This article was also published in the Financial Times.
In New York six months ago, Chris Corbin and Jeremy King from The Wolseley in London joined forces with Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair, to re-open The Monkey Bar in the Elysée Hotel, a restaurant that first saw the light of day in 1936.
Last month, and only six blocks away on the city’s chic Upper East Side, Caprice Holdings, the company that Corbin and King created but subsequently sold, has just opened Le Caprice as part of the Pierre Hotel facing Central Park.
Both teams seem to have taken the discretion that is their hallmark with them as it was not easy to get answers as to what differences these Londoners have encountered in their new, adopted city.
There were some, however. In the kitchen, English may be a common language but not a common denominator in describing how dishes are to be cooked. The scrambled eggs with smoked salmon may be runny in London, for example, but never in New York. New Yorkers, according to one seasoned hand, are less adventurous eaters but demand their bill (sorry, check) on the table even faster than those in London.
And one GM, just back from a month in New York and for whom welcoming his female guests as warmly as social mores permits is a particularly attractive part of his job, did add that maybe New York just had the edge in this regard. 'Ladies do dress more to outdo each other, over there, I believe', he said with a smile.
Then there is the customers’ very different perception of which tables are the best. In London the preference is for corner tables or those on banquettes where people can sit side by side. In New York it is for any table as close to the entrance as possible so that leading a customer through the dining restaurant to what they believe is ‘social Siberia’ is a most unpleasant duty. Hence the maxim in New York that ‘it is not what you eat but where you sit’ that is crucial to any restaurant’s success.
The Monkey Bar takes this principle to extreme. Its long, narrow, busy bar opens on to the reception area at the top of a short flight of stairs that reveal the two levels of tables below. And while those on the lower level are comfortable if cramped (and I was continually reminded of my mother’s maxim to eat with my elbows firmly tucked in), the best seats are obviously in the ten booths on the upper level with the colourful murals of Fats Waller, Isadora Duncan and many performers in the background.
These booths are, however, solely at Carter’s disposal and I was reliably informed the bookings list is sent to him every morning so that he can allocate them as he sees fit.
This divisive approach is definitely improved by the fact that Corbin and King have worked their usual magic in creating a sense of fun and excitement in such a confined arena. But our meal was punctuated by a series of small errors and then capped by one major one.
The slice of foie gras came seared on the outside, as described on the menu, but raw inside. When we sent it back the waiter returned with a second, properly cooked piece, after a few minutes and thanked us for our ‘profound patience’. The veal chop was not correctly trimmed. I had to point out to the waiter that the US$89 bottle of Termes Bodegas Numanthia he served was 2007 not 2006 as on the list (on which all the prices are inordinately high). Carter’s mother may have been a wonderful woman, but the butter tart named after her on the dessert menu definitely does not do her justice. And, finally, the ‘butcher’s paper’ on the tables, rather than the linen the location and prices demand, seem symptomatic of a management paying only lip service to the customer.
This was confirmed as we left. Standing at the top of the stairs was Larry Forgione, the chef who kick-started the renaissance of American cooking with ‘An American Place’ 25 years ago and is now working here as the obviously necessary consultant. Dressed in chef’s whites, he surveyed the room but as we walked right by him he chose to say nothing. No good night; no thank you for coming; no enquiry as to whether we had enjoyed the evening or whether I considered my US$350 for dinner for three had been well spent. And he certainly showed no interest in whether we will return. We won’t.
My old restaurateur friend welcomed the invitation to dinner at Le Caprice in New York (pictured) because a visit to the London original had always been a priority on his itinerary. Bangers and mash at Le Caprice followed by a stiff martini at Duke’s Hotel round the corner is his proven antidote to jet lag.
This particular dish does not appear on the current menu but there are plenty of old favourites that do on a menu laid out in exactly the same format. Risotto, pastas, steak tartare and fish and chips are all there with only the necessary language transpositions. Beetroots are beets and mushy peas are minted pea puree.
And while the kitchen has found its feet quickly, with a dry chicken alla Milanese the only disappointing dish among the nine we ate, it was encouraging to see the menu already offering daily specials, including an excellent shellfish bisque with tarragon crème fraîche.
But both the kitchen and the waiting staff will have to work very hard to match the elegance of the restaurant’s interior. Faced with the constraints of a long, narrow room with a low ceiling, designer Martin Brudnizki has used the strong black and white features of the London original, plus huge cash resources I am sure, to create a restaurant that exudes elegance and comfort.
And one where, even though some tables are further away from the front door than others, all customers are viewed as equals.
The Monkey Bar, email@example.com
Le Caprice, www.capriceny.com