empty in or out.  The waitstaff, flitting about briskly between the open kitchen and numerous tables, are smartly clad in black aprons and crisp white shirts: just like Chef Anthony himself, who was intent on quality control of everything coming out of the kitchen, and simultaneously keeping a watchful eye on diners and staff alike.

It's hard not to be distracted by the glory of the room itself, however, befitting of a restaurant in an art museum.  It is a lofty space, open and airy, beautiful in its simple lines.  As the sun sets, still at a rather late hour on this particular mid-summer evening, the mood changes significantly, adopting a magical effervescence that twinkling lights and dimmed lighting always does.

Pickly wonders.
Peas, please.
The food follows that same aesthetic, merging a whimsical artistry with Chef Anthony's signature seasonal focus and masterful technique.  Even a simple bowl of peas seemed special; toothsome orbs of brilliant green just kissed with fresh mint atop a thin swath of creamy, dense yogurt.  This was all about the peas, no bells and whistles, because they sang by themselves.  A small dish of lightly cured vegetables varied with each
litle bit, jicama with a sweet-sour bite, carrots with a pickly snap, and (the best) pale yellow beans with a zippy kick.  Another snack of zesty chickpea puree was served with crispy flatbread planks and  halved heirloom cherry tomatoes that leaked their luscious juices into the mix, creating rich and umami-laden mouthfuls that most hummus only dreams of.
The one dish I tried that night that didn't thrill me was a beet melange with verbena and yogurt, with  a surfeit of lush summer berries tipping the scales from salad to sweet .  It would work marvelously as a palate-cleanser, however, or a pre-dessert course. Keeping on the light and refreshing side, a slightly more substantial dish of cucumber, smashed and ribboned, lolled in an verdant,  oniony broth delicately elevated with a murmur a soy and sesame to enliven earthy buckwheat soba noodles tangled furtively
 underneath.    Fluke with radish, sorrel and lime was inarguably gorgeous enough to merit consideration for the Whitney's collection were it not so delightful going down: a study in the ethereal lightness of an ocean breeze.

As our entrees arrived, the sun bowed out, that magical ambiance filtered through the room.   The cupped overhead lights take on a lunar glow, and the spots refract off the steely glass creating a discernibly different feel.  It will be interested to see how winter temperatures will be handled: one wonders if that thick plate glass will be able to hold out the cold.  But on this balmy summer evening, that was the least of our concerns.  The focus now was on our main plates, my favorite
 being the tilefish served in a buttery corn puree and topped with diaphanous coins of summer squash- balancing
indulgently rich with the purity of summertime.  I wondered out loud where tilefish-such a wonderful fish (also recently sampled at Benoit) - had been all my life, and our waiter quickly interjected "In the Long Island Sound", verifying the local/sustainable aesthetic by which their seafood is procured.  On a meatier note, four big spare ribs were hearty and juicy, smoked in a peppery rub and kissed with the sweetness of an apricot glaze.  Alongside the entrees, we tried the pole beans with calamari and hazelnuts.  The beans, yellow and green, were cartoonishly long and fun to eat, a long, flat bean you have to cut into pieces to attain manageable bites.  They achieved a blistered char from an ephemeral pass on a ripping hot grill along with tiny, tender calamari, scorched until the tasted like bacon of the sea, all beach smoke and gently ocean salinity.
   And just when I thought things couldn't get any better, there were the turnips with green beans, pecorino and guanciale: a salty vegetable carbonara that countered the hearty decadence of that sauce with mild summer produce, taking it from much-too-much to lick-the-bowl clean.

Our dessert shared that characteristic, a simple sounding strawberry-poundcake ensemble, but the cake had been toasted so it's buttery edges crisped to golden, the berries so magnificently flavorful they shoudn't have been real, and all of this slathered in smooth ricotta puree bedecked with tiny pansies.  There are other similarly tempting dessert items, all of which tended away from the meticulous precision of the entree plating and focused on pure pleasure: a thick wedge of peanut butter cake drizzled with syrupy blueberries, or a crowd-pleasing megalith of a chocolate chip cookies served with its own little jar of gently sweet vanilla milk.   I mean, even in an art museum, pretty can only go so far... fortunately here, they've nailed both.   Untitled won't need to worry about finding a name- it has already mastered everything that counts.

 99 Gansevoort Street
New York, NY 10014

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