Ignacio Mattos, the chef and restaurateur, gave New York one of its most original restaurants of the past decade, Estela. With his latest place, Corner Bar, he seems to be out to prove that originality is overrated. I’m not sure he succeeds, but he comes a lot closer than I would have thought possible.
Corner Bar is more than a bar, but the rest is straightforward enough. It is indeed on a corner, inside Nine Orchard, a new boutique hotel on Canal Street where the smallest rooms currently start at $525 a night. The building is in that ambiguous piece of downtown where Chinatown and the Lower East Side meet and seem to run out of steam.
A stalemate was in effect there for years until the restaurant Dimes arrived with the alluring idea that the secret to youth and beauty was as simple as putting sunchokes in your Caesar salad and wheatgrass in your margaritas. Soon a cluster of new bars and other demographically aligned businesses had made the micro-district, by then called Dimes Square, one of the last places in Lower Manhattan where artists, skater kids, part-time novelists, full-time conversationalists and philosophy students stuck in waitressing gigs could share the same length of sidewalk.
Dimes Square’s fame probably helped put Corner Bar on the map when it opened in June. For all practical purposes, though, the culture of Dimes Square ends just outside Corner Bar.
Bar hoppers who stroll in and out of Clandestino in packs may be brought up short by the phalanx of fancily dressed hosts and greeters at the door. Fans of Dimes’s broccoli melt may blink hard at Corner Bar’s canard à l’orange and terrine of foie gras with riesling gelée. Members of the natural-wine generation who pile into Le Dive and Parcelle for pét-nats and sans soufre chenin blanc may be at a loss faced with the outright classicism of Corner Bar’s wine list, which kicks off with three pages of Champagne before lavishing attention on the Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits.
Corner Bar is nobody’s idea of a cutting-edge restaurant. The menu is short, safe and self-explanatory, from the shrimp cocktail to the profiteroles. The least adventurous eater you know could find something to order in under two minutes, although it may take slightly longer to decipher the specials, written on a chalkboard above the long marble bar in lettering usually seen on an eye chart’s bottom row.
An expensive restaurant in a luxury hotel serving highly familiar American, French and Italian food sounds like the most predictable thing imaginable. As a rule, unimaginative menus lead to sleepwalking cooks. (Or maybe it’s the other way around.) Surprisingly, somewhat puzzlingly, this rule doesn’t apply at Corner Bar. Under Vincent D’Ambrosio, the chef de cuisine, the kitchen is making these routine classics as if the fate of the world depended on it. This is cooking of a very high order.
The fresh tagliatelle — silky from egg yolks, firm without being stiff — suggest that somewhere in that kitchen is an unsmiling nonna who handles a rolling pin as authoritatively as Danai Gurira wields a vibranium spear. Some nights, the noodles glisten with a sauce that shows why a three-meat Bolognese (beef, lamb and pork, in this case) is always best. Other nights, they are tossed with soft and juicy pieces of lobster and a sticky, intense lobster stock.
The steak au poivre is not quite by the book; if there is any cream in the sauce, I couldn’t find it. But enough butter seems to have been folded in to make up for it. The meat, under a knobby armor of peppercorns and flaky salt, is a strikingly juicy and satisfying Wagyu skirt steak.
This is the logical place to mention the pommes frites. They are thick and substantial, and have the kind of crunch that isn’t achieved without time and effort. I’m sure no kitchen wants to be judged by its fried potatoes alone, but you know you’re in a place that takes cooking seriously when you taste fries like these.
Corner Bar doesn’t mess around in the shellfish department, either. Six long blue prawns make up the shrimp cocktail, and they are cooked exactly right (as they should be when a shrimp cocktail costs $35). Steamed in their shells, head and all, those prawns are also a highlight of the $85 plateau de fruits de mer, accompanied, when I had it, with shucked oysters, creamy marinated mussels, tiles of raw bluefin and sea trout, and half a small steamed lobster.
Disappointments are few and relatively minor — a foie gras terrine cooked to a dull gray, an omelet under shaved white truffles was a little too firm. But in the company of other, virtually flawless dishes, and at these prices ($34 for the terrine, $125 for the omelet), they stand out.
There’s nothing wrong with making superior iterations of classics that have grown tired from overexposure. Alain Ducasse, in his bistro and brasserie makeovers, has devoted the recent part of his career to it. But it helps to bring some twists and turns to the canon. A predictable menu combined with high prices has a way of squeezing the fun out of a room.
Of course, the mood at Corner Bar lightens with dessert. The classic, shallow crême brûlée is soft and shot through with vanilla seeds. A pitcher of dark-chocolate sauce is almost emptied over the profiteroles, then set on the table for further use.
Somehow, though, the dessert I keep thinking about is the Matterhorn of soft-serve pineapple sorbet with emerald streams of basil oil running down its slopes. It may or may not be a tribute to the Dole Whip from Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room. I hope it is. Corner Bar is a serious restaurant, but it could use a few surprises.
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