The restaurant smells of hay smoke, white truffles, and women's perfume. A bartender shakes his head while mixing good Venezuelan rum with Diet Coke. A guy wearing cufflinks makes a quip about nose rings and mansplains outdoor survival to his companion. "Watch out for mountain bikers while hiking," he says (now you know, cyclists are nature's deadliest predator). An older gentleman walking through the dining room takes out a wad of cash and starts counting it. A finance bro thrusts his hips in a humping motion while joking with his buddies. He then sits down next to me, invites me to join his party (no thanks), offers to buy me a drink (I'm good), and explains that he works for an investment bank (go figure). To show that he means well, he prefaces most of his comments with the following phrase: "We're not trying to be douchebags."
Feels like pre-crash Manhattan all over again at Gabriel Kreuther, the namesake Alsatian joint by the chef who spent nearly a decade at The Modern slinging tarte flambées. The gilded Bryant Park hangout combines the demure excess of a 1980s Grey Poupon commercial with a hint of Wolf of Wall Street flair. The floors are carpeted, the throw pillows are plentiful, and the linens are more comfortable than the sheets you sleep in. It's not a foodie restaurant, it's just a restaurant. I don't say that as an insult – the Michelin star is merited – I say that as a reminder that this isn't a place where chefs double as waiters, where lilliputian proteins hide under canopies of Belgian endive, or where postprandial dollar pizza is a requirement for filling up. Kreuther is a study in neo-classical indulgences: caviar, truffles and foie gras – lots of foie gras.
Here's your amuse: a white polenta financier fortified with a whisper of airy foie. If Kreuther sold these by the bag for $5 he'd put Maison Kayser out of business. Here's your appetizer: compressed hamachi with black truffles and foie, an earthy, oily terrine that slithers down your throat with all the wiggle and jiggle of Jell-O. Here's your main course: squab and foie croustillant, a Churchill-esque ode to gout, a meat pie where gamy pigeon and flaky pastry yields to the warm, panna cotta-like liver.
The engorged organ meat also comes gewurtztraminer-poached or duck prosciutto-paired, because the restaurant's license plate reads FULL FOIE. Time to fist bump and blow it up with Kreuther, the silver-haired fleischschnecke-meister who's flipping the hydraulic pumps and low riding this Rolls through today's lean, mean culinary streets. The past ten years have seen an extraordinary ascendance of smaller, seafood and vegetable-heavy tasting menu spots, from the expensive (Blanca, Brooklyn Fare, Atera), to the affordable (Semilla, Contra), while fancy, French-y joints with hopes of getting invited back to the prom (Gordon Ramsay, Adour, Michel Richard) have all failed. Kreuther, by contrast, feels poised for longevity. In fact, a series of recent meals suggest it's well on its way to becoming the next Daniel, Jean-Georges, or Le Bernardin, sating you with familiarity and classic technicality rather than thrilling you with envelope-pushing creativity or strong, spicy flavors.
Something to consider: the prix fixe dining room, which could double as a showroom for men's sports jackets, is packed at 9:30 pm on weeknights. But the small plates bar room, where the French-German fare is no less exciting (beer soup with ham hocks!), often feels quite empty. That imbalance suggests that, in Midtown at least, a certain class of diner prefers a spendy four-course meal over a cheaper collection of small plates. It also suggests that the larger culinary community has underestimated the extent to which some guests don't mind paying a bit more for more comforts and more carbs.
Perhaps we've underestimated the extent to which some guests will pay for more comforts and more carbs.
A waiter brings over a crock of steaming scallion kougelhopf. Looks like cake. You cool it off with a smear of scallion creme fraiche – savory frosting. Later comes crackly ash baguette. The interior has the dark sheen of good chocolate. It's just coloring, alas. Mean trick. It's replaced by pumpkin seed loaf, a vessel for garlic-laced lardo, a savory Fluff that fearless gusts will also spread over Mangalitsa loin with morcilla crumble. That's three bread courses, three fatty condiments, one for each hour of the tasting menu.
These freebies aren't free, of course. Dinner, as of this week, is $115 for four courses, a hefty jump from this summer's $98 menu. Kreuther, like many others, is hiking its prices as the state's rising minimum wage (among other regulatory burdens) makes the cost of running a restaurant a bit more expensive. Accordingly, Kreuther's tasting menu has risen too, by $10 to $195. And that hamachi with foie gras? It's a $20 supplement to the prix fixe. Order it. Do not order the $25 black truffle and blue cheese mille-feuille, which does little to show off either of the involved indulgences. Also skip the $75 caviar with potato espuma; the kitchen uses a mushy, one note Northern Lights roe.
Kreuther sometimes exhibits more fluency with more accessible luxuries. He rights his caviar wrongs with a generous scoop of black tobiko, lending a briny Pop Rocks kick to fennel, cockle, and (raw) blue shrimp velouté – one of the city's finest chowders. He amps up a neutral-tasting mero fish by slipping some funky mussels under the filet's herb crust. And he lays a cayenne tuile over langoustine tartare, providing a sweet, cookie-like counterpoint to the silky crustaceans.
Desserts don't wow but they get the job done, from a cilantro sorbet to a cheesecake macaron to a most righteous parting gift, a sweet kougelhopf laced with dried fruit. Think of the traditional Alsatian bundt cake as your fourth bread course.
The Lounge and The Burden of Luxury
Explaining the bar room is simple: It's cheaper; it's for walk-ins; it's where you warm your bones with hearty fare on a cold night. Tart beer soup will do the trick, as will a pile of red wine tripe, a smoky tarte flambee, or a bowl of lobster sauce-drenched saffron pasta. The lounge is without question the chiller place to dine. That's a point worth meditating on, especially as some bemoan the lack of classic comforts in today's modern crop of shouty gastropubs, cramped tasting tables, and other stripped-down gourmet spots.
For others, myself included, there's a certain burden involved in the more traditional ways of fine dining, where, in between courses, your table is cleared by one person, crumbed by another and liberated of an empty wine glass by a third. Getting from point A to point B at Kreuther can make a guest feel like Moses parting the Red Sea; when you walk to the restroom, so many waiters, managers, and sommeliers discretely step aside, smile, and usher you ahead that you half expect a 21 gun salute after successfully relieving yourself.
That's not to say Kreuther should change its generous approach to hospitality. But perhaps the restaurant would be more accessible if the bartenders, following the lead of Le Bernardin and Del Posto, encouraged counter patrons to order off the set menu (so they won't miss those more elevated offerings simply because they're more comfortable there) or if wait captains told those in the plusher, prix-fixe dining room to let loose and order off the equally compelling bar menu (especially because the distinction between rustic and refined can be a silly one). As eating out becomes more expensive for everyone in New York, giving everyone more options to feel at ease might just be the key to keeping restaurants full.
Cost: Four course prix-fixe at $115; tasting at $195. A la carte lounge items run from $15 (tarte flambee) to $56 (caviar with sea urchin). Lunch starts at $52 for two courses.
Sample dishes: Langoustine tartare, compressed hamachi with foie gras, fennel-cockle veloute, tarte flambee, squab and foie gras croustillant.
Bonus tip: The dining room is often full but same day reservations aren't too tough to come by for those (like me) who prefer not to plan too far in advance.