New Restaurants: Henry at the Life Hotel
Henry: Starting Over
Almost nothing that comes from the kitchen of Henry in the Life Hotel is quite like anything you have ever tasted before. Even the margherita pizza defies the classic with its shower of Espelette. The broken merguez meatball pie with chile-roasted tomato and goat cheese is an original too.
Did Steve Hanson ask for that? This is his first hotel and restaurant venture since he sold off his huge hospitality collection, BR Guest, and pretty much disappeared into domesticity. (He’s an old friend and lives on my block, so I often encounter him on my way to Fairway, taking his daughters to school.)
Henry, a bow to Henry Luce in the century-old building in NoMad, with the Gibson + Luce cocktail bar below, surprised me. I hadn’t realized it was in the works. It took a year to pull together off my radar with a team of former BR Guest cooks recruited by chef-partner Michael Vignola pitching in on construction. “We even spent time attaching the brass table tops,” says the chef.
“I forgot how hard it is to open a restaurant, how complicated,” Hanson tells me. “I forgot how many moving parts it takes to make it successful.”
First night here. It’s frigid outside and the clubby lobby dining room is quiet, its comfortable brown leather chairs only sparsely occupied. Hanson is standing near the greeter’s stand, surprised to see me. I insist we start with the spicy scampi pizza. I like the idea. Gently cooked Mexican white shrimp, diced, alongside chile-roasted escarole on a bed of garlic confited in cultured butter with lemon zest, and scattered buffalo mozzarella. (No, I didn’t know all that. I asked.)
The shrimp and grouper sausage is a bold original too, with smoked bacon, an elusive mix of herbs nested in black beluga lentils, and pickled Napa cabbage ribs on a sherry-mustard glaze. The curls of radish are a couturier jewel touch. Purple ninja, lime and black radish from Windfall farms, chef Vignola confides.
The delicata squash “cacio e pepe” spaghetti has astonishing flavor. It can’t just be the charred hen of the woods mushroom, I’m sure…but what? The pasta has been tossed in a potion made of three kinds of squash pureed with cream, and sits in a parmesan foam. Colorful squash rings go on at the last minute with the ‘shrooms, and then togarashi pepper. That’s it. Vignola has a leaning toward bursts of heat.
We order the caramel apple-pear streusel, and the table is soon covered with desserts. I’m eager to return, planning to bring friends who long for serenity at dinner. This stretch of West 31st Street seems unusually quiet. Legally it’s NoMad, but tonight, near empty.
Henry doesn’t strike me as a magnet for the uptown set crowding into The Lobster Club. I figure it will take a while before the foodies arrive on rumors of pressed squares of suckling pig with rutabaga and quince-hazelnut mostarda. “Great food,” I tell my friends. “Professional servers and you can hear yourself talk.”
Give that evening of calm, I’m surprised to find the place full a few days later. It’s noisy, not cruelly calamitous but far from serene. The starters are less brilliant. The bass crudo, cured with salt, sugar and kombu, then dressed with yuzu zest, seaweed, lime zest and lemon juice, is too acidic. And so is the beautiful cauliflower and grapefruit with Fourme d’Ambert blue cheese, sherry vinegar-marinated Iranian raisins tossed in Banyuls vinaigrette.
But the Pizza Bianca — a singe of wildly bubbled dough painted with black pepper ricotta, then piled with shaved black pepper pecorino and the shoestring potatoes — is a definite hit. It’s got a bite of heat too, could be the mustardy crème fraîche. Or it could be the theater. We watch the server break up a large poached egg in a cup. (A Saunders Farm egg, the menu notes.) He spills its messiness across the pie. Different, special.
The seafood cavatelli on its squid stock, fennel and Pernod-tinged sauce thickened with charred bread, is exciting too. Suave, complex, again, unlike anything I’ve tasted before. Grilled swordfish in a crushed olive vinaigrette, and halibut, slow-cooked in olive oil, topped with a garlic and lemon herb crust, and delivered on braised celery, are also meticulously dressed.
But for dark meat lovers like me, the crusty and juicy little packages of Lancaster chicken thighs pressed overnight, then finished in their own fat, are a unique treat. Sunchokes cooked two ways accompany the bird on a plate painted with its jus fortified with lemon confit.
We’re not shy about dessert tonight. I suggest you shouldn’t be either. The caramel apple-pear with rolled oats streusel is a classic. But the chocolate caramel tart with s’mores ice cream is an even more essential finale than you might imagine.
As the menu quotes Henry Luce: “To see and to show is the mission now undertaken by Life.” Here, that goes for chocolate too.
19 West 31st Street between Fifth Avenue and Broadway. 212 615 9910. Breakfast 7 am to 10 am. Dinner Sunday through Tuesday 5 pm to 10 pm. Wednesday through Saturday 5 pm to 11pm. Lunch coming soon.