Waldy's World As the city teems with bright, ambitious young chefs pushing the envelope of New American cuisine, a miniature backlash of sorts has begun to manifest itself among the culinary establishment's old guard. Cowed, perhaps, by the magnitude of the innovation occurring all around them?mint "love letters" at Babbo; raw clams at Pop; lobster in a foam of carrot juice and roe at Union Pacific, etc., etc.?certain of the chefs who fomented the culinary revolution we're now enjoying have decided to pull back from the fray.
The two I'm thinking of are Larry Forgione and Waldy Malouf, both men closely associated with the entire concept of New American cuisine, and in particular its insistence on the freshest ingredients, from local providers when possible. Both have recently opened new restaurants that return to the most basic of American dishes?simply grilled or roasted meat and fish, mostly?in preparations devoid of artifice or complexity.
In the world of cuisine, "simple" and "easy" are not synonymous. To the contrary, most chefs would agree that the simpler a dish is, the more difficult it can be to do well. In this context, the decision to create an unambitious menu can actually be seen as an ambitious undertaking. And while Forgione still has some work to do at his middling Murray Hill joint, Rosehill, Waldy Malouf (acclaimed for transforming the once-heinous cuisine at the now-defunct Rainbow Room) has found, in the new restaurant Beacon, a perfect stage on which to demonstrate his mastery of the simple, difficult art of open-fire cooking.
The owners have put $3 million into the design of Beacon, which comes off as swank and classic with its unadorned white walls and polished wood floors, leather banquettes and muted lighting from wood-hued, shaded chandeliers. The sprawling restaurant comprises, in addition to the substantial bar area, four separate dining areas with a total capacity of 200. The main dining room, which offers see-and-be-seen seating for around 60, is connected via two elegant, curved staircases to two upstairs dining areas: an intimate, casual mezzanine overlooking the main room, and a separate, large hall that can be booked for private parties.
Down a flight of stairs from the main dining room, there's more seating flanking the huge, open kitchen, which is impressive enough to merit a visit no matter where in the restaurant you're seated. The view boasts a wealth of impressive equipment, ranging from a terra-cotta hearth fronting the eight-foot wood-burning oven/grill to a vertical rotisserie for spit-roasting poultry, to an in-house bakery. More casual than the upper dining room, the area fronting the sunken kitchen seems the perfect spot for enjoying the warmth of Malouf's food on a chilly fall evening.
Menu descriptions are pithy: "Wood Roasted Chop, green peppercorns and chanterelles... Slow Roasted Baby Lamb, mint and yellow peppers... Lobster Soup (no cream)." Not everything on the menu is wood-fired, but think twice before you stray from the theme: Malouf's wood-oven cooking technique infuses the ingredients that enter his hearth with warm, rich, wood-smoke flavor. This is true even of delicate oysters, which Malouf roasts in a sauce of shallots and clarified butter. However, only the larger, meatier oysters really benefit from the treatment, and we got a few small ones.
Sausage mixed grill offers four different links, including on our visit a spicy merguez and a surprisingly flavorful chorizo, grilled until permeated with smoke flavor but still juicy inside, and served with a simple apple julienne and toast points. The grill works a similar, soulful effect on squid and baby octopus, which take on an earthy flavor and a hint of char, but retain their meaty, slightly resilient texture. Our one nonwood-oven selection, the above-referenced creamless lobster soup, proved a remarkably rich broth, compromised somewhat by little pieces of celery, and that, we felt, could have stood a drop or two of cream in place of whatever starchy thickening agent was used.
Beacon offers five different salad options, each dressed with the same assertive herb vinaigrette, and you get to choose your own cheese. I opted for grilled endive and apple with Roquefort, and was disappointed to discover only a single leaf of grilled endive buried beneath a pile of raw leaves. I returned the dish, insisting on grilled endive, and received in return a salad in which the proportions had been corrected to 50-50, grilled vs. raw, but in which all of the ingredients, including the grilled endive, were, inexcusably, chilled.
Roasted wild striped bass is among the best pieces of fish I've eaten in New York; it tasted as if it had been pulled from the water mere minutes before being filleted, wood-roasted and served in an exceedingly mild broth of oregano and verjus. Similarly, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better rib eye than the Argentine ranch-grazed steak, grilled until crusty and slightly charred outside and dripping with juice, and served with onion herb relish. Tender but with a pleasing chewiness and suffused with grassy, gamy flavor, the meat makes a compelling argument against abandoning carnivorousness entirely.
Not so the wood-roasted triple lamb chop (three individual lamb chops, actually), although even here the fault lay not with the wood-grilling, which worked what magic it could, but with the meat itself, which was all but flavor-free. (To put it another way: If you don't like the flavor of lamb, you would have loved these chops.) And roast suckling pig, despite an admirable wood-roasting that left the skin crisp and flavorful and the meaty ribs tender and succulent, never cohered as a dish. Alone, the meat was too mild, requiring some additional seasoning (or perhaps an hour or two in a smoker), but the thick mole-like chocolate-chili sauce provided on the side totally overwhelmed what flavor the meat had. Entrees come with a selection of forgettable sides, including inexcusably bland (for a place with a wood grill) and boring roasted vegetables, and a way-too-salty, ordinary-tasting, miniature potato gratin.
For dessert, we liked the looks of the little souffles that were making their way around the dining room (chocolate chip, mixed berry or bourbon-pecan), although we couldn't complain about our choices: super-thick, almost chewy honey-lemon custard beneath a candy-red puddle of sauce made from blood orange and muscat; and some supernally rich vanilla ice cream (beneath some mightily disappointing chocolate sauce). Don't overlook the small list of dessert wines by the glass, which includes a perky muscat and a more sultry, port-scented Tokay. (There's also a half bottle of D'Yquem '95, at $275, if you're eating here because Patroon was booked.)
Despite a couple of misfires among the entrees, I feel comfortable in recommending Beacon as a bastion of skillful simplicity in a city gone culinarily baroque. You won't experience the shock of the new, but Malouf's touch with the grill ensures that you'll happily reacquaint yourself with the familiar. Service is friendly and fairly attentive, and despite the stylish digs, Beacon comes off as welcoming and unaffected. (Due in part to the fact that, in general, stylish, affected people don't eat here. It's a lot of midlevel execs and even?God forbid!?families.) The restaurant's open for lunch Monday-Friday, dinner Monday-Saturday. Appetizers go for $8-$14 and entrees run $19-$32. ($52 buys you a t-bone for two. I may be back for that.) Reservations suggested.
With this column, I'll be going on a leave of absence from NYPress to pursue a couple of other projects and lose a little of the weight I gained over the last five years of reviewing. I know that restaurant reviews, as a rule, do not generate a huge amount of reader mail ("Dear Editors: I must vehemently dispute Mr. Bines' characterization of the pork chop at Fabrizio's..."). Still, I'm frequently curious about who reads the column, what they take from it and how it might be improved, and I'd love to get some feedback. I can be reached at email@example.com.