Note: Click here for a more recent review of Grayz.
Whatever he does, Gray Kunz seems to take his time. After he left the four-star Lespinasse, it was six years until he opened a new restaurant, Café Gray, which was much delayed—the last to appear of the originally announced restaurants in the Time-Warner Center.
Then, Grayz was announced. The Times featured it in their September 2006 fall dining preview section. In October, the Post broke the story that plans had been scrapped, apparently due to a dispute with the construction company. In January, it was back on again. Two weeks ago, Grayz finally opened in the former Aquavit space, in the landmarked 19th-century Rockefeller townhouse.
I have never warmed up to Café Gray. While no one would dispute Kunz’s talent as a chef, the restaurant is crowded, loud, and distinctly unpleasant. I dined there twice, and wasn’t happy either time. For his next venture, I hoped that Kunz would open the kind of refined restaurant that his breathtaking talent deserves, but with Grayz he has gone in the opposite direction. It’s mainly a catering place, with a lively bar that serves finger food. Kunz’s finger food may beat everyone else’s, but Grayz is still a place for…well, grazing, not dining.
Frank Bruni previewed Grayz in a June blog post. He included a sample menu, which is fairly close to what Grayz is offering now. He described it as “a theater for fancy private parties.” The dinner concept, according to a publicist, is “one big cocktail party.” The lunch menu is supposed to be more traditional (which would be wise), but Bruni had no lunch menu to show, and as far as I know the lunch service hasn’t yet begun.
I was seated immediately when I walked in at around 6:00 p.m. on a Thursday evening, but an hour later the place was packed. Kunz’s catering strategy had already paid dividends, as the downstairs room was booked for a private party by the accounting firm KPMG—not bad for a restaurant that had only been open for 10 days.
The menu offers nine appetizers, captioned “Small Plates and Finger Food” ($13–22) and just three entrées ($16–33). Included among the latter are Kunz’s famous short ribs, which are also a mainstay on the Café Gray menu (and were offered at Lespinasse, as well). I asked the server how many small plates would make a meal. She cautioned, “They are small!” So I ordered three of them, after asking her for suggestions.
Homemade bread sticks came, with a wonderful yogurt dipping sauce that tasted like a soft goat cheese. I finished all of it, and could probably have eaten more. (I apologize for the quality of the photos, but note the elegant silver tray—typical of the service at Grayz.)
Salt Stone Grilled Prawns (left); Crisped Calamari (right)
Grilled prawns ($18) were served on a hot stone, with a kaffir rémoulade seasoning. This appeared to be the most popular dish, as I saw more prawn orders coming out than anything else. The Crisped calamari ($12) with a lemon–honey chutney was much more delicate than the usual deep-fried calamari. (As New York revealed, Kunz makes it with Nabisco graham crackers and Cream of Wheat.) It was the largest portion of anything I ordered, but I got bored with it about halfway through.
Pasta Fiori and Tomato Concassée (left); Cheese and marinated vegetables (right)
Pasta Fiori ($15) in a lemon thyme broth was the best item I tried. A soft pillow of silky pasta in a delicate tomato sauce, it would be at home in any four-star restaurant. Good as it was, it seemed out of place at Grayz, as the portion was far too small to be shared, and it certainly wasn’t finger food.
The cheese course ($11), which I ordered from the dessert menu, was a miscalculation. The marinated vegetables at the corners of the plate were miniscule, while the pile of shaved cheese in the center tasted like supermarket provalone. (It also came with bread; not shown in the photo.)
Service was first-rate, with beautiful platings, and fresh silverware delivered for every course. It almost seemed overwrought and a little too precious. Every plate was left in the middle of the table, as if to be shared with an imaginary companion (I was there alone).
The total for three appetizers, a cheese course, one cocktail, and two glasses of wine, came to $100 before tax and tip. That’s a high total for finger food. The menu could evolve considerably as Kunz figures out what works, and what doesn’t. For now, I’d say that it’s worth dropping in if you’re in the neighborhood, but it’s nothing I’d rush back for.
Grayz (13–15 West 54th Street between Fifth & Sixth Avenues, West Midtown)