Food

Scarlett Johansson Did Not Get 86’ed at the Standard Grill

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Around midnight at the Standard Grill, the dinner theater picks up steam. Everywhere we look, bare legs loom, a redwood forest of them in short skirts. I think I see Scarlett Johansson. My friend insists Henry Kissinger is at a table across the room (ah, but no). We really do spot John Stamos, and probably about a hundred uppity reality-TV stars. Several meaty men throw a drunk guy out onto the sidewalk. It’s a very loud, very hot skin parade—young and supple, or shot up with more botulism than a 100-year-old tin of peaches. Cozied up in a U-shaped booth, we gape at a giraffe-like woman wearing what appear to be denim panties, blue, transparent garter stockings, and a muff of fur around her neck. Meanwhile, a surprising amount of actual food is being consumed—much of it quite good, and none of it as expensive as it could be.

The newly opened Standard Grill hunkers on the ground floor of the Meatpacking District’s Standard Hotel, which rises on concrete feet to straddle the Highline. The hotel’s massive, stony silhouette recalls the Soviets, but the restaurant looks like something else completely—all antique brick and red leather banquettes, calculated but beautifully clubby. Dan Silverman heads up the kitchen, and the food runs along American bistro and grill lines: steaks, chops, burgers, terrific grilled fish, salads, and so on, all of it priced at least $5 less than you might expect. The costliest main goes for $25, and most are in the high teens.

The trick, though, is getting in to order the food in the first place. The restaurant claims to take reservations up to two weeks in advance. But several times, I called early in the day to see if I could get an 8:30 p.m. reservation for exactly two weeks later, and was told they were already booked up for “prime time.” Unless you have a connection, you are not likely to get a reservation between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. The solution? Walk in: Most tables in the front bar area are set aside for the plebes, as are the outside tables.

This becomes easier if you go earlier in the day, and earlier in the week. One relatively quiet Tuesday night at 7:15, we were immediately seated at a nice table overlooking the open kitchen in the spacious rear dining room usually restricted to reservation-holders. But at 7:30 on a Thursday night, we were told it would be an hour-and-a-half wait: There were four tables in front of us. So we went for a drink and came back about 45 minutes later to check in—only two parties ahead of us, excellent. Back again in 20 minutes, and, magically, four parties were ahead of us again. How did that happen? Uh, she “misspoke,” said the maître’d, who sounded like she took apology lessons from congressmen.

So you shouldn’t put your name on the list and go wait elsewhere. You have to stand your ground in front of the maître’d station, in the crush of people—kind of like when getting a pie at DiFara’s, except that everyone is freakishly tall and wearing clothes worth more money than I make in a year. But once you do get a table, the reward is unexpectedly generous: A bowl of small, pink-and-white baby radishes with fleur de sel, a large pile of bite-size hunks of Parmesan, and good bread and butter. Plus, each table receives a complimentary bowl of fried potato hunks with smoked paprika aioli—basically, really good patatas bravas.

When in doubt, order the fish. Among the many fine salads, you can’t do better than the seared squid—crisp-tentacled and tender, tossed with frisée, radishes, fennel, and bits of merguez sausage. The octopus in an appetizer also benefits from a char on the grill, served with sweet potatoes and chilies to liven up its mild brininess.

Best of all the main dishes is the grilled rainbow trout (from Sunburst Trout Farm in North Carolina, which uses no animal products in its feed). The whole fish arrives butterflied and filleted, but with the head left on, so you can fork out the tiny cheeks. It’s grilled beautifully—the skin charred just enough that it transforms into something smoky and crisp, but not so much that it obscures the flavor of the fish. The flesh tastes mild and moist, and gets a boost from the pine nut–currant relish on the side. It’s not easy to do something so simple so well. Likewise, summery lobster Louis—a take on the classic crab salad dressed in a tangy, mayo-based sauce—features perfectly cooked, chilled lobster meat with butter lettuce, roasted peppers, and green olives.

The Standard Grill will never be mistaken for a restaurant with real soul, but it sets itself apart by being smart and skillful. You could bring your parents for a nice steak, though it would also please your friend from L.A. who wants to people-watch and drink champagne. The menu gives vegetarians plenty to choose from, including several excellent greenmarket-y salads and a wonderful main dish of sweet pea ravioli with pistachios and mint. Those who follow a strict daily regime of saturated animal fats should check out the Berkshire pork chop, every inch of it almost preternaturally juicy and so rich that it reminds me of char sui.

That’s not to say that the restaurant doesn’t have work to do. The “million-dollar roast chicken” for two, while a bargain at $32, does not quite taste like the promised payload, suffering from dry, sunken breasts—some of the clientele could probably recommend a good plastic surgeon. The sides are hit-and-miss: The candy-stripe beets look pretty, but taste insipid from lack of seasoning. Potato-corn pancakes with béarnaise have a limp, soggy texture that brings to mind microwave pancakes.

And the wine list is not nearly as affordable as the food. The restaurant could have taken a page from Aldea, a similarly affordable high-end spot, which offers 18 bottles under $30. Here, bottles start in the upper $30s. Tasting from the low end of the list, the $42 Bret Brothers Mâcon-Villages cuvée, a white Burgundy, was creamy and delicious. Internet research revealed that this wine is marked up by 100 percent—not bad, as restaurants go. But why not add a few less expensive options? We can’t all afford denim panties and pricy vino.

sdigregorio@villagevoice.com

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