For the fine dining naysayers of Manhattan's gilded aughts, the pre-crash years that brought us $1,000 meals at Masa and Per Se, the 2005 debut of Danny Meyer's The Modern represented a welcome counterpoint. Located on the ground floor of MoMA in Midtown, The Modern was where one could enjoy a cocktail or a small plate for less than the twenty bucks it cost to visit the museum. Even if a longer tasting could run hundreds, there was something refreshing about an entry-level culinary experience being more accessible than an entry-level art experience – in the same building, no less. The Modern wasn't a captive audience institution designed to shake down gallery-goers with overpriced panini; it was an independent establishment, with no entry fee, designed to bring in guests who might not have visited a museum in the first place. And now, eleven years later, as the city's gastronomic and artistic centers of gravity have shifted downtown, Meyer has scored with another affordable museum eatery, this one in the Meatpacking District. Welcome to Untitled at the newly-relocated Whitney.
The folks to thank here are Michael Anthony, who also runs Meyer's Gramercy Tavern, and chef de cuisine Suzanne Cupps. Together, they're serving some of the city's most accomplished vegetable-forward fare at very reasonable prices. A snack for two – a glass of muscadet, a beer, a pickle plate (with stunning curried cauliflower ribs), and a lemony lobster toast – will cost less, after tax, but before tip, than two $22 tickets to the museum. Call it a boon for those who'd rather take in one of the city's newest pieces of celebrity architecture – Renzo Piano is the designer – while sitting down and eating, instead of while schlepping around the exhibits without booze.
Meyer, the hospitality guru behind Shake Shack, and Anthony, who once led the kitchen at Stone Barns, are doing important things here with food, wine prices, and even reservations. It's the kind of restaurant whose merits and quirks you'll be pressed to debate with your colleagues – just as you might after seeing Carroll Dunham's NSFW nude on the Whitney's fifth floor. So here are your talking points for Untitled, as well as for Meyer's more casual Studio Cafe on the 8th floor.
Untitled Is Danny Meyer's Second Best Looking Restaurant
The Modern still ranks No.1 in the looks department; it's where diners relax in Arne Jacobsen chairs (which individually cost more than a MacBook Pro) while overlooking the museum's serene sculpture garden. But the Piano-designed Untitled, with its sloping ceilings and never-ending glass walls, is a close second. Guests sit in plush Eero Saarinen chairs (about $1,500 retail) while overlooking a down-the-block line of people waiting to get into the museum; it's as if Piano is saying that in the Meatpacking District, the well-heeled street denizens are the real sculptures worthy of observation. The room and the vistas, incidentally, are a heck of a lot prettier than the Whitney itself, which looks like a well-polished 1980s Xerox machine.
Vegetable-Heavy Share Plates Push the Boundaries of Museum Fare
Here's a quick list of dishes that wouldn't be out of place at even an upscale museum restaurant: burgers, sandwiches, fries, or steaks. And yet Anthony doesn't serve any of the above, not even at lunch. Instead, he sends out the type of edgy, small-to-mid-sized plates that one might encounter at a boundary-pushing restaurant in Brooklyn or the Lower East Side. He gives us chamomile-infused peas with favas, a whisper of summertime sugar, or matzoh-thin flatbread anointed with bacon and creamed corn, a heavier dose of vegetable-based sweetness. He takes beets with yogurt, a fairly run-of-the-mill pairing, and turns the ingredients into an epic cold borscht of sorts; the addition of pickled cherries, sweet cherries, currants and tarragon evoke a fragrant summer evening in the Russian taiga.
This is a kitchen that knows how to indulge. Island Creek oysters are fried so delicately that the texture is akin to an oceanic water balloon, ready to burst with brine. Anthony pairs creamy pole beans and soft calamari in a grilled riff on fritto misto, with an incendiary guajillo salsa for dredging and dunking. And he coats Tokyo turnips with aioli, pecorino, and guanciale, creating a hot, porky, cheesy, root vegetable carbonara.
Beverage Director Eduardo Porto Carreiro Is a Man of the People.
If you want to encourage novice oenophiles to drink more off-the-beaten track wines, this is how to do it.
When a sommelier tells you about an off-the-menu pour, it's often code for "this glass of wine costs more than your steak." That's not the case here, where the so-called "Untitled" pour, designed to showcase up-and-coming regions and new wine-makers, is among the cheapest by-the-glass selections, at $11. Note to other beverage directors around the city: If you want to encourage novice oenophiles to drink more off-the-beaten track wines, this is how to do it. And here it's worth mentioning that while good restaurants rarely sell more than a bottle or two of Champagne at $100 or less, Untitled, taking a cue from sister spot Marta, offers eleven in that range, including a lean, mean, 100 percent pinot meunier (Christophe Mignon) for $69.
Main Courses Are Traditionally Portioned
Unlike the rest of the menu, the main courses are more traditionally portioned in the American-style, acting as de facto one-plate meals. So $25 gets you enough over-sauced fettuccine for two, sitting in a virtual soup of tomatoes, while $27 results in a steakhouse-sized portion of lamb chops – the lone red meat entree. Better are the cubes of swordfish over roasted eggplant; take away the delectably oily flesh and the dish would still boast a breathtaking degree of complexity, with a tomato saffron vinaigrette lending a floral counterpoint to the smoky nightshade. And the chicken – Anthony uses an insanely flavorful Green Circle breed – is the game-changing protein here; the breast is roasted on the rotisserie, imparting the skin with a funky, pliable softness, while the soy-and-garlic marinated thighs are fried, evoking a masterful, Japanese-style karaage.
Desserts Taste As If They're Coming Out of an Entirely Different Restaurant
Vegetable-centric restaurants don't need to push squash pudding or tomato soufflé for dessert, but like at any good culinary establishment, the sweet and savory kitchens should at least be speaking the same language, and that's not necessarily the case at Untitled. The postprandial treats of Miro Uskokovic, unlike the innovative fare of chef Anthony, can feel as generic as a pair of khakis at Georgetown University. Cake, be it the peanut butter blueberry variety or chocolate fudge, wouldn't be out of place at any airport restaurant, anywhere in America. And poundcake with strawberries is no better than the supermarket version you could make at home. Panna cotta, bland and overgelatined, is rescued by a tart berry compote, while a coconut and apricot tart packs such a dense shell it flips on its side when you try to cut it. Even the chocolate chunk cookie, while technically brilliant (and delicious), feels out of place on such an ambitious menu.
Studio Cafe Does The Hip Toast Right
The Studio Cafe, a separate restaurant on the 8th floor, requires a ticket to the Whitney, and therefore qualifies as more of a traditional captive audience venue – an institution that faces little competition because this is inevitably where museum guests will come to refuel without leaving the building. And yet Anthony's mostly-toast menu (cue eye rolling) is as awesome and affordable as anything one might encounter at a cool East Village establishment. Everything's an essay in balance. Cucumbers inject a dose of watery freshness into buttery avocado toast. Green tomato jam imparts acidity to rich cheddar toast. Spicy Thai pickles cut the sweet density of honeyed peanut butter toast. And summery tomatoes, in a more traditional preparation, take the edge off the tartness of goat cheese. They're all $12 each and you enjoy them on the elevated outdoor deck, with its stunning vistas of One World Trade, the Hudson, and The Empire State Building. It's the type of food, and the type of view, that'll alone justify the museum's $85 yearly membership. And it's all enough to make us wonder whether Meyer, the new king of captive audience dining, will find a way to make us want to have dinner at the local DMV or the nearest hospital in the coming years.
Cost: All dishes at $27 or under.
Sample dishes: Lobster and preserved lemon toast, corn and bacon flatbread, turnips with guanciale and pecorino, roasted and fried chicken.
Bonus tip: About 50 percent of the dining room is reserved for walk-ins, or 75 percent if one counts outdoor patio seating – a much larger proportion than at most Danny Meyer restaurants. So don't fret if there's nothing on OpenTable; reservations aren't really necessary.