October 3, 2011 | BITE: My Journal

Heavy Sits the Crown

This stylish Tasmanian trout tartare could be a hat on a British princess. Photo: Steven Richter
This stylish Tasmanian trout tartare could be a hat on a British princess. Photo: Steven Richter

       Jaunty sits the Crown on its eighth day of existence. “Swanky,” says Eater. “Sceney and moody,” the Beastly new Newsweek suggests. No surprise that the heat trailed by chef-partner John DeLucie from Graydon Carter’s snooty Waverly Inn to nocturnal sieges at The Lion has already staggered his new uptown snubbery.

        For a while, a mere mortal could actually book 6:30 or 10 pm after a long, severe punishment waiting on hold. Then silence. Hold didn’t end till you hung up.  One man stormed into the place demanding an apology and, legend has it, got a reservation. An investor finagles to get my table.  It was the heat wave Bruno Jamais planned for his club Bruno in this spot before it flamed out.  Our early bird threesome tonight remembers The Gibbon in this turn-of-the-century mansion with its pioneering Japanese-French fusion and earlier, Parioli Romanissimo – the best Italian restaurant in New York in my January 28, 1995 roundup.

This room shot got lightened and brightened on the computer. Photo: Steven Richter

       Now the wood paneling is dark, tiny black-shaded sconces casting almost no light. Only the faraway coffered ceiling is illuminated.  A giant urn holds a tangle of branches on a barely lit service table in the center of the shadowy room. A savvy waiter watching us read the menu with flashlights brings three extra votives and a cluster of warm rolls still in its iron baking pan: cottage cheese buns with chive, thyme, and rosemary. “Be careful, the pan is still hot,” he warns.

       It can’t be easy to shake down and make adjustments, not to mention overseeing the kitchen, while juggling an Almanac de Gotham’s nocturnal royalings. It helps that the chef has recruited Gotham Bar & Grill alum Jason Hall as his second. And there may be nothing DeLucie and his partners from The Lion can do about the townhouse’s cramped entry. A pileup of entitled waiting to be seated own the bar, leaving only a few inches for us to shimmy through behind the maitre d’. Dagger eyes. Tweeded shoulders blocking. Who are you?

Splendid chicken liver pâté in a canning jar with balsa wood toast. Photo: Steven Richter

       Still, given such distracting social tremors, the kitchen is doing quite well with its mission. The smartly dressed Tasmanian trout tartare with its lacey chapeau of pumpernickel crisps fairly zings with caperberry remoulade. It’s big enough for two or three to share. And our threesome barely makes a dent in the plus portion of fine potted chicken liver pâté in its canning jar, though I worry that a tooth might break on the startlingly balsa wood-like slices of grilled baguette that accompany it. And the rich paste doesn’t need sauterne gelée and apricots and lavender marmalade.

I ate this gorgeous seafood medly in the dark. Now the room is brighter. Photo: Steven Richter.

       I am eating something. Seafood salad? Yes! I ordered it, at $21, and easily enough for all of us to taste. But it’s so dark I can’t see what my fork is stabbing till it reaches my mouth. Oh, a delicate little mussel, delicious. How maddening. There’s lobster too, and octopus, I see now, as Steven shines a flashlight on the crystal plate.

        Usually I save my pats and pans for BITE, but here is DeLucie in his short sleeve chef’s whites making a schmooze-tour of the room and I find myself complaining. “Romantic is great. The room is beautiful. But it’s maddening not to see what I’m eating.”

Chef John Delucie schmoozes the room midway through the evening. Photo: Gael Greene

       “You’re right,” he cries as his partner hovers anxiously. “We didn’t expect the designer to use black lamp shades.” 

        DeLucie’s promised classic continental fare reminds me of his stint at Waverly Inn. Oysters, caviar, garden lettuces, rack of lamb, halibut, a roster of steaks -- $39 to $125 (the Cote de boeuf for two) -- all served with bone marrow, shallot marmalade, horseradish lardo and béarnaise sauce. Crown’s launch menu even includes “Preview” stamped in red letters, a legend Waverly coyly never abandoned. Considering that appetizers, $16 to $23, are princely portions, Steven’s $19 ration of squid ink spaghetti nero seems mingy and more about heirloom cherry tomatoes than noodles. He aims his flashlight aloft to shoot, then to eat. 

        Tall beauties sweep into the back room “Atelier” with the bucks and blokes that inevitably trail in their wake. Latecomers fully juiced at the bar shout to hear themselves above their mates’ screeching. Earlier decorum vanishes.

The waiter warns us pasta portions are small. This one needed more noodles. Photo: Steven Richter

       Using sign language, I share tastes of remarkably flavorful, properly moist chicken with fingerling potatoes boulangere and a hint of smoke from bacon bits. Our companion’s $34 spring veal with speck and rapini is juicy too. Lardons would be better than this speck of speck. And I’m not sure what continent is represented by a sauce called madeira’au poivre.  But hey, eighth day and house bursting, let’s give them a break.

Candied apples not quite candied but brilliant donut. Photo: Steven Richter

       The talented pastry pro, Heather Bertinetti, has launched with just four choices, plus gelato or sorbet samplers, on her own red-stamped “Preview.” Her apple degustation “is like fall on the plate,” our waiter enthuses. Indeed, the cider doughnut is exceptional. But the two miniature candied apples are not quite candied and the texture of spiced cream cheese ice cream is a bit off. Agony of the launch, again.

        Meanwhile, should you know someone who knows someone, or even know your own someone, and manage to score a table, be assured, the place is already less dim, according to reports from the boss. Black shades have been traded for translucence, brighter bulbs installed and the ceiling lights are brighter.  So I’m told. “The most gorgeous velvet drapes are on order,” says DeLucie. “We’ll cluster them in the corners. If that doesn’t work, we’ll have to think of something else.” Exit: muttering.

        P.S. Friends who went back found the roar undiminished, the new brightness delightful and said the waiter’s indifference led to too many service errors.  But they loved the penne carbonara and shared a “perfectly cooked, beautifully carved" braised and roasted duck for two, served, regrettably, she thought, in a flame-red Le Cruset baker with paper label still stuck to the side.  

24 East 81st Street just west of Madison Avenue. 212 539 4880. Dinner Sunday through Thursday 6 to 11 pm. Friday and Saturday till midnight.