November 2, 2009 | BITE: My Journal

Casa Sweet Casa

Casa Lever’s seafood salad is delicately cooked and dressed with pizzazz. Photo: Steven Richter
Casa Lever’s seafood salad is delicately cooked and dressed with pizzazz. Photo: Steven Richter

        Sant Ambroeus, the espresso, insalata and pastry crib for gossip girls of all ages, hardly seems like the smartest fit for the Lever Building in the tug of war for midtown power lunchers.  But Casa Lever, a Sant Ambroeus with ambition in a landmark castle on Park Avenue, is off and running to feed its habitués where they work. I like most of what I’m eating. Small portions to be sure. That’s how you keep that size zero x-ray into your dotage, darling. The strength to resist the splendid bread and exceptional bread sticks must surely be genetic.

The room has been softened and warmed and decked out in Andy Warhols. Photo: Steven Richter

        I never fell for this spot in its popping Lever House days though I admired the futuristic spaceship sleek and Chef Dan Silverman’s grownup, clear-headed food.  It was the cacophony that kept me away. Swiveling down the gangway is still amusing – till the jet blast hits from a swarm five deep at the bar. The room has been softened and warmed as promised, “tarted up” you’d say, if architectural purity is your fetish. Maybe it’s even a tad quieter. You can look in from the street now. That’s friendly. Inside are red-topped rounds in the lounge, wine racks between booths, Milanese blown glass chandeliers and vaguely familiar faces on the wall.
       “Armani and Dennis Hopper,” the waiter rattles them off, “Farah Diba, Mapplethorpe, Aretha Franklin.”

       “Who is the artist?” one of our friends inquires.

I’d be loathe to share my crab two ways, even if it weren’t so tiny. Photo: Steven Richter

        "I’ll have to ask,” the waiter says.  He returns. “The artist is named Andy Warhol,” he reports.

       I wonder if Lever House landlord and art collector Aby Rosen (partner here with Gherardo Guarducci and Dimitri Pauli) would be amused. Rosen’s foursome sits in the booth behind us. And those are his Warhols. His wife Samantha Boardman is on the Citymeals-on-Wheels board, so I’m recognized at once. Not that it sharpens the service.  Some of the pink-shirted crew seem confused. They tote trays of food in circles looking at each other as if to say, “Now what?” Captains in suits snap the whip.

       A chunk of avocado rides in stuck accidently to the underside of my friend’s vitello tonnato plate.  The waiter stares at it unhappily, then picks it up as if it were a cockroach to cart it away. Never mind, the tuna is silken; the thinly sliced and furled veal full of flavor, and both are stylishly arranged with a scattered crunch of fried capers.

The pasta wrapped timballo with wild board ragu is a hit with our pasta lovers. Photo: Steven Richter.

        I only had sorbetto once at Sant Ambroeus so I can’t compare what’s coming out of the kitchen tonight, manned by imports from Milan under San Ambroeus chef Mario Danielli. Under a bouquet of fennel and greens, the king crab, calamari, octopus, mussels, clams and rock shrimp in our seafood misto are properly cooked and deftly dressed. I could live without the tasteless foam and mushy hash of white asparagus on otherwise deliciously seared scallops. But I’m loathe to share my king crab with avocado.  Dainty in size, it’s a powerhouse of flavor from Santa Barbara sea urchin and pickled jalapeno.

This just looks like a half portion of pasta with tuna Amatriciana. Photo: Steven Richter

        My fussy friend Cassandra is already a regular here for the whole branzino or orata ($36 to $38).  She eats fish cooked whole almost every night of her life. Normally she would have a half order of pacheri pasta with snapper to start. “There are no half orders of pasta,” she warns me, “but the portions are so small, it doesn’t matter.” The four of us, because we love pasta ($18 to $28), or possibly because we’re being frugal (avoiding entrees from $34 to $44), are sharing the sensational timballo of buttery wild boar ragu in a pasta wrap, artisanal spaghetti impeccably al dente with Manila clams and a kick of tuna bottarga, and tuna Amatriciana on half cuts of rigatoni. A hopeless sludge of risotto alla parmigiana sits abandoned on the plate.

Expect works of art from the pastry chef at Casa Lever. Photo: Steven Richter

        Of course, we must have dolci. Isn’t this a child of Sant Ambroeus? Gianduja, layers of hazelnut-chocolate with a gleaming roof of marvelous midnight dark chocolate proves more thrilling than the Technicolor Easter parade of too sweet pistachio cake layered with lemon vanilla mousse. And I like the idea of chocolate sorbet rather than gelato inside three small globes of tartufo. It’s quieter now. The briefcases have marched on. A few couples flirt in the lounge.

390 Park Avenue, Entrance on 53rd Street.  212 888 2700.  Monday through Saturday lunch 11:30 am to 3 pm; dinner 5:30 pm to close. Bar menu all day.

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