701 West: A Seduction in Blue Velvet
I am put off by the English pea sponge with the white chocolate mousse but love the sour cherry sorbet.
My friends Philip and Erica are good sports. They’re always game to meet anywhere for dinner, but the truth is they can do without Muzak and they appreciate serenity. On a tour of the Times Square Edition Hotel dining spots one evening, chef John Fraser’s prestige 701West restaurant on the 11th floor seemed tranquil. I suggested that we should try the $98 three-course tasting menu.
Downstairs in The Terrace a forest of tall palms transforms the room.
Only a very few tables are occupied at 701West tonight. Is it the thunderstorm or the prix fixe?
The restrained theme seemed unlikely to attract the entire sororities and soccer teams I’ve encountered in The Terrace on the Ninth floor. Not that I don’t love the lively Terrace with its embracing palms overhead, its vast, appealing menu and mix of enthusiastic Manhattanites. I think I made that clear in my celebration of the place in last week’s BITE. Click here to read it.
701West strikes me as a cocoon of blue velvet: luxurious and elegant.
But 701West, with its intimate corners for romance and rolling carts of champagne poised to roam, is a cocoon of sound-muffling blue velvet, full of promise. My niece Dana and I arrive, totally soaked by the sudden thunderstorm, a few minutes after Philip and Erica, seemingly dry and already parked on a cushy banquette.
“I had them turn down the music,” Philip reports.
The server brings shawls. “Maybe a towel for my back would be better,” I suggest.
Outside the blue room, the green room bar is crowded but feels far away.
Dana and Erica order wine but Philip is in the mood for Sherry. I join him.
Philip decides we should all start with a glass of sherry. “When John opened Dovetail he featured a Sherry cart. It seems he’s still into Sherry. A dry Fino is a great idea.” I sip. Sherry before dinner strikes me as elegant, aristocratic, right for the setting.
The first amuse is a small cauliflower mille feuille with mescal cream and Black Diamond caviar
Wildflower honey tops a cup of sunflower custard with bits of white asparagus as a second amuse.
The roll is “Pain au Lait, sprinkled with champagne salt,” our server announces. A pair of amuses follow: cauliflower mille feuille with mezcal cream and Black Diamond Caviar from America’s southern waters. And sunflower custard with white and wildflower honey.
All of us, even I who ate a bagel from Fairway with cream cheese for lunch without dwelling on its provenance, interrupt conversation to hear the DNA of each course. That’s what a $98 tasting is all about.
Broiled live sea scallop with charred fennel butter.
As readers who follow my BITEs know, my friends and I mostly share what we eat. Sometimes we put our four starters in the middle and everyone helps themselves. Sometimes we take a portion and then pass the dish. Neither exercise feels elegant enough for tonight. The server brings little plates but they quickly get messy.
I taste my Hokkaido sea urchin risotto on a squid ink-blot with sea beans, and hand it to Dana who passes along her broiled sea scallop in charred fennel butter. Philip sends his chicken and truffle boudin with crawfish and fennel to Erica in exchange for her Mitten crab with daikon in Chablis-citrus butter.
Mitten crab with mushrooms, daikon and Chablis-citrus butter.
If it says sea urchin on the menu, like this Hokkaido uni risotto with squid ink, I’ll order it.
Then we all trade around again in no special order. It seems somewhat improvisational surrounded by so much blue velvet, but I’d feel deprived if I didn’t get to taste everything. The sea urchin risotto is my favorite — that intense squid ink sea flavor is marvelous.
The chef’s wildly rich hen egg with globe artichoke, Parmesan foam, paprika crouton and summer truffle.
The chef sends cedar-roasted green asparagus with truffle aioli as a mid-course extra. The stalks are green, ever so slightly more firm than asparagus usually is. The glass dish of hen egg and globe artichoke in Parmesan foam with paprika crouton and summer truffle is wildly rich. It’s my favorite collection of flavors but I fear that if I eat it all, I’ll be retired from play too soon.
Herbed Long Island duck breast with a baby eggplant and pine nuts.
Norwegian salmon, filet and belly, comes with hockenjos potatoes and morels in a sauce Vin Jaune.
The rare duck breast I’ve chosen for my entrée is restorative in its sturdy simplicity. I separate the herb-encrusted skin, leaving behind its layer of fat, and wish the delicious stuffed eggplant alongside were bigger. Erica is very generous, sharing the rich belly of her Norwegian salmon with morels in a vin-jaune sauce. Erica almost always orders salmon, apologizing for being so predictable. But this is a lusher creature than usual.
Stuffed cabbage topped with rosemary lardo accompanies this wonderfully rare slice of prime filet mignon.
Dana lets Philip order the Elysian Fields lamb with ramp butter they both covet. She’ll have the surprisingly large cut of filet mignon with braised carrots and savory stuffed cabbage alongside instead. As plates are passing, Philip usually finishes whatever is left, but tonight, even he puts down his fork and knife to signal “enough.”
“The palate cleanser,” our server announces, with the arrival of tamarind sorbet and cucumber ginger custard.
“Tamarind sorbet with cucumber and ginger cream is the palate cleanser,” our server announces. It works.
I had considered ordering cheese (for an extra charge on the prix fixe). The tantalizing cheese selections I recall from my three-star Michelin adventures in France are so rarely equaled by cheese trolleys I see in ambitious restaurants here. But I knew that I couldn’t do justice to all that delicious butterfat by the end of the evening.
Buckwheat puff pastry swathed with vanilla-parsnip cream on salted caramel.
Sadly, there is an offending ingredient in most of the five desserts: English pea sponge in the white chocolate mousse. Vanilla-parsnip cream with the buckwheat puff pastry. Black truffle gastrique on the milk chocolate cream. Where is the pastry chef brave enough to offer strawberry shortcake or a chocolate sundae without fava beans?
The vanilla cheesecake is served with hibiscus verbana jam and berries.
Hibiscus verbena jam and berries deliver smart fruity accents to the vanilla cheesecake, anchored on crumbs. I leave the white chocolate mousse for my companions and finish off the sour cherry sorbet. Sour cherries are a favorite of mine, sadly, with a very short season.
I especially liked the apricot sorbet with chocolate pecan ganache.
Apricot sorbet with chocolate and pecan ganache on brioche toast inspire attention from all of us, more so than a buckwheat confection with salted caramel. There are only two takers for the dark and white bonbons nested in a rubble of grated chocolate. As Mae West said: “You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.”
It felt impossible to take another bite, but I had one anyway.
Philip insists drinks go on his bill before we split it. That means dinners for Dana and me total $258.00 with tip. And points for Samantha who stands guard discreetly and pops up tableside just as we need her as if we’re mic’ed.
I’ve been feeling warm and dry pressed up against the blue velvet, but my blouse is still wet and so is my coat in the checkroom even after three and a half hours. Downstairs the rain is just falling in light drops now. Dana steals the first cab inching our way. It hasn’t taken her long to become a real New Yorker.
701 Seventh Avenue. Entrance on West 47th just west of Times Square. 212 396 7017. Tues through Sunday dinner only 5 pm to 11 pm.