Note: Click here for a more recent Valentine’s Day visit to Country.
It was only a couple of weeks after New Year’s Eve, and we were faced with a new dining dilemma: where to book for Valentine’s Day? It’s one of those days when restaurants tend to serve sub-par menus at exorbitant prices. I have generally not had good luck on such occasions, although last New Year’s Eve we hit the jackpot at WD-50.
I do understand the restaurants’ position. Valentine’s Day is their single busiest day of the year. It’s a day that attracts guests for whom a three-star meal is a once-a-year occasion. The restaurants respond by offering a simplified and unchallenging menu that will offend no one, and that can be turned out efficiently for as many covers as possible.
One eGullet poster went into the bar at Picholine, and was told the only option was the “price-inflated, dumbed down Valentine’s menu.” As he put it, “there’s no way in the world I’m going to pay a premium for a more boring version of your normal menu.” And then he walked out, and headed over to Café Gray. Another eGulleteer walked into Eleven Madison Park, where they wouldn’t serve him at the bar at all.
The tables set for Valentine’s Day — all two-tops.
We decided to give Country a try, remembering our four-star meal last year. It would have been madness to expect Country to reach those heights again. But considering the occasion, Executive Chef Doug Psaltis’s menu was impressive indeed, and everything that came out of the kitchen was uniformly excellent. Service was a bit sloppy, but the only real annoyance was the rather tardy appearance of the wine list.
For Valentine’s Day, Country was serving six-course tasting menus for $135—their usual price. However, the restaurant took my credit card at the time of the reservation and charged $270 a month in advance. I see the need to protect against no-shows, but I thought that this went beyond what is reasonable.
After we were seated, the server presented us with printed menus that appeared identical on the outside, but were in fact quite different. I am not sure if he was supposed to tell us this, or if we were meant to be surprised. (We had checked the website in advance, but I’m sure many diners did not.)
In any case, I thought it was a neat idea, as we both had different meals and got to sample each other’s plates. And it showed that Country was not satisfied merely to do the obvious. Psaltis could easily have served the same menu to everyone, and no one would have complained. He went the extra mile.
We begain with gougères spiked with truffles, which could easily be the world’s most addictive snack food. Warm Parker House rolls were as good as I remembered them, but the butter was cold.
The amuse bouche was a delicious cream of mushroom (above, left) so thick that it could have been a pudding. Heirloom potato velouté (above, right) sounded all the right notes. I tasted a bit of my girlfriend’s foie gras torchon, which was one of the softest and richest preparations of that dish that I’ve ever encountered.
I was similarly enchanted with the black truffle risotto (above, left) and the grilled sea scallop (right).
The next two courses weren’t as exciting. Bison bordelaise (left) may have sounded daring, but it was boring. I didn’t taste much truffle in brie de meaux (right), which was a forgettable sliver of soft cheese, with a tiny slice of bread and a bit of apple jam.
My girlfriend hit the dessert jackpot. I had never heard of “Pavlova,” which was a half-moon shaped mound of baked frosting, with a running river of red berries inside. It was as enchanting and seductive as it sounds. My dark chocolate dessert (above, left) couldn’t stand up to this. Memo to Country: If you can’t think of two great desserts, then just serve us both the same thing. After dessert came a bowl of sugar-coated baked macaroons (above, right).
There were several service lapses, most of which I would ignore at a lesser restaurant. Inexplicably, we weren’t offered a wine list. By the time I realized it, the food had already started coming. When I brought this to a server’s attention, he presented a small pre-printed card with just three whites, three reds, and three champagnes. I flagged him down again. He explained that these were the sommelier’s recommended wines to accompany the evening’s tasting menu. The lowest-priced red wine was $97 per bottle. I asked to see the full wine list. There was another delay before this was presented, and yet another delay before he showed up again to take our order. By the time we finally had the bottle we wanted, we were already past two courses.
On this day, Country had no interest in serving leisurely, multi-hour meals. The courses came lickety-split, and I think we were out of there in two hours flat. I have no serious complaints about what we were served, but it was probably only 80% of what the restaurant was capable of. Even at that level, I rate the hit-to-miss ratio higher than we experienced a year ago, in a very respectable Valentine’s Day meal at three-star Oceana.
The setting was lovely as ever. The remodeled ball room, with its gorgeous Tiffany skylight, is one of New York’s great romantic dining spots. Some may argue that my original four-star rating was overly exuberant, but I don’t think any major restaurant does its best work on a major holiday, so for now I will leave Country in the top echelon.
Country (90 Madison Avenue at 29th Street, Flatiron District)