August 3, 2009 | BITE: My Journal

Hotel Griffou Does Room Service

The bar tender is more flirtatious geisha than the usual hipper-than-thou. Photo: Steven Richter
The bartender is a more flirtatious geisha than the usual hipper-than-thou. Photo: Steven Richter

        What can you possibly do in boxy little subterranean rooms to draw nightlife eaters? Marylou’s had a famously louche clan loitering in this cellar for years. Now, invoking ghosts of an earlier incarnation, Hotel Griffou, a 19th century boarding house, a quartet of principles has created a vintage fantasy with their own collected art and flea market finds and activated impressive Rolodexes. Once early responders sighted Leonardo Di Caprio and Chloë Sevigny, the retreat below the sidewalk pulsed on the lemming radar.  Now we wait to see if the wattage holds and if those who follow will hang around over $14 cocktails – I like the Navy Grog in its glass mug, better than the Mexican Rose with cilantro. Will the fickle darlings come back for such retro dish-ups as deviled crab croquettes, lobster Thermidor fondue, duck confit Poutine (with melted cheese on top, yikes!), classic steak Diane, and “Madame Marie Griffou’s sautéed pork cutlets from her 1892 recipe?”  (Appetizers $8 to $16, entrees $17 to $40.)

Don’t mess with the Road Food Warrior’s steak tartare, please. Photo: Steven Richter

        After complaining about our town’s copycat menus, you’d think I might jump on pork cutlets.  But on that first June visit, noting a weekday haul of prime VIPs, the three of us are in our predictable modes. Our health-conscious friend Steve has the green and white asparagus (and doesn’t even notice how scant the Hollandaise is) followed by an overcooked round of under-seasoned sole in a moat of oyster mushrooms and snippets of sugar snaps. In my usual let’s-live-life-to-the-fullest-while-we-can style, I must try the Calabash fried seafood basket, a fritto misto by yet another name, with radish remoulade. It comes tiled with homemade chips curled like flowers, big chunks of cod, a duo of giant shrimp and battered oysters, too thickly crumbed. But I can't help myself, I'm eating anyways. As for the lobster Cobb entrée, it’s not the Red Eye Grill’s excessive and perfect Cobb salad but it’s an appetizer two might share and an inspired summer dinner.

 It’s the fried seafood basket: homemade chips and seafood thickly crumbed. Photo: Steven Richter

        The Road Food Warrior is happy enough with his designer-arranged fried-egg-topped beef tartare though we both agree it lacks the pizzazz of the same animal at Standard Grill.  But I’d be happy anytime with his perfectly cooked Gruyère-and-bacon-topped burger.  Are we burger sluts?  We seem to be falling in love with a lot of upscale burgers these days. Give it to us juicy and rare without messing up the bacon and minus any outrageous addenda (mustard gelato, ketchup air) and we’re yours.


This burger is not headed for the Olympics but it’s good enough for fussy burger-meisters. Photo: Steven Richter

        Now we’re back a month later rife with a certain angst because we’ve come without a reservation.  Granted, it’s deep into a summer Friday and the pretty people are surely off doing whatever they do when it rains in the Hamptons. Never mind that the place is packed with folks who are not afraid to admit they don’t have a share somewhere on a dune. Given that the partners prepped at bastions of hip and belonging like Waverly Bar, Balthazar, Cafeteria, Freeman’s and La Esquina, we brace for a little attitude if not cutting humiliation.

 A little pickled frou-frou does not detract from fabulous scallops. Photo: Steven Richter

        “That won’t be a problem,” the keeper of the book says promptly, leading us to a tiny two-top in the dark wood-paneled “Library” with splashes of ivy green walls and a wooden duck in flight overhead.  It’s tight in here.  Maybe this is purgatory for nobodies, unknowns, walk-ins.  If so, our server is oblivious to this social profiling and leaps in with enthusiasm.  It’s shadowy and dark – some would say romantic, but I get crankily unromantic when I can’t see my food. Happily, it is also actually quieter than the “Salon” next door.  Heavy green velvet draperies at the entrance and a stretch of tufted leather banquette may help, but I suspect the din is muffled by the vintage Playboys and books, the tchotchkes and “art” contributed by the owners that fill the shelves across the way.  “We did it ourselves, without a designer,” boasts Johnny Swet (Balthazar).  “Designer spaces can be heartless.  We wanted a lot of art and stuff to keep those ADS (Attention Deficit Syndrome) customers from getting bored.”

        We’re slow to order.  “I ate everything I wanted last time,” Steven complains.  “I don’t want Steak Diane.  I don’t want surf ’n’ turf. “

        “How about lobster Thermidor fondue?”  I suggest.

        He gives me a withering glance.

        Our waitress offers specials. She is Janice Rae’s daughter – I know because it says Janice Rae on her elaborate upper arm tattoo.  “It was my Mother’s Day gift,” she confides.  “I’m the quirky one of three siblings.”  I decide not to ask her about all the skulls on her tricep and ask about the housemade fettuccine instead, solution to the Warrior’s dilemma.  Tossed with fresh cranberry beans, black kale, parmesan and faintly sweetened lemon purée and zest with a hint of mint.  Bizarre, right?  But delicious, better than my pan-fried sweetbreads with roasted cippolini and very chewy pickled something that could have been a rubber band.

Key lime thins and stewed heirloom tomatoes add tang to Tasmanian trout. Photo: Steven Richter.

        There are pickled carrots too, on exquisite scallops – three plump perfectly cooked monsters off the dayboat sautéed in brown butter riding in on parsnip puree, with fried parsnip ribbons flying and somewhere a hint of honey. The kitchen’s still slowish but getting more confident.  A tall chunk of Tasmanian trout is brilliantly presented too, crisped skin under a tangle of sheer raw fennel, pickled fennel batons, stewed heirloom grape tomatoes and the thinnest slices of lightly cured key lime for acid balance.  I wish I’d asked for “rare” instead of “medium rare.”  Chef Jason Giordano, ex of Mia Dona and Spice Market, got into pickles and canning visiting his sister down South, he tells me the next day by phone.  Clearly he is cooking to please himself and serious eaters for when the trendetti move on.  As the crowd thins out at 11, it’s even quieter in the Library and the two of us decide to surrender to a peach and plum cobbler – with vanilla ice cream on the side, gift of Janice Rae’s daughter.

Summer fruit cobbler, ice cream alongside, is fine for lingering. Photo: Steven Richter

        “Do you have everything you want?” she asks Steven.       

        “Well, I wouldn’t go that far,” he says.  But for a lazy, rainy summer Friday, I think we do.

21 West 9th Street, between Fifth and 6th AvenueS. 646 448 4632
Providing a continuous lifeline to homebound elderly New Yorkers