In New York, restaurants come and go, talking of oregano. New ones pop up every morning and critics knock them down like whack-a-moles–but they just keep on coming.
Today we’re talking about Ralph Lauren’s Polo Bar, harder to get into than Fort Knox; Charlie Palmer’s venue in the once grand, just renovated Hotel Knickerbocker; and Caffe dei Fiori, Daliso Gulmini’s ristorante on Lex that is being quietly discovered by the cognoscenti.
Mr. Lauren’s Polo Bars in Paris and Chicago are big hits, so he decided that New Yorkers needed a place where they could be seen munching on cheeseburgers and fries while guzzling Krug. It’s been the talk of the town in recent weeks, the main talking point being the six-months waiting list for reservations.
In conception and execution of an environment, il maestro can do no wrong—Lauren’s the best set designer since Cedric Gibbons—but running a restaurant in Manhattan is a grind, not an art, and even a Ferrari gets sand in its gears.
Blair Sabol went to the Polo Bar, and wrote about her experience, hilariously, this week on newyorksocialdiary.com. She has a way with words so let’s give Blair the floor:
“I found his New York version a real shock to the system. First of all, it is located in the basement (basement being the operative word) of his 55th street flagship store. I think store eateries should be at least rooftop—‘above the madding shopping crowd.’
“There was something about schlepping down the Downton Abbey wooden stairway that felt like you were really going to the ‘stock room.’ No amount of antique saddles and polo mallets could change my mind. A basement is a basement—not necessarily a ‘club’.
“The noise level at 6:30 was deafening and it never got any lower. The front room, full of free standing tables, seemed filled with hip-hop producers dressed in optic white and thick gold jewelry with ‘grills’ to match. There was a lot of table-hopping. The surrounding leather booths featured more Beyonce and Jay-Z look-alikes. (Maybe I was at a record event?)
“We were shown to two bad tables because the waiter ‘wasn’t sure’ where to seat us. Once we were deposited and menus distributed I couldn’t hear anything the server said. But what was to explain—salad, burgers, fries, and bad home brewed beers. Got it.
“When the waiter re-appeared at our table, he immediately lost his ‘professional boundaries’ and started to gossip about what stars had just left and who tipped badly. He never cleared our drinks or hors d’oeuvres, and needed napkins were never delivered. He left us for at least 20 minutes to help ‘selfie’ the next table. So much for ‘personal elegance’….RALPH?!?
“Naturally a woman (?) resembling Caitlyn Jenner sat down in the booth next to us. ‘She’ was dressed in a thigh high black (Spanx stuffed) bandeau mini dress and black patent Manolo stilettos. Our waiter made a beeline for their table, and I never saw him again. But then I realized the whole room resembled “Caitlyn’ or some Kardashian family member. And no doubt they likely were.
“The service was awful. My main course, ‘chopped salad’, was bitter and bland. But again, it’s not about the food. BUT…if it’s not about the food and you can’t hear your dinner companion AND your waiter took a hike AND the people around you are all B-list reality stars dressed like KE$HA, WHY GO?!? This ‘scene’ is not worth making.
“When we finally left (three and a half hours later, no dessert), we visited the upstairs bar, which was four deep in young ‘bridge and tunnel’ brigades. The head Maitre D/Manager dressed in ‘Pastel’, Lauren’s Private Label, stopped me. He asked me how my dinner was, but I pretended I was deaf (which I was). He didn’t wait for my answer, and instead smiled too broadly and said, ‘I love working in the hottest New York City restaurant and my Ralph Lauren attire ain’t too shabby as a ‘perk’.
“By the time I got to the 55th Street sidewalk I felt exhausted—and I was appalled to see a ‘rope line’ of ‘reservations only’ patrons lined up down the block. A Hulk-headed ‘reservationist/bouncer’ stood with an iPad and screamed out names and estimated ‘wait times’ to people who had made these reservations at least four months ago. Where was Studio 54’s Steve Rubell when you need him?
“The clientele on the street weren’t chic or elegant. Nobody carried a ‘Ricky Bag’. They were sweating and anxious. So much for Ralph’s ‘high dining experience’. It reeked of a Caesar’s Palace version of Jay Gatsby. The Polo Bar is a horror show.”
Merci, Madame Sabol, for not mincing mots. She is not alone. On July 19, Jay from Minneapolis captioned his review on TripAdvisor “Pretentious and Overrated is Never a Good Combination”. On July 17, Jamie from New York wrote, “Upon arriving, while telling the doorman the name of my reservation, I was interrupted by another staff member who said, ‘I don’t care if they are with the Queen of England…that party right there isn’t being seated’.”
Let’s leave that mob scene for the southeast corner of Times Square, where the Hotel Knickerbocker, whose 1906 Beaux Arts facade is landmarked and mercifully cannot be altered, just underwent a $ 240 million gut renovation of its interior. Ay yi yi.
Well-known chef Charlie Palmer was put in charge of the three restaurants. In this week’s issue of The New Yorker, Amelia Lester, executive editor of newyorker.com, paid a visit to the main dining room and delivers her verdict:
“At the new Knickerbocker hotel restaurant, there’s nothing heavier than the weight of history, although the halibut croquettes come close. Where does the fry end and the fish begin? The chili-lime aoli on the side isn’t saying.
“Order a champagne cocktail on a Tuesday night at the bar, and the spiral of lemon rind bobbing on the bubbles looks like it’s having more fun than the clientele. It’s hard to believe that the Knick, recently converted from offices back into a hotel, was once a drinking spot so beloved that, six years into Prohibition, this magazine was still lamenting its closure.
“Encased in marble, sheathed in chain-metal drapes, the dining room is so insistently anonymous that you’d never know it looks out on the Crossroads of the World, or even on one of the city’s larger H&Ms—let alone that Enrico Caruso sang from the balcony of this hotel on Armistice Day.
“The tuna tartare is served icebox cold, but, on the bright side, hotel restaurants, including this one, are probably the only places where you can begin dinner with fried chicken, chase it with a salumi plate, follow up with Asian-inspired sea scallops, and end with crème brûlée.
“On a recent evening, a family new to the city said they were hoping for some ice-cream sundaes. But there were no sundaes, only chocolate mousse, with chocolate ice cream, and chocolate sauce on top. It looked severe, and, even for a dessert, seemed like a slog. The family retreated to their room, and the dining area was quiet, except for the rustle of someone reading that morning’s Financial Times in the corner.”
Not everything on the culinary horizon is so bleak. Now and then a new place tip-toes into town on padded slippers and softly steals the hearts of its neighbors—even when the neighbors live in the epicenter of the Silk Stocking District. That’s what’s happening at Caffe dei Fiori, on Lexington Avenue above 70th, in the block where Sette Mezzo had long ruled the Italian roost. Not anymore.
In the huffingtonpost.com, critic John Mariani wrote, “Caffe dei Fiori is a charming new addition to the Upper East Side, already winning the neighborhood crowd but deserving of a visit from all those who so rarely venture north of 42nd Street.”
And who is that “neighborhood crowd” it is winning over? Lee Radziwill, who lives nearby, is a regular. Isabella Rossellini and Sofia Coppola, who know a thing or two about spaghetti, frequent the place. Hotshot Roman couturier Giambattista Valli was there the other night, as was Richard David Story, the discerning editor in chief of Departures magazine. But for gosh sakes don’t tell anyone about these Very Important Pasta-eaters; the restaurant is still under the radar and they want to keep it that way.
Now about the grub. Mariani writes, “The pastas are where you will find dishes you will not find elsewhere. The carpaccio of salmon with orange and fennel is delicious. Beef carpaccio is equally finessed, with a touch of Dijon mustard, Parmigiano, greens and the nice touch of almonds. First-rate risotti, one done with baby artichoke hearts and prawns, another with black or white truffles.”
Forbes.com writes that dei Fiori is a “small, romantic and charming two-floor gem that serves authentic Italian fare. Start with the burrata with prosciutto di Parma or the grilled octopus. Then try the homemade tagliatelle with beef ragout or the Dover sole meuniere, which is grilled to perfection. Spoil yourself with the creamy tiramisu.”
Getting hungry? I thought so. Chef Antonio De Leso feeds the flower children. Daliso Gulmini, the proprietor, learned his skills in the gastronomic mecca of Bologna. Caffe dei Fiori is a space to savor summer in Sorrento—without ever leaving home.