Varietal has been open less than a month. Food blogger Augieland is already smitten, as are many of the eGullet community. The concept draws on several ideas at once, and it remains to be seen if they will gel. It is a wine bar, with some 70 selections by the glass. There are savory courses too, which have drawn mixed reviews so far.
But what has everyone raving are the inventive desserts of Jordan Kahn, who has stints at The French Laundry, Per Se, and Alinea on his resume. We dropped by at around 10:00 p.m. on a Saturday night after our dinner at Applewood, and were seated after about a ten-minute wait. The dining room was nearly full at that hour, although it had cleared out considerably by the time we left.
You’ll either love or hate the décor. The chandelier (pictured above), made from inverted wine glasses, is a work of genius. But the austerity of the stark white walls is relieved only by several undistinguished blow-up photos of grapes. The all-white theme is even more apparent in the front bar area, where there is another very clever sculpture made with wine glass stems.
We asked to share the four-course dessert tasting ($35). The server blundered, and we actually got two full orders of the dessert tasting. I did not realize this when the first course arrived—assuming that the kitchen had been considerate enough to divide the portions. But it was clear, both to us and our server, by the time the second course arrived, that we’d received twice the amount we wanted. To the restaurant’s credit, they continued with double orders of the third and fourth courses, but did not charge us for them.
The four-course dessert tasting is far more than most people will want. For the typical appetite, one portion to share is ample for a couple who have already had a full dinner. Indeed, any one of the courses would be nearly enough to be a dessert on its own. The desserts are of course enjoyable in their own right, but the artfulness of the platings almost makes you regret digging in. You just want to gaze at them, as you would paintings in a museum.
Most of the desserts have about half-a-dozen ingredients. I certainly can’t remember them all, though fortunately I think I’ve found descriptions on various Internet sites.
1) Sweet potato ice cream, yogurt, yuzu, picholine olive. The actual color was closer to orange than the photo shows. The olive was dried and shredded—you can see the crumbs at the back of the photo. An excellent starter.
2) Wolfberry puree, rigid lime sabayon, broken macaroons, tonka bean cream, soybean, ketjap manis. This was the most gorgeous of the four desserts, and probably the most successful.
3) This is the only dessert for which I cannot find a description, but we enjoyed it nearly as much as the wolfberry, above.
4) Chocolate Gel, Pear Sorbet, Mushroom Caramel, Brown Butter.We thought this one was a little too similar to the third dish. We particularly admired the cylinder of pear in the middle of the dish, which was the consistency of an egg yolk and “ran” with pear juice when punctured. But after that, we left the rest of the dish unfinished.
Although our server was no doubt chastised for sending a double order into the kitchen, she proved to be quite knowledgeable about the food, describing the complex dishes without a hitch. She recommended a lovely dessert wine to go with our tasting, which at $17 was neither the most nor the least expensive they had. The courses came out fairly slowly—no surprise there, given the complexity of the platings—but we were in no hurry.
A judgment on the savory menu must await a future visit, but for its desserts alone Varietal is a welcome addition to the restaurant landscape.
Varietal (138 West 25th Street between 6th & 7th Avenues, Chelsea)