November 20, 1989 | Vintage Insatiable
Royalton Flush

         The restoration of The Royalton is a gift to West 44th Street. Sleek. Bold. Sophisticated. Witty. The first time I stepped through that heavy mahogany door, I fell in love with Philippe Starck's outer-space settees and chaises, the sliver greyhound-legged furniture, the electric-magenta and key-lime green velour, and the vibrant royal-blue runner that gives grace to a gangling alley of a lobby. Even the clever bathrooms command a voyeur's attention.

         For all its zillions of tablecloths, Times Square does not boast many restaurants anyone actually longs to eat in…so all New Yorkers want the Royalton's new "44" to be wonderful, a lively perch before and after theater. Perhaps it will be. Opened without fanfare and still in previews, "44" already draws its share of trendetti. Fashion pages from Details come to life. One Friday at dinner, most everyone looks like a rock group at the very least.

         When you watch the beautiful boy at the door doing a near-split to open both inner and outer portals at once, you know this is like no hotel you've ever been in. The feeling is "Let's pretend we're grown-up." That's why it's so painful to see Starck's glorious icons all trussed up in ill-fitting slipcovers as if some anal-compulsive housewife had run amok.

         Happily, the dining end of the lobby has been spared. And there, Geoffrey Zakarian, the last chef of the doomed Maxwell's Plum (where tradition succumbed to the boom in real estate), delivers sometimes a great notion. (Entrées are $16.75 to $23.75 at dinner.  The lunchtime top is $19.75, with sandwiches under $14.) It's too early to say if or how quickly the kitchen will find its best moves. For now, I'm content with his meaty wild mushrooms in polenta porridge or the elegant sweetbread salad with its toasty spikes (the Tommy Tune of pretzel thins), and the deliciously crusted veal chop or pigeon roasted rare with rosemary-scented cabbage and marvelous potatoes.

         Young men, occasionally wan and androgynous, in black Vietcong pajamas (by Halston, I suppose), offer whimsical service. My guest beckons to the waiter with a wave and the waiter waves back. When another chum moves his cup to make it easier to pour coffee, the waiter chides him: "Etiquette says the cup is always on the right." One wispy shadow is so languorous he's almost catatonic.

         It took a year to install the kitchen that Zakarian designed (before going off to Lyon for a three-month stint with Pierre Orsi). But now, even the long struggle for a liquor license is over. I love the Maître d'Estournel, which was the only red available for a while.

         Zakarian's menu is as bold and sophisticated as the room. That pleasant tang on his splendid calf's liver comes from balsamic vinegar. And a sprinkling of lemon, lime, and orange peel, dried and pulverized into a citric flour, flavors the roasted chicken- served with a soggy stew of string beans.

         Sometimes a chef is too thoughtful. Intellectual inspiration doesn't always score on the tongue. Even if it weren't too cold, the anise-marinated salmon would be bland (although it is served with lovely brioche toast). Wizened barbecued eel with tabbouleh needs rethinking. Rawish bacon and wilted watercress do nothing for a veal-and-potato terrine. And all the risottos are too mushy for me. At lunch, chunks of seared lamb seem like an afterthought atop rigatoni in garlicky pistou. And a gritty sprinkle of herbed crumbs on tall towers of luscious beef fillet makes no sense at all.

         But that dust is easy enough to scrape away. Grilled salmon with cucumbers and dates is perfectly cooked, the grouper with vegetable risotto only a shade too long on the heat. Quince and eggplant add voluptuous texture and exotic flavor to "Russian lamb stew." And orange marinade plus skillful sautéing creates a tasty crust around venison fillets served with chestnut ravioli. At lunch, tenderest lobster and honey-cap mushrooms stud the risotto. And warm tart of zucchini and apricot proves to be an odd but pleasing garnish for crisp-grilled bluefish steak.

         Zakarian discovered pastry chef Melissa DeMayo in Maxwell's pantry. Her lemon-yogurt trifle is sublime, as is her French chocolate pudding. Banana wrapped in ruffles of phyllo and caramel is predictably sweet. Chocolate tuiles cap a lovely warm chocolate tart. And better than the angel food cake is the dried-fruit compote that escorts it.

         Breakfast at "44" is classic grand hotel in price and style: four ounces of juice for $4, eggs, excellent bacon, omelettes (runny, as requested), with calorie-calculated options -- multi-rain bread, no-sugar preserves, homemade vegetable juice (40 calories). A run of the buffet -- good but not great muffins and scones, croissants, Danish, cereal, and fruit, plus juice and coffee -- costs $15. A light menu of salads and sandwiches is served in the lobby proper from 2:30 P.M. to 1 A.M.

         Now, isn't it time to liberate the lobby from its zip-off shrouds? Life is too short, and fate too whimsical, for slipcovers.

44 West 44th Street  212 869-4400

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