Archive for January, 2008

The Harrison at the Crossroads: Last Supper Before Freitag Takes the Toque

January 8, 2008

Sometimes I fear I was born too late for a good meal in New York. I arrived at Country as Doug Psaltis headed out, at Parea as Michael Symon closed shop and at Gramercy Tavern as Tom Colicchio was selling his interest. That said, Michael Anthony reinvigorated Gramercy’s dated menu and proved a restaurant need not lose its soul in a shift from rustic to refined cuisine. So I hold out hope as I watch the Harrison go in the opposite direction, with hearty Italian to be the new idiom under Amanda Freitag and the refined French-American of Brian Bistrong to be a thing of the past. For curiosity’s sake, I took in one last supper before the transition. Here are a few high and low points of my visit.

1) Warm Service: They have you at hello and cradle you through to the outsized tip you can’t help but leave. Good hosts, better servers. Highly trained in the hard skills of waiting, they also have the emotional antennae for the subtle stuff, like when to talk up a table and when to fade into the background. A couple of key adjustments to right the meal, including reconceiving a dish on the fly when the sauce proved unappealing, and pacing the dessert and after-dinner drinks just right, closed out the night as well as it was opened.

2) Warm Space: On a recent snowy night, the interior of rustic wood floors and cabinets, artful food displays and visible cooking flames pulled me into the room and made me want to stay until spring time, especially when cabs were so hard to come by. Only thing missing from haute tavern look was an haute tavern smell. Great feel, great light.

3) Warm Wine: Warmth is great in servers and decor; it’s no fun at all in a bottle of red. The wine stored on shelves in the main dining room is precisely the temperature of the room—and that’s no good for white, pink or red. Either throw in mulling spices or cool the bottles down ten degrees.

4) Cool Wine List: Lovely stemware, thoughtful selection advice and intuitive wine service—no aggressive topping off, no empties either—made me want to return for further explorations. Particularly strong in rare, reasonable and spicy Austrians—yes, they exist. It’s hard to blow more than 100 dollars on a bottle and it’s even harder to make a bad choice. I used to take Shake Shack’s list as a starting point for summer wine buying for picnic fare; I think the Harrison’s will work equally well for dressed up winter dinner parties.

5) Uncool Bathroom Behavior: I love a booze-soaked bacchanalia as much as the next self-indulgent sybarite, but is anyone ever really so drunk at a deal dinner as to need to pee in the sink when a urinal is, literally, steps away? A hard-partying bespoke type staggered in ahead of me from the basement’s private event space and let fly with a jeroboam of indescribables. Fortunately, a small batch bourbon restored my spirits before I headed out into the night. Let’s hope Freitag’s rustic Italian fare adds some refinement to the downstairs guests, and keeps some refinement on the upstairs tables.

Coda: I don’t comment much on the food in this entry as it’s not likely to be around much longer. My experience on this night was that conception outstripped execution from start to finish. Dishes often sounded better than they tasted, particularly the biscuits with razor clams, chorizo and gravy. I’d had a wonderful razor clam-chorizo dish at the Slanted Door a few months earlier and perhaps came into the Harrison with overly high hopes. The expected contrast of flavors and textures was lost under the taste-deadening glutinous gravy. Similar problems afflicted the unbalanced funk of the spaetzle. In sum, at the end of an era and start of a brief but cold winter, the back—but not the front—of house team might benefit from some new blood.