A Lounge That Wants to be a Restaurant... or Vice Versa

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Church Lounge
Tribeca Grand Hotel
2 6th Ave. (White St.)

This fall, I've been lucky enough to have been invited, through the machinations of a publicist somewhere, to the Italian Culinary Institute twice. On each occasion, I was treated to a really splendid meal.

It didn't hurt that the chefs who had been brought in for the dinners were working with white truffles. My fellow diners and I had found ourselves smack-dab in the middle of truffle season, and Urbani, one of the world's foremost purveyors of the coveted tuber (along with a mess of other culinarily luxurious products) wanted to pull out all the stops. We sniffed raw truffles and nibbled truffle appetizers and slurped truffled pastas and wolfed down truffled entrees and finished everything off with truffled desserts. The wine flowed. Conversation was lubricious and civilized. It was fun. We felt, all of us, marked by fortune and, truffle-filled and rosy, we gloried in the brief glow of bliss that great food can engender.

The chefs were impressive. Apart from the wonderful opportunity to eat truffles?and don't ever pass this up, even if you don't really get truffles?I wanted to scout kitchen talent. The ICI did not disappoint. Both of the dinners I attended were prepared by young, innovative chefs currently overseeing honest-to-God real-life New York restaurants. A fairly classical treatment of the considerable on-hand white truffle supply was delivered by Maurizio Marfoglia, of the Upper East Side's Revel. A slightly more madcap and far less calorically or cholesterolically restrained performance was turned in by Rob Miketa, of Church Lounge, in the Tribeca Grand Hotel.

It would be unfair to draw distinctions between the two men. Marfoglia chose to stick pretty close to the idea that white truffles are best shaved over simple, lush dishes immediately prior to presentation. When his food was slipped under our noses, it was not difficult to find the slivered truffles. They issued their funky bouquet through faint curls of appetizing steam. Miketa, on the other hand, practices a style that is far more French (though not unmodified?he specializes in dense reductions, slowly concentrating flavors rather than larding them on after the fact). For him, the truffles were ancillary, mere components in a more elaborate matrix. Helpful, but hardly the main event.

The contrast between French and Italian cooking could not have been more vivid: Marfoglia, with his blanched and marinated squash medley, lightly drizzled with pumpkin seed oil, then adorned with white truffle shards; Miketa, carefully constructing a tart of onion confit with the truffles worked in there someplace, I forget where (and in the end, I couldn't taste them, not really, but I sensed that they were there). The minimalist. The maximalist. The respectful Italian ingredientist. The passionate practitioner of French technique. Simplicity. Complexity. Back and forth.

In any case, I vowed to visit both Revel and Church Lounge, to see what Marfoglia and Miketa could do in their own elements, on their respective home turfs. I got to Miketa first.

The Tribeca Grand, if you haven't dropped by yet, is truly?truly and genuinely?something else.

I can't even begin to describe it in the space allotted here. Just go. It's free. They probably won't hassle you too much if you tell them all you want to do is check it out. Church Lounge fills most of the sunken first floor, at the bottom of a soaring atrium. It's loungey in the way that all lounges are these days: moody, slick, lambent. There are tuffets and spongy velvet chairs and many, many small votive candles. Attractive, but I was concerned. I had half expected Miketa's forum to be...I don't know, more restaurant-like. A lounge, however, is a lounge. The hotel doesn't argue against this, either; check out the website (tribecagrand.com), and you'll discover that Church Lounge is not intended to evoke an actual restaurant. Instead, the scheme is to attract those droves of nightcrawling hipsters who prowl lower Manhattan in constant search of a moveable feast of small, nibbly foods, to be washed down with kandy-kolored kocktails and secondhand smoke.

Undeterred by this realization?and quite enraptured by the drama of the space, especially after a mostly naked Asian woman spent several bosomy seconds spilling out of her dress while teetering across the room?my companion and I took in the bar. A pretty swell place to meet for a drink downtown, we concluded. Even if the bartenders seemed distracted, borderline zombified, half the time. (I sat, alone, prior to my companion's arrival, for a good 10 minutes before anyone actually noticed me, and though I am innocuous, I'm not that innocuous.) Overall, Church Lounge's service could use some work. The staff seems large and reasonably well cast, but undrilled. They float and drift. They exist in waitressy bubbles of self-regard. They are not pros, and at the prices Church Lounge is charging for food, they need pros.

Despite all this, I was prepared to be dazzled by Miketa's food. Unfortunately, I was not. We ordered a starter of grilled octopus with fennel sausage and Provençal vegetables, which more or less succeeded, but it also struck me as fundamentally lacking in innovation. Sure, sure, sausage. Cool. Still, you can eat this basic dish at a dozen (and maybe two or three dozen) places around town. A more exotic selection might have been the goat cheese tart, with onion confit, beet puree and thyme. Or the "Spanish Kisses": dates stuffed with Manchego cheese, wrapped in serrano ham.

Feeling wintery, when it came time for entrees, we went for the grilled pork loin and roasted loin of venison, and while these were both robust and delicious, they, too, were very basic. The sides were basic. (Okay, celeriac-potato gratin, with my venison, plus a sauce of cranberries, black walnuts and scotch, is maybe not "basic" in the most basic sense, but still, the plates were set up in a dispiritingly meat-and-potatoes fashion.)

Where was all that technique I had seen Miketa use? Where was the craft?

Worsening my impressions was the wine service. The list?which I was informed is undergoing some revision?is intriguing and bedecked with some pretty fabulous selections. But Church Lounge has no sommelier proper (a glaring oversight, if you ask me, given the obvious ambitions of the hotel). They also appear to lack much in the way of stemware. We ordered a '95 Brunello di Montalcino?a husky Tuscan red from a terrific vintage?and were forced to drink it from chunky, long-stemmed, small-bowled glasses that had been perched on the table long before we sat down. Horrifying. Swirling was impossible, sniffing difficult. We're talking about a fairly pricey bottle of wine here, and furthermore, one that would definitely have benefited from more delicate stemware, with a fuller bowl.

My core problem with Church Lounge it this: there's a misfit between the implied patronage and the chef. Miketa has some chops. Compelling him to develop a menu that actually forces his kitchen to churn out sauteed baby spinach and pan-seared filet mignon is, therefore, humiliating. Forget about the four-cheese ravioli with a tomato-basil sauce. I will, gladly, because it's beneath him. The setting, to be sure, is chic. And that's probably bad for the food.


Back to the Italian Culinary Institute for a moment. The operation recently sent me a copy of their newest cookbook, Signature Pasta: America's Top 26 Chefs Share Their Best Pasta Recipes.

Now, up front I must point out that the subtitle should read 26 of America's Top Chefs, because many of the chefs who have contributed recipes, while undoubtedly talented, would not automatically make an objective Top 26 list. Nevertheless, the tremendous advantage that this cookbook has over most is that you might actually want to prepare some the dishes included between its covers.

The truth is, I think I could tackle every recipe in Signature Pasta, with a minimal threat to my personal sanity, and with none of the hemming and hawing and gradual diminishment of vigor that goes along with taking on the recipes published in most cookbooks, especially the ones authored by "celebrity" chefs.

Signature Pasta, above all, is a cookbook for the culinarily disadvantaged. I don't mean culinarily retarded. These are all pasta recipes, so you need a modicum of competence to pull them off (boil water, saute garlic, chop things). But you won't require a freezer full of lovingly nurtured sauces; it's not necessary to have scoured the city's outdoor markets for exotic produce or strange creatures of the sea. This is a straightforward cookbook, assembled by pros, and the pros aren't afraid to include dishes as simple as the classic spaghetti aglio e olio (the noodles dressed with nothing more than a garlic-infused olive oil) or fusilli with tomato filets.

A winner, at $22.95, ably assembled by Paolo Villoresi and the redoubtable Micol Negrin. Pick up a copy, wrap it up all nice and tuck it under the tree for someone you love.

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