Corner Bar, a restaurant and bar on the corner of Canal and Allen Street downtown, seems designed to be ordinary. The cozy, kindly space at the base of Nine Orchard Hotel has little abstract character, but its bistro aesthetic successfully captures that intended category. It also encapsulates a category I think of as “restaurant in a movie that isn’t about a restaurant.” When an ingénue blows out birthday candles at a round table encircled by friends, it is at Corner Bar. When a brooding antihero stirs coffee as the rain falls outside, it is at Corner Bar. When a beleaguered career gal huffs onto a bar seat and makes a mildly quirky martini order to establish personality, it is at Corner Bar. And this is all fine.
There is nothing irredeemably wrong with chef Ignacio Mattos’ Corner Bar, which followed his highly-regarded Estela and Lodi in June. That the bathrooms are in the basement is half-annoying but not uncommon at hotel and hotel-adjacent restaurants. And that it’s been particularly difficult to book a primetime reservation, even in these enduring years of reservation booking difficulty, is just a little vexing, especially with the benefit of hindsight given how regular the place is. All that aside, Corner Bar is fine in the lusty way a ’40s movie star would have shaped the word to improve its meaning from vague indictment to approval. It will do nicely.
The inviting dining room, breezily, barely divided in two by an archway, has high ceilings, a handsome bar, wood finishes, gleaming white tiles and cafe curtains, bistro-ly. It seats 68 and tables are arranged tight enough to limit gossip, but not so much to require excess shimmying. Its menu aims to offer genre classics.
To start, Prince Edward Island Lucky Lime oysters ($29/half dozen) are as attractively presented as expected. Pack ice into a tray, elevate it a little, and even this entry-level to a seafood tower gets me every time. And these midsized bivalves would still be good even closer to land. The duck foie gras terrine ($34) is also nice, as rich and buttery as hoped for and even served with a fun and spritely, glittering riesling jelly and half a caramelized apple. Its thick accompanying brioche points, while not an outlandish pairing, are a little too sweet and a little too greasy to let the foie gras dazzle.
With the exception of the $62 hay-roasted chicken, which comes with salad greens, entrées are all on their own. Moules ($38) and steak are friteless. The Atlantic halibut ($44) swims only with its hollandaise.
Reunited with their rightful skirt au Poivre or bivalve friends, the fries ($13) are very good; one of the things Corner Bar does best. They’re telegenically golden, brittle outside, soft inside and made to soak up liquid. The oversauced steak has plenty of it, befittingly pungent and made with Tellicherry peppercorns, but almost comical, then inconvenient, in quantity, and growing a bit viscous over a few bites. Like the foie gras vehicle, it’s a zag and a miss that obscures a shockingly hard-to-find perfect medium rare preparation (perfected here with the rouge to prove it) rather than enhance it. Uncloaked, its texture is impeccable, its deep, grass-fed beef flavor is abundant and its successful degree of doneness is a marvel. I wouldn’t drain it entirely, but maybe ask for a dash less sauce than standard.
A couple of promising pastas are among the mains, including a recurring lobster tagliatelle special ($38 for the appetizer size, which contains 2.5 ounces of lobster; $52 for the entrée size, with three ounces). The long, house-made ribbons are, again, finished to the ideal doneness with a light spring, but their coating of light red sauce skews too noticeably fishy and the lobster is cooked just to the legal limit before rubbery charges can commence.
Corner Bar should have a rightful place in the middle of the road as an easy, chicer than most, every night kind of place, and a bar where drinks can turn into dinner. But it’s still a puzzlingly tough table and it’s priced more like a special occasion destination. The crowds will thin, but its unlikely prices will drop here or anywhere else in the city. It could split the difference by ironing out everything that makes it singsong-voice-good rather than lower-register-good, but that’s historically only slightly more likely. Until it seems more like an overperforming drop-in spot than an underperforming celebration aspirant, it isn’t worth going out of the way for.
The Vibe: Bistro film set with flattering lighting.
The Food: Nice raw bar items, excellent duck foie gras, good but oversauced steak, promising pasta.
The Drinks: Slow-to-arrive cocktails, beer, a very long wine list and spirit-free drinks.
Corner Bar is located at 60 Canal Street. It is open for dinner Monday-Wednesday from 5:30pm to 10:30pm, Thursday-Saturday from 5:30pm-11pm and Sunday from 5:30pm-10pm.