Entries in Craig Hopson (3)



Note: Just four months after opening night, chef Craig Hopson and creative director Frank Roberts left the restaurant, citing “creative differences.” Just a month earlier, a New York Post article described the place as a “playpen for millionaires.” Whether it can retain its cachet without Hopson or Roberts remains to be seen.


A high-gloss restaurant opens in midtown, with white tablecloths, glistening chandeliers, a mirrored staircase, a grand piano, rose petal wallpaper, Jean Paul Gualtier fabrics, plush suede seating, and a décor modeled on Coco Chanel’s Paris apartment.

No, it is not 2004. Welcome to Beautique, which opened last month in a subterranean space adjoining the Paris Theater, just behind the Plaza Hotel and steps away from Central Park.

The question here is not whether the chef, Craig Hopson, can run a kitchen worthy of such a luxurious setting. He more than proved himself, first as Terrance Brennan’s chef de cuisine at Picholine from 2003–07, and then at Le Cirque from 2008–12.

No, the question is who exactly will be the core constituency for a restaurant so resolutely contrary to every current trend. I’d love to see it succeed, but I’m not blind to fashion, and cheerleading from this blog doesn’t matter.

The Central Park South ecosystem has not been friendly to restaurants. It’s a place they go to die, or at best, to be forgotten. In the last decade, only Marea has opened in this neighborhood, and been both a critical and commercial success.

If Beautique wants to be taken seriously, a few easy fixes are in order. It certainly looks shady when, less than a month after opening, the online menus are revised to omit prices. They have nothing to be ashamed of. For the neighborhood, it is not really that expensive, with appetizers $14–19, entrées $29–39, side dishes $9, and desserts $12.

On a menu that pretends the last ten years never happened, there’s no tasting menu, no snacks, sharing plates, or large-format entrées for two. Not that I object to any of this, but I can well imagine the critical reaction.

As I recall, the 200-bottle wine list was fairly priced in relation to the food: a 2005 Château du Grand Bos (above left) was $86, a shade under 3 times retail, and the staff decanted it. But why is the list not online? Just because the décor is from another era, does not mean the technology must be.

Frank Roberts, formerly of Rose Bar, is the general manager here. One might assume that he superintends the cocktail program, and it’s a good one (even if expensive, at $19 a pop). There’s a mixture of slightly-tweaked classics (Bellini, French 75) and house recipes.

The appealing bread service (above right) came with hummus, but there was no amuse bouche, which a restaurant of Beautique’s apparent ambitions ought to have.


Although everything is capably prepared, there’s not much critic bait on the menu—the sort of dishes that set pulses racing from their descriptions alone. A Crab Flan ($19; above right) is one of the exceptions, with chunks of pork belly in a malt caramel sauce. More typical is a soft-shell crab ($19; above left) appetizer: first rate and technically correct, but you’ve seen it before.


You can’t go wrong with the Scallops ($32; above left) with a foie gras sabayon, shitake mushrooms, and turnips in a diablo sauce. A Lamb Mixed Grill ($38; above right) was served five ways, of which three stood out (bacon, sausage, and chop).


The pastry chef is Jiho Kim, formerly of Gordon Ramsay at the London. His work here is superb, assuming his Mascarpone Custard ($12; above left) is any guide.

The design by Marc Dizon and Valerie Pasquiou is stunning. You already knew that. There’s a comfortable bar, two dining rooms (we were seated in the smaller “oval room”), a private dining area, and a spacious lounge that was not open when we visited.

Despite the luxury design, the basement space can feel a bit gloomy when empty, as it was on the early side of the dinner hour, on a Wednesday evening. By the time we left, it was a bit over half full, and felt more energetic. The service is a bit retro: I can’t remember the last time outside of France that I was called monsieur, but the staff are relatively unobtrusive. Dishes are presented without the slightest explanation, and that is that.

The decision to open a restaurant that practically ignores contemporary fashion is obviously deliberate. I don’t mind it at all, though I suspect many will. If Beautique wants to revive the service model of another era, there shouldn’t be any half-measures. Put your prices and wine list on the website, and take credit for offering something that no one lately has done.

Beautique (8 W. 58th Street, west of Sixth Avenue)

Food: Old-school luxurious French-influenced cuisine
Service: Polished and unobtrusive
Ambiance: A series of rooms modeled on Coco Chanel’s Paris apartment

Rating: ★½


Tolani Wine Restaurant

It’s not exactly news that most wine bars these days have deep enough menus to serve you a full meal. So now comes Tolani Wine Restaurant, standing astride the borderline between a bar and a full-service dining room.

The website is desperately in need of an editor, but it at least explains the philosophy, if not exactly elegantly:

The space at Tolani was imagined and created into two distinct divides – the upstairs is a semi-casual bar meets lounge, while the downstairs lends itself to the fine-dining experience.

There is too much self-congratulation in the pitch:

“Tolani” means “too good,” and that is exactly what this UWS gem is – an unpretentious spot of which you simply can’t get enough. Drawing from the very best flavors, techniques and ingredients from each corner of the world, Tolani Wine Restaurant’s menu brings a culinary adventure to your backyard, marrying authenticity with ingenuity.

Filled with small to medium sized plates meant to be shared, the menu is best experienced as a journey around the world. Start in Greece with a grilled octopus salad, hop over to the West Indies with goat curry and mango, shoot over to the Maghreb for a duck pastilla and shoot pea salad, enjoy a T-bone cooked Brazilian-style or perhaps a Thai Green Papaya and cucumber salad with crisp rice peanut sauce.

The menu’s inventiveness is representative of the eclectic group of people who dreamt and built Tolani into existence.

The décor screams “date place.” It’s warm, low-lit, and comfortable. Wines are mostly $30–80 a bottle, with twenty selections by the glass. We ordered a $36 Portuguese wine from Dao, one of the better values we’ve had lately.

The chefs are a couple of Picholine graduates. Craig Hopson of Le Cirque is consulting, while David Rotter runs the kitchen full-time. Their work isn’t very impressive. The menu features the comfort foods of about 20 different nations. When a chef purports to master so many different styles, it’s a sure bet the results won’t be great.

Robiola Cheese ($11; above left) with orange honey was the most enjoyable item. Tuna Tartare ($16; above right) with blood orange, fennel, and avocado, was forgettable.

 (Please forgive our camera fail.)

Pasta Carbonara ($17; above left) and Greek Octopus Salad ($17; above right) tasted flat and under-seasoned.

Cuban Style Pork Loin ($17; above left) was over-cooked and dry. A Giant Meatball ($11; above right) – described thus on the menu – was just fine, but you could have made it at home.

The menu is in two sections, cold and hot, with sharing plates ranging from $9–26. The server recommended three per person, which was one or two more than we needed. Even after we specifically asked that the dishes not come out too quickly, the kitchen insisted on sending them out in pairs.

Aside from that, the service was good, and we especially appreciated having our wine decanted.

The bill came to $124 before tax and tip, which seemed high for such mediocre food. If I lived in the area, I’d love to stop in again for some wine, but I wouldn’t bother having dinner here.

Tolani Wine Restaurant (410 Amsterdam Avenue between 79th & 80th Streets, Upper West Side)

Food: no stars
Service: *
Ambiance: **
Overall: *


The Café at Le Cirque

Like most luxury restaurants these days, Le Cirque has a formal dining room and a dressed-down café, where reservations aren’t taken and the menu is a bit more approachable.

Since our meal in the main dining room almost two years ago, Le Cirque has acquired a new chef: Craig Hopson, formerly of Picholine and One if By Land, Two if By Sea. None of the city’s major critics has reviewed Le Cirque since Hopson took over. It holds three Times stars, courtesy of a Bruni re-review in February 2008. It almost pained him to dine there:

At Le Cirque you will indeed eat too much food, of a kind that neither your physician nor your local Greenpeace representative would endorse, in a setting of deliberate pompousness, at a sometimes ludicrous expense.The ravioli, all three of them, are $35.

But that has long been the way of certain restaurants, which exist to be absurd, to speak not to our better angels but to our inner Trumps, making us feel pampered and reckless and even a little omnipotent, if only for two hours and three courses with a coda of petits fours.

And while I’m not calling for the spread of these establishments (or the massacre of Chilean sea bass), I’m charged with noting when one of them fulfills its chosen mission with classic panache. Le Cirque now does.

Has ever a critic awarded three stars to a restaurant, while saying that he would prefer to see no more like it?

I had an evening commitment on the Upper East Side during Restaurant Week, and as Le Cirque would be on the way, I decided to drop in. The Dining Room was fully committed, even at 5:45 p.m., but the adjoining café was empty (it would begin to fill up later on). The website advises: “Jackets are required for gentlemen in the dining room and suggested in the café.” I was wearing one, but it did not seem to matter.

The café is a comfortable space, dominated by a huge cylindrical wine tower. In the oddly-shaped room, two of the walls have ceiling-height windows that face on Third Avenue and 58th Street, admitting plenty of natural light.

Lately, the owners have been struggling to fill the café. Evidently, the idea of dropping into Le Cirque for an order of sliders hasn’t caught on. Offers to drop in for free fried chicken to watch major sporting events (sixth game of the World Series; Thursday night Jets–Bills game) have dropped in my mailbox with regularity.

There is a dizzying array of options at Le Cirque. The main carte offers a pre-theatre prix fixe at $48, a tasting menu at $120, and a regular prix fixe at $95. You can also order à la carte, which I don’t recall before, with some of the highest prices in town: appetizers $25–30 (most in the high 20s), pastas $28–38, mains $42–70.

The café menu, also called the wine bar menu, has tasting plates from $14–35, along with a three-course “restaurant week” prix fixe for $35, which was available all summer long. Apparently you can order from any of these menus in the café, but the server gave me only the restaurant week menu, as they said it’s what most of the café visitors want.

No one should be under the illusion that they’re getting a $98 value for $35. When the price for three courses is less than the cheapest dining room entrée, you’re obviously not going to get the restaurant’s best stuff. None of the three dishes I had is shown on the main dining room carte. But I did have a modestly satisfying meal at a respectable price, with two forgettable dishes and one I would happily order again.

Gnocchi with tripe ragu (above left) was pedestrian, but I loved (at the price) the pavé of veal with zucchini, tomato, and pecorino romano (above right). The veal was nicely crisped, but tender on the inside. I was afraid of another humdrum tomato broth, but both the tomato and the zucchini were vibrantly flavored. The cheese didn’t add much, though.

Dessert, a lemon merengue pie, was competently executed but rather ordinary, and the accompanying sorbet paired with it poorly.

Café diners get the same bread service as the main dining room—not that it is anything to write home about. Coffee ($4) came in its own silver pot. Service overall was attentive and pleasant. The café has its own pared-down wine list (though I’m sure you can get the bigger one), and prices by the glass are reasonable. A 2003 Haut Médoc was $15.

It may not offer the main dining room’s culinary fireworks, but the Café is a fine way to enjoy an inexpensive dinner if you happen to be in the area.

The Café at Le Cirque (151 E. 58th Street between Lexington & Third Avenues, East Midtown)