Maria Gallagher reviews Nineteen, the stunningly perched restaurant that's challenging an era of avant-garde cooking with back-to-the-classics seafood.
The architectural splendor and soothing champagne-and-cream color scheme at Nineteen put me in mind of fondant icing, Social Register soirees, and utterly proper good taste. This 19th-floor dining room, with its domed 36-foot ceiling, wedding-cake ornamentation, and north-facing view of Billy Penn silhouetted against the stars, is a refreshing oasis of calm with a menu of gently updated classics — and one of the loveliest settings in the city for a business lunch or leisurely dinner. Strands of oversized faux pearls that dangle from the chandelier above the raw bar keep the formal room from feeling stiff, and have provoked much debate — tacky or not? I say not. Think Coco Chanel.
Cutting-edge cuisine would be out of context in such surroundings. This space is tailor-made for grand gestures, like the one- and two-tier chilled seafood samplers ($49 and $79) that turn heads as they’re carried from the central raw bar to the table, or the no-frills-needed simplicity of a thick, perfectly seared salmon fillet. The tuna sashimi appetizer with yuzu cream sauce is an interloper next to the shrimp cocktail and littleneck clams on the half-shell. At the dear old Bellevue, locals will be more inclined to go old-school with appetizers, like Nineteen’s wonderful house-cured salmon dressed with simple sherry vinaigrette, minced herbs, and slices of braised purple artichoke, or the jumbo lump crabcake seasoned with Old Bay and bound with shrimp mousse. The crabcake is served with celery-root salad and tomato-pepper jam at dinner, or with a poached egg and lemony hollandaise at brunch.
Chef Marc Plessis has found a strategy for appeasing the conservative-leaning demands of hotel guests and his own fine-dining instincts; he chooses simple centerpieces, like the impressive raw bar and fresh fish, and keeps the flourishes that timid eaters fear on the side. You’ll get mignonette as well as cocktail sauce with your Chesapeake Bay and Cape Cod oysters, and something more exciting than roasted potatoes with your entrée. On my visits, fiddleheads accompanied a firm, meaty halibut fillet; fresh morels appeared with braised veal cheeks, and with the surprisingly light house-made ravioli filled with mashed fava beans. Vidalia onions were spotlighted in a silky caramelized-onion soup, lightly garnished with whipped cream. While the chef’s commitment to local farms and seasonal ingredients is gratifying, some of the applications need a tweak. Country ham added to the halibut dish came off as overly smoky and intrusive; undercooked fava beans accompanied the underseasoned wild striped bass.
The more serious flaw, evident on all of my review visits, was fumbling service. At this price point, it’s unacceptable for staffers delivering food to make customers tell them who ordered what. At brunch, we had to ask for water refills repeatedly, and a glass of wine arrived after the entrée was done. At dinner, I cringed as servers left the bottle on the table whenever they poured a Pepsi. And I’m still wondering who gave the order to have a fire blazing in the bar’s fireplace on a 90-degree day.
The $40 brunch includes a breakfast buffet, a raw bar, dim sum, an entrée, and a delightful dessert spread. Plessis, a stickler for freshness, decreed that there be no chafing dishes, so all hot items come straight from the kitchen. Dark-roast regular coffee brewed by the cup is outstanding, arriving with an espresso-like crema on the surface. But if you ask for a refill, your second cup will be a brewed-in-advance letdown.
Pastry chef Jason Etzkin’s chocolate confections are not to be missed. If you’re not entirely wedded to tradition, take a chance on his unorthodox deconstructed carrot cake, with a crunchy walnut cookie, a scoop of Philadelphia cream cheese sorbet, and a drizzle of sweet carrot sauce in a shade of orange so bright it almost hurts in this creamy vanilla room.