A visit to the latest restaurant from New York's best-loved restaurateur, located in the Whitney Museum of American Art
After the long, long, flattering New York Times Magazine's profile of our Danny Meyer, which sets several scenes at the creation of his new Untitled restaurant in the lower level of the Whitney Museum, I thought I had to go see Untitled. Actually, I'd been planning to go anyway, as I spent the weekend in New York, and aside from wanting to see what Meyer did I've always liked museum restaurants. How could anyone not who grew up reading From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, in which a sister and brother sleep in the museum and bathe in the fountain in the restaurant, which supplies pocket change, too? It's not just the necessary respite museum restaurants offer from close concentration and (often feigned) reverence. It's the slightly illicit bonus of eating in a place you're not even supposed to touch anything and guards are watching you every minute.
Meyer made the restaurant at the renovated Museum of Modern Art, the Modern, one of the best places to eat in Midtown and also a place for a reliable power lunch. He was a shrewd choice of the directors, who knew he could anchor the restaurant exactly in the power structure that runs the city, as they themselves do.
The Whitney has always straddled a slightly odd balance: it shows art that should poke a sharp stick in the eye of the rich, smack in the middle of the staid-est, stodgiest silk-stocking district of the city. The last occupant of the Whitney was Sarabeth's Kitchen--a perfectly good choice for the Upper East Side neighborhood where the bakery/tearoom established its reputation, but not very ambitious. As he did at the Modern, Meyer has shrewdly looked to who lives and works nearby--the customers who can really keep the restaurant going--more than at the art. And he looked at the somber, dark-gray, modernist lines of the celebrated, stark 1966 Marcel Breuer building.
And so Meyer has chosen two things: a smooth, soothing, gray and brown palette with comfortable booths, and tables that can accommodate both power breakfasts and casual snack-seeking museum-goers, and food in the style of diner/luncheonette--which real East Siders know have always been the real places for power breakfasts and lunches in their neighborhood. Eggs, bagels and lox, BLTs, tuna melts, grilled cheese, pastrami reubens--these are extremely familiar territory for the supposedly fancy people who have always enjoyed economizing, and these days have an excuse to. And, of course, there are burgers. How could there not, given the huge success of Meyer's Shake Shacks?
(Side note: I went into the Upper West Side Shake Shack last night at about 10:00, scene of another Times Magazine Meyer visit, and didn't smell the aroma Meyer tells the author to sniff for as soon as he gets near a Shack--the Shacklike aura. Didn't smell anything, in fact. I took this as a sign of cleanliness and efficient ventilation, and the place was packed--including the "scrum," the small basement rec-room style seating area where there's a mercifully silent, big flat-screen TV showing, of course, sports. If Meyer wants to ventilate into the street the always-hunger-inducing aroma of new burgers, which I do associate with the original location in Madison Park--I just went this morning, and smelled the summerlike aromas of grilled cheese and ketchup, but not much burger grease--I'm sure he can arrange that too.)
I didn't have a chance to taste nearly enough at Untitled, because I could do only a pre-dinner on Saturday (the old restaurant-critic trick of two dinners in one night). On weekends, Untitled is offering three-course prix fixe dinners that hew much more closely to the Brooklynite, farm-to-table ethos Meyer says his team is bringing to the Upper East Side diner--though the breakfast-all-day/lunch-all-morning menu doesn't trumpet that farm-to-table connection. (It carefully looks like a standard diner/luncheonette menu, with salads-for-the-dieter choices thrown in.) My impression of the prix fixe dinner ($46) was that it's a work in progress: not diner-y at all, in fact much more like the immaculate little items as amuses-bouche you might get at the Modern, for instance a cheese biscuit filled with perfect cubes of raw salmon with a chive vinaigrette; lovely and small salads; and, for the main course, grilled quail marinated in a slightly spicy sauce with ketchup--the chef, Chris Bradley, has Southern roots, our waiter explained. The homemade spaetzle with more chives were the most memorable part of the main course, along with a slice of grilled local peach on fresh, peppery greens. For dessert, honey-lemon yogurt with figs. Very simple, very farm-to-table, very Brooklyn.
But the real heart of Untitled is that Upper East Side diner food I'll be back for next visit, with more Brooklynite credentials: Shack-influenced burgers; several kinds of grilled cheese on a parmesan-dusted, salty, heavy white loaf of "Parma" bread from the Brooklyn bakery Scratch; ice cream from Blue Marble, whose Prospect Heights location I visited yesterday for its very-high-butterfat products (dulce de leche is the way to go). And for a true look at how the Meyer team creates restaurants, I'll look again at Roger Sherman's The Restaurateur, the documentary that's now available on DVD and that shows the drama behind creating Tabla and 11 Madison Park.
And I'll be back for another order of what I'd been dreaming of since I first read of Meyer's plans to reinvent the diner: an egg cream. It wasn't on the evening menu, but Kevin Richer, the genial manager, got the kitchen in action, explaining that "Mr. Lauder insisted we have one on the menu"--Leonard Lauder, the longtime head of the Whitney's board, who apparently knows his egg creams. Richer said that the seltzer came from Ronny Beberman, the seltzer man separately celebrated in the Times, who, Richer says, has family connections with the sous chef. He brought a thick, heavy blue-green bottle to the table to show us the echt seltzer they use, and boasted of the house-made chocolate syrup and the "hand-crafting" of the egg creams.
I certainly admired the heavy parfait glass the egg cream came in, and the nearly inch-high layer of milk foam at the top. But the syrup? A bit faint in flavor, ever so slightly chalky on the aftertaste. I asked for another with Fox's U-Bet syrup, which Richer had assured me the kitchen kept on hand. And told him the truth when he asked which I preferred. Knowing the Meyer team, though, I fully expected that they'll have bested Fox's by the next time I visit. And I'm already saving up room for huckleberry buttermilk pancakes with a side of house-made bacon.
Images: Courtesy of Untitled