The owners of Veritas must have been frustrated with their Odyssean quest to find a chef worthy of their four-star wine list.
Founding chef Scott Bryan left in October 2007 with no destination in mind (he is now at Apiary). Journeyman Ed Cotton replaced him, couldn’t get reviewed, and was fired after just eight months. His replacement, the excellent Gregory Pugin, served the best food Veritas ever had, but he couldn’t get reviewed either, and the owners pulled the plug after two years and declining customer interest.
This time, there were no half-measures. One day in August 2010, management locked out the staff and closed abruptly for “renovations.” I assumed “renovations” were a prelude to winding up the business—it usually works that way. But three months later, the “new” Veritas duly re-opened with Sam Hazen as chef and partner, along with the original owners (mainly, wine mega-collector Park B. Smith).
I thought that this was total capitulation. Despite some pretty impressive restaurants on Hazen’s C.V. (Quilted Giraffe, Le Gavroche, Quatorze, La Côte Basque), he spent the last decade wallowing in mediocrity (Todd English Enterprises, Lucy’s Cantina Royale), and had created Tao, possibly the worst restaurant of the century, if measured by the number of copycats (all terrible) that it has inspired. If you had to pick one restaurant that encapsulates everything wrong with contemporary dining in New York City, it would have to be Tao.
And they chose this guy??
Gone was the $92 prix fixe, replaced by a menu said to be “more affordable.” Now, I’m all for affordability, but the open question was whether Hazen could offer anything better than over-priced stoner food, to go with co-owner Smith’s incredible wine collection. A three-star review from Sam Sifton was the first indication that, perhaps, Hazen was capable of better thngs than his resume suggested.
That new “affordability” is all relative. On Hazen’s New American locavore menu, appetizers are $13–22, entrées $29–49, desserts $11–13. That’s hardly bargain dining. But our food bill at the new Veritas was $107 for two (that’s before alcohol, tax, or tip), and we skipped dessert, an option the old menu wouldn’t have permitted. Remember, at the old Veritas it was $92 for one.
They’ve also banished the tablecloths. To be fair, even when table linens were fashionable, décor was never the strong suit at Veritas. The Brooklyn design firm Crème (Red Farm, Marc Forgione, Danji, La Promenade des Anglais) created a striking new look with painted white brick, stained wood accents, dark wood floors, filament bulbs, and floor-to-ceiling wine racks stocked with empty old bottles. It feels like a slightly derivative, more upscale version of what the one- and two-star restaurants are doing these days. But it is not unpleasant.
To my surprise, chef Hazen is serving very good, serious food, at the new Veritas. How he ever became involved with a shitshow like Tao is utterly beyond me, but the man hasn’t forgotten how to cook for real, and it seems he really is here to stay: he was in the house on a random Tuesday evening in January, with the restaurant about half full.
Wine is and always was the main point of dining at Veritas. Co-owner Park B. Smith told The Times that, to the 75,000 cellar that was already one of the city’s best, he’d added a “market list” with “quite a few choices for around $50 a bottle.” That is not really true: the majority of the market list is $60 or more (often way more), and you soon find yourself in the fifty-page reserve list, where practically all bottles are in three, four, and five figures.
Hazen’s menu is certainly as good as Veritas has served for most of its history (the all-too-brief Pugin era excepted), but it is not good enough to justify a visit unless you’re prepared to spend—and spend big—on wine. Even at a budget of $100 a bottle, 98 percent of the list will be out of your reach. It’s a pity that the $50–75 range is so anemic, but if you’re a wine lover you’ll drool with envy at the reserve list. Budget accordingly.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape remains a Veritas specialty. The section of the list devoted to it goes on for 3½ dual-column pages, with prices ranging from $105 to $5,500, and years ranging from 1978 to 2007. That nothing younger is offered (and indeed, the 2007s are not numerous) suggests that the restaurant is admirably waiting for younger bottles to mature before offering them for sale.
Anyhow: Châteauneuf-du-Pape is my own personal favorite, so there was no doubt what I would order. The 2000 Panisse Noble Révélation at $105 was sublime. (The staff decanted it, as they have done on past visits.) It only makes me wish I could afford more.
The amuse bouche (above right) was a warm winter vegetable soup. A choice of three breads was offered, along with soft butter. We both chose the house-made olive brioche, which was excellent.
Ibérico Ham ($19; above left) was offered as an announced special. Although there was nothing wrong with it, I thought that Hazen had defaulted to a luxury ingredient without doing much to augment it. In contrast, Merguez & Farm Egg ($15; above right) was superb, a hearty mix of spicy stewed tomatoes and lamb sausage.
Both entrées were well conceived, but were a bit less succulent than they ought to be. Striped Bass ($36; above left) is served crisp with the skin on, with eggplant, sweet peppers and sauce vierge. Wooly Pig ($37; above right), having a slightly more gamey flavor than other breeds, is brined in maple syrup overnight and served with a breaded stick of pork confit, which was excellent.
The evening ended with a plate of petits fours (right), and the staff gave us muffins to take home for breakfast. (The pastry chef is Emily Wallendjack, formerly of Cookshop.)
The staff are inclined to upsell, which we resisted. Sommelier Rubén Ramiro, having been asked for a recommendation around $100, suggested a bottle priced at $135. And the server had the temerity to encourage us to purchase a third entrée to share—the vegetarian item—although both entrées came with vegetables already.
Although it is easy enough to ignore the staff’s attempts to extract more money from the customer, it comes across as greedy and low-class, at a restaurant that is already very expensive.
But perhaps these compromises are the necessary evils to keep Park B. Smith’s extraordinary wine collection in the public eye. The “Brooklyn plus” décor is inoffensive; Chef Hazen’s cuisine is pretty good and might even be excellent on the right day. The service, aside from upselling, is acceptable.
Veritas (43 E. 20th St. between Broadway & Park Avenue South, Flatiron District)