February 3, 2013 | BITE: My Journal

Bill’s Food & Drink: Feeding the Hoi Polloi

 

It looks a mess but these baked shells with eggplant are marvelous, enough for 2 to share.

It looks a mess but these baked shells with eggplant are marvelous, enough for 2 to share.

          I liked chef John DeLucie’s food at The Lion and the food coming out of chef de cuisine Jason Hall’s kitchen at Crown, once I could hear again after an evening of torturous din. But frankly, I wasn’t expecting much at Bill’s Food & Drink.  Just more of the same.


The Turn-of-the-Century décor is familiar, and handsome, too.

          Indeed, Bill’s looks as if it came from the same set designer: turn of the century implications, dark walls with animals both taxidermied and carved in wood, photographs you can buy by the yard, even a step-down entrance like The Lion’s, where a painted metal jockey stands welcome. Shades of “21.”


Bill’s gets a late-arriving Saturday night crowd to the upstairs dining parlor.

          For some reason, though the Prohibition-era speakeasy Bill’s Gay Nineties had flourished in this townhouse on East 54th street for more than a hundred years, I’d never been there. Still, I’m always sad when another fixture of old New York fades away.  Perhaps I wasn’t even hoping for dazzle from the new Bill’s. It all seemed too agile, too aggressive, too fast, too corporate, too if-Daniel-can-multiply-why-can’t-we.


I’m instantly seduced by Chef Jason Hall’s thick and luscious Tuscan ribollita soup.

          To cram 85 seats into the second floor dining room must have taken Macy’s most senior shoe salesman. Our tiny table is pressed against the fireplace, where a gathering of fat candles take the place of a real fire. Executive floorwalkers occasionally speed walk by as if someone is perishing from lack of a little extra fuss. And every waiter or busboy passing through brushes against my shoulder or mashes into my arm. 


The gingerbread Sazerac, adapted from an 1878 recipe, sweet and gentle.

          Certainly it is a bit arrogant that DeLucie doesn’t even pretend to be all that much involved, never emerging in whites at our earliest visit, where I am recognized. Nor does he show up when I use my name to get a table four nights later. Maybe he thinks the midtown crowd is not “his people.” That might explain the giant portions and straightforward cooking. The waiter warns me a dish might be spicy, as if spicy could scare me.

 

The housemade country sausage is like a savory meatloaf; also, enough for two.

          Perhaps the kitchen is a bit slow. Yes, with entrees $27 to $46 (and a 35-day prime porterhouse $125 for two), the two of us rack up a toll of $120 per person with just two drinks. At $7 for a tiny bottle, the Pellegrino is priced like Estee Lauder perfume. But I am so impressed by dinner, I can’t wait to come back to taste more. 

          It is the marvelous lemony ribollita soup that hooks me first. Thick with kale and bread, it’s a generous portion. I force myself to stop eating so I can taste my companion’s excellent house-made country sausage on mustardy crushed potatoes. Sausage would never be my appetizer choice, but this savory little meatloaf paired with braised red cabbage could be a budget entree (at just $10) or a starter to share.


Nantucket bay scallops are carefully cooked just till golden and served with cauliflower.

          We had asked to split the $37 entrée of Nantucket bay scallops and then to share a steak. But with such hefty appetizers, the golden-glazed seafood nubbins in a sweet dream of butter with two kinds of cauliflower, now seems more than enough to eat.


The choose-you-knife gimmick that almost killed Alain Ducasse is revived here.

          At that point, we try to cancel the 18 oz. Delmonico steak we’d planned to divide.  But the waiter reports it’s already on the fire. He returns brandishing a leather case, and flinging it open, reveals: A choice of knives.  My friend and I are stunned. I can’t suppress a giggle. Doesn’t anyone here remember how asking guests to choose a knife, and then to choose a pen to sign the check almost got Alain Ducasse laughed out of town?  She chooses. I follow. A lot of fuss, if you ask me, for a knife that looks like the classic Laguiole but isn’t.

 

The 28-day-aged Delmonico steak is glazed with its own fat and a bordelaise sauce.

          What really counts, after all, is that the steak is fabulous. Our server promised this $52, 28-day-aged chunk of sirloin would be delivered half rare and half medium rare. And somehow it is. I can only manage one scarlet, caramelized slice, I am sure. But mesmerized by meaty and juicy perfection from a basting in its own horseradish-and-garlic-touched fat, I cannot resist a second thick cut. The woman opposite me forgets she isn’t hungry either.


The intensity of the chocolate makes this skillet cake irrsisitible.

          Will we skip dessert? My friend confides that she has never in her long life refused dessert. And once, judging a professional dessert competition, she tasted 40. Tonight, she barely acknowledges the crumble-topped pear and currant crisp -- not too sweet, pears not too cooked.  She immediately encircles the chocolate skillet cake --“not a melting cake,” the waiter said, “but a real cake.”

 

The kitchen sends out an extra, this soft serve ice cream with a tiny cone on top.

          I witness flights of eyebrows and gasps. And finally I force my fork into the iron skillet. The dark rolling hill begins with the delicious shock of superior chocolate hiding nuggety chips, with a barely perceptible wave of crème Anglaise riding on top. We take turns attacking. Still, there is enough to take home for her breakfast. I like that she disdains one of the candy-covered malt balls that come with the check. So elegant. I do not.

 

Slightly too-cooked chicken is a dish for anyone afraid of food.

          It’s an icy evening, with a late-arriving crowd, and only a few frenzied huddles of confused busboys the next Saturday. My dinner mate and I have time to ponder the house’s musical philosophy.  Norah Jones, Jack Johnson, Adele, jazz and a run of Motown. Something for everyone.

          My gingerbread Sazerac is boozy, as the waiter promised, but rises only two inches high in its small tumbler. “Do you think someone drank half on the way to our table?” I ask.  He smiles.  No answer.  But at least our small table is out of the crowded kitchen flight path.

 
Brilliantly caramelized and full of flavor. Still, I wish we’d ask for the bacon chop rarish.

          The organic chicken is surprisingly bland, a dish with a scattering of root vegetables, perfect for someone who is afraid of food. And I wish my guest had asked for her pork chop “rarish.”  The mammoth mustard-swathed beauty comes in a London butcher cut called a “bacon chop” because it includes a strip of the pig’s belly. But alas, it’s dryer and tougher than it might have been, had we specified “very pink.” 

 

The fresh tang of blood orange spikes tuna tartare on fennel.

          But my pal’s largish serving of yellowfin tuna crudo, marinated in blood orange and paired with baby fennel, is spritely and enough for two. I’m wild about my Conchiglie al Forno, where baked eggplant, San Marzano tomatoes, and smoked scamorza cheese almost overwhelm big pasta shells in an outsize bowl. It’s messy and lush, wonderful for a mac’n’cheese maniac like me. The sea-salted fries in a paper cone are top notch, too.

 
It’s not chocolate, but the toffee pudding is sticky and not too sweet.

          The sticky toffee pudding sprinkled with sweet dark rum comes in a black iron baking dish, just like the world class chocolate cake. Nice enough, not too sweet. Don’t burn your hand. Next time, you’ll remember to order the chocolate.

          There could be a next time for me. I might even find a seat at a bar table downstairs for another round with the savory baked eggplant and shells. I’ll hope for consistency and a rethinking of the soggy chicken. Underestimating the taste of the public worked for Barnum, but I’m not sure it’s still key to upscale dining, even in Midtown.

57 East 54th Street between Madison and Park Avenues. 212 518 2727.  Dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 11 pm, Friday and Saturday till midnight.

 

Photographs may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.

 

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