At 8 o’clock on a Saturday night, the Guggenheim’s the Wright is as hopping as it’s ever going to be, each table filled with polished over-50 Upper East Siders and a smattering of out-of-towners. The restaurant’s bright white surfaces curve and bend, echoing Frank Lloyd Wright’s museum design, and the flame-colored slats lining one wall are an art installation meant to evoke horizons. From the dark street outside, the smallish, 58-seat spot looks like a glowing pod. I think the interior is entertaining and rather beautiful—at least it’s not another place covered in reclaimed wood, pre-Prohibition sconces, and pussy willows. My husband feels like he’s in a “movie about the future,” and not in a good way. There’s no accounting for taste.
The Wright opened a few months ago, headed by chef Rodolfo Contreras, a native of Mexico City who has been in the kitchen for nearly his whole life, most recently under David Bouley. It’s odd that, until now, New York museums have not attempted to emulate the success (and revenue stream) of MOMA’s the Modern, a Danny Meyer restaurant. The Wright does not come close to supplanting that excellent place as the best museum dining in the city. It does, however, fill a certain niche, offering fine cooking that will appeal to the neighbors, though at such high prices that only the neighbors can afford it. Dinner mains range from $24 to $34, at lunch, from $19 to $26.
The menu is comfortingly conventional in organization, offering appetizers, mains, and sides in that particular New American style of high-end cooking that presents dainty portions of fish or meat with a few pretty vegetables, carefully dribbled and swirled sauces, and few carbohydrates. Contreras is skilled; his cooking is precise and delicate. Beautiful little plates of protein play to diners who want to feel they’re eating lightly, but contain enough stealth butter and cream to make them delicious. A server comes around at regular intervals to offer warm rolls to those who will not be full, happy, or very sober without starch.
The eavesdropping is excellent, and picky eaters abound. “Is the lobster interesting in any way,” inquired an exacting patron, “or is it just regular?” “The lobster is very nice,” replied her server. (Actually, it’s not.) A tiny older woman downed two Grey Goose vodkas before the amuse-bouche, while her tablemates discussed opera and tried to figure out what Payless Shoes was, exactly. They’d been at a party with Katie Lee Joel, who she said she bought her shoes there.
The dishes have a careful, diplomatic range—vegetarian, chicken, fish, and meat, something for everyone. But it’s clear that Contreras’s heart belongs to the seafood. The menu is full of fish; thankfully, much of it is sustainable, according to Seafood Watch.
A golden-crusted scallop in creamy sea urchin sauce with barely cooked wild shrimp tastes like a briny-sweet dream. Alaskan halibut sports an appetizingly golden sear, arranged atop black trumpet mushrooms in a garlic-flecked buttery cauliflower sauce that barely avoids crossing the line from rich to gloppy. Crisp-skinned striped bass is actually the most interesting of the seafaring bunch, sitting in a smoky, brick-red paprika broth that contains teensy halves of fingerling potatoes and a mess of tender squid. But don’t give in to the siren call of the Maine lobster, a succulent crustacean that’s ruined by a sickly sweet clementine sauce, so bad as to be inexplicable.
The menu is anxious to pacify those impeccable, finicky ladies who lunch. After fish, vegetables are the most appealing: a tumble of jewel-like red and yellow beets anchored by sheep’s-milk cheese, blood oranges, and pistachios, for instance, or a tasty parsnip soup, poured tableside. Don’t forget that stealth dairy fat! Driven mad by a desire for carbs, we ordered a side of fingerling potato purée, a deadly concoction that’s at least half butter, guessing conservatively. It’s delicious, but it fills you up like spuds crossed with ice cream. Another side, brussels sprouts and bacon, is hardly surprising, but competently done.
Actually, one of the most successful starches is a barley risotto that comes with a chicken breast in its jus. The nutty, agreeably chewy grain tastes like it was enriched with tangy farmer’s cheese, and mingles nicely with the salty chicken drippings. But who wants a boneless, skinless chicken breast? Not me, usually, but I had to tip my hat to this one, which was either gently poached or steamed until just cooked: incredibly juicy and clean-tasting.
The Wright is open for dinner Thursday through Saturday, and for lunch Monday through Wednesday, plus Friday and Saturday. Although the afternoon meal constitutes the major part of the restaurant’s workweek, I prefer the Wright at night, when the design feels vibrant. During the day, the room is disconcertingly dark, reminiscent of a stage set with the lights off.
Like some of the art at the Guggenheim, the Wright may be expensive and not your style, but it’s easy to appreciate the thought and skill that goes into it.