Electric Lemon is a very good restaurant designed to attract a clientele of fitfluencers, or at least those who dream to be. It claims to provide “wellness and nutrition” through “clean, conscious cuisine” — you know, earthy spelt toast, breezy Brazil nut chia bowls, and, um, Pop Rocks. The venue speaks to a “high performance lifestyle,” per its own Instagram of a trainer’s chiseled tricep. Another photo, depicting a sculpted lower back, recommends a flax seed and sweet potato bowl following a few sets of reverse squats. This is, to be fair, all what one might expect at Hudson Yards’s Equinox Hotel, a self-proclaimed “temple to total regeneration” with a 60,000-square-foot gym.
A lobby host asks if you’re checking in. Maybe you are — if you’ve got $2,000 to spend on two nights. Most folks will instead take an elevator to the 24th floor. There, among the normals, scores of people who look like cutouts from Men’s Health are brunching. Arms bulge through artisanal sweatshirts. Lean torsos jut up like slender tree trunks through drawstring hoodies. A guy in a Patagonia-style vest wears AirPods throughout his entire meal, even while complaining about his eggs.
The kitchen stuffs squishy breakfast sandwiches with heady chicken sausage and pairs them with side salads instead of home fries. Christ. A pre-shift manual for waiters, left near a window, offers a primer on carrot juice (“cancer preventer”) and beets (“creates a sense of well-being”), as well as a list of VIPs staying at the hotel. Among them: Dolph Lundgren and some tech VP.
Things seem dire until the apple cider doughnuts arrive. They’re rare yeast versions of the autumnal treat, normally made in the cake variety at farmers markets. They shimmer from a light glaze, smelling of cinnamon and wet earth. Their texture is bouncy and their flavor is only faintly sweet. Herein lies the surprise of Electric Lemon. Those who look past the GOOP-y branding and weekend DJs will find one of the most enjoyable places to eat on the far west side. At least at dinner, dietary considerations seem to integrate themselves rather invisibly into the smart, precise Mid-Atlantic fare.
And the venue, by mega-restaurateur Stephen Starr — who runs some of the city’s finest French restaurants, and Buddakan — has one hell of a view.
It is difficult to consider Hudson Yards without understanding its larger missteps, particularly the fact that the entire compound functions as a taxpayer-subsidized bastion for the rich. But one shouldn’t forget a smaller failure that plagues so much about dining here, which is that almost almost every restaurant overlooks the mall, or worse, the glistening selfie machine that is the Vessel. Electric Lemon lucks out in this regard, with floor-to-ceiling windows showing off Midtown’s dynamically evolving skyline.
Here’s what one can see from an outdoor table: the quartz-like geometry of the Bank of America building, the New Yorker hotel sign glowing neon red, a glass-encased fireplace blazing next to a long rectangular pool, the Hudson River, and the sun setting over the Jersey City Heights. Here’s what one can’t see: the shawarma-shaped Vessel, unless you’re pressed up against a bar window indoors.
Even as the weather turns cooler, outside is the ideal setting for a meal. Try kicking things off with a ramekin of razor clams. Chef Kyle Knall (Maysville) tames the brine with a pungent pickled carrot and cilantro broth. As the wind picks up, a staffer swings by with blankets to counteract the cold. This is the time to warm up with roasted oysters. Knall gently smokes the bivalves in their shells, infusing them with the sweet scent of hay. A touch of shallot mignonette tames the brine. For more even more tang, green tomato carpaccio has enough acidity to act as an edible defibrillator, letting buttermilk dressing impart powerful levels of pucker to the paper thin, umami-rich fruit.
But for a truly chilly night, consider the duck dumplings, which do their best stateside take on tortellini en brodo. Knall wouldn’t be faulted for simply dropping these extra al dente ravioli, filled with rich avian fowl, into a hot bowl of bone broth. But he smartly strives for balance, adding diced apples for tartness and lemon verbena for perfume.
Much of the menu is gluten-free, including a flatbread pizza — textureless bread, bland broccoli, insipid cheese — that tastes cribbed from a hot buffet in a suburban mall. Chickpea tagliatelle, however, manages to mimic the snappy texture of semolina-based pasta with finesse; the strands sop up a light tomato-shishito sauce that’s as floral as it is piquant. Equally airy is the grilled bass, slicked with green salsa verde and topped with a salad’s worth of nasturtium, mint, and other fresh herbs. The flesh is springy; the garnishes are bright, and the tortillas that come with are warm. It all makes for stellar DIY tacos.
If the the beet-yogurt “Beauty Bowls” at brunch fall in line with trends at self-described “lifestyle” restaurants, the nighttime dishes could pass themselves off as the New American style that has trended lighter and brighter for quite some time. For example: Knall roasts his lamb loin rare, fortifying it with little more than a simple reduction of its own juices. It’s not a study in butter or lard, but rather in the grassy slap of the lean meat and the musk of cumin; only a few cubes of braised shoulder impart a hint of rich fat.
Labeling any of this as “wellness” fare might be important by Equinox’s aspirational marketing logic. Still, that language feels a bit dicier by standards of common sense. Clean eating, as a term, has been used to broadly suggest unproven health benefits, or as code for non-Western dishes that have been scrubbed of perceived impurities. It’s curious how, at Electric Lemon, a marbled steak gets to be a steak, and a fatty burger gets to be a burger, but the banh mi, unavailable elsewhere in Hudson Yards, is stripped of its signature pate or cold cuts (or heck, tofu) and replaced with bland roast carrots. Also: When a restaurant posts a photo of someone holding a cocktail while their cephalic vein bursts out of their forearm, that effectively signals the type of bodies that belong here, and those that don’t.
Whatever the case, Kelly Nam’s spectacular desserts more closely adhere to the ethos of French pastry and American junk food than any diet regimen.
When a server sets down one of the desserts, he points out that you can “hear” the Pop Rocks fizzle and hiss. How bucolic. Nam laces the candy into orbs of pale green lemon verbena sorbet. Next to them, she places frozen spheres of lemon curd. She arranges this all in such a way that channels a faraway solar system, where the orbital bodies are made of sugar and colored in pastels. The sorbet is soft and fragrant; the curd is firm and bracingly sour; and the Pop Rocks, more audible than visible, vibrate across the tongue like a soft electric current.
“Moon Rock” exhibits no fewer complexities. The chef showers a soft ball of chocolate in dense, black sesame feuilletine and honeycomb crisps, resulting in an amorphous mass that tastes like a cross between a Butterfinger and a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. And since any nut butter calls for dairy, a quenelle of goat’s milk ice cream helps unstick the palate with a kick of barnyard funk.
Nam’s ideas and executions hint at the type of creative modernism Max Boonthanakit conjures at Nightshade in Los Angeles, and the technical wizardry that Stephanie Prida produces at the Pool or the Lobster Club. This is just as true of her frozen yogurt, indented like a Thanksgiving gravy boat to hold a pool of verdant juiced herbs. It is a striking sweet-sour contrast in green and white.
Hudson Yards and all its deep flaws aren’t going aways. Some folks, justifiably, won’t be able to get past the fact that Equinox is owned by Related, whose chairman held a high profile fundraiser for President Donald Trump earlier this year. That aside, Electric Lemon is a rare place where you can feel that New York magic up high — as long as one ignores the wellness nonsense.