Note: Amuse has since closed—I believe in 2007. The restaurant with more lives than a cat finally ran out of them. Some of the Amuse team has since landed at the North Fork Table & Inn.
Amuse has had as many lives as a cat. It was once Harvey’s Chelsea, and then it was The Tonic, and last year it became Amuse after Garry Heyden (formerly of Aureole) took over as chef. William Grimes of the New York Times reaffirmed its two-star status, while observing how improbable it was that a restaurant so often re-invented has managed to maintain its culinary standards.
It’s been about a year since Grimes’s review appeared, and Amuse has evidently changed its concept again. On May 21, 2003, Grimes wrote:
Amuse is short for amuse-bouche, the French term for the bite-size preappetizers intended to titillate the palate. They serve multiple functions. They help keep hunger at bay, but they also inspire the chef to create an eye-catching bit of whimsy that can serve as a preview of coming attractions. Mr. Hayden has elevated the status of the amuse-bouche and designed an entire menu around small tastes, doing away with the appetizer-entree dichotomy.
His menu offers a half dozen choices in four price categories, $5, $10, $15, and $20. With each increase in price, the preparations become more complex and the ingredients more expensive. The portion size increases, too, so the more expensive dishes look like abbreviated entrees. Five dollars buys a silver julep cup filled with herbed French fries. Twenty dollars earns an upgrade to peppered duck breast with endive marmalade and a sweet, syrupy reduction of black mission figs.
Other reviews I found on the web seemed to be based on the same menu Grimes saw, which you can still read on menupages.com. That menu is no more. Although many of the same dishes are still there, the menu is now organized in the more conventional appetizer-entee format. Amuse is no longer trying to be a tapas bar. It does retain some hints of the original idea — the appetizer section is labeled “Tastes for Sampling and Sharing.” One who didn’t know what the former menu looked like would simply conclude that this is a longer name for “appetizers,” and that indeed is how my friend and I took it.
Some of the dishes cry out to be shared. I ordered Crisp Cod and Yukon Gold Potato Cakes with Truffle Tartar Sauce to start. Out came four thick half-dollar sized fish cakes - a dish perfectly suited for sharing. Heyden’s preparation gave a crispy and spicy excitement to a dish that could otherwise seem an upscale version of Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks. My friend ordered Atlantic Salmon Two Ways (house smoked & tartare, with a chive potato cake). This dish was not quite as easy to divide, although I had a taste.
Every review has mentioned with approval the Five Hour Braised Short Rib of Beef with Carmelized Sea Scallops, so I had decided well in advance that this would be my main course if it was still available - which it was. The short rib was so tender that one hardly needed a knife, and it tasted like home-cooked brisket. The scallops were a hearty size, with a crisp exterior that led to a tender, beefy center.
My friend ordered the Grilled New York Strip Steak, which arrived pre-sliced. Some restaurants serve porterhouse this way, but I’ve never seen it done to a New York Strip. This, too, could be a vestige of the restaurant’s earlier tapas-style menu. The steak had a crispy charred exterior and and a wonderful tender flavor. I’m usually skeptical of ordering a NY Strip anywhere that doesn’t specialize in steak, but this dish is worth a try.
In sum, Amuse offers an inventive and eclectic menu, beautifully presented, and fairly priced given the overall standard in the city for fine dining restaurants. There are 28 appetizers (priced from $4-18) and 8 mains (priced from $20-30). We sampled but two of each, so your mileage may vary, but everything coming out of the kitchen certainly looked good. There is also a chef’s tasting menu (obligatory these days at any restaurant claiming to be serious about food): amuse bouche, four courses, and dessert for $55, or paired with wine $75. This looks to me to be a bargain.
I reserved Amuse on opentable.com. The restaurant called me twice to confirm I was coming, which led me to think, “Wow, they really must have heavy demand for tables.” To the contrary, it was nearly empty when we arrived at 7:00pm, and only about half-full by the time we left at 8:30. The space is comfortable and the contemporary décor pleasant on the eye, with rooms called the apartment, the lounge, the salon, and the library. Both the bar and dining area are amply proportioned, and there appear to be private rooms upstairs, which we didn’t investigate.
Amuse (108-110 West 18th Street, between Sixth & Seventh Avenues, Chelsea)