October 11, 2010 | BITE: My Journal

The Lambs Club: Landmark Frolic

Chef Zakarian poaches the foie gras himself. The figs grow on trees. Photo: Steven Richter.

        You can’t scare Geoffrey Zakarian by suggesting New Yorkers won’t walk through a hotel lobby to get to a restaurant, as Steve Cuozzo did last week in the Post. Being deep inside the Royalton Hotel didn’t hurt “44” when it opened in 1987. Zakarian was at the range when Anna Wintour made it the canteen for CondeNasties and Calvin Klein claimed his own personal banquette. Indeed, Zakarian has never met a hotel lobby that daunted him.  He got three stars at Town in the Chambers Hotel and another trio at Country Upstairs at The Carlton. Now, paired with nightlife hipsters like Will Regan, David Rabin and Jeffrey Jah (late of Lotus) running the lounge, Geoffrey and his wife Margaret are sitting pretty at The Lambs Club in the new Chatwal Hotel, once a 19th Century actors’ hangout, a landmarked building designed by Stanford White. And, if you’re an irony buff, a block west of The Royalton.

Lipstick red leather and art deco chrome at the lobby bar. Photo: Steve Richter.

        And it isn’t just pretty - it’s stunning. The art deco-fied lobby. The lounge upstairs where Oliver Stone holds business meetings, with bar lights in the shape of the Empire State building. Red leather banquettes and crisp white pique tablecloths against black walls, its original walk-in fireplace, sleek crimson-and-chrome torchieres, and a photograph frieze of Lambs Club members.

A dainty measure of beef tartare with pickled chanterelles. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Our six wrap around a corner booth.  Zakarian himself is here, tending to his in-laws. And my appetite is seasoned with great expectations from a dinner two weeks ago that really impressed.  I’d shared splendid heritage pork ravioli under shards of Sardinian cheese, rich hand-cut beef tartare with pickled chanterelles, and peppery veal sweet breads with grilled Treviso.  Both the remarkably moist chicken and a meaty pork chop – ordered rare, delivered deliciously so - were textbook juicy and I remembered the seared sea scallops days later: sensuously rare, sweetly caramelized, entangled with the earthy musk of porcini. Only the “crispy” fingerling potatoes drew a straight out complaint. “Crispy is definitely an exaggeration,” a companion noted.

The kitchen does justice to a heritage pork chop with endives and apple. Photo: Steven Richter.

        We were knocked out by the bread service then too: small warmed olive baguettes, luscious seeded soft Parker Houselike rolls (baked two or three times a day, I’m told) and a small saucer with cuts of radish and green cauliflower to dip in a sedate lemon-anchovy emulsion.  Even thick slices of toasted country bread for steak tartare and Zakarian’s classic foie gras seemed special.  

At our first dinner, a perfection of seared scallops with procini. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Seeing salt and pepper shakers on the table was a good sign too.  “Very retro,” I said, marveling at the implication that chefs might be getting less arrogant about letting mere mortals salt or pepper their own food if they wish. The chef himself was nowhere to be seen (He was off at a star-studded film opening, I was told.) but that didn’t seem to affect the food.

Vibrant with freshness, yellowfin tuna carpaccio Nicoise style.  Photo: Steven Richter.

        Now we’re back with other friends.  Zakarian is ever present, dashing in his whites. In and out of the kitchen. Up and down with his in-laws. And, sorry to report, dinner is somewhat uneven, good and good enough, less brilliant. Granted, the radish-cauliflower crudités and pull-apart seeded rolls start us off with positive murmurs. (Only I am aware the olive baguettes are gone.) Indeed, yellowfin tuna carpaccio Niçoise style – with string beans, radish thins, black olive and tomato - sparkles with freshness, and the foie gras terrine with black mission figs is fine, as one would hope for $26.

Little lambs eat ivy or The Lambs Club salad with crispy egg dressing. Photo: Steven Richter.

        My neighbor is delighted with a big chunk of cod and Manila clams. But whole leaves of red and green lettuce with chopped egg dressing and the grilled octopus with turnips and lemongrass, from appetizers $12 to $26, are unremarkable. Roasted lamb saddle with a rectangle of shoulder meat, polenta cubes and wilted romaine is much ado but merely fine. The farm chicken – a whole breast and a crispy thigh - previously astonishingly moist, is good but not thrilling, and my halibut filet, cooked rarish as I asked, needs more oomph than market carrots can provide. Not even a hit of citrus tang from peeled lemon segments helps.

It’s The Lambs Club, so why isn’t the lamb saddle more aggressive?  Photo: Steven Richter.

        I taste my neighbor’s roasted loup de mer, but am not moved. Though a friend with a craving for meat pronounces the prime Delmonico steak excellent, to me, it’s superior meat indeed but lacking that essential steakhouse char.  I do love the “crispy” fingerlings, though they’re still not crispy and also Martha’s beans and greens with pancetta and pecorino, an $8 side that I assume is a bow to The Martha.

Lambs Club members in painting. Zakarian pops up and down all night. Photo: Steven Richter.

        My idea of deep-dish lemon meringue tart would be more lemony (what is this chamomile froth?). I need to dig to the bottom to get at the chocolate in the chocolate pot de crème. Given that profiteroles are ubiquitous on menus, I’d like mine dressed to the nines in a deep puddle of fudge.  But I definitely admire a sophisticated slice of honey pistachio cake. Pastry Chef Elishia V. Richards washes the cake with honey and mead, then naps it with candied pistachios in rum syrup and fromage blanc.  

Meringue moonscape on deep-dish lemon tart with chamomile broth. Photo: Steven Richter.

        As for the expense account, even with just one bottle of wine for our six we’re spending $200 a couple here, including that extra foie gras.  The bill gets a boost from the $18 tariff for The Lambs Club Cup, the house’s play on Pimm’s Cup. Margaret Zakarian explains the team’s vision of upscale couturier cocktails. Milk & Honey’s Sasha Petraske designed the cocktail list and drilled the bartenders. Bigger glasses make most pours a cocktail and a half, she says. And “premium” sodas by Fevertree are special, pure and expensive. “There are no cans, no soda guns.”  It’s a bar for connoisseurs who appreciate a hidden retreat and the view overlooking 44th Street and don’t mind climbing one flight.  Lazy pinch penny poseurs will find their tipples elsewhere.

         What really threatens The Lambs Club then is not its sanctum innerness or the $18 cocktails. It’s a new Zakarian trust, The National, an American grill, demanding the chef’s attention, due to open soon at The Benjamin Hotel – possibly November 1. But Zakarian has a knack for finding strong backup to keep him looking good when he’s distracted or off being a star. And Lambs’ executive chef Joel Dennis seemingly has no problem with absentee bosses. After all, he last worked for the wandering Alain Ducasse at Adour.

         About The Lambs: Although one of the city’s oldest theatrical organizations – Fred Astaire, W.C, Fields and John Barrymore were supposedly members -- it was often confused with the Friars and the Players, according to Wikipedia which credits “Earl Wilson’s New York,” for suggesting it was possibly George S. Kaufman who drew the distinction:

        “The Players are gentleman trying to be actors. The Lambs are actors trying to be gentlemen and the Friars are neither trying to be both.” As for Wilson, before Page Six in the Post, gossip was Earl Wilson.

         132 West 44th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. 212  997 5262 Breakfast Monday to Friday 7 to 10 am. Saturday and Sunday 7 to 11 am. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 am to 2:30 pm. Lunch Monday to Friday 11:45 am to 2 p.m. Dinner Monday to Thursday 5:30 to 11 pm. Friday and Saturday 5:30 to midnight. Sunday 5:30 to 10 pm.

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