No city in the country treats restaurants as theater more than New York—the municipal motto might as well be: “Would you like some flair with that?” Some chefs have always put the drama in dinner, but lately more and more are offering added attractions, right at your table.
Eleven Madison Park (11 Madison Ave., 212.889.0905) is easily the local leader in blending dinner and a show. The dining room is one of the grandest in Manhattan, with huge windows, towering floral displays and dramatic art, and a dazzling setting for the platoon of servers who deliver dishes in choreographed style. (Plates are cleared away with the same Rockettes-worthy precision.) Executive Chef Daniel Humm is renowned for not just his sensational flavor combinations highlighting local ingredients, but also his over-the-top presentations.
Dishes are months in development and change with the seasons. This past summer, for example, a cheese course was served in a picnic basket. Now, the restaurant is offering a deli course as part of its $225 prix fixe (12-16 courses) dinner. Inspired by the classic NYC delicatessen, it includes a housemade beef pastrami, presented in a custom chaffing dish and paired with such elements as leeks, fingerling potatoes and celery.
Eleven Madison offers drinks on wheels, too: Manhattans are mixed to order tableside, and a Champagne cart rolls among tables to tempt diners with bottles rather than a list. In addition, for $16, the mixologist will create a cocktail just for you. With a flourish, of course.
A looser, jazzier floor show can be experienced just a few blocks away at Basta Pasta (37 W. 17th St., 212.366.0888), where the $18 spaghetti con prosciutto e Parmigiano has been an amazingly long-running hit for this offshoot of a Tokyo restaurant, opened nearly a quarter-century ago. Servers wheel a half-wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano tableside and quickly swirl in the strands of hot spaghetti so that the cheese melts to make a semblance of sauce. Slices of prosciutto and fresh basil are laid on top as the bowl is presented.
Basta Pasta has always put the emphasis on presentation, though. The kitchen is not hidden away but is in the front room opposite the bar; the dining room you enter through has a changing gallery of art on the walls and buzzes like a big party.
Pasta is also a production at small-screen celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich’s Felidia (243 E. 58th St., 212.758.1479). Servers, clad in suits and ties in the formal dining room, heat the pear-and-pecorino ravioli or pappardelle over a gas burner at your table, then assemble the accoutrements (crushed black pepper, or moulard duck and mushrooms). Chicken or duck also takes the stage: Boned and roasted, it’s presented at the table to be sliced on a serving cart and teamed with vegetables and sauce. Some desserts are also presented with panache, like the fig carpaccio finished with a chunk carved off a honeycomb.
When it comes to greens, the award for the most dramatic Caesar salad in town has to go to Carbone (181 Thompson St., 212.254.3000). Lesser restaurants merely try to upgrade the green cliché by substituting kale for romaine, but this swanky Italian tosses it old-school, with waiters in maroon tuxes drizzling and whisking endless ingredients. It’s $21, but it comes with everything but a souvenir Playbill.
Actual cooking in the dining room happens at Gaonnuri (1250 Broadway, 39th fl., 212.971.9045). Order the Korean barbecue, and you won’t know where to look: at the grill in the center of the table, where your tender meat is tended to by the server/cook, or out the floor-to-ceiling windows at the eye-popping views of the Hudson River and the Empire State Building.
Marinated short ribs can be grilled over the gas flame, as can steak, chicken, duck, pork, shrimp or even eel. Each protein comes with two salads—shredded scallions with chile powder, and marinated onions, for example— as well as pickled bok choy, cucumbers and daikon radish, for $28 to $35 at dinner. There’s no experience like having a server literally light your table.
The prime rib presented at Porter House New York (Time Warner Center, 10 Columbus Circle, 4th fl., 212.823.9500) arrives already cooked, but fastidiously primed. The beef, which must be ordered 72 hours in advance for a party of four to eight, is aged 120 days, giving it what Chef Michael Lomonaco describes as “pretty aggressive” flavor. “It’s not for everyone,” he warns. Those who indulge are treated to a show: The roast rolls up on a cart and is carved as diners watch, after appetizers such as roasted marrow bones, and lettuce with slab bacon, tomato and blue cheese. The juicy meat itself is paired with au jus, popovers, mushrooms, onion rings, homemade fries or pommes Anna. The large-format feast costs $155 a head, but as Lomonaco says, “Part of the drama of a roast is seeing the roast.”
Lomonaco, who learned dining room theatrics working at Le Cirque and ‘21,’ considers the cart a big element of the show. And so does David Bouley. His restaurant, Bouley (163 Duane St., 212.964.2525), has long been famous for its bread chariot, driven to your butter dish with different loaves and rolls offered to complement different dishes (saffron-hazelnut with bouillabaisse, for instance). But now he has one more cart dispensing cheese—nearly three dozen choices—and yet another for drinks, herbal infusions paired with sorbets.
Those who think of tofu as the other white stuff have yet to see the presentation at Morimoto (88 10th Ave., 212.989.8883), where you can get soybean curd made to order right at your table. The restaurant itself is one grand stage, but this particular dish is a revelation. Servers bring the liquefied soybeans and a fermenting agent in a beautiful dish and come back not long afterward to uncover a silky sensation.
Finally, dishes at The Musket Room (265 Elizabeth St., 212.219.0764) also engage the eyes as well as the palate. Servers present soup with the solids in the bowl before the liquid is poured over. The smoked scallops arrive under a glass dome; when the server whisks it off, an aromatic cloud of smoke wafts out. The combination of the seafood with sea beans, black garlic and cucumber is something else, but it’s the presentation that will have the next table leaning over to applaud your choice.