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Carmellini’s big swing
RESTAURANTS • First Person
The main entrance to Café Carmellini, the grand new restaurant inside the new Fifth Avenue Hotel, is an oversize portal opening onto the avenue. To the west, on 28th St., lies the hotel’s entrance. In between, a set of street-level windows look straight into the restaurant’s kitchen.
As I walked past those windows last Wednesday evening, I spied chef Andrew Carmellini, dressed in his whites, addressing his staff as dinner service was about to start.
Since running the kitchen at Café Boulud more than two decades ago, Carmellini’s been a major force on the New York City restaurant scene. With partners Luke Ostrom and Josh Pickard, he’s opened a remarkable string of popular, enduring, very good restaurants — Locanda Verde, Bar Primi, Lafayette, The Dutch, Carne Mare, to name just five. But what Carmellini arguably hasn’t done is swing for the fences.
Café Carmellini is the most thrilling big-ticket NYC restaurant opening of the year — a straight-up blockbuster. Sitting in a semicircular plush royal blue booth in the middle of the dining room, my dining companion and I marveled at its scope.
It’s a grand room that feels like it’s long been part of the city’s firmament; the design shares something of its Italian maximalism with Torrisi, last year’s big debut. Here, two giant trees climb from planters in the middle of the room, gesturing upwards to the balconies on the mezzanine framing semi-private tables for groups of four and up. That upper level, not yet open for dining as the restaurant comes up to full steam, will hold some of the most sought-after tables in the city.
At our table in the main dining room, we tasted cooking that married the best of France and Italy, perhaps none better than the duck-duck-duck tortelloni, with its duck-filled pillows, duck glaze, and airy foie gras sauce. It’s a dish I’ve already dreamed about.
But the best reason to get here as soon as possible is the elegant plate of scallops in a coconut-curry sauce, served with a side of basmati rice. The dish is called Scallops Cardoz — a tribute to the late, great chef Floyd Cardoz — and it transported me back to an evening long ago at his pioneering restaurant, Tabla. (Carmellini has indicated that he’ll be rotating out the dish to make way for tributes to other chefs.)
Café Carmellini is fancy enough to suit any celebratory night out, but didn’t feel forced early on a weeknight. Our bill for two was just over $400 — quite reasonable for this level of cooking, in this setting.
At this stage of his career, Carmellini can do whatever he wants. What a win for New York City that he’s doing this. –Lockhart Steele