The service matches the atmosphere. A hostess showed my friend and me to a table right in front of the picture windows. My first thought was, "How did we score this?" (And, no, it wasn't because I was made as a critic; I'm quite sure I escaped notice.) But nearly every party in the restaurant enjoyed an exquisite sightline. Couples sat side-by-side against a nearby banquet and on the tier above us, facing out toward the spectacle. Our server was the model of a modern fine-dining professional: doting but not obsequious, patient when we took too long to decide on cocktails, smooth and accurate with every question about the food we lobbed at her.
Our meal, like the ambience, had a certain timelessness—and the cooking that attempted to look forward faltered. Last decade, brothers Brian and Mark Canlis began taking over day-to-day operations from their parents, Chris and Alice, who ran the business after patriarch Peter Canlis passed away in 1977. The siblings brought aboard Jason Franey as executive chef in 2008. Franey worked as Daniel Humm's sous chef at Manhattan's Eleven Madison Park, and the Canlises intended him to push the menu in more progressive directions. But it's always dicey to mess with a formula rooted in multigenerational traditions.
Dinner skewed tame. We had the choice of ordering three- or four-course meals with options in every category (starters, entrees, desserts), or a set seven-course chef's tasting menu that required both of us to order it. In hindsight, the tasting menu—with dishes that night like matsutake mushrooms with chicken liver mousse, Sauternes, and purslane—would have likely delivered more modernism. The regular menu read docile and familiar: heirloom tomato salad with mozzarella, watermelon, and arugula; butternut squash with brown butter and sage; lamb with potato rösti and carrots. Continental classics filled out the offerings, and I have a soft spot for well-executed vintage dishes, so we largely charged ahead on that path.
Our server trundled over a cart to prepare a salad tableside: She tossed romaine in a wooden bowl with bacon, cherry tomatoes, scallions, and grated cheese in a lemony olive oil-egg dressing. Fresh mint added a distinctive glint to this Americana charmer. Prawns splayed in a tidy row were dappled with a sauce of vermouth, lime, and a whisper of garlic. Wagyu New York strip delivered plenty of char and sanguine savor. We ordered its faithful chophouse companion alongside: twice-baked mashed potatoes, fluffy with sour cream and riddled with more bacon. This was Continental without the theatrical frisson of a place like La Grenouille, but it was a spread that my four-year-old nephew or my 88-year-old grandmother would equally appreciate. At a standard-bearer for celebrations, approachability counts.
The benchmarks impressed more than two modish savories: overcooked halibut in a wan tomato fondue and pork cheek lolling in a tangy, one-note corn puree. Given the broad appeal, would it be out of place for at least a couple of dishes on the basic menu to surprise the more jaded palates among the clientele? Would it be too outré for the kitchen to explore a recipe or two that harkens to the Canlis family's Greek heritage?
Dessert sparked the meal's most striking pyrotechnics. The pastry team, led by Baruch Ellsworth, furnished a billowy Grand Marnier soufflé, textbook down to the crème anglaise on the side. But a reimagined mille-feuille also brought the wow factor: It was more akin to a candy bar with creamy layers of vanilla, milk chocolate, and banana, surrounded by fillips like crumbled cookie and roasted banana ice cream. Its many elements coalesced. We were comforted but also energized by the creativity. For a fine dining survivor to remain current, more of the meal should make us feel as engaged.
Restaurant Editor Bill Addison is traveling to chronicle what's happening in America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back at the end of the year to find out which restaurants made the cut.