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In various journalistic incarnations, I honed my interviewing skills sparring with moguls like Rupert Murdoch and battling scrums at Clinton press conferences. All a mere warm-up for J.P., the cryptic owner of a two-month-old Union Square restaurant and wine bar with an equally vague name: The House.
J.P. apparently comes from the J.D. Salinger (or Graydon Carter) school of publicity. He opened the House sans fanfare, with media inquiries as welcome as a herpes sore. His fervent refusal to share even his full name with TONY got me pondering his origins. Was he some kind of culinary royalty, perhaps J.P. Keller, the black sheep brother of Thomas? No such luck: J.P.’s background isn’t food, but architecture and design.
It makes sense, then, that the House is more an aesthetic success than a culinary one. A visit to the pricey restaurant is recommended, if only to set foot inside the 1854 carriage house—one of the city’s coziest, most pleasant dining spaces. The vibe is private dinner club, with brick walls, a fireplace, dim lighting and marble counters in the first-floor wine bar. But the real attraction is the windows: a succession of arched, multipaned beauties on the ground floor, and a giant semicircle, flanked by octagonal portholes and two giant skylights, in the small upstairs dining room.
J.P. wouldn’t reveal the names of his chefs, but he did let on that chef Sean Olnowich (Olives) is training a crew of recent cooking-school grads. “The place has to speak for itself,” J.P. says, invoking the favorite line
of so many of those irritating restaurateurs for whom antihype
is a form of hype.
Or perhaps J.P. was being coy because the kitchen isn’t quite up
to speed. The menu has little rhythm—dishes are thrown together into one big list, making it difficult to tell the appetizers from the entrées, and the choices swing erratically from hummus to tuna crudo to a lobster club.
Although a few dishes really popped—I was particularly taken with the braised lamb shank over Israeli couscous—too many fell short. The venison carpaccio was rose petal–pink and just as pretty, but the portion was laughably small and the meat was too cold. Truffle-oil–scented oyster chowder was packed with bivalves and fatty bacon, yet the flavor of the truffle didn’t make it into the cream-based broth. And little set apart a hearty, rich lasagna, with wild boar ragu and a nice cheese crust, from specimens at humbler eateries.
But the entrée that best exemplifies the House’s half-baked nature was a whole rotisserie duck (the chefs spit roast a different meat each night). Due to a cooking technique that erred on the rare side, I could eat the inflexible fowl only by lifting it to my mouth, Henry VIII–style.
The food was consistent in its vino-friendliness—there’s a large raw-bar and cheese selection. But the wine list itself is unruly, with a heavy Mediterranean bent. More than a dozen of the 100-plus bottles are also available as sample-friendly quartini. Buyer beware: I disliked all three of my well-meaning waiter’s quirky recommendations, including a washed-out Austrian red.
Dessert is largely outsourced—Il Laboratorio del Gelato provides the predictably excellent ice-cream sampler, and Brooklyn’s Black Hound bakery is responsible for most of the pastry.
Such is the price of style. The room is so pleasant, I would happily spend an evening here with a screw-top jug of Wild Irish Rose and a stack of Kraft singles. It must have a calming affect on J.P., too. After a half hour of tug-of-war, he finally told me his last name: Miller.
121 E 17th St
|Cross street:||between Park Ave South and Irving Pl|
|Transport:||Subway: L, N, Q, R, W, 4, 5, 6, to 14th St–Union Square|
|Price:||Average main course: $23. AmEx, MC, V|
|Opening hours:||Mon–Thu noon–3pm, 5pm–2am; Fri noon–3pm, 5pm–3am; Sat noon–3am; Sun noon–2am|
|Do you own this business?|