Only a few years back, hotel dining rooms were strictly for tourists and banquets—places where you wouldn’t want to eat unless forced to. But gradually, restaurateurs realized these spaces were undervalued: They came at least partly subsidized by the hotel itself and, in the case of the city’s glitzy new hostelries, furnished with a captive, upscale clientele. Suddenly, celebrity chefs were enthusiastically signing on to write menus and supervise dining rooms.
While generally successful, the idea could sometimes backfire. Such was the case with the Cooper Square Hotel, a modernistic 21-story structure that teeters like a pile of dirty dishes on the eastern edge of the square. It first recruited Los Angeles chef Govind Armstrong. Spouting locavoric jargon, while obsessing over exotic international salts and squirting mayo on nearly everything, he created a menu at Table 8 that virtually no one liked. Next up to bat was local fave Scott Conant. While his signature Italian creations formed the core of Faustina’s bill of fare, he also distracted us with a sushi bar; charcuteries and cheeses; and separate bar, late-night, lunch, and breakfast menus. The sheer quantity of choices was bewildering, even including hamburgers and fried chicken—plebeian panderings the chef might have been previously loath to offer.
Conant lasted less than a year, then got kicked out as the foundering property changed hands. Apparently, the new owners were intent on running the restaurant themselves—without a celebrity chef! The Trilby is the product of their aspirations, named after a twee little fedora with extra curl to the narrow brim, like something a sketch comedian might don. Though the layout remains the same—the Trilby meanders through the ground floor like a drunken guest—I’m not sure you can really call the place a restaurant anymore, since most of the square footage has been turned over to lounge furniture for the cocktail crowd.
True to the hotel-dining-room ethos, the place still mounts separate menus for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Taking advantage of this, and the location directly across the street from the Voice, I resolved to check out all three meals. The first was a rather random dinner—a friend called and asked where I was eating, and I happened to be in the immediate vicinity. The Trilby was nearly empty except for a few swillers, and we easily grabbed one of the dining tables. Despite waiting an interminable time between courses, and suffering mediocre service, the food was unexpectedly grand.
There was a soft-boiled egg split and mounted on a pair of toasts, with anchovies sinking into the yellows and plenty of black pepper, and a sterling oyster service with some of the best Blue Points I’ve seen in ages. We especially enjoyed a charred octopus tentacle ($13) extended like the muscular arm of a prizefighter, punching its way through chickpeas and salad. There were short-rib sliders, too, proving that nearly everything tastes better on a tiny bun. We also liked the sliced pork loin ($26). Despite the slow service, we ordered desserts anyway, and the carrot cake positively blew us away.
The next visit was premeditated—a lunch. The dining rooms have a garden attached, shaded by trees and tenements. I figured eating the midday meal there would be like being a rich person with your own private garden and servants. It almost was. The meal started out promisingly: colorful sliced radishes with an anchovy mayo dip, and an heirloom tomato salad ($11) with shredded basil that was probably the best single dish I was to have at the Trilby. But then the second course bombed with gummy gnocchi and a “bar steak” that turned out to be skirt steak, which is not really a steak but a steer’s diaphragm. An unfussy BLT ($13) nearly redeemed the meal, served with hot onion rings.
Finally, two pals from San Francisco and I descended on the garden late one morning for a non-weekend brunch. And here we discovered some of the hat’s best offerings: an abundant hash made with deli corned beef topped with two runny poached eggs ($13); a stack of blueberry pancakes that easily beat IHOP’s, served with a goose egg of good butter and maple syrup; and a comically small spinach omelet sided with hash browns configured into a pair of cylinders. We sat on the patio as noon came and went, drinking the bad coffee, but secure in the knowledge that we’d found a sort of secret clubhouse. With no chef in sight.
Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.