Note: Crown “closed for renovations” in July 2014. Closures of this sort tend to be permanent. We’ll revise this post of Crown somehow beats the odds, and re-opens. (Most of the staff whom I praised in this review had long-since left the restaurant before it closed. I doubt that it was a two-star restaurant any longer.)
Crown is the first of chef John DeLucie’s restaurants that I have visited—or wanted to.
Exactly how DeLucie became New York’s “chef to the stars” is beyond me. He parlayed a mediocre resume into the top job at La Bottega in the Maritime Hotel, which got a goose-egg from Amanda Hesser in The Times. He parlayed that unimpressive achievement to Graydon Carter’s reboot of the Waverly Inn (one star from Bruni), then opened his own place nearby, The Lion, where reviews were terrible.
From there, he took his gravity-defying act to the Upper East Side, where his downtown audience has inexplicably followed him, only to find a great surprise: the food is very good.
DeLucie isn’t cooking here. Instead, he’s got Jason Hall, former chef de cuisine of Gotham Bar & Grill; and Heather Bertinetti, Michael White’s former pastry chef at Marea (and other places). They’re joined by a first-rate sommelier, Jordan Salcito (Daniel, Eleven Madison Park, Veritas, Gilt).
Crown occupies an Upper East Side townhouse from the gilded age, in the former Bruno Jamais space. It has been completely remodeled, in country-club velvet and mahogany, with ornate, coffered ceilings and dim sconces.
There’s a series of three rooms: a narrow, back-lit bar; a main dining room resembling a dark library, and a second dining room (doubling as an event space) with skylights and a window onto a courtyard.
At short notice, the only reservations you’ll get are 5:45 or 10:00 p.m. — my first visit was at the earlier time — but with a couple of weeks’ advance planning we had no trouble getting in at 7:00 p.m. on a weeknight.
Crown proves that there is still a market for traditional elegance, at least when it’s done by someone who can attract an audience. DeLucie draws a mix of downtown and uptown guests, young and old. Most dress up, buying into an an old-school charm seldom seen these days. Crown would be instantly denounced as old-fashioned, had anyone else opened it.
Old-school luxury costs old-school money. Most appetizers and pastas are in the $20s. Entrées start at $27 (chicken), rising to $65 (bone-in tenderloin), with most in the $30s or $40s. There is, of course, caviar service; and when in season, ricotta gnudi with white truffles ($110).
The wine list is very good, but most bottles are in three figures, or at least the high twos. The by-the-glass list is fairly expensive. Cocktails ($14) are a comparative bargain, with classics like the Dirty Gibson (vodka, olive brine, pickle juice).
The cuisine is basically American, with French and Italian influences. None of it is ground-breaking. It might even be called timid. But over the course of two visits I sampled ten dishes, and most were flawless.
A luscious foie gras terrine with mission figs, 50-year balsamic, and warm walnut raisin bread ($23; above left), was all it should be. There are three pastas on the current menu. I enjoyed the silk handkerchief pasta (above right) with a rich bolognese sauce, but you do not get much of it for $26, and it needed to be in a bowl, not spread out horizontally on a nearly-flat plate.
A side of cauliflower, raisins, and almonds ($10; below left) was the only dish that I didn’t like: it was too salty and too watery.
A sampler of sorbets ($10; above right) hardly gave pastry chef Heather Bertinetti much chance to shine, but there was an attractive mix of flavors—mango, green apple, and grapefruit.
My friend Kelly joined me for a second visit. We loved both appetizers, a Tasmanian Trout Tartare ($21; above left) and a vibrant Chilled Seafood Salad ($21; above right).
Milk-fed Veal Sirloin ($37; above left) wrapped in speck may not look like much, but it was one of the tenderest veal dishes I’ve had in a long time. My friend was impressed with the Bay Scallops ($38; above right) with potato confit and fresh laurel.
A side of Brussels Sprouts ($12; below left) with bacon and pecorino was full of smokey flavor.
The desserts, like everything else, are not very adventurous, but a chocolate soufflé ($14; above right) was just about perfect.
The professional reviews of Crown have started to roll in (two stars from Platt; two stars from Cuozzo; a dissenting one star from Sutton). Some critics have complained about the service, and you can see why.
On my first visit, I was seated in Siberia, at a small two-top near a beverage station, even though the restaurant was nearly empty, with only nine tables seated by 7:00 p.m. Service begins with the choice of five kinds of bread, but both that I sampled seemed stale, and the butter was cold. Staff were milling around, but none noticed that I needed my water glass refilled, or that I wanted to order wine. (When I mentioned this to the sommelier later on, she kindly comped a glass of dessert wine.) The food came out quickly, as if they wanted me gone. I ordered regular coffee; espresso came instead (not billed), and it was lukewarm.
It was all much better on my second visit, although this time the restaurant was far more crowded. But the bar will not transfer your tab to the dining room, which at a place this expensive is inexcusable.
With DeLucie exploring new restaurants spaces every other week, success here depends on keeping his high-powered team together, so that they can continue to improve it. He needs a house manager, who can make the dining room experience as near to flawless as the food. Will Crown be among the 30 percent of restaurants that get better after the reviews, or the 70 percent that get worse?
Crown (24 E. 81st St. between Madison & Fifth Avenues, Upper East Side)