The people watching is prime at Morrell Wine Bar & Café, right across the street from the front paw of Jeffrey Koons’s puppy in Rockefeller Center—enough camera-laden, gingham-polyestered tourists gawking to ensure natives a sense of superiority, and enough slick Gothamites and sleek continentals to afford the outlanders something to gape at. Offering one of New York’s few opportunities for alfresco dining on a sidewalk broad enough to guarantee that carbon monoxide won’t overwhelm sodium chloride, Morrell’s adds a New York edge to the best of bistro. The food is as on target as the place. There’s something at Morrell’s for everyone.
The continentals will enjoy the café charm, the extensive wine list, and a menu that celebrates the grape right up to the inspired flight of ice creams prepared from dessert wines ($12), where the characteristics of each wine triumph over the cool cream: musky muscat, densely sweet sauternes, and sherrylike vin santo. Metropolitans will enjoy the conceit of dishes like tartar times three ($16), an appetizer plate of three mixes of raw fish—a perfectly fine tuna laced with wasabi, a silky salmon with a light mayo, and a cunning mince of diver scallops, where the slippery sea tang of the shellfish is punctuated with the nutty crunch of black sesame seeds. Sushi lovers will delight in the nori-wrapped tuna ($21), lightly seared with a mess of somen noodles mined with shiitakes and water chestnuts and a serving of pickled pink ginger that looked for all the world like wild orchid petals.
Rustics can act like model wannabes and nibble delicately on a Bibb and Boston lettuce salad filled with segments of citrusy sweet ruby grapefruit, heated up with shaved red onion, and finished with a crumble of goat cheese ($10). Or they can return in the evening to chow down on a weather-defying portion of molasses-braised short ribs ($27) that, while fork-tender and delicious with their canelike undertaste, were too unseasonally heavy for me.
Me, I’ll just stick to the luncheon Cobb salad ($17). I don’t recall when I first tasted this dish, but the winning combination of lettuce, chopped chicken, hard-boiled eggs, avocado, tomatoes, scallions, watercress, cheddar, and more, sprinkled with crisp bacon bits and crumbled blue cheese, was love at first bite. I didn’t know that it was made famous by Hollywood’s Brown Derby in the 1920s, yet I somehow connected it with ladies’ tea shops and other spots likely to have pink-and-green Dorothy Draper-esque decor. With its hefty topping of fried pig and cheese, it was an early victim of the low-cholesterol and antiswine movements. Now, miraculously, it’s back, bacon bits intact, served in perfectly Balkanized rows of egg slices, sun-ripened summer tomato, creamy avocado, poached chicken breast (the only part a true lady will eat!), and crisp, lean bacon bits atop a bed of romaine. The one at Morrell’s wasn’t the textbook Cobb, and I missed the blue cheese dressing. So I ordered extra bacon, requested Gorgonzola from the kitchen, where it waited to sauce another dish, and hunkered down, delighted that this spot with something for everyone could please me too.