With Augustine and Fowler & Wells, Two Haute-Cuisine Heavyweights Swing for the FiDi Fences
Hotel restaurants are tricky endeavors to get right no matter the setting, but especially when they're built into properties with history. The decisions of what exactly to mine for inspiration, and how much or how little to reach back, stylistically speaking, into the murky ether of nostalgia, can be vexing ones. So, naturally, when the Beekman opened in the renovated husk of the circa-1883 Temple Court building, observers were curious to know what the two incoming culinary big shots — legendary downtown restaurateur Keith McNally and celebrity chef and Craft honcho Tom Colicchio — would cook up.
Augustine and Fowler & Wells, their respective highly anticipated spots, opened a few weeks apart last fall, injecting the hotel's ground floor with enough electric joie de vivre to support the whole nine-story edifice. That feeling hasn't let up, either. The landmarked financial-district structure is home to one of the most riveting interiors in the five boroughs, which, in a case of ironic bureaucratic indifference, sat boarded up and hidden from view for more than seven decades. Colicchio, who took the larger of the two spaces for his first Manhattan restaurant in six years, reaps the architectural rewards: His restaurant's lobby bar occupies the Beekman's star attraction, a breathtaking, depth-perception-challenging atrium lined with cast-iron railings and capped with a massive pyramidal skylight. It's unlike any of the Top Chef majordomo's other venues, blending its unique, antique aesthetic with a modern New American menu.
Unless you absolutely must sup like a bigwig on Colicchio and executive chef Bryan Hunt's $135 tasting menu in the dining room proper — which warrants the splurge and rolls deep with items like chestnut-accented venison wellington offset by tart huckleberries — I'd urge you to stay with the imbibers. Nestling in to one of Fowler & Wells's supremely comfy lounge chairs, amid a pulse-quickening vortex of old-world opulence and the fresh exuberance of renovation, offers a matchless metropolitan setting for a meal — even at breakfast, when natural light pours in through the roof to illuminate hearty plates of porchetta and braised-pastrami polenta.
Not that the brick-and-stained-glass-paneled main room isn't a fine backdrop for enjoying stylish appetizers such as chestnut agnolotti ($29) hidden under celeriac foam and shaved black truffles. Its clubby atmosphere is perfectly suited for showy dishes like twisted bundles of rabbit loin schnitzel and hot-smoked monkfish (both $39) plunked into risotto-like ancient grains stained red from beet juice and sauced tableside with caviar-dotted cream. But with the à la carte menu available in both areas, my vote's for the atrium, especially when partaking of pastry chef Abby Swain's eye-catching desserts, like the disk of blood-orange parfait ($14) she drizzles with olive oil and cleverly pairs with a dice of mild Sicilian Castelvetrano olives.
While the cooking overwhelmingly matches the hotel's impressive surroundings, my sole gripe with Fowler & Wells lies in its name, which comes from a pair of nineteenth-century phrenologists who had an office in the building; phrenologists also lend their names to the proprietary cocktails at the Fowler & Wells bar. Meanwhile, phrenology, a pseudoscience that purported to divine personality traits via skull measurements, has an unsavory, racially charged history (see Django Unchained). Even though the backstory isn't exactly advertised, it's an interesting choice, and one that deviates somewhat from Colicchio's status as a socially conscious thought leader of the chef community. If he'd named the restaurant after a couple of zany eugenicists, we'd be having the same conversation.
Like its older siblings Balthazar and Cherche Midi, Augustine seems stuck in time and place, in a dimension controlled solely by McNally, its detail-obsessed creator. The 65-year-old Brit has shown a knack for cultivating a very specific kind of dressed-down, Francophile sophistication. Here he steers clear of any complicated historical references — and knocks it out of the park. Separate from the hotel's base of operations, it feels more tucked away and intimate than Fowler & Wells. Enter from the street or through a side door in the hotel's atrium, and immediately you're basking in the pale-golden glow of wrought-iron chandeliers reflecting off the deep-set dining room's distressed floral tiles and looming mirrors. The small bar up front whirs with action, making it a great place to take down chefs Daniel Parilla and Shane McBride's $27 whiskey burger, which is enrobed in a melty smoosh of Comté cheese and booze-deglazed onions and even comes with a shot of the hard stuff on the side. Girded by a sturdy onion-flecked potato roll and served with superlative fries, it bests McNally's most famous pedigreed patty, the Minetta Tavern Black Label burger.
In a formal touch, meals begin with an amuse-bouche, like faultless salty ham and caviar gougères. From there you can launch right into luxe, spicy Japanese citrus–dashed beef tartare and puffy gruyère-parmesan soufflés suffused with horseradish cream, or play it virtuously with a range of salads, including an Eighties-inspired tower of Boston lettuce splashed with buttermilk dressing. Above all, however, simplicity rules, from liberally seasoned steak-frites to rotisserie chicken alongside potato purée and crisp watercress, though the kitchen aces fussy compositions of broiled lobster heaped with root vegetables and beautifully pink pigeon sitting in its liver and propped against an orb of foie-gras-and-truffle-stuffed cabbage. This is brasserie cooking that extends across generations.
Desserts ($13) embrace a similarly buttoned-up premise. Opt for the multilayered, deeply browned apple tatin with a scoop of salted caramel ice cream, or the pontoon of a mille-feuille that mingles poached pears, macerated prunes, and dense pastry cream imbued with just enough Armagnac. Like so much else at Augustine, they'll help you lose your temporal bearings.
Fowler & Wells
5 Beekman Street
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