October 21, 2019 | BITE: My Journal
Sharing the Virtues of State Grill And Bar
The Green Circle chicken comes with hen of the woods mushrooms and black truffle butter.
In long ago decades Betty and I were friends. We met at dinner parties in the Hamptons and laughed watching our sophisticated pals acting out charades. Charades were big in our crowd in the Seventies. We were both writers but she had the best sellers. I hadn’t seen her since she and her husband retired. I suggest dinner. What else? Of course.
“We don’t go out much. Every place you go is so noisy,” she complains.
Architect Richard Bloch found inspiration for this custom-order work in a French painting.
“Let me think,” I say. What’s quiet and not wildly expensive? I remember State Grill and Bar with its plush carpets muffling excess exuberance. Click here to read “Sushi In a Closet, Imagining an American Bar in Vienna, March 15, 2016.”
The overarcing requirement from the owners was that the place look both modern and art deco.
At 7 pm on a Saturday, State Grill’s 5 o’clock bar crowd has drifted away. I let the maître d’ lead me to a booth in the emptiness at the back of the room where exquisite etched glass reflects shadows moving inside the Empire State Building lobby.
You can order just one crab cake or two with piccalilli, aioli and herb salad.
I can see my pal is impressed by the calm. Her husband, used to her restaurant fuss, smiles as she debates the server about what changes she could make on the house’s jumbo lump crab cake entrée. Finally they come to a joint agreement. She will have spinach replace the herb salad.
In the long wait for the first course from the kitchen, it’s easy to eat much too much lightly warmed bread.
The first time I had the chowder it looked like this. The next time it was raggedy and think as porridge.
By that time I’d finished three of the rolls, freshly warmed. I wonder if the butter is still churned in-house as it was at the launch. The seafood chowder with bacon and chopped parsley comes in a large, deep bowl, very hot, but not as perfect as I remembered it from my first early dinner when the chef Octavio Becerra insisted food be placed on the plate so that the State Grill and Bar logo would always point to exactly 3 o’clock.
The little bottle of hot sauce and small oyster crackers come with the chowder.
Servers did a minuet of delivery then, but tonight there are only two, bustling and disappearing as the 8 o’clock tables fill, and a manager steps in to help. Like a decades-long marriage, State remains attentive but not thrilling. There is nothing seriously wrong with the side of macaroni with four cheeses and breadcrumbs I ordered for my main course. Well, maybe it could be more browned, possibly crispier. Maybe I could have been hungrier. I take the leftovers home for lunch at my desk next day.
By the time the macaroni arrived, I’d eaten too much bread. I took a taste and then had it packed to take home.
I decide I will return for a real reviewing dinner. I need to taste more. After all, quiet in restaurants is what many of my friends and readers seem to want. I am back a few days later with the designer of State, Richard Bloch, and his wife, Hiroko. The three of us have dinner together once a week or so and sometimes I get a dissertation on lighting or table height or mix-and-match chairs. “What will happen if someone spills ketchup on the rug.” I ask. “It’s wool,” Bloch replies. “Wool can be cleaned.”
At one early dinner, I ordered the lamb t-bone.
I love when we discuss design. “State was a tough challenge because so many things couldn’t be moved, the pipes, the ducts, the wiring,” he says. “There was one overarching requirement.” The restaurant company’s Nick Valenti and the building owners wanted a place that looked both modern and art deco, too. He took his cues from the building’s design. “I knew it should be lightly art deco, restrained like the building itself. It wouldn’t be flamboyant art deco like the Chrysler Building.”
The glass cabinet cost a fortune, according to the architect, but the owners wanted the best.
There is a marvelous large painting on the wall that looks very “Mad Men.” Bloch had it painted to order. And the heavy metal 1908 table lamp at the end of the bar is homage to the period -- a design by Adolph Loos, an Austrian-Czech pioneer of modernist architecture. Bloch was so enamored with the $2500 lamp, still manufactured by the original Austrian workshop -- that he ordered one for himself.
At the first dinner we had a New York classic dessert, the Brooklyn Blackout cake.
Our October dinner is the first time he’d been back to State in years. The menu touts a three-course prix fixe for $65 -- a starter, an entrée and dessert with a choice of fountain soda, tea or coffee, tax and gratuity included. None of us succumb to the bid.
This is how the chicken was served when Chef Octavio Becerra was in charge.
I switched dishes with my pal who gave me her beef short rib for my macaroni. It was very stringy.
Richard passes me a taste of his Green Circle chicken with hen of the woods mushrooms and black truffle butter. His wife shares her crab cakes. I trade my plate of macaroni and cheese for my friend Diane’s beef short rib. The carrots are sweetly caramelized, but I find the meat stringy. She seems reluctant to trade back.
The squash rings and the tater tots were a great choice of sides.
That’s not a problem. I’ve ordered crisp fried squash rings with tomato chutney and tater tots with bacon for the table to share. It’s one of those evenings where the sides turn out to be the best part of dinner. I want to try the blueberry slab pie or the Empire Lights’wich -- the daily ice cream sandwich with flavors to match the evening’s tower lighting colors -- but I’m outvoted.
The flavor of State’s daily ice cream sandwich matches the tower’s lighting colors for the evening.
No one wants dessert. It isn’t just that we’d eaten enough, but that we’ve already sat too long waiting for the too-scanty staff to deliver. Not everyone wants to catch what’s left of the candidates’ debate, but I do.
21 West 33rd Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues. 212 216 9693. Monday to Friday 7:30 am to 10 pm. Saturday 5 pm to 10 pm. Closed Sunday.
More BITES You Might Savor...
Tacombi Library at the Public The Smith