Note: Eighty One closed after service on Easter Sunday, April 4, 2010. The space is now occupied by Calle Ocho, which moved from its former home on Columbus Avenue.
The Upper West Side isn’t known for destination dining, but that has changed with the arrival of three wonderful new places, all within the first three months of 2008: Dovetail, Bar Boulud, and now Eighty One.
So far, Eighty One is a hit, with prime-time tables regularly selling out on opentable.com. Longer-term, Eighty One could face tougher challenges. Bar Boulud, with its modest prices and its Lincoln Center perch, is almost surely there for the long haul. Dovetail, which is about four blocks south of Eighty One, racked up nine stars from the city’s major restaurant critics; it’s a bit cheaper and a lot more casual than Eighty One.
At Eighty One, entrée prices average in the mid-thirties. If you want black truffles shaved over any of them, it will set you back another $42. Appetizers are $15–19, but another section of the menu, peculiarly named “Tasting Collection,” offers another half-dozen appetizer-sized items from $15–39. These aren’t “neighborhood” prices. Luckily, Eighty One resides in the tony Excelsior Hotel, from whence it will no doubt draw many of its customers.
The décor screams “upscale chic,” though we felt that the deep red-velvet hues sucked up the available light, and made the dining room seem a bit depressing. (The drapes were drawn when we visited.)
Chef/owner Ed Brown runs the kitchen, coming off a thirteen-year stint at Rockefeller Center’s Sea Grill. Chef de Cuisine Juan Cuevas has stints at Alain Ducasse, Bruno Jamais, and most recently Blue Hill on his resume. They’re doing a terrific job, serving what I assume is intended to be three-star food, but to which most critics will probably give two.
We loved the amuse-bouche, a square of Hiramasu crudo with a Hawaiian seaweed salad. Bread service came with nice soft butter at room temperature, but the accompanying bread rolls were pedestrian.
Sea Scallop & Foie Gras Ravioli (left); Tuna Tartare Tasting (right)
I started with the Sea Scallop and Foie Gras Ravioli ($16) in a straw wine sauce, a buttery ethereal pleasure.
My girlfriend had the Tuna Tartare Tasting ($21), with three half-dollar-sized cylinders of tuna, each in a different preparation. Our favorite the one on the left, with an Indonesian soy sauce, wasabi leaves and a dollop of cream. The other two weren’t bad either: blood orange (center) and olive oil with chervil (right).
Lamb Three Ways (left); Dry-Aged Black Angus Sirloin (right)
Lamb Three Ways ($39) was a beautifully composed plate, with sheep’s milk ricotta gnocchi, pine nuts, wild mushrooms and braised butternut lettuce hearts. There was a wonderfully smooth potato purée, served on the side. The “three ways” conceit is becoming a bit cliché, and perhaps it would be better to hit a home run with just one way. I loved the juicy and well marbled rack of lamb, but neither the roasted loin nor the confit shoulder rocked my world.
My girlfriend was happy with a Dry-Aged Black Angus Sirloin ($37), which also included the short rib. We didn’t quite understand the point of an accompanying Caesar wedge with aged parmigiano. The preparation was just fine, but it would have made more sense as a salad or mid-course.
The wine list includes plenty of bottles at reasonable prices, though you can splurge if you want to. We enjoyed a 2003 Château Lafleur Pomerol ($60). I don’t believe I’ve ordered a Pomerol before, but this bottle made me want to explore more of them.
Service was generally smooth and professional, but the staff paid decidedly less attention to us near the end of our meal, after the restaurant had started to fill up. Our appetizers came out awfully fast (it seemed like just moments), so we had almost half-an-hour to kill later on, before we headed over to Lincoln Center for our show.
Of the three new Upper West Side restaurants that I mentioned at the top of this post, Dovetail and Eighty One are the most similar, with broadly comparable culinary ambitions, and located within a few blocks of each other near the Museum of Natural History. Indeed, based on one visit apiece, I can’t really separate the two in terms of food, though the service and ambiance at Eighty One are considerably better—with prices to match.
Most of the critics in town will have their swords drawn when they review an expensive place with luxury trappings. That explains why Adam Platt awarded two stars to Eighty One, though he had given Dovetail three. I suspect that Frank Bruni will do the same. I give them identical 2½-star ratings. You can decide for yourself if Eighty One’s more comfortable atmosphere and smoother service is worth a few extra dollars.
Eighty One (45 W. 81st Street between Columbus Avenue & Central Park West, Upper West Side)