October 4, 1994 | Vintage Insatiable

Café Centro: French with a Moroccan Accent

        Summer's restaurant seedlings may still need weeding. But very quickly, Cafe Centro has become exactly what it promised to be --- a luxurious brasserie, somewhat French with Moroccan flourishes and a New York mentality, sporting the spiffy Beer Bar on one hip. Already noontime brings a well-bred bustle.

         True, new brass at the fire department vetoed the already-approved wood-burning rotisserie. Its  fat-eater jets had to be rejiggered (so far $750,000 on the meter...in vain). Still there's drama enough at the glassed-in kitchen and the exposed pastry station. And luxury in the rich patterns of marble-and-terrazzo floor, the sculpted pewter friezes of animals, fish and vegetables atop each gold leafed column (reminiscent of La Coupole), the seriously comfortable armchairs and tone-on-tone linen.

         Planned in the flush of the Eighties with a $5 million budget to celebrate Restaurant Associates bounce back from The Twilight of the Gods -- when a convergence of catastrophes had humbled the team that set the style in American eating for the Sixties and Seventies -- RA kingpin Nick Valenti envisioned a Four Seasons for the MetLife Building. But the cool canyon of elegance and intimidation created by Philip Johnson in the sweep and soar of Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building wouldn't do for the bruised and tender nineties. Warm and accessible was the mantra for designers Frederick Bush and Roberto Magris of Florence.

         Schooled in the academy of RA's demanding genius, Joe (God is in the details) Baum, Valenti took his scouts to the brasseries of Paris, buying or borrowing, actually stealing cutlery, glasses, tableware.  Even chef Philippe Feret's parents were recruited to  find sources and ship samples of flatware, flour, breadcrumbs.  Baum was in the details. Now Valenti is too. That explains the sugar snifter you want to filch, the baguette with its paper knot around the middle that is suavely laid across the table (great style, alas, no substance), the bottle of sugar syrup  to sweeten the iced tea served in the 24 oz. beer mug. "Anything sells in that glass," Valenti marvels. Still I like more taste of fruit in my blackberry tea.

        Feret, a seasoned pro, was too precious, too fancy at The Maurice. Now, challenged to recapture the Gallic bistro feel, he pleases with intense Provencal flavor and saffron-red pepper aioli in his fish soup...pastina, cannellini beans and powerful pesto in the soup au pistou, each with a parmesan-glazed flat bread perched on the corner of a great-looking square bowl.  Most everything is good or very good --- a sprightly hill of frisée with smoked bacon and garlic croutons, grilled Lyonnaise sausage with Yukon gold potato salad and penne with roasted peppers, zucchini and tomato.

        Two could share a Motroccan feast -- the sweet crackling chicken-and-almond pie (bisteeya) and then fragrant and peppery hot Maftoul couscous with vegetables, or a chicken and sausage tajine with chickpeas and preserved lemon. Chose the daily roast: salmon on Monday, veal shoulder Tuesday, or seabass in a complex hodge podge of chive mashed potatoes, spinach and endive with red beet sauce that has just enough acid to pull it together.

       Provencal vegetable tart or roasted chicken with chive-green olive oil mashed potatoes, roasted vegetables on a baguette or lobster-and-avocado club (needing a bigger hit of jalapeno mayonnaise) make lunch. The menu lets you eat light or indulge, pinch pennies or cut loose, with entrees from $l3.50 to $2l at noon, to $24.50 for a 24 oz. t-bone at dinner, plus a $22.50 prix fixe, and cut-rate parking from 4:30 p.m. on in the Metlife garage.

       From some angles, we can watch pastry chef Stephan Weber adding a braid of crème anglaise and caramel to fabulous twice-cooked apple with raisins and candied walnuts in smart phyllo wrap. Macaroons sandwiching coffee-Kahlua parfait, the crème brulée in a chocolate tart with caramel sauce and smartly intense not-too-sweet sorbets stand out. 

       A pal who's already made the Beer Bar his late lunch habit -- he loves the mile-high burger with bacon, cheese, fried tomato and a hill of wonderful onion frizzies  -- complains the staff is selling too hard, pushing the iced tea, refusing to bring his water in the mythic beer glass. They are enthusiastic, well-drilled, seemingly ready to lie down under the 6:l5 to Greenwich if you ask (and I can feel the train under my feet like an after-shock from time to time). "That's great," exclaims the waiter again and again.  Everywhere I go these days, waiters applaud my order. What's going on?

       And the locals are in a dither too. Where did they wind down after work before the Beer Bar arrived? It's seat yourself (though no one bothers to tell us till we've practically taken root) and good-looking younguns' are grabbing chairs and toting them away, noisily sharing  wonderful crisp-fried potato skins or very ordinary wings jazzed up with  spicy goat cheese dip from the evening munchie  menu. (More options at lunch, from $4.50 for the crunchy chop chop salad to  $8.50 for delicious grilled vegetables with pesto on a baguette or $l5.75 for salmon steak.) And it does feel like a bar on a grand old luxury liner with its gangway entrance, the witty Art Deco panels behind the bar, porthole-like windows, and a collection of cruise-ship memorabilia on display.

       The neighborhood has already claimed Cafe Centro as its new lunchroom. It's easy to spot the red and gold bistro flash from 45th street. By next summer the sidewalk cafe and pizza in what was the Trattoria next door will be an added lure. Late night MetLifers and Grand Central commuters may linger for dinner. But most New Yorkers, quick to taxi to Soho or Park Avenue South, resist midtown. Valenti once talked about hiring a bus to take pre-theater diners to Broadway from Cucina & Company. Now the idea is infinitely more compelling.

200 Park Avenue at 45th Street. 212 8l8 l222. Breakfast Monday though Friday 7:30 to 10 am.  Lunch and dinner 11 am to 10:30 pm.  Saturday 5 to 10:30 pm.

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