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Return to Café Gray

Note: Café Gray closed on June 21, 2008. A branch of A Voce will replace it, though not with its original chef, Andrew Carmellini. Click here and here for my parting thoughts on Café Gray.

Last night, I returned to Café Gray, my first visit since November 2004. My early impression remains my impression today: it is a wonderful restaurant, but not without its share of miscalculations.

Chief among these must be the boneheaded interior design, surely the most obscene waste of a great view in dining history. Instead of giving customers a priceless view of Central Park, Café Gray puts an open kitchen in the way. Walls studded with hard surfaces ensure that the noise carries—and, oh boy, does it carry.

At the table next to us, a man was delivering what sounded like a lecture in musicology to a hearing-impaired companion. The next table over had a Japanese family with two toddlers, one of them quite loud. Ninety minutes later, thanks to the din, I left Café Gray with a mild headache.

I have the Café Gray website open in another window as I write this. I’m not fond of websites with a sound track, but this is one of the dumbest ones ever. People chat and laugh, glasses clink, wine is poured, music flits in and out in the deep background. About its only merit is that, if you quintuple the volume, you have precisely the aural experience of a meal at Café Gray.

The food is an altogether happier story and deserves better surroundings. My friend was grateful to be steered towards the mushroom risotto ($22) and the braised shortribs ($36), both signature dishes that Gray Kunz made famous at Lespinasse. They are indeed special, but as I’d already had them the last time, I wanted to see what else the kitchen could do.

I started with the Seared Foie Gras and Quail ($24). Foie is pretty much infallible, but the quail was a succulent surprise. For the entrée, I chose the sautéed pork chop with housemade sauerkraut ($35). The chop was about half again as thick as one normally sees. To get the interior to the house-recommended temperature of medium, the exterior had to be slightly over-cooked. The sauerkraut was wonderful.

We didn’t have dessert, but I noted that the available choices were between $14-18, which is excessive for this type of restaurant. (My friend and I got into a long discussion about how high the rent must be.) Wine options under $50 were in short supply, but when we chose something at around $48, it was one of the better wines we’ve enjoyed at its price point.

Many restaurants in town have a disappointing bread service, but Café Gray served a loaf of homemade sourdough bread that I’d love to eat every day. The amuse bouche was a small beet in a mildly spicy sauce that I’ve now forgotten.

Overall, the kitchen at Café Gray does a first-class job, but the surroundings disappoint.

Café Gray (10 Columbus Circle, 3rd floor of the Time-Warner Center, West Midtown)

Food: ***
Service: ***
Ambiance: *½
Overall: **½

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