Chef and prolific restaurateur Andrew Carmellini now has his very own namesake restaurant: Café Carmellini opened this week at 250 Fifth Avenue, near East 28th Street, the midpoint between the Empire State Building and the Flatiron building. It’s a grand entrance in Nomad, which is shaping up to become one of the most ambitious restaurant neighborhoods in the city. With its proximity to Koreatown and restaurants like Atoboy, Little Mad, and Cote Korean Steakhouse; along with Koloman in Ace Hotel, and Zaytinya with sibling rooftop Nubeluz from José Andrés; a diversity of compelling fancy picks have multiplied here in the past couple of years. Café Carmellini is the addition of a significant New York chef-driven restaurant, with a personal menu that nods to the Carmellini family roots in Tuscany; restaurants that have shaped the chef’s career; dishes that have brought him fame; and colleagues whom he admires.
The 5,000 square-foot Café Carmellini anchors the area’s newest place to stay. The Fifth Avenue Hotel opened in September in a rehabbed McKim, Mead and White building from the architects who built the Brooklyn Museum, the New York Herald building, the Morgan Library, the old Penn Station, and the Vanderbilt mansion in Hyde Park, New York, now a National Historic site. Before it was restored, Carmellini says, it at one time housed offices and a boxing gym upstairs.
Following his hits like Carne Mare, Locanda Verde, Lafayette, and the Dutch, Café Carmellini is an early entry among a slew of giant restaurant openings on track over the next few months from big-name chefs, all of whom happen to be men. Aside from Marcus Samuelsson’s Metropolis in Fidi and the Brombergs’ Blue Ribbon Sushi & Steak closer to Madison Square Garden, the rest will open in Midtown, including 425 Park Ave from Jean-Georges Vongerichten, another on Park Avenue from David Burke, and a 15,000-square-foot space on Madison Avenue from Simon Kim of Cote. These new restaurants are a contrast to the downtown casual of the early aughts from Mario Batali, April Bloomfield, Ken Friedman, and David Chang. In their luxuriousness, they’re ushering back some of the signifiers of fine dining, with white tablecloths, servers in suits, tableside trolleys — and higher prices.
The rise of such restaurants feels like a 21st-century version of the Gilded Age, with its concentration of wealth making it more daunting for regular folks to consider walking into a space that could easily rack up a $500 bill for two. But Carmellini’s restaurant, with its a la carte menu and prices that are far from the highest on the block, feels a bit more accessible than a tasting menu destination — not surprising for a chef who has presided over more casual spots over the past 15 years. Prices on the first week’s menu range from a raw and cured section with dishes between $20 to $32; first and second courses in the $20 to $35 range; to mains from $45 to $88 (no prices are listed on the website menu). If you’re trying to keep the bill from skyrocketing, one can imagine sitting at the six-seat bar and ordering a glass of wine, kampachi acqua pazza, and duck tortellini, and keeping it in the $100 range: Whether you like it or not, it’s the new normal for many New York restaurants. (For now, the prices are similar to those of Locanda Verde, the restaurant he co-owns with Robert DeNiro in Tribeca.)
Back at the entrance, medieval-looking doors mark the building: Passing through the entrance is like crossing a moat, which in this case is the alcove, with a low-key bouncer-slash-hotel-greeter, past a set of glass doors, into the 98-seat Café Carmellini. A trio of hosts anchor the stand, behind which there’s a huge photograph from Jigna Zhang of a woman with flowers in her hair, her eyes overlooking the dining room. Carmellini says it’s like Botticelli’s Primavera meets Led Zeppelin’s Going to California. Etched glass trees and peacocks reinforce that Primavera vibe. And the chef-approved playlist is more roots R&B and ‘70s tunes and less cacophony of aughts restaurants.
In the two-story maximalist dining room, giant trees align the center of the room, flanked by a handful of concentric circle chandeliers outfitted with dozens of bulbs emitting warm light across a dining room of leather chairs and blue-velvet banquets. These tables take up a lot of real estate, a departure from uncomfortable seating in the Before Times, and spaced far enough apart that you couldn’t eavesdrop on the next table if you tried. The upper-level tables look like box seats at the opera. The open kitchen is set back and tiled in blue, where servers wait at a pass tucked near a recessed garde-manger station, rather than with their backs to the dining room.
Unlike some of the full-blast luxury restaurants that are on track to open, Café Carmellini walks the line between accessible and fancy, fine dining and casual sit-down. The menu reflects Carmellini’s history — a veal tongue Castelluccio hints at his family’s roots in Tuscany; dishes like Sole Normande and squab en croute are reminiscent of his stints at New York’s Lespinasse, Le Cirque, and three-Michelin-starred L’Arpege in Paris. The menu also borrows elements from his other restaurants, with rabbit cacciatore and that duck tortellini on menus over a decade ago. And there’s a rotating dish on the menu named after a chef: The first is a scallop coconut curry, an homage to the late Floyd Cardoz.
Chef de cuisine Kyle Goldstein, formerly of Gramercy Tavern and Eleven Madison Park, runs the kitchen, joined by pastry chef Jeffrey Wurtz (don’t miss his fun coffee granita), who worked under chef Alain Ducasse. The wine collection includes 1800 bottles from $70 to a mind-blowing $10,000 (with glasses $18 to $40) overseen by Master Sommelier Josh Nadel, who’s been with Carmellini since 2009. Cocktails lean classic from bartender Darryl Chan.
Hours of operation are Tuesday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m. On the way to the bathrooms, check out the wall of eyes, and consider an after-dinner drink at the hotel’s cozy Portrait Bar.