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The Café at Country

Note: This is a review of the Café at Country under chef de cuisine Doug Psaltis. Click here for a more recent review under executive chef Blake Joyal.

Chef Geoffrey Zakarian, formerly of Le Cirque, 21 Club, and Patroon (among others), owns and operates the well-regarded three-star restaurant Town, in the Chambers Hotel on West 56th Street. It was only appropriate that he would call his next restaurant Country, which is in the new Carleton Hotel at Madson Ave & 29th Street. Zakarian recruited Doug Psaltis (who worked most recently at Alain Ducasse’s failed Mix in NY) as chef de cuisine.

Like many a restaurant (Jean Georges, Gramercy Tavern, Aquavit, The Modern), Country has an informal café attached to a more upscale main dining room. The café has been open for about two months, but the more elegant room upstairs hasn’t opened yet. We could see that the tables are all in place and tablecloths laid, so I’m not sure what Zakarian and Psaltis are waiting for. The café is surprisingly ill-conceived, and it strikes me as a waste of time. The décor is unattractive, the tables and seating are uncomfortable, and the noise level induces a splitting headache.

We were seated at a small circular table that looked cheap, and seemed to belong in an ice cream parlor. It was just barely large enough to accommodate our food. The banquette was too low. The restaurant also has a number of two-top rectangular tables that appear to have come from a different designer. I don’t know what the circular tables are doing there, as they clash with the rest of the décor.

Dinner began with cylindrical bread rolls that were so hard they could have been used to pound nails. There was olive oil at the table. It came in what looked like a cologne bottle, but the label on the outside said, “I Love Olive Oil.” I poured a little of it onto my plate, and my jaw had a good workout chewing through the bread.

I started with a beet salad, while my friend had the foie gras pâté. The pâté was probably the highlight of the meal. It was an excellent, but very large serving, and even after my friend and I shared it, we sent almost half of it back unfinished.

Coincidentally, the New York Daily News reviewed the Café at Country in yesterday’s issue, awarding 1½ stars, an assessment that may have been a tad generous. It was thanks to that review that I knew what to order for the main course. Critic Pascale Le Draoulec said:

Among entrees, I loved most of all the spectacular lamb shank, braised endlessly in North African spices. The rosy flesh yielded at the slightest prompting from my fork. Topped with glistening pomegranate seeds, it comes with basmati rice laced with exotic preserved fruit.

In fact, we both had the lamb shank. Le Draoulec’s enthusiasm is about right, but we both felt that it was more akin to comfort food than fine dining. Anyone competent isn’t going to mess up a lamb shank, and Psaltis is at least competent.

Service was solid, but in some ways over-the-top in comparison to the humble surroundings. Our server kept referring to my friend as “Madame,” and his obsequiousness was almost irritating. There is a very large wine list, which almost certainly will be shared with the main restaurant when it opens. We had an enjoyable Loire Valley red for about $47.

With most appetizers under $15 and most entrées under $25, the Café at Country clearly aims to attract diners who want a thoughtfully-composed menu that doesn’t break the bank. But what you get is basically a baby step above comfort food, and it isn’t good enough to justify putting up with the ugly, uncomfortable, and ear-splitting surroundings.

The Café at Country (90 Madison Avenue at 29th Street, Murray Hill)

Food: Satisfactory
Service: *
Ambiance: Poor
Overall: Satisfactory

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