Butter-poached lobster with savory bread pudding
Photograph: Roxana Maroquin
The Upper West Side dining scene has come a long way since Compass opened in 2002. Which makes the restaurant's ongoing struggle to survive after a half-dozen chef changes and mixed-bag reviews—while the more notable newcomers around it thrive—that much more painful to watch.
Last year, in their latest bid to fill the bland, institutional dining room, the owners shifted the focus entirely. What had been a free-form New American restaurant is now all about seafood. Opening chef Neil Annis returned in a consulting role, working on a new menu with former understudy Milton Enriquez, who was promoted to executive chef after five years in the kitchen. The selections are divided up by food group rather than by courses. Along with "fish," "vegetable" and "not fish" headings, there's an entire section devoted to lobster. While the luxury gimmick—touted in a series of newspaper ads—got me in, the clumsy cooking made it unlikely I'll come back.
Even when there was real talent in the kitchen, the restaurant struggled against its accursed locale. Sequestered on a side street near Broadway, the place doesn't get much foot traffic—which is particularly problematic considering how enormous it is. The casual front lounge, with its blue-lit glass bar and view onto the street, gives way to a windowless dining room that—even after an extensive redesign—manages to feel claustrophobic and cold, despite its high ceilings and rich wooden floors. Bursts of color from abstract red paintings and rainbow-striped chairs don't do much to brighten the mood.
On paper, dishes are as ambitious as the restaurant's wine list—a portentous tome with many rare and exorbitant bottles—but the dated presentations and clunky cooking made me think mostly of bad cruise-ship fare. A dense breaded sweetbread, stacked onto cubed celery root tossed in rmoulade, was an inelegant flop. Rosettes of citrus-cured salmon, meanwhile, were drowned out by a cacophonous backdrop of earthy beet couscous, briny sea urchin cream and a cloying orange-vanilla vinaigrette. A striped bass fillet coated in a gummy black-olive-and-bread-crumb crust wasn't helped by the overpoweringly smoky bacon broth beneath it.
And what of the lobsters behind the marketing scheme? The poor beasts—stuffed into bland ravioli, chopped up with far too much breading in a vapid out-of-the-shell version of a classic Thermidor, drowning in salty beurre blanc in an otherwise passable butter-poached treatment—gave their lives for no good reason. Only the basic grilled three-pound lobster—plugged as a deal at $39—seemed like a legitimate draw (I might've vouched for it if it hadn't sold out by 7pm on a night when I came to try it).
Desserts, as effete and refined as the rest of the food is bold and clunky, are the high point of a meal here. A luscious bouchon of chocolate-coffee mousse comes simply paired with caramelized baby-banana slices; an elegant miniature warm pistachio cake finds a fine foil in the tart grapefruit segments shingled on top. Maybe pastry chef April Robinson, who last worked at A Voce, ought to take over the savory side, too. A pastry chef running a seafood restaurant-—now that might build buzz.
Drink this: The sommelier suggested a delicious tart Grner Veltliner ($45) as a good midpriced match for lobster. You'll also find Belfast Bay Brewery Lobster Ale ($8) from Maine.
Eat this: Butter-poached lobster, chocolate-coffee mousse, warm pistachio cake.
Sit here: The dining room is oppressively stuffy. The much more inviting front lounge offers both the full dinner menu and an abbreviated bar menu.
Conversation piece: Though none stuck around very long, some top toques have passed through the kitchen at Compass. Jehangir Mehta, who now runs Graffiti, was the restaurant's first pastry chef. Itinerant talent Katy Sparks lasted a few months as head chef in 2004. John Fraser, who got the most critical mileage out of the job, hung around for two years before opening Dovetail in 2007.
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