Carlton Hotel, 90 Madison Ave at 29th St (212-889-7100). Mon--Sat 5:30--11pm. Subway: 6 to 28th St. Prix fixe: $85.
Many a restaurant’s name has been used to sell a cookbook, but I’ve never before seen a magazine name inspire a restaurant name, which subsequently inspired a cookbook name. Geoffrey Zakarian—who opened Town in the Chambers Hotel in 2001—unveiled Country two months ago in another boutique hotel, the Carlton, and just published a cookbook, Town/Country, which plays off his two venues. Oddly, aside from offering some typical rustic ingredients, Country is about as provincial as a ride on the 7 train. And while it is a nifty title, the name obscures a wonderful truth: Country is an enthrallingly sophisticated restaurant.
Hotshot designer David Rockwell has renovated the century-old space and restored the original beaux-arts style, uncovering architectural gems such as a tiled floor and a Tiffany-style, green-and-white glass dome. Crystal chandeliers and generously spaced tables add to the elegant, Parisian vibe.
Country actually comprises two eateries. A more informal caf and bar, located in a subterranean space, opened six months ago. The serious cooking takes place upstairs, where Zakarian has tapped Doug Psaltis as executive chef. Psaltis has a gold-plated rsum that includes stints with Bouley Bakery, Alain Ducasse at the Essex House and, most recently, the French Laundry, with a brief stop at Mix in New York. His four-course, $85 prix fixe menu draws heavily on French influences, but adds American and Italian elements.
For each course, Psaltis offers four or five options. Diners who take the “Country” name to heart could start with a foie gras terrine that’s milder than those found elsewhere in the city, but it serves as a wonderfully neutral canvas for accompaniments like caramelized oranges and fennel jam. A more cosmopolitan dish comes in the form of a dazzling shellfish velout, which is smokier and brinier than bisque, and possesses a strong shrimp flavor that pairs perfectly with the sweet shrimp it envelops. A still stronger taste of the sea emerges in the sea urchin--stuffed pasta ribbons topped with a layer of black truffles. I felt that the two primary ingredients worked against one another, but who can resist truffles?
Psaltis can get quite sauce-heavy and flavor-rich and his entres tend to be multifaceted. The veal dish was full of bite-size morsels, all delicious, including dried sweetbreads (sauted until crispy), veal cheeks (braised until the meat was the consistency of barbecue) and veal breast (in cream gravy). The lobster option was just as rich; medallions of perfectly poached tail meat, taken from a Maine two-pounder, surrounded savory salsify and porcino mushrooms.
Pacing is a real concern when you’re eating all this creamy, buttery food. And various amuse-bouches and palate cleansers come to the table throughout the meal: Highlights included tiny dough-fried frog legs (which the waiter whimsically announced as beignets) and an enormous dinner roll designed to be pulled apart.
And in what might be the best bargain wine list in a high-end joint in New York, general manager--sommelier David Sturno offers obscure producers and varietals at prices that don’t hit triple and quadruple digits nearly as much as you might expect. It’s no wonder that Country has become a tough reservation to score (you need to book at least two weeks in advance). City slickers seem to enjoy this Country living.