Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Out of Town: Pre-Theater in NYC

Choosing restaurants for pre-theater is tricky anywhere, even in NYC. Most people I know look from the bargain-priced to mid-range steering clear of the big ticket. Sometimes funny logic is at work. A person might be ready and willing to spend at a splashy spot but not before "The Merchant of Venice" - if you pull out the stops pre-theater will you snooze through Portia's quality of mercy speech? Or worse, will you wake up with a big body shudder in the middle of it?

Here are three options where the timing works. The first is not a bargain in the strictest sense, the restaurant being east of the cheapest avenues, but it's friendly, not too noisy, has good salads and is an easy walk to everything. The second is well-located and at first glance looks like it's super high-end but the $34.00 lunch is beautiful, the burger is TERRIFIC, the Conde Nast crowd is glamorous (they pick at their food), and it's a pretty place. The third restaurant is your basic over-the-top, see-and-be-seen, oh-so-precious glam spot that just happens to be tons of fun and really good.

1. BRASSERIE COGNAC (55th & Broadway  212-757-3600) is part of the Serafina group, well known to people in west mid-town and the upper east side. BC's front corner room has lots of windows, one of those rooms where inside and outside almost blend when the weather is good. The inner parts of BC may be slightly more atmospheric in the pretend-French sense but out near the street traffic seems like more fun to me. The menu is typical American/French brasserie, from foie gras to cassoulet.  I'll say up front that my friends and I have only ordered salads (arugula & fennel, spinach & avocado, tossed green, chicken and nicoise) and from my observation, the Signature Chicken Salad accounts for half the orders in the place at lunch. I like it too. Off to the theater feeling light. www.serafinarestaurant.com

2. When AUREOLE (135 West 42nd St  212-319-1660) moved to this location it seemed crazy, a stylish place in an anything-but-stylish neighborhood but people (at lunchtime anyway) seem to have found it. On the south side of the theater district, it's an easy walk to all. The diners are mostly not pre-theater ladies - there are lots of financial types (they eat) and many fashion types (they don't). You could spend a fortune but it isn't necessary. There is a three-course $34 prix-fixe lunch menu - here's the menu currently on the website:

1st course
Chilled Summer Melons watermelon, cantaloupe, galia honey dew, country ham, pine nut, or      
Crispy Greek Octopus seared haloumi cheese, hummus, grilled pita salad      
main course
Mediterranean Dorade white bean purée artichoke barigoule, olives, parsley oi, or      
Prosciutto Wrapped Pork Tenderloin fennel, chanterelle mushrooms, heirloom tomatoes, sage      
Buttermilk & Oatmeal Shortcake peach compote, almond cream or      
Dark Chocolate Mousse peppermint ice cream, caramel popcorn 
A la carte offers lots of pricier, elegant options but if you want to keep the cost down go simple, order the $19 Aureole grilled burger, shock the fashionistas. Excellent. www.charliepalmer.com
3. THE BAR ROOM AT THE MODERN (9 West 53d St  212-333-1220) is a little manic. There's so much service, smooth and low-key, from the moment you walk in, that you might have a mental, "Mmm, can we ease off a little?" moment, but the service isn't oily or chummy. This is a restaurant that calls you TWICE to confirm. The manic part is the noise of success. You can carry on  a conversation - the pre-theater (evening) sound is loud buzz, not cocktail-fueled roar (too pricey for that?). The crowd is in shades of black; the only color-adorned are  elegant, model-thin women. As for the menu, it's basically a list of very expensive largish tapas - you can order whatever you want, one item or several, and since the service is well-orchestrated it all works out. It's possible to pick a $20 item, drink water, and leave with money in your pocket. So improbable however. Instead, you'll likely have an excellent glass of wine or a cocktail and before you know it you've ordered: Crispy Atlantic Cod with Granny Smith Applesauce and American Caviar; Pan-seared Sullivan County Fois Gras with Pickled Rhubarb; Arugula  and Fine Herbes Salad with Summer Vegetable and Goat Cheese; Slow-poached Egg with Lobster, etc. It's all beautifully prepared and lovely to eat but portions are small so a Chestnut Cream Sundae seems like a good idea. A beautiful idea actually. www.themodernnyc.com

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