Sunday, February 28, 2010

Pershing Square Cafe & Restaurant (NYC)

On a Sunday evening when my husband and I would normally have been holed up somewhere in Stamford, a waiting visa to China and a passport necessitated a jaunt into the city to retrieve them from Maarten’s office before his flight to Shanghai early Monday a.m. I didn’t mind it, though; it gave me yet another opportunity to walk the streets of mid-town Manhattan and wind the day down with a great dinner—always a favorite pastime.

While I was ready to sink my cosmetically enhanced teeth into a delectable meal, I was surprised that so many restaurants in the vicinity of Grand Central Terminal (within a three-to-four block radius) were closed on a Sunday night. It’s true that New York is the city that never sleeps . . . but apparently sometimes it naps.

After fogging up windows with my face pressed tightly against the glass and staring sadly into the inner sanctum of five different restaurants and discovering only empty seats, dimmed lights and locked doors, we happened upon Pershing Square directly across from Grand Central Terminal. By this point we had been desperately looking for anyplace that would welcome us with open arms besides McDonald’s.

We rushed inside and looked around. Pershing Square was brightly illuminated—almost annoyingly so. I soon realized, however, that the entire restaurant wasn’t nearly as lit up as the café area that greeted customers. To the left of us was a display case filled with some very tempting looking mini desserts, while on our right were groupings of tables and chairs. We approached the maitre d’ who beamed at us as if he were genuinely glad to see our smiling faces in return. Slowly, and with a regal gait, he led us into the dining room.

All of the booths along the left windowed wall were already occupied, so we sat at a table just below the raised booth, on the main dining room floor. I was struck by how colorful the restaurant is. (Click HERE to discover for yourself; click “Play AutoDrive” to get a 360 degree view of Pershing Square or you can click and drag to have an amazing interactive experience and explore all over the place – and be sure to check out the ceiling!) The entire place gave me the distinct feeling of being transported back to another time, another place; perhaps 1970, where food and presentation had a certain type of appeal that, decades later, in this new millennium feels slightly kitschy. But maybe it is all by design.

Pershing Square is a large place with a vast dining room and plenty of seating. There’s also an outdoor patio that could be the perfect staple for warm weather dining. The high ceilings—with cork construction on some parts of it—help to minimize interior sounds, so having a conversation is fairly easy and you don’t have to shout to be heard. However, because the building sits below Park Avenue Viaduct, the sounds of cars and trucks thumping overhead can be heard on a continuous basis; however, it is rather muted and isn’t too much of an annoyance. Nevertheless, I have to wonder how magnified those sounds can get during the heavy traffic of rush hour.

While we passed the time until our waiter showed up, we had the opportunity to choose from a selection of breads by a gentleman walking around the restaurant with a basketful while wielding a pair of tongs like a weapon. I was in a biscuit kind of mood, so I pointed to a nice, fat buttery looking one hiding under a thick-sliced piece of bread and both pieces were immediately put on my plate. Cool . . . a bonus piece.

I didn’t care too much for the slice of bread, but the biscuit was another topic altogether. The misshapen lumpy ball of dough with its random nooks and crannies was firm and somewhat crunchy on the outside, while the inside was doughy and slightly sweet to the taste. Homemade? You betcha. I can see why Oprah has such a fondness for biscuits in general.

The menu at Pershing Square was not extremely extensive, but I believe that can play to a restaurant’s advantage. Too many items on the menu and you have to wonder how the cook can master any one dish—unless, of course, there’s a brigade of cooks in the kitchen (in which case you lose a little bit on the consistency of the food).

My dining experience began with a glass of 2008 Urban Riesling from Mosel, Germany, which was a delight not only to my senses but my palate as well. The ripe, fruity taste would be a great complement to my appetizer, a Sautéed Maryland Crab Cake. Originally hailing from Maryland and having been privy to some of the best crab cakes this country has to offer, I tend to be highly critical of any restaurant outside of my home state that lays claims to that particular style of preparation. Pershing Square was now in the spotlight and I put them on mental notice. Meanwhile, Maarten ordered the Roasted Tomato Soup, which was the soup of the day.

I was a little dubious about the crab cake when it finally arrived. It was a little smaller than I would have liked, but then again, I tend to fall somewhere on the plus side of greedy. Prior to ordering, I had inquired with the waiter whether it consisted of jumbo lump crab meat—an essential when making a first-rate crab cake—and I was assured that it did. The cake was topped with thinly shaved radish, shallots and pea shoot salad, and surrounded by a creamy tartar sauce, which didn’t taste like any tartar sauce I had ever had. This could explain why the homemade spread was far better than average. The consistency was thick and faintly tangy.
When I bit into the crab cake, the surprise that registered on my face must have cast off a brilliant shine because I could have sworn half of the diners in the restaurant turned to see where the bright light was coming from. Or it could have been the rather loud and husky moan that gurgled in my throat. Either way, this, dear friends, was a sign of decisive goodness. It had a fragrant taste with just the hint of lemon throughout (even though I hadn’t used the lemon half wrapped in netting that they so graciously provided me with). The crab cake was firm without the use of excessive breading, and although what may have begun as lumps of crabmeat but were now broken down in form considerably (most likely from aggressive mixing of the ingredients), the flavor of true crab was the most powerful and dominant element in the dish.

There’s not much to say about the Roasted Tomato Soup except that it was hearty, rich and robust, and was also homemade in the kitchen of Pershing Square. Tomato soup always takes me back in time to when, as a child, my mother would feed us kids that very soup along with hot and gooey grilled cheese sandwiches cut into triangles for easy dipping. Although tasty, I would love to have seen Maarten’s soup with a few tomato chunks floating around in the bowl to add a slightly different texture. That small oversight, however, doesn’t detract in any way from the appetizing cold weather treat.

By now, Maarten and I are both thinking similar thoughts: We’ve stumbled upon something good here in Pershing Square. We just hoped the momentum could keep up with our expectations, lofty as they were.
Maarten was evidently looking to recapture that soothing sense of ‘home’ you get when eating certain foods—comfort foods, if you will. You know the ones I’m talking about: they bring a smile to your face, warm you from the inside out, and replays in your mind images of your mom in the kitchen with an apron cinched around her waist as she prepares yet another sumptuous, filling meal for the family. And so it was that Maarten ordered the Pershing Square’s “Famous Chicken Pot Pie”. The pie was stuffed with tender chicken that, had it been on a bone it would surely have fallen off. Softened chunks of potatoes, sliced carrots, pearl onions, celery and peas completed the filling, all lovingly swimming in a thick and creamy base.

I wanted my meal to transport me places as well, but you can only go so far back on a Ground 100% Juicy Turkey Burger. It didn’t matter that there wasn’t years of history behind my burger; it would be more than fair recompense if it were true to its title and titillated my tongue like no other round of meat could do. It’s conceivable that I am unduly influenced by the ravages of television, and my world often tends to be colored by the rather verbose ranting of others. Hence, the short burst of laughter that escaped from my mouth when the meal was placed in front of me. I experienced a Vulcan Mind Meld moment with Gordon Ramsey and could almost spit out of my own mouth his words, verbatim: “My Gawd! It’s so outdated!” For some reason which is still a mystery to me, I immediately thought of the dining room in a country club in the Catskill Mountains, circa 1950’s. Guess that burger did take me somewhere after all.

Fundamentally, I suppose the manner in which the food was presented wasn’t such an appalling thing. The real joy, if any was to be had, would come from the taste of the meal itself. So setting my snickering aside for the time being, I smeared a large dollop of thousand island dressing on both sides of the bun, placed the upper layer of bread on top of the perfectly melted cheddar cheese burger and took a bite. Maarten stared at me expectantly, waiting either for some sort of obnoxious gag reflex or an enthusiastic cheer of victory. While I didn’t verbally cry out and jump up and down, I was whooping it up like a champ on the inside. With just a bit more juiciness, and a little more seasoning, and maybe a skosh more tenderness, that would have been the best restaurant turkey burger to make acquaintance with my mouth . . . ever. What’s so distinctive about this burger, however, is how the lack of adornment has no affect on the tantalizing flavor in each nibble. Pershing Square didn’t need to add things like bacon (although I wouldn’t be mad at them if they decided to throw a couple slices of turkey bacon on it), smother it with mushrooms or stuff it with gourmet cheeses—it’s just a simple burger with a slice of cheese (and I’ll take credit for the thousand island dressing). Simple really can be respectably enjoyable.

And where you see burgers, you usually see French fries. Oooh, trust me when I say these were a golden fried batch of phenomenal fries. If ‘crispy’ met ‘crunchy’, and ‘lightly seasoned’ snuck on the bus and ‘parsley flakes’ tagged along for the adventure and then they all went to heaven, this is what it would taste like. And to think just twenty-four hours earlier, I sat in a restaurant and endured what would amount to the worst fries of my life. There is life after grease.

It turns out I’m a proponent of stumbling into places and having little to no expectations and I didn’t even knew it. Well I’m out of that closet now. What’s the worst that could happen? There are no demands because you truly don’t expect anything—good or bad. All that I was looking for from Pershing Square was someplace to place my bottom, have a meal and wish for the best. Seems wishes do come true.

Would I recommend Pershing Square? Pershing Square will definitely receive a second visit from yours truly, and I recommend you try it to the next time you’re near Grand Central Terminal. In fact, I already know what I plan to order on my next trip—Grilled Atlantic Salmon. No, wait, maybe I’ll have the House Made Ricotta Ravioli. Yeah, that’s it…but then again, the Olive Oil Poached Tuna Nicoise sounds too good to resist . . .

Is Pershing Square a good value or do you need to take out a loan to eat here? The prices are typical of a dinner menu in New York: not too terribly cheap, but you probably won’t have to file bankruptcy after one meal. The more expensive items on the menu fall under the Steaks & Chops category, and even then the 10 oz. Filet Mignon au Poivre will run a carnivore $30.00.

What about atmosphere and ambience? Pershing Square has an “old” feel floating around in the air. It’s difficult to pinpoint where that comes from, but it isn’t a negative aspect. That can probably be perceived more as having a feel of a long-standing establishment. The restaurant takes pride in the atmosphere that they’ve created. And for their purposes, if it works, stick with it.

Pershing Square Cafe & Restaurant
90 East 42nd Street at Park Avenue, New York City, NY 10017  (212) 286-9600

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