How the other half eats

During Restaurant Week, New York's hottest restaurants offer prix fixe lunches even commoners can afford.

Published March 30, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Twice a year in New York, the doors of haute and hallowed eateries such as
Aquavit, the Russian Tea Room and the Gotham Bar and Grill are thrown open
to the hoi polloi in a gesture of seasonal goodwill and P.R. savvy. The bearer of a mere $20 note (tax and tip not included) can whip out a Zagat guide, choose the place he or she has always dreamed of going to and, if it is one of the 86 participating restaurants, lunch on delights usually reserved for one's CEO

I sampled five of these restaurants during Winter Restaurant Week (Jan. 31 to Feb. 4) -- Istana at the New York Palace (new and relatively unknown), the Gotham Bar and Grill (sort of new and famous), Aquavit (slightly newer and famous), the Russian Tea Room (old and famous) and Tavern on the Green (very old, and famous enough to secretly replace the fine coffee it normally serves with Folger's instant). The prix fixe menus offered three entrees (with the
exception of Gotham, which offered only two) and at least two appetizers
and two desserts. Without exception, all the meals offered crazy value.

"Since the first Restaurant Week in 1992, there has been a phenomenal
response," says Melanie Young, who has been involved in Restaurant Week
since its inception. "People plan trips to the city around this event."

Aquavit's award-winning executive chef, Marcus Samuelsson, says that it's
"fun to see people in the restaurant who wouldn't normally eat there."
Despite his many awards and honors, Samuelsson's genuine enthusiasm for his
diners is obvious. "Any time you can reach out to new people is worthwhile,"
he says. "It's very tough for people to experience what the restaurant is
about when they just have an entree or an appetizer, but a prix fixe [meal] is a
great way for diners to have that experience."

In some instances, I suspect that less care was taken with the prix fixe dishes
than with the other meals served. Presumably, the Caesar salad at the Gotham
Bar and Grill, the third most popular restaurant in the Zagat Survey,
doesn't usually contain browning lettuce leaves. And both the seared salmon and the sautied calf's liver entrees at Tavern on the Green were overdone. But for me, at least, and I suspect for many others, the Tavern experience was more about being there than about the food.

Still, most of the meals were striking in their creativity and in the love of food and color and experimentation they seemed to exemplify. Star-shaped
Russian fries and ruby-red pomegranates lay like scattered jewels on the
salad plate at the Russian Tea Room. At Istana, the lamb shanks were juicy and perfectly cooked; they contrasted deliciously with the sweet, curried Moroccan carrots. Even something so simple as a breadbasket seemed transformed here, with crisp herb and Parmesan toast and sourdough and olive breads.

At Aquavit, the appetizer, a pure-white, creamy cauliflower soup, featured a perfect grace note: fish roe bobbing atop a crisp
fingerling chip in the center of the bowl; the combination was as pleasing
to the eye as to the palate. The entree, steamed bass with vegetable confit dumplings and fried bok choy in an orange fennel broth, was a marvelous combination of contrasting tastes and textures.

And the desserts! I sampled all the chocolate offerings from each
prix fixe menu. Gotham's chocolate cake was as restrained as its
clientele. The fallen chocolate souffli with cardamom at
Istana and the chocolate mousse and fudge cake at Tavern on the Green were
large, pretty and satisfying, but my most thrilling
encounters were at the Russian Tea Room and Aquavit. In the first case, the
chocolate mousse cake with ginger orange tuile hides other chocolate tastes
and textures like an edible Russian doll. And in the second case, the
chocolate ganache was so good it made me want to bang my head on the table; when you cut into it, a chocolate larva oozes out. It was
delicious with the accompanying citrus sorbet. Also served with the ganache is a small bowl of "Manjari" chocolate soup, which consists of layers of dark chocolate and white chocolate and a light sesame froth. Other artful and delicious creations included a creamy fresh-fruit tart from Istana of blackberries, raspberries, mango, strawberries and kiwi in a raspberry and orange coulis and a standard (but tasty) New York cheesecake from Tavern on the Green.

The attentiveness and friendliness of most of the wait staff were exemplary,
though our waiter at Tavern on the Green offered us coffee halfway
through our entree and tried to remove my friend's plate even
after he'd insisted twice that he really was still eating.

Apart from the warm glow of their own beneficence, the participating
restaurants hope to win the loyalty of new customers who, having
tasted the ambrosia, will now be willing to pay just about anything for more.
"And if you can get a good deal," says Aquavit's Samuelsson, "why not?"
Summer Restaurant Week 2000 is from June 19 to 23, and if you start drooling now, you might be able to clean up in time to secure reservations.

By Christine Kenneally

Christine Kenneally is an Australian writer who lives in New York City.

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