Note: Click here for a more recent visit to Country.
Like a number of upscale restaurants (Gramercy Tavern, Aquavit, Jean Georges, The Modern, BLT Fish), Geoffrey Zakarian’s new restaurant Country has an upscale dining room attached to an informal sister establishment that offers a similar but less elaborate menu in humbler surroundings. My friend and I tried the Café at Country a few months ago, and we weren’t impressed. It was loud, uncomfortable, and pretentious.
But we knew that the main Dining Room was designed to offer a far more luxurious experience, so we were willing to entirely forget our unpleasant memory of the Café downstairs. I should add that, despite Frank Bruni’s imprecise co-mingling of the two in his three-star review, the Dining Room and the Café should be thought of as entirely separate restaurants under one roof.
Your choices in the Dining Room include an $85 four-course prix fixe, a five-course tasting menu at $110, and a seven-course tasting menu at $145. We were in a celebratory mood, and chose the seven-course tasting. Our server then asked us which dishes from the à la carte menu we wanted included — a flexibility I don’t recall at any other restaurant that offered a tasting menu. We named four particular items that interested us. Our server advised that he would confer with the kitchen, and in fact all of our choices were included in the meal.
I didn’t take detailed notes, and the online menu is outdated, so I can describe our experience only in general terms. There was a trio of amuses to start, of which the most memorable was a gougère filled with spinach. Another amuse was a delectable miniature poultry leg (I’m not sure of which bird). Perhaps I am forgetting a third amuse course. Along the way, we received a melt-in-your-mouth parker house roll with soft butter.
Our seven course meal consisted of the following:
- Foie gras terrine
- Grilled white asparagus
- Shrimp ravioli
- Crisp Berkshire pork
- Bison filet
- Cheese course
- Hot apple crisp
This was the best meal I have had in the last twelve months. While both Per Se and Alain Ducasse offered individual courses that were superior to anything at Country, each of them had at least one course that I rated—in relation to the price range—a disappointment. But there were no disappointments at Country, nor anything even remotely close to it. Just one outstanding preparation after another. We kept thinking, “It can’t last; there must be a dud.” But there wasn’t.
Service was highly attentive and nearly impeccable. We were also impressed with the timing of the courses, which came neither too quickly nor too slowly. I would have liked a bit more time to relax after our cocktails, but as the overall meal was spaced over nearly three hours, I could hardly call it a rush job.
The wine staff upsells a bit too aggressively. When we asked the sommelier for a bottle of red under $100, her recommendation (a wonderful burgundy) came in at $110. We could, of course, have refused, but I suspect she realized that we weren’t going to quibble over $10. And when our foie gras arrived, we were asked if we’d like a glass of sauterne to go with it. (Even downstairs, the waitstaff on our previous visit had done the same.) With our still-unfinished cocktails and the just-opened burgundy already on the table, this would have been more alcohol than the table would bear, and we declined.
The Dining Room was formerly the hotel ballroom. It retains the original beaux arts tile floor and a gorgeous tiffany skylight, and is open to the lobby below. The period details are wonderful, but as the hard tile floor reflects sound, the restaurant is just a touch noisier than I would like. Somewhat in compensation, the tables are generously spaced.
It would take many more visits to determine whether Country is a four-star restaurant. But as I rate this one meal at least as highly as those I enjoyed at Alain Ducasse and Per Se, for now Country is four stars in my book.
Country (90 Madison Ave at 29th St, in the Carleton Hotel, Flatiron District)