We revisit our earlier post on the competition between restaurant Titans Keith McNally and Tom Collicchio for food glory at the super swanky Beekman Hotel
Food Blogger Ken Shin was lucky enough to dine at both places and gives us his take on these high dollar hotspots. Ken really gets around in the fine dining world and you can follow his supberly insightful reviews at Kenscale.com
Fowler and Wells…Solid
Tom Colicchio is one of the most well-known celebrity chefs in the media, having served as the head judge on the popular Top Chef shows. I’m somewhat ambivalent about these breeds of chefs who have spent as much time on the TV screen than in the kitchen. Is their cooking as good in practice as people think? At least when I visited the now shuttered Colicchio & Sons, several years ago, I was very underwhelmed to say the least. When chef Colicchio decided to open a new project at the Beekman Hotel that is five minutes from where I live, I was torn as to whether I should check out this place. It looked like a classic expense account-type place that you go to for the crowd and vibe as the bar room outside the restaurant is constantly packed with handsome locals and tourists alike. When we had a guest from out-of-town and it was too cold to venture outside, I figured now might well be the time to try Fowler & Wells. It was a solid meal; somewhat lacking in imagination, but overall I thought the level of execution was consistently above-average level.
The menu at Fowler & Wells won’t wow you with funny sounding dishes that jump at you. Colicchio emphasized that he wants to have a classic American restaurant with more focus on the quality of food rather than experimenting with exotic ingredients or techniques from a variety of influences around the world.
There were a few notably delicious dishes. Chestnut agnolotti with celery root and black truffles, which the server recommended as the most popular appetizer in the menu, had a nice balance of flavor without overpowering creaminess.Lobster “thermidor” with chanterelles and tarragon was expertly cooked and the ingredients came together in a most delicious way.
Sweetbreads with Brussels sprouts, bacon and black trumpets were serviceable. I couldn’t find anything memorable about Hamachi with sea urchin and matsutake which just lacked taste. Hence, they do not warrant a food porn shot.
Instead of the entrée options on the a la carte menu, we selected two dishes from the tasting menu offered at $135 per person, and frankly at Fowler & Wells, going a la carte seems like a better idea. Instead of the traditional beef Wellington, the restaurant served venison inside the puff pastry, and the combination of the meat with chestnuts, black trumpet mushrooms and huckleberries in the surroundings gave a surprisingly rustic touch that I enjoyed quite a lot.
For desserts, I preferred this baked Alaska with chocolate and pecans to the millefeuille with lemon which I couldn’t think anything special about after the meal.
Getting a reservation at the dining room of Fowler & Wells seems a lot easier than securing a space at the bar room outside, (or a parking space anywhere around Nassau St) where you’re often quoted up to an hour-long wait at peak times. The dining room has a classic American vibe invoking old school New York that fits well with the overall décor of the Beekman Hotel. There is a full menu with extensive wine selections (many from France) to compliment your meal. Will I sprint back to Fowler & Wells anytime soon? I doubt it, but I would like to see how the menu evolves over time, as there are some distinctly classic American dishes that I think has potential to get even better should chef Colicchio pay more attention to his new project.
Sometimes, sticking with old classics pays more dividends than you can imagine. For the famed restaurateur Keith McNally, he has rarely strayed from his formula of old-school brasserie focusing on French-centric classics that appeal to a broad audience like The Odeon, Balthazar, Minetta Tavern and Pastis to name a few. Augustine has that shiny feel that is not cheesy or cliché but makes you feel like you’re sitting somewhere on a pretty street in Paris.
Looking at the menus, there was no magic sauce or ingredient, but I found a lot of dishes with very appetizing descriptions. So I started with the cheese soufflé with parmesan and horseradish fondue. The soufflé had a great balance of flavor without overpowering seasoning.
I was particularly excited to try a couple of meat dishes as some reviews I had read previously had a lot of nice words about them before stepping into Augustine. In particular, the leg of lamb seemed to be one of the dishes that was quickly turning into a crowd favorite.
While we liked the texture of the dry-aged T-bone from Kansas,
we also thought a bit more moderate seasoning would be preferable as the flavor of this well curated beef stands on its own. As for the lamb, the addition of lamb jus seemed like overkill and I didn’t understand why the kitchen would even bother adding salt when the meat itself was beautifully cooked medium rare. If the kitchen cuts back on salting the meat I’ll be back very soon.
The delightful passion fruit and banana vacherin helped us to shed away our mixed experience with the oversalted meat dishes.
The restaurant currently takes reservations only via phone and it might be a smart idea to just show up when the restaurant opens and try your luck at the bar or the other tables that may have been set aside for walk-ins. There is a full bar and I enjoyed the Manhattan style martini to start the meal. A French-centric carte des vins is surprisingly affordable. As noted above, the charm of the dining space is what makes eating at Augustine a thoroughly enjoyable experience although you might have to deal with excessive noise during prime time.
McNally succeeds in his singular focus on putting together his vision of a classic brasserie that works for everyone.