March 10, 2008 | BITE: My Journal

Eighty One Banks on Truffles and Chicken Wings

 Ed Brown has built a dream team in a dream kitchen at Eighty One. Photo: Steven Richter
 Ed Brown has built a dream team in a dream kitchen at Eighty One. Photo: Steven Richter

        It is the day after the market dove down the drain after unexpectedly traumatic new jobless tallies…a day the last financial optimists finally choked on the “R” word.  Ed Brown and his 32 investors in the $3.25 million “luxury-casual” Eighty One are looking to their treasury of black truffles and private label Osetra caviar to ride out the storm.  For now, the 110 seats, plus a dozen tall ivory-leather chairs at the bar are in healthy rotation. Neighborhood affluents and the usual food-centric first-nighters are checking in, leaving $100 or so a person (all included) without a whimper.

        In this metropolis of unabashed wealth, where there are not enough high-end apartments to meet the demand as foreclosures panic the middle class, it may be that the unbridled rich will come to consider Ed Brown’s sensational black truffled rigatoni with its foie gras emulsion the best perker-upper you can buy without a prescription. The world has changed since the day Brown started planning his solo act after a long, solid tenure at Restaurant Associates but his focus remains the same: pedigreed products, pampered birds and pigs, dishes that are civilized and soulful in a casual Central Park West retreat for grownups.

        Even the obligatory cocktail creativity has a grownup edge.  Campari saves the “81” from sparkling moscato sweetness. The layered rums of Rum Ron Rhum sprinkled with nutmeg has a serious and seriously delicious jolt.  Blood orange juice updates the Ramos Fizz.

        What seems to give us comfort right now is bacon and eggs – affluent eaters in long term cholesterol denial like me will love a
Farm egg on boutique leeks. Photo: Steven Richter
sensational poached hen egg on toasted brioche with “milk fed Vermont” veal sweetbreads and trotters or Brown’s expert rendition of the inevitable crisp skin Berkshire pork belly, perched here on a swamp of Beluga lentils with a bowl of sensational salad alongside to cut the richness.  The menu is larded with credentials, not as exhausting as The River Café was in its earliest heyday, but…enough.   Marinated Jones Farm leeks. Jones Farm?  Who cares?  What seduces the pampered mouth will be that perfect poached egg spreading its yolky cloak on meticulously al dente poached leeks, with a black truffle tartine alongside, as elegant as a vintage cocktail hat.

        Tonight’s hamachi with baby clams pil pil (in olive oil with garlic, parsley and some chili heat) is more successful than mealy cod in black bean and sake wine broth with couscous and shallot crisps, perhaps because the hamachi is actually “rarish” as requested.  The evening’s special squab with salsify is deliciously rare too. A side dish of potato fritters and squab liver crostini add to the sense of luxury, but I would have preferred it if the squab's skin was caramelized.

        What is good at Eighty One is never shocking or confrontational.  Only the relaxed disorder of the main course menu - items $29 - $39 - usually divided on most restaurant menus into “from the sea” and “from the land” land seems quirky. “I guess I just listed them in the order the ideas came to me,” Brown admits.  Casco Bay cod precedes Angus sirloin followed by lobster stuffed black bass and Label Rouge chicken. His one concession to price point anxiety is a category called “Tasting Collection,” half a dozen high ticket offerings like tonight’s luscious pumpkin risotto with braised chicken, Austrian pumpkin oil and pepitas, that might serve as appetizer, middle course, entrée or even dinner.  This lets your first glance fall on the mostly less expensive appetizers: smoked cod chowder, intense fennel and parsley soup with frog’s legs in little crisps, and baby Montauk calamari à la plancha, with smoked paprika on potato sauce with garlic chips.

Splendid hamachi with baby clams cooked in olive oil pil pil style. Photo: Steven Richter. 

        Yes, although I did not make the reservation, I’ve been recognized at the door, and no surprise - Brown fields his most irresistible seduction – small bowls of artisanal rigatoni with foie gras and a generous bruising of black truffle. It’s one of those dishes that provoke uncontrollable murmurs and mewings.  If the pasta were any more al dente it would be undercooked.

        The four of us are not really in good enough shape to appreciate pastry chef John Miele’s efforts with Meyer lemon frozen soufflé or the splendid bourbon banana bread pudding with malted milk gelato, and chocolate butterscotch. But…we must taste dessert anyway.  It’s my job.  A plate with five little petit fours appears.  I can usually resuscitate my enthusiasm for truffles and gels.

        “Are we supposed to duel each other for that raspberry chocolate?” I ask.

        “I’ll bring another dish,” our server offers.

        “Doesn’t she see we're four people?" I mutter as she exits. “In some crowds this could end friendships.”  It’s just a joke…sort of.

        I wish I could say I love the design. The cozy lounge just inside the entrance with its treasure of color field paintings from the collection of an investor could be a sitting room in the Beresford around the corner and the private dining space has some verve, but the main room itself is a collection of expensive gestures with no real excitement – the wall of wine, the tufted crimson velour banquettes, a splash of orchids. How grownup must we be?

        Brown - a sweet man who restaurant folks love - has many fans in this zip code and beyond.  All he needs to fill the house are well-heeled locals who usually eat at home or zoom to dinner downtown in darkened limos and will be thrilled to find ambitious food at walking distance just across from the Planetarium, especially when John Fraser’s Dovetail is fully booked. This is indeed, the new Upper West Side.  Till deal money and bonuses bloom again, Ed Brown is hoping that, driven to give up the chauffeur or a few trips on the private jet or that fourth house in Cancun, Upper West Siders will consider dinner a luxury they can always afford.

45 West 81st. Now Closed.