Chef Kerry Heffernan first came to prominance as executive chef of Danny Meyer’s Eleven Madison Park. He left in 2005 to helm another Meyer establishment, Hudson Yards Catering, a behind-the-scenes job that didn’t really suit his temperament.
At South Gate, in the Jumeirah Essex House Hotel on Central Park South, Heffernan is back in a restaurant kitchen, where he belongs. I loved Heffernan’s work at Eleven Madison Park the one time I visited, but both New York Times critics that reviewed it awarded only two stars, which for a Danny Meyer restaurant has to be considered disappointing.
The newly refurbished Essex House is practically synonymous with luxury. Not long ago, it was home to Alain Ducasse, probably the fanciest restaurant New York has seen in recent times. With South Gate, the Essex House has gone down-market. The Tony Chi interior dazzles, with its floor-to-ceiling wine wall, gleaming mirrors, and a working fire place. But bare wood tables and floors, and a large space dominated by a wrap-around bar, send a decidedly casual vibe. So does the booming sound system in the adjoining lounge, which made us decidedly uncomfortable.
If Heffernan has brought along some of his old recipes from Eleven Madison Park, he certainly hasn’t brought along his old service team. It was amateur hour on a Saturday evening, when the amuse-bouche and the appetizers arrived simultaneously, but dessert (cheesecake) took twenty minutes. And good luck flagging down a server when you need one.
Heffernan was in the house and greeted most diners (including us), but he couldn’t have been pleased to see the place half-empty. Judging by the many accents we heard, we guessed that most of those in the dining room were hotel guests. To survive, such a large restaurant will need to attract a broader clientele.
The menu is one of low ambition. There are six appetizers ($14–21), four soups & salads ($12–16), five seafood and vegetable entrées ($26–39) and four meat entrées ($29–38). The obligatory foie gras and lobster make appearances—they’re the most expensive appetizer and entrée respectively—but you don’t find any caviar, black truffles, or Kobe beef. There’s no tasting menu.
The wine list is on the expensive side, but there are some decent options that don’t break the bank. I don’t claim any great expertise, but I thought that the 1998 Chateau Camensac Haut-Médoc ($74) was one of the better wines we’ve had in a while. They don’t decant it, as they do at Eleven Madison Park, and the same glasses are used whether you order red or white.
Amuse-bouche (left); Wild Mushroom Martini (center); Hamachi (right)
The bread service was much better than usual for this class of restaurant: warm bread rolls with individual soft butter servings for each of us. But is it possible to have too much bread? The amuse-bouche was foie gras torchon with orange jelly and lemon zest on a cracker, accompanied by warm gougères.
I was sufficiently intrigued to take a chance on the Wild Mushroom Martini ($16). It was basically a hot mushroom soup with spinach fondue, a poached egg, and a slice of crostini. There was allegedly crisp pancetta in there too, but I couldn’t find it. Give Heffernan credit for serving something no other chef in town has thought of, but the dish was a failure. The various ingredients were clumpy and hard to get at, especially when they came in a teeter-tottering martini glass.
The dish was also, quite frankly, extremely unappetizing to look at. Look at the photo, and write your own disgusting caption. At another table, a French woman took one look at it, and sent it back. It didn’t taste bad at all, but I really didn’t see the point.
My girlfriend’s Hamachi ($18) was a good deal more successful.
Gianonne Chicken (left); Short-Cured Salmon Pavé (right)
Chicken ($29) and Salmon ($31) are hotel restaurant clichés, and I’m not sure that Heffernan did much to elevate them beyond their usual fate. The chicken was competent enough, but once again it was not all that appetizing to look at, and it was over-sauced. Did paprika really belong here?
Salmon was alleged to be “short-cured” — that is, cured for exactly one hour, according to the server. Can an hour of curing really make a difference? We certainly didn’t detect any, but the fish was tender enough.
Cheesecake (left); Petits-fours (right)
For dessert, we shared an order of cheescake ($10). With cheesecake, pastry chefs sometimes get too cute for their own good, but this one was the real McCoy, albeit dressed up a bit. We enjoyed it, and also the petits-fours.
With appetizers averaging over $15 and entrées over $30, South Gate needs to do better. The only dish on the menu that seemed to take any real chance—the Wild Mushroom Martini—is surely destined for an early retirement. Is this meant to be a dining destination, or an unadventurous hotel restaurant with a hip bar scene? Whichever is the case, at these prices patrons deserve much better service.
South Gate is barely a month old. Given Kerry Heffernan’s track record, I assume that it will improve.
South Gate (160 Central Park South between Sixth & Seventh Avenues, West Midtown)