For an impressive pedigree, you can’t beat the two guys running Betony, the new New American restaurant in West Midtown.
The owner, Moscow native Andrey Dellos, inspires less confidence. He’s the guy behind the Meatpacking District horror Manon. He also owned Betony’s predecessor in this space, the lavish Russian-themed Brasserie Pushkin, which got mixed reviews, was ignored in The Times, and lasted just nine months.
In turning to Shulman and Rockey, Dellos apparently realized that he needed a team with New York street cred. Their presence more-or-less guarantees that the critics will at least visit the place.
But the renovations are a half-measure that, I fear, has not gone far enough. Having invested enough in Brasserie Pushkin to buy a small château (around $5 million), Dellos apparently wasn’t willing to lose all of his sunk costs. So Betony is Brasserie Pushkin lite, the décor revised but still recognizably the same space.
The restaurant’s name, taken from an herb cultivated since ancient times for its reputed medicinal properties, is perhaps not the best.
I like a spot like Betony, with its plush chairs, soft lighting, and crisp tablecloths. I’m in the minority these days. I worry that the downtown crowd that know Shulman and Rockey from their previous gigs will take one step in the door, and find it an instant turn-off. They shouldn’t, but I’m a realist. If Betony needs to rely mainly on a midtown audience, I wonder if perhaps the food is too intellectual for the less adventurous diners that populate West Midtown near Carnegie Hall.
The menu, as many have noted, is reminiscent of the four-by-four grid at Eleven Madison Park. There are half-a-dozen items in each of three categories: snacks ($7–12), appetizers ($14–28) and entrées ($24–37). Click on the image (left) for a larger copy. The chef is clearly willing to challenge the diner: there’s no bail-out dish, like a burger or a straightforward steak.
I don’t often suggest that restaurants need to charge more, but that’s my reaction to this menu. They’ve obviously tried to make Betony seem like a middle-tier restaurant: except for foie gras, no appetizer is above $16; except for lobster, no entrée is above $29. Beyond those two traditionally expensive items, they’re clearly trying to avoid costly luxury ingredients that would push the typical entrée above the psychological $30 barrier.
My concern is that, in so doing, the restaurant falls between two stools: it has the outward appearance of luxury fine dining, but the food (for the most part) is made with the mid-priced ingredients that people these days expect to find in upmarket casual spots. The owners, no doubt, wanted Betony to seem accessible to more than just expense account diners; but the kinds of people they want to be accessible to are probably not going to warm up to the space.
I hope to be wrong. If I am, this post will be worth a good laugh in a year or two, if Betony is a hit. But right now Betony feels like a restaurant for “people like me,” and there aren’t enough of me. We liked everything we tried—about which, more in a moment—but the cuisine feels a bit too austere, the flavors too muted. We didn’t find a killer dish that’ll set pulses racing, nor is there an obvious bargain, like a $60 five-course tasting menu that allows the average diner to sample a large swath of the chef’s work in one sitting.
We liked the bread service (house made, I gather), which included bread sticks and flatbreads when we sat down, and later, a rye & carraway roll (above right) with soft butter.
The amuse bouche (below left) was a funky, memorable “tomato snow,” with the taste of tomato, but with the color, texture, and temperature of snow, served with gooseberry and tarragon.
We ordered three of the snacks to start. Bone marrow ($11; above right) came in thin, cigar-shaped troughs, with wax beans.
Fried pickles with ramps and aleppo yogurt ($11; above left) are a good dish to share, but they became cloying before the two of us could finish them. Marinated trout roe ($8; above right) were served with cucumber on puffed rice crackers.
The kitchen comped two mid-courses. Chicken liver (normally $14; above left) with apple, celery, and carraway, was great for liver fans like us, but I couldn’t help but think how much better it would be with duck liver. Cured pink snapper ($16; above right) with basil and pickled red onion will please crudo lovers.
We loved both entrées: Lobster with peas and Easter Egg radish ($36; above left) and Asparagus Pappardelle ($24; above right) with black pepper and summer truffle.
Petits fours (left) included a wickedly good macaron with a helping of frozen Brooklyn chocolate stout.
We came from a previous engagement where we’d already been drinking, so unfortunately we were unable to sample Eamon Rockey’s cocktails, which I have no doubt are excellent, owing to his reputation and a glowing account in Serious Eats.
There isn’t an online wine list, but as I recall it was deeper than one normally finds at new restaurants: no doubt, it benefited from the cellar built up for Brasserie Pushkin. We ordered, and were pleased with, a 2007 Savigny-lès-Beaune at $63.
The dining room was perhaps half full on a Wednesday evening. Service was excellent. We were known to the house, but I’m more than persuaded that Rockey knows how to run a first-rate dining room. What he needs now, is to get people to come.
Betony (41 W. 57th Street between Fifth & Sixth Avenue, West Midtown)
Food: Intellectualized New American cuisine
Service: Stylish fine dining
Ambiance: A plush, dimly lit dining room with tablecloths