Just as sitting ringside or courtside has always been the dream of boxing buffs and hoop mavens, astute foodies also yearn to be near the center of things. This longing has spawned open-door policies and tables in busy restaurant kitchens where diners pay a premium to sup amid agitated expediters and scurrying waiters. As a lover of food and a student of the lively arts, I am intrigued by the idea of this new dinner theater that is half performance, half gladiatorial combat between man and meat, but have always considered the heat and bustle of a working kitchen lacking in necessary illusion. Now Beacon, chef Waldy Malouf's new Midtown venture, solves my problem by creating the perfect stage setting-a multilevel dining room anchored by an open service counter that he commands like a conductor-which will probably become the Teatro Farnese for a generation of new restaurants.
On my first visit, seated on the upper level at the front of the restaurant, I was struck by the way the levels provided a number of small, almost cozy dining spaces within the crisp, clean lines of the room. Then the menu, which is the same for lunch and dinner, arrived like houselights lowering and I was lost in appetizingly simple wood-grilled specialties like a salad of arugula with roasted fingerlings ($8) where the large leaves of peppery greens were combined with thin slices of meaty potato and unexpected chips. Although they arrived without fanfare, my friend's plump roasted oysters with shallots ($12) were a showstopper - we just had to savor their aroma as they arrived sizzling on a bed of hot rock salt. A light eater, she grazed on a second appetizer of roasted artichokes with asparagus ($10), enjoying the contrast of slight char with the light flavors. I felt the need for heartier fare and scarfed down the delightfully chewy Argentinean ranch-grazed rib eye that had me imagining I could taste pampas grass. The maestro was distant from where I was sitting, but his creative hand was evident.
The spot's theatricality came to the fore, however, on an evening visit, when an observant manager spotted my restaurateur friend and upgraded our party of three's seating to a prime table amid the swells, front row center. Malouf dominated the culinary podium, nodding here and gesturing there. One friend's thick cudgel of a veal chop topped with woodsy chanterelles in a puddle of aromatic jus flavored with the piquancy of green peppercorns ($30) was a thrilling second-act turn to our salads, as masculine as a baritone solo, while the other's roasted trout topped with a verdant mix of shallots and chervil ($25) proved as ethereally delicate as an ingenue. My roast suckling pig with a mole-inspired cumin and bitter chocolate rub ($28) came complete with a rib for gnawing and a big ole piece of cracklin' to satisfy the Southerner in me. It rated a sitting ovation complete with bravos. Desserts demanded brio, and the house soufflés-chocolate chip, mixed berry, and bourbon pecan ($10)-provided a lushly satisfying finale. It wasn't inexpensive, but with the price of tickets these days, it may just be the best theater bargain in town.
25 West 56th Street, 332-0500.
Lunch Monday to Friday 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. Dinner Monday to Thursday 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Major credit cards.
Limited wheelchair access.
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