Entries in Country (8)


Should the Star Ratings Take Price Into Account?

At the bottom of every New York Times restaurant review is this blurb, essentially unchanged for many years:

Ratings range from zero to four stars and reflect the reviewer’s reaction to food, ambience and service, with price taken into consideration. Menu listings and prices are subject to change.

The paper never explains exactly how price is “taken into consideration.” Presumably, it means that a restaurant could receive a bonus star for being an exceptionally good value, or be docked a star for being too expensive.

I’d like to challenge that. Should the rating be price-sensitive? I can state at least four good reasons why not.

1. It is Open To Manipulation. In many notable cases, restaurants have raised their prices—sometimes substantially—just after they received a glowing New York Times review. For instance, when Frank Bruni awarded four stars to Eleven Madison Park, the prix fixe was $88; a year later, it is $125. Sam Sifton awarded four stars to Del Posto just a month ago; now, they have dropped their à la carte option, locking customers into a (minimum) $95 prix fixe.

I am not suggesting that either restaurant would lose the fourth star if the critic went back today, but these are hardly isolated examples. Country raised its prix fixe from $85 to $110 after Bruni gave it three stars. Fiamma went from $75 to $95 (later partly rolled back after Bruni called them on it). At Falai, a two-star restaurant, Bruni likewise saw a noticeable price increase (beyond the rate of inflation) when he returned two years later. In a blog post, he surveyed several other examples.

Now, I do realize that anything can change at a restaurant. But a talented chef is probably going to stay talented; an attractive dining room is probably going to remain that way. Prices, on the other hand, are merely the function of what a manager types into a word processor.

2. It Depends on Factors the Critic Can’t See. According to Joe Bastianich (partner with Mario Batali at Del Posto and many other restaurants), food is only 30 percent of the price—the rest being rent, labor, miscellany, and of course profit. The critic can see the food on the plate. He generally has no idea if the restauranteur got a sweet rent deal that enables him to undersell comparable restaurants. The restaurant might be saddled with union labor, which tacks on added costs. Restaurants that are part of larger empires might have the flexibility to run at a loss for a while, an option that independent outfits don’t have. Restaurants in hotels might be subsidized.

Lower rents, of course, are the reason why the dining scene has flourished in neighborhoods not formerly known for fine dining, like the Lower East Side, the East Village, and Brooklyn. (The same was true twenty-five years ago in Tribeca, but it clearly isn’t now.) But those chefs don’t deserve bonus stars, just because they choose to locate in a low-rent district. Critics review restaurants, not rent deals.

3. It Makes Comparisons Much More Difficult. It is already hard enough to discern whether a pair of two-star restaurants are really comparable, when one four-tiered system needs to accommodate every genre and cuisine. But it only adds to the confusion when there is a mysterious price element in the mix. Is the two-star Torrisi Italian Specialties really punching at the same weight as fellow Italian two-stars Maialino and A Voce Columbus? Or is Torrisi getting a bonus for serving a bounty of pretty good food for just $50? It’s quite a bit less than you would pay at the other two places, but is it actually as good in the absolute sense?

4. Critics Should Evaluate Quality, Full Stop. Think about the other disciplines in which The Times employs critics: music, dance, film, theater, books, fashion, architecture. In no other, does the price of the product figure in the review. A critic gives an informed reaction to the product, independent of its economics. The Times doesn’t give better reviews to plays that open in cheaper off-Broadway houses; it reviews the production, not its price.

I am not suggesting that diners don’t, or shouldn’t, care what the meal costs. Of course we do. But value from the customer’s perspective depends on factors the critic can’t easily assess. For all of the above reasons, I think The Times ratings should be based on quality, full stop. The reviews, of course, would still show price ranges (as they do now). Diners can decide for themselves if the restaurant is “worth it.”


The Café at Country


Note: Country closed in summer 2010. Its replacement is Millesime, under chef Laurent Manrique.


The Greek tragedy that is Country continues. Geoffrey Zakarian ran his top-tier three-star restaurant into the ground. The gorgeous upstairs dining room is now closed indefinitely, supposedly to re-open as Country Steak sometime next year. Don’t all yawn at once. The downstairs café is now in the hands of Blake Joyal, who replaced Willis Loughhead, who replaced Doug Psaltis.

A friend was staying in the area, and I was curious to see what has become of the café, so I made a reservation. I wasn’t pleased with the café the first time I visited, but that was nearly three years ago, and Country was a very different place. Today, it feels like a hotel lounge—which it basically is. “A lot’s changed,” said a sullen bartender. He didn’t sound pleased.

I was surprised to find that the menu is reprinted daily, which suggests that Chef Joyal isn’t just phoning it in. The menu might not be adventurous, but at least it isn’t cast in stone. There are nine appetizers ($11–18), ten entrées ($18–39) and five sides ($8–9): a reasonable compass that a good kitchen should be able to manage. Except for the dry-aged sirloin ($39), entrées are all in the mid-twenties or lower.


The Café at Country was never the most comfortable place to eat, but it is not doing much business, so you’ll get a good table. The bartender clearly preferred to be somewhere else, but at the table our server was friendly and efficient. A warm mixed bean salad ($14; above left) was respectable, but I didn’t detect much of the cured pork belly that was supposed to be lurking under those green leaves. Brased shortribs ($26; above right) were acceptable, but not as tender as they should be. I didn’t note my companions’ entrées, but both of them raved about an onion soup appetizer ($14).

As of now, the Café at Country is serving above-average hotel food, but it’s a far cry from what this wonderful restaurant was once capable of.

The Café at Country (90 Madison Avenue at 29th Street, Gramercy/Flatiron)

Food: Satisfactory
Service: Average
Ambiance: Hotel Lobby
Overall: Satisfactory


Exit Country, Enter Country Steak


Note: After a failed Department of Health inspection, Country gave up the ghost. Plans for Country Steak, described below, were quietly abandoned. The downstairs café persisted a while longer, before it closed too. The upstairs space re-opened as Chef Laurent Manrique’s Millesime, while the downstairs is now known as Salon Millesime.


Yesterday brought the depressing news that Country will close at the end of the summer. Chef/owner Geoffrey Zakarian will replace it with a steakhouse, Country Steak. What a creative name!

We adored Country. I awarded four stars to my first visit there, and over three subsequent visits we continued to find it enchanting. Unfortunately, it was in a slow but steady decline. After our most recent visit, about two months ago, we thought the food barely merited three stars. The new chef de cuisine, Willis Loughhead, had turned the formerly exciting menu into an uneven lineup of mostly snoozers. But Loughhead was still in transition after the departure of the former chef de cuisine, Doug Psaltis. We hoped the downturn was temporary.

The market, alas, decided otherwise. About a month ago, Eater put Country on Deathwatch, after the restaurant offered a summer “Pay What We Pay” wine list promotion, among other distress signals. Zakarian retorted that reservations were up, and that they “look forward to business as usual in the dining room.” Readers were right to be skeptical, when the restaurant was giving away its wine list at wholesale prices—clearly not a show of strength.

We now learn that Zakarian was lying through his teeth. Here’s the explanation for the new steakhouse idea:

I’ve been trying to do a steakhouse concept for a while… I was looking for a location, and we’re already doing a lot of head-to-tail cooking at Country. So we’re just going to do it here. I’m installing a wood grill, and we’re going to open after our usual summer hiatus in September… We’re still looking at different woods, different methods.

Yeah, right. And when he denied the restaurant was in trouble—just four weeks ago—the steakhouse concept wasn’t already in the works?

The shift was enough to awaken Frank Bruni from his blogging slumber. He wonders why steakhouses — as if we didn’t have enough of them already — have been immune to the economic downturn. It’s the only populist restaurant genre where à la carte entrées routinely hover at $40 or higher; yet, you hardly ever see a steakhouse fail. Most of them, in fact, are routinely full, despite a steakhouse glut over the last few years.

It remains to be seen how far Zakarian will wander from the traditional steakhouse model. BLT Steak, Quality Meats, and Craftsteak are all examples of successful re-imaginings of the genre. V Steakhouse was perhaps the most conspicuous failure of that kind. One wonders whether Zakarian will leave the dining room’s refined elegance intact, or if he’ll try to make it “look” more like a steakhouse.

One hopes, as Bruni put it, that “the food at the forthcoming Country Steak will be more imaginative and surprising than that name.”




Note: The upstairs dining room at Country has closed, to be replaced around October 1 March 2009 with Country Steak. The downstairs Café at Country remains open.

Update: Forget Country Steak. Millesime, under chef Laurent Manrique, opened here in fall 2010.


Country is one of our favorite special-occasion restaurants. It may not be the best of those restaurants, but we adore the luxurious, spacious, old-school dining room, the first-class service, and food that usually exceeds our expectations.

The new chef: Willis Loughhead [Country/Grub Street]
We paid our fourth visit to Country on Saturday to check out the menu by Willis Loughhead, Country’s new chef. Loughhead, who made his reputation in Miami, arrived here without much of a publicity footprint. He quickly set about rectifying it.

We’re doing everything differently now,” he told Grub Street. “We’re breaking down whole animals, making our own charcuterie… And now that the Greenmarket is about to explode, you’re going to see so much from us based on that. It’s going to be very market-driven. Right now, I’m waiting for ramps, for instance. Just wait till they come in.”

Earlier this week, Gothamist had a “nose-to-tail” piece, with a photo of lamb and pig carcasses hanging on meat hooks:

Hanging in the wine cellar at Country’s Dining Room are, from left to right, lamb pancetta, pork pancetta, house-cured pigs’s leg prosciutto style, house-cured pig’s leg Serrano-style, Bresaola-style beef tenderloin and lastly imported Serrano with hoof.

“It’s not something you’re going to do unless you buy the whole animal,” Loughhead says of making charcuterie. As for the nose-to-tail aspect, the only folks who seem to be freaked out are the hotel staff: “The room service people complain when there’s a big pig or lamb’s head outside there office.”

country_inside2.jpgOne eGullet poster proclaimed the charcuterie in the Café at Country, the casual sister to the main dining room, was as good as or better than the offerings at Bar Boulud and Benoit—tall praise indeed if it is true.

But Loughhead is taking his sweet time about reforming the flagship restaurant. We found a new menu that still needs a lot of work, and that falls short of the rapture that a restaurant on Country’s level ought to deliver. There are just four appetizers, four mid-courses, five entrées, and four desserts—a perplexingly low total.

The appetizers and mid-courses were uniformly good, but except for rhubarb in one dish, we didn’t see the “haute barnyard” influence that Loughhead has been selling to bloggers and publicists.

The entrées on a recent menu at Country

The entrées were shockingly unimaginative, in addition to being over-cooked and tough. If Loughhead is breaking down whole animals, then why are most of the entrées just the standard rectangle of protein with a medley of vegetables? And why are they all cooked the same way? Every one we asked about, the server said: pan-seared, then roasted. The menu style shown above is reflected throughout: a main ingredient in capital letters (“PORK”), with little indication of what is done with it.

The menu at Country is priced at $75 for three courses, $89 for four courses, or $135 for the chef’s tasting menu. The middle option, which we had, is probably the best one, given that an extra savory course is only $14 extra. All of the menus at Country include canapés, an amuse-bouche, a plate cleanser, petits-fours, and one of the best bread services in town. We also received a complimentary glass of champagne to start. I am not sure if that is the norm, or if it was because the staff recognized us.

country_inside3.jpgDespite my dismay at Loughhead’s half-hearted re-boot of the menu and the disappointing entrées, there are still many reasons to love Country. It sports one of the loveliest dining rooms in town, elegant service, and candle-lit tables widely spread out. There is hardly a better place to enjoy a leisurely, romantic meal. And given the number of excellent courses served for $89, I am almost ready to forgive the flawed entrées. Well, almost.

The restaurant was not full, and our 8:00 p.m. table, nestled in a quiet alcove, was ours for the evening. Two dainty canapés arrived quickly. I neglected to photograph them, but one was a cube of seared tuna, the other a small, deep-fried risotto ball.

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The amuse-bouche was a frog leg in a garlic cream and watercress purée. The bread service, I am glad to say, has not changed: a large, warm Parker House roll. When we were about 2/3rds done with it, the staff brought another one, which we most reluctantly had to leave untouched.

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Four our first course, I had the White & Green Asparagus with Serrano ham, mustard vinaigrette and fried quail eggs. My girlfriend raved about the Sea Trout Tartare, with barbequed eel, yuzu and cucumber.

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I can’t identify the foam that came atop a grilled sea scallop; pork belly on the left-hand side of the plate didn’t make quite the impression that it normally does. But my girlfriend’s seafood risotto was the knockout dish of the evening. It was chock-full of chunky lobster, squid, cockles and dorade.

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Our entrées were “DUCK” (left) and “PORK” (right). I loved the sear on the duck, but it was a bit tough; but that was nothing compared to my girlfriend’s pork, which was dry and even tougher. “They were probably cooked by the same heavy-handed guy at the meat station,” she suggested.

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There clearly is a great talent in the pastry kitchen here. I neglected to photograph the palate cleanser, which was one of the most creative dishes we had: a lime granité with coconut foam, lemon pearls and sweet soda, served with a long spoon that doubled as a straw.

Both desserts were excellent: “YOGHURT” with guava, grapefruit and sesame (above, left) and “MILLE FEUILLE” (above, right) with raspberry, gianduja and fromage blanc.

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Last, came perhaps the best petits-fours cart we’ve seen since Alain Ducasse.

country11.jpgWilliam Rhodes is now in charge of the wine program. The bottles are generally expensive, as one would expect, but Rhodes is stocking whites as low as $40 and reds as low as $50. Throughout the list, there are wines touted as “Sommelier Selections,” and they aren’t just the expensive ones. Based on our 2005 St. Joseph, Rhodes’s instincts can be trusted.

There were minor service hiccups, none of which seriously undermined our evening, but which should not happen at a restaurant at this level. All were probably attributable to a server who, though eager to please, was error-prone.

Though I’d ordered one of the sommelier-recommended reds, a white wine was brought to our table. It’s a rather peculiar foul-up to bring a bottle many pages away from the one you picked. To his credit, the server admitted the error, and the restaurant had to eat the mistake.

We were given plenty of time to order, but we actually had to ask for a wine list. During the meal, runners at least twice were mixed up about which dish was mine, and which was my girlfriend’s.


If I had never before dined at Country, I would award 2½ stars. That is my usual rating for a restaurant that very clearly has the potential for three stars, but hasn’t quite lived up to them. Given our long history with Country, we assume that we caught the dining room in transition. Chef Loughhead has a vigorous publicity machine behind him. Now, he needs to deliver the goods.

Though I am coming down a bit hard on Country, it’s because we know from experience that transcendent meals are possible here. By and large, this was a transcendent meal, but for the entrées. However, it is a significant problem when both meat dishes fall as flat as they did here.

Diners lured by the press coverage are going to have high hopes for a restaurant with such a high price tag. We will be back, as the wonderful dining room and luxurious service will always have a tug on our affections. But for the new clientele that Country is trying to attract, there might not be a second chance to make a strong first impression.

Country (90 Madison Avenue at 29th Street, Flatiron District)

Food: ***
Service: ***
Ambiance: ****
Overall: ***


Valentine's Day at Country


Note: Click here for a more recent review of Country.

It’s a little late to be blogging about Valentine’s Day. I hadn’t planned to say anything about our excellent meal at Country, as we went there last year too, and the format was fairly similar.

This time, there were two four-course menus captioned pour lui and pour elle, though we were allowed to mix-and-match between them—we both had the foie gras, for example. I wonder if any gay couples were offended by the presumption that every couple would be a man and a woman?

Willis Loughhead has taken over as executive chef, replacing Doug Psaltis, who left last November. We’re not exactly sure when Loughhead started. His name was printed on the Valentine’s Day menus, but his appointment wasn’t announced in the Times until April 2. “We’ve changed everything,” he told Grub Street.

Quite a few of the menu items currently shown on the Country website strongly resemble those served on Valentine’s Day, such as the Apple Velouté, the Chicken, the Sea Scallop, and the Bison. It struck us then as a first-class meal (especially for a holiday), though not perhaps the same extraordinary experience that Country seemed to us when it was new.

My girlfriend and I still love Country, and we look forward to sampling Chef Loughhead’s menu again on a more relaxed occasion.

Country (90 Madison Avenue at 29th Street, Flatiron District)

Food: ***
Service: ***
Ambiance: ***
Overall: ***


Valentine’s Day at Country


Note: Click here for a more recent Valentine’s Day visit to Country.

It was only a couple of weeks after New Year’s Eve, and we were faced with a new dining dilemma: where to book for Valentine’s Day? It’s one of those days when restaurants tend to serve sub-par menus at exorbitant prices. I have generally not had good luck on such occasions, although last New Year’s Eve we hit the jackpot at WD-50.

I do understand the restaurants’ position. Valentine’s Day is their single busiest day of the year. It’s a day that attracts guests for whom a three-star meal is a once-a-year occasion. The restaurants respond by offering a simplified and unchallenging menu that will offend no one, and that can be turned out efficiently for as many covers as possible.

One eGullet poster went into the bar at Picholine, and was told the only option was the “price-inflated, dumbed down Valentine’s menu.” As he put it, “there’s no way in the world I’m going to pay a premium for a more boring version of your normal menu.” And then he walked out, and headed over to Café Gray. Another eGulleteer walked into Eleven Madison Park, where they wouldn’t serve him at the bar at all.

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The tables set for Valentine’s Day — all two-tops.

We decided to give Country a try, remembering our four-star meal last year. It would have been madness to expect Country to reach those heights again. But considering the occasion, Executive Chef Doug Psaltis’s menu was impressive indeed, and everything that came out of the kitchen was uniformly excellent. Service was a bit sloppy, but the only real annoyance was the rather tardy appearance of the wine list.

For Valentine’s Day, Country was serving six-course tasting menus for $135—their usual price. However, the restaurant took my credit card at the time of the reservation and charged $270 a month in advance. I see the need to protect against no-shows, but I thought that this went beyond what is reasonable.

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After we were seated, the server presented us with printed menus that appeared identical on the outside, but were in fact quite different. I am not sure if he was supposed to tell us this, or if we were meant to be surprised. (We had checked the website in advance, but I’m sure many diners did not.)

In any case, I thought it was a neat idea, as we both had different meals and got to sample each other’s plates. And it showed that Country was not satisfied merely to do the obvious. Psaltis could easily have served the same menu to everyone, and no one would have complained. He went the extra mile.

We begain with gougères spiked with truffles, which could easily be the world’s most addictive snack food. Warm Parker House rolls were as good as I remembered them, but the butter was cold.

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The amuse bouche was a delicious cream of mushroom (above, left) so thick that it could have been a pudding. Heirloom potato velouté (above, right) sounded all the right notes. I tasted a bit of my girlfriend’s foie gras torchon, which was one of the softest and richest preparations of that dish that I’ve ever encountered.

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I was similarly enchanted with the black truffle risotto (above, left) and the grilled sea scallop (right).

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The next two courses weren’t as exciting. Bison bordelaise (left) may have sounded daring, but it was boring. I didn’t taste much truffle in brie de meaux (right), which was a forgettable sliver of soft cheese, with a tiny slice of bread and a bit of apple jam.

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My girlfriend hit the dessert jackpot. I had never heard of “Pavlova,” which was a half-moon shaped mound of baked frosting, with a running river of red berries inside. It was as enchanting and seductive as it sounds. My dark chocolate dessert (above, left) couldn’t stand up to this. Memo to Country: If you can’t think of two great desserts, then just serve us both the same thing. After dessert came a bowl of sugar-coated baked macaroons (above, right).

There were several service lapses, most of which I would ignore at a lesser restaurant. Inexplicably, we weren’t offered a wine list. By the time I realized it, the food had already started coming. When I brought this to a server’s attention, he presented a small pre-printed card with just three whites, three reds, and three champagnes. I flagged him down again. He explained that these were the sommelier’s recommended wines to accompany the evening’s tasting menu. The lowest-priced red wine was $97 per bottle. I asked to see the full wine list. There was another delay before this was presented, and yet another delay before he showed up again to take our order. By the time we finally had the bottle we wanted, we were already past two courses.

On this day, Country had no interest in serving leisurely, multi-hour meals. The courses came lickety-split, and I think we were out of there in two hours flat. I have no serious complaints about what we were served, but it was probably only 80% of what the restaurant was capable of. Even at that level, I rate the hit-to-miss ratio higher than we experienced a year ago, in a very respectable Valentine’s Day meal at three-star Oceana.

The setting was lovely as ever. The remodeled ball room, with its gorgeous Tiffany skylight, is one of New York’s great romantic dining spots. Some may argue that my original four-star rating was overly exuberant, but I don’t think any major restaurant does its best work on a major holiday, so for now I will leave Country in the top echelon.

Country (90 Madison Avenue at 29th Street, Flatiron District)

Food: ****
Service: ***
Ambiance: ***½
Overall: ****


The Dining Room at Country

Note: Click here for a more recent visit to Country.

Like a number of upscale restaurants (Gramercy Tavern, Aquavit, Jean Georges, The Modern, BLT Fish), Geoffrey Zakarian’s new restaurant Country has an upscale dining room attached to an informal sister establishment that offers a similar but less elaborate menu in humbler surroundings. My friend and I tried the Café at Country a few months ago, and we weren’t impressed. It was loud, uncomfortable, and pretentious.

But we knew that the main Dining Room was designed to offer a far more luxurious experience, so we were willing to entirely forget our unpleasant memory of the Café downstairs. I should add that, despite Frank Bruni’s imprecise co-mingling of the two in his three-star review, the Dining Room and the Café should be thought of as entirely separate restaurants under one roof.

Your choices in the Dining Room include an $85 four-course prix fixe, a five-course tasting menu at $110, and a seven-course tasting menu at $145. We were in a celebratory mood, and chose the seven-course tasting. Our server then asked us which dishes from the à la carte menu we wanted included — a flexibility I don’t recall at any other restaurant that offered a tasting menu. We named four particular items that interested us. Our server advised that he would confer with the kitchen, and in fact all of our choices were included in the meal.

I didn’t take detailed notes, and the online menu is outdated, so I can describe our experience only in general terms. There was a trio of amuses to start, of which the most memorable was a gougère filled with spinach. Another amuse was a delectable miniature poultry leg (I’m not sure of which bird). Perhaps I am forgetting a third amuse course. Along the way, we received a melt-in-your-mouth parker house roll with soft butter.

Our seven course meal consisted of the following:

  1. Foie gras terrine
  2. Grilled white asparagus
  3. Shrimp ravioli
  4. Crisp Berkshire pork
  5. Bison filet
  6. Cheese course
    (Palate cleanser)
  7. Hot apple crisp
    (Petits fours)

This was the best meal I have had in the last twelve months. While both Per Se and Alain Ducasse offered individual courses that were superior to anything at Country, each of them had at least one course that I rated—in relation to the price range—a disappointment. But there were no disappointments at Country, nor anything even remotely close to it. Just one outstanding preparation after another. We kept thinking, “It can’t last; there must be a dud.” But there wasn’t.

Service was highly attentive and nearly impeccable. We were also impressed with the timing of the courses, which came neither too quickly nor too slowly. I would have liked a bit more time to relax after our cocktails, but as the overall meal was spaced over nearly three hours, I could hardly call it a rush job.

The wine staff upsells a bit too aggressively. When we asked the sommelier for a bottle of red under $100, her recommendation (a wonderful burgundy) came in at $110. We could, of course, have refused, but I suspect she realized that we weren’t going to quibble over $10. And when our foie gras arrived, we were asked if we’d like a glass of sauterne to go with it. (Even downstairs, the waitstaff on our previous visit had done the same.) With our still-unfinished cocktails and the just-opened burgundy already on the table, this would have been more alcohol than the table would bear, and we declined.

The Dining Room was formerly the hotel ballroom. It retains the original beaux arts tile floor and a gorgeous tiffany skylight, and is open to the lobby below. The period details are wonderful, but as the hard tile floor reflects sound, the restaurant is just a touch noisier than I would like. Somewhat in compensation, the tables are generously spaced.

It would take many more visits to determine whether Country is a four-star restaurant. But as I rate this one meal at least as highly as those I enjoyed at Alain Ducasse and Per Se, for now Country is four stars in my book.

Country (90 Madison Ave at 29th St, in the Carleton Hotel, Flatiron District)

Food: ****
Service: ***½
Ambiance: ***
Overall: ****


The Café at Country

Note: This is a review of the Café at Country under chef de cuisine Doug Psaltis. Click here for a more recent review under executive chef Blake Joyal.

Chef Geoffrey Zakarian, formerly of Le Cirque, 21 Club, and Patroon (among others), owns and operates the well-regarded three-star restaurant Town, in the Chambers Hotel on West 56th Street. It was only appropriate that he would call his next restaurant Country, which is in the new Carleton Hotel at Madson Ave & 29th Street. Zakarian recruited Doug Psaltis (who worked most recently at Alain Ducasse’s failed Mix in NY) as chef de cuisine.

Like many a restaurant (Jean Georges, Gramercy Tavern, Aquavit, The Modern), Country has an informal café attached to a more upscale main dining room. The café has been open for about two months, but the more elegant room upstairs hasn’t opened yet. We could see that the tables are all in place and tablecloths laid, so I’m not sure what Zakarian and Psaltis are waiting for. The café is surprisingly ill-conceived, and it strikes me as a waste of time. The décor is unattractive, the tables and seating are uncomfortable, and the noise level induces a splitting headache.

We were seated at a small circular table that looked cheap, and seemed to belong in an ice cream parlor. It was just barely large enough to accommodate our food. The banquette was too low. The restaurant also has a number of two-top rectangular tables that appear to have come from a different designer. I don’t know what the circular tables are doing there, as they clash with the rest of the décor.

Dinner began with cylindrical bread rolls that were so hard they could have been used to pound nails. There was olive oil at the table. It came in what looked like a cologne bottle, but the label on the outside said, “I Love Olive Oil.” I poured a little of it onto my plate, and my jaw had a good workout chewing through the bread.

I started with a beet salad, while my friend had the foie gras pâté. The pâté was probably the highlight of the meal. It was an excellent, but very large serving, and even after my friend and I shared it, we sent almost half of it back unfinished.

Coincidentally, the New York Daily News reviewed the Café at Country in yesterday’s issue, awarding 1½ stars, an assessment that may have been a tad generous. It was thanks to that review that I knew what to order for the main course. Critic Pascale Le Draoulec said:

Among entrees, I loved most of all the spectacular lamb shank, braised endlessly in North African spices. The rosy flesh yielded at the slightest prompting from my fork. Topped with glistening pomegranate seeds, it comes with basmati rice laced with exotic preserved fruit.

In fact, we both had the lamb shank. Le Draoulec’s enthusiasm is about right, but we both felt that it was more akin to comfort food than fine dining. Anyone competent isn’t going to mess up a lamb shank, and Psaltis is at least competent.

Service was solid, but in some ways over-the-top in comparison to the humble surroundings. Our server kept referring to my friend as “Madame,” and his obsequiousness was almost irritating. There is a very large wine list, which almost certainly will be shared with the main restaurant when it opens. We had an enjoyable Loire Valley red for about $47.

With most appetizers under $15 and most entrées under $25, the Café at Country clearly aims to attract diners who want a thoughtfully-composed menu that doesn’t break the bank. But what you get is basically a baby step above comfort food, and it isn’t good enough to justify putting up with the ugly, uncomfortable, and ear-splitting surroundings.

The Café at Country (90 Madison Avenue at 29th Street, Murray Hill)

Food: Satisfactory
Service: *
Ambiance: Poor
Overall: Satisfactory