Remember Etats-Unis, the Upper East Side restaurant with an improbable Michelin star? I never quite bought into the star, but for what it was — straight, up-the-gut comfort food — it was certainly well above the neighborhood average.
I’m not sure why Etats-Unis closed (it was always reasonably full, in my experience), but close it did, nearly four years ago. The chef, Derrick Styczek, has resurfaced at Domain, a new restaurant in the space that was formerly Vareli in Morningside Heights, a short hop from the Columbia campus. The name might not be the best choice. Search on “Domain restaurant,” and you’re liable to get back a list of Internet domain hosting services.
There’s room to spread out here, in a roomy two-story storefront that was nowhere near full on a Wednesday evening (the Jewish holiday week, to be fair). It’s an attractive, romantic spot, with dark wood, low lighting, and acres of exposed brick. Not that you haven’t seen it before, but you haven’t seen it here.
Styczek’s cooking is more dainty and precious than I recall at Etats-Unis. There are hints of the former comfort-food style it’s not quite as pleasurable here. Prices are calibrated to the neighborhood, with only one entrée (lamb) abouve $29.
The wine list, bound in handsome leather, is six pages of small print, with some real treats. There are about 25 wines by the glass and 2/3 of a page of half-bottles. The multi-national list of full bottles ranges from $27–620, with plenty under $50. However, the Winery Arts Reverse ‘6’ ($39) was served too warm.
Warm pretzel-style rolls were excellent, but needed spreading knives for the three kinds of butter and mustard that came with them.
Smoked Rainbow Trout ($14; above left) promised more than it delivered. The fish (topped with a quail egg) was served on a steel grille. The server poured a dill infusion, which landed on a bed of dry ice below, unleashing a torrent of smoke. After a few moments, it was plated onto a bed of shrimp–potato salad. For all that trouble, the fish tasted clammy. I don’t know what the dry ice contributed, except a show.
Grilled Baby Octopus ($16; above right) with roasted tomatoes and capers delivered more straightforward pleasure. This is the chef’s sweet spot.
Roasted Veal ($29; above left) lay concealed in a mushroom foam. It wasn’t a bad dish at all, the veal tender and smoky, but the presentation came across as excessively precious, and it wasn’t a large portion. A whole veal chop might have been more effective.
I didn’t sample Wendy’s Shellfish Carbonara ($29; above right) with bacon and spaghetti, but she recorded no complaints.
A flourless chocolate cake ($10; left) wasn’t bad at all, but you won’t remember it years later, as you would if the chef were serving the stupendous soufflés that were the highlight of every meal at Etats-Unis.
The chef hasn’t lost his talent, by any means, but I think he’s trying to outsmart himself. I’d certainly be a repeat visitor if I lived in the area, but I’d be an even happier visitor if he returned to the idiom of Etats-Unis.
Domain (2869 Broadway at 111th Street, Morningside Heights)
Food: Market-driven American cuisine
Service: Extremely attentive, but they didn’t have many people to serve
Ambiance: Casual, with dark woods and exposed brick, looking out on Broadway