November 23, 2009 | BITE: My Journal

Just Enough British: Le Caprice

Sticky toffee pudding is a hit with the homesick Brit and me too. Photo: Steven Richter
Sticky toffee pudding is a hit with the homesick Brit and me too. Photo: Steven Richter

        At home in Picadilly, Le Caprice is more about scene – and being seen – than food.  And judging from my first dinner with an acerbic British friend annotating, I suspect Caprice, popped up in an extended bowling alley-shaped sliver at the Hotel Pierre, may live up to its genes.  It’s jazz age sexy, shiny black with beveled mirrors, art deco sconces and photographs from the sixties by David Bailey. It’s buzzing all the way to the kitchen, which only needs to be good enough not to insult our palates to compete with Swifty’s and Cipriani.

Too noisy to hear the ten pin drop at Le Caprice in the Pierre. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Wednesday at nine (the earliest table we could score), the place is jammed: smart Upper East Side seniors, a few solo diners at the bar between clusters of drinkers, Michael Eisner, wooing or being wooed at a big front table. Earliest arrivals sat anywhere without a grumble because no one had figured out yet what tables were preferred. They may take Eisner’s position as a clue. Maybe not.

Raw tomatoes, mozzarella with basil rivulets on pastry galette. Photo: Steven Richter.

        "The entire team came from London and doesn’t know anything about New York,” my English pal assures me. That doesn’t seem to discourage New Yorkers, who enjoy a little masochism along with dinner, and will tell you exactly who they are should you be so naïve as not to know. “It could do very well,” says our friend, who’s been here before for dinner and twice for lunch. “It was mostly Upper East Siders dressed to the nines, Nicky Haslam in town promoting his book, Joan Rivers seemed to know every single person in the room,” he reports. “The food’s not bad at all, especially if you consider what’s left on the Upper East Side now that La Goulue is closed. Swifty’s is like being on a bad cruise. And I’m not sure what everyone sees in Cipriani. The prices are obscene yet it’s always full.”

Hamachi sashimi with lime, ginger and edible flowers. Photo: Steven Richter

        Our waitress is a windup doll set for perkiness. She has a comment for each order. “Excellent.”  “Wonderful choice.” “Good for you.” “Oh, you’ll love that.”

       “You’re adorable,” one of our companions comments, not exactly intending it as a compliment.

       “No, you’re adorable,” she says, with a little love punch to his arm.

       Fortunately, she whirls off - without bringing our wine. There seems to be a lot of whirling and dashing to deliver dishes that arrive rather slowly.  

Rigatoni with wild boar ragu could be a little more al dente. Photo: Steven Richter

        Dispatched with veterans from the Caprice Group – a collection operating some of London’s best known restaurants – chef Michael Hartnell (veteran of Ivy and Daphne’s) rejiggers the Caprice classics, British comfort with Asian touches. Steak tartare, salmon fish cake, chicken alla Milanese, decent rigatoni (though not al dente) with wild boar ragu and fish and chips, the battered haddock sitting on mashed pea purée my London friend finds quite homey. A tangle of wild mushrooms gives a big hit of flavor to slightly soggy risotto. Rare rack of lamb, exactly as requested, delights my guy and me but gets sent back as too raw by our chums. 

We say “rare” and rack of lamb comes rare.  Too rare, protest our friends. Photo: Steven Richter.

        The excellent bread is cut in fat chunks and the French butter is sliced in rounds from a roll, both Caprice touches. The chef is adapting. Mushrooms are different and there are fewer because it’s not as wet here - and Americans want salads. 

       At first glance prices seem gently old fashioned: $9 for the butternut squash soup, entrées starting at just $22 for the fish cake and $24 for chopped steak with tomato relish and fries.  But except for soup, starters range from $15 to $26, and entrées top out at $45 for a grilled veal chop. With tax, tip and two modest bottles of wine – a $40 Cote du Rhone and a $45 Aligoté – our dinner tonight costs $100 per person.  But I’ll give credit for drinkable wines under $50.
       In a season where everyone is doing butternut squash soup, this one is an also-ran, though I like the lagniappe of its small sage muffins. Tomato and mozzarella galette streaked with basil puree is my favorite starter tonight. Hamachi sashimi with lime, ginger and slivers of what looks like hibiscus is better by far than watery octopus carpaccio, perhaps sliced too far ahead. That prime aged New York strip might be more appealing if trimmed of some fat and caramelized in a real steak oven. As for the chips, good but not great, I’m eating them anyway.

       “We call that 'moreish',” says my friend.  “For you the chips are moreish.” (British for when you want more.)

Frozen berries smothered in white chocolate are not my cup of tea. Photo: Steven Richter

        He is amused by the dessert list, pronouncing it especially cozy for a wandering Londoner.  Banana sticky toffee pudding, Bramley apple pie, a baked chocolate pudding soufflé.  “I have to have the Pavlova,” he cries, ordering a baked meringue concoction whose charm has always eluded me. Scandinavian iced berries coated with murky white chocolate doesn’t travel well either but I love the sticky toffee and honeycomb ice cream steeped in hot chocolate.

       New York is new and full of pleasant surprises for the chef (29 and single), improvising as he goes along, sourcing products with chefs he knows. He quickly found Chef’s Garden for produce. Il Laboratorio de Gelato does Caprice’s signature orange ripple ice cream and that honeycomb gelato. He took a flat on the Lower East Side “not knowing till later what fun the area would be.” He met the owner of Belcourt a few nights ago. “Now he’s advising me.”  What’s best about the city for him is the diversity of food. “You New Yorkers can have whatever you want whenever you want it,” he says. “Like lobster roll.”

795 Fifth Avenue at 61st Street in the Pierre Hotel. 212 940 8195. Lunch Monday through Saturday 11 am to 3 pm; dinner 5:30 to 11 pm. Brunch on Sunday 11:30 am to 4 pm.

Providing a continuous lifeline to homebound elderly New Yorkers