Entries in Eighty One (4)


Sad News: Eighty One closing

Steve Cuozzo in the Post has the sad news that Eighty One will be closing after service on Sunday, April 4. Cuozzo, who was always a fan of the place, thought that it served “possibly the best food in the Upper West Side’s history.”

Chef Ed Brown summarized Eighty One’s problem eloquently:

We started as a destination restaurant in a destination location. When the world fell apart, we changed to cope with it, with a lower-priced menu and more accessible food. But we weren’t able to change people’s perceptions that we were a special-occasion place — which is why we were always full for special occasions, but not on a daily basis.

He might also have mentioned Frank Bruni’s respectful but not ecstatic two-star review—probably one less than it deserved—and the fact that the hotel entrance was hidden by scaffolding for much of the two years the restaurant existed.


The Payoff: Eighty One

Today, Frank Bruni awards the expected two stars to Eighty One, finding the ambitious food over-thought and over-wrought:

Maybe it’s an inevitable consequence of so many restaurants vying to be noticed. Maybe it’s an attempt to justify entrees sailing far north of $35. Maybe it’s a reflection of chefs too neurotic or vain to commit to one strategy or to dwell on one note.

Whatever the reason, the high-end New York dining scene is awash in troikas of pork, trilogies of tuna and the like. A meat that does a wholly satisfying turn as a chop, or a fish showcased adequately in a fillet, appears in many guises, as if it’s an actor doing one of those multi-part tours de force.

The spectacle is impressive to a point, but exhausting, too.

He awards points for the wine list, but subtracts them for the room:

Eighty One certainly preens. It goes so far as to title a section of the menu in which it lists spotlighted dishes the “tasting collection.”

When you see something like that, you’re less inclined to overlook a restaurant’s shortcomings. In Eighty One’s case, they include a sprawling dining room with unflattering lighting and oversize red velvet booths that look as if they were carted in from a bordello on some planet where the prostitutes are 12 feet tall.

We win $4 on our hypothetetical one-dollar bet. Eater, who had predicted three stars, loses a dollar.

              Eater          NYJ
Bankroll $88.50   $99.67
Gain/Loss –1.00   +4.00
Total $87.50   $103.67
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 39–17   40–16

Rolling the Dice: Eighty One

Every week, we take our turn with Lady Luck on the BruniBetting odds as posted by Eater. Just for kicks, we track Eater’s bet too, and see who is better at guessing what the unpredictable Bruni will do. We track our sins with an imaginary $1 bet every week.

The Line: Tomorrow, Frank Bruni gives us another pulse check on the Upper West Side’s fine dining revolution, with a review of Ed Brown’s Eighty One. The Eater oddsmakers have set the action as follows (√√ denotes the Eater bet):

Zero Stars: 10-1
One Star: 5-1
Two Stars: 4-1
Three Stars: 5-1 √√
Four Stars: 12-1

The Skinny: This week’s Eater odds reflect the lack of consensus on Eighty One, with anywhere between one and three stars being realistically possible.

Of the reviews so far, the worst came from Paul Adams in The Sun. Adams doesn’t award stars, but he called the restaurant “a sad disappointment.” At the other extreme was Steve Cuozzo in The Post, who doesn’t do stars either, but said he would award three. Adam Platt in New York was in the middle, awarding the deuce.

For the record, we gave Eighty One 2½ stars. If we were using Bruni’s system, which does not have half-stars, we’d have rounded down to two. We think that’s the most likely outcome here—not just because it conforms to our own verdict, but for other reasons too.

First, Bruni is seldom impressed with the trappings of luxury, which he usually calls “fussy.” I abhor the word, but if ever there was a fussy restaurant, Eighty One is it.

Second, Eighty One is more expensive than nearby Dovetail, to which he awarded three stars. Given that Bruni is highly sensitive to price, Eighty One would need to be a lot better than Dovetail to receive the identical rating. It’s hard to see that happening, given that his review of Dovetail was a rave. Most critics, regardless of their rating, have had their complaints about Eighty One. If Bruni does too, it’ll be enough to withhold the third star.

Bruni has been pretty generous with three-star reviews this year. Maybe they’re putting happy pills in the water over at Times HQ. The year’s not half over, and three new restaurants have received that honor. In all of 2007, none did. As the honor comes rarely, and Frank can time his reviews however he wants, we doubt he’d do two of them in a row. Last week’s review, of course, was three-stars for Momofuku Ko.

Lastly, there’s the Cuozzo effect: he and Bruni seldom see eye to eye. Cuozzo loved Eighty One.

We’re a little perplexed as to what has taken Bruni so long to file this review. The place has been open for months, and Platt’s review appeared more than six weeks ago. We can only guess that Bruni really wanted to love this place—it’s in his neighborhood, after all—but in the end, couldn’t quite make the case.

Why not one star? For a restaurant at Eighty One’s level, a measly star would be close to insulting. Bruni is quite capable of delivering that kind of smackdown, but usually only when he feels he has to. Given how long he’s waited, we figure he has something nice to say—just not three stars’ worth.

The Bet: We are betting that Frank Bruni will award two stars to Eighty One.


Eighty One


Note: Eighty One closed after service on Easter Sunday, April 4, 2010. The space is now occupied by Calle Ocho, which moved from its former home on Columbus Avenue.


The Upper West Side isn’t known for destination dining, but that has changed with the arrival of three wonderful new places, all within the first three months of 2008: Dovetail, Bar Boulud, and now Eighty One.

eightyone_logo.gifSo far, Eighty One is a hit, with prime-time tables regularly selling out on opentable.com. Longer-term, Eighty One could face tougher challenges. Bar Boulud, with its modest prices and its Lincoln Center perch, is almost surely there for the long haul. Dovetail, which is about four blocks south of Eighty One, racked up nine stars from the city’s major restaurant critics; it’s a bit cheaper and a lot more casual than Eighty One.

At Eighty One, entrée prices average in the mid-thirties. If you want black truffles shaved over any of them, it will set you back another $42. Appetizers are $15–19, but another section of the menu, peculiarly named “Tasting Collection,” offers another half-dozen appetizer-sized items from $15–39. These aren’t “neighborhood” prices. Luckily, Eighty One resides in the tony Excelsior Hotel, from whence it will no doubt draw many of its customers.

The décor screams “upscale chic,” though we felt that the deep red-velvet hues sucked up the available light, and made the dining room seem a bit depressing. (The drapes were drawn when we visited.)


Chef/owner Ed Brown runs the kitchen, coming off a thirteen-year stint at Rockefeller Center’s Sea Grill. Chef de Cuisine Juan Cuevas has stints at Alain Ducasse, Bruno Jamais, and most recently Blue Hill on his resume. They’re doing a terrific job, serving what I assume is intended to be three-star food, but to which most critics will probably give two.


We loved the amuse-bouche, a square of Hiramasu crudo with a Hawaiian seaweed salad. Bread service came with nice soft butter at room temperature, but the accompanying bread rolls were pedestrian.

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Sea Scallop & Foie Gras Ravioli (left); Tuna Tartare Tasting (right)

I started with the Sea Scallop and Foie Gras Ravioli ($16) in a straw wine sauce, a buttery ethereal pleasure.

My girlfriend had the Tuna Tartare Tasting ($21), with three half-dollar-sized cylinders of tuna, each in a different preparation. Our favorite the one on the left, with an Indonesian soy sauce, wasabi leaves and a dollop of cream. The other two weren’t bad either: blood orange (center) and olive oil with chervil (right).

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Lamb Three Ways (left); Dry-Aged Black Angus Sirloin (right)

Lamb Three Ways ($39) was a beautifully composed plate, with sheep’s milk ricotta gnocchi, pine nuts, wild mushrooms and braised butternut lettuce hearts. There was a wonderfully smooth potato purée, served on the side. The “three ways” conceit is becoming a bit cliché, and perhaps it would be better to hit a home run with just one way. I loved the juicy and well marbled rack of lamb, but neither the roasted loin nor the confit shoulder rocked my world.

eightyone04.jpgMy girlfriend was happy with a Dry-Aged Black Angus Sirloin ($37), which also included the short rib.  We didn’t quite understand the point of an accompanying Caesar wedge with aged parmigiano. The preparation was just fine, but it would have made more sense as a salad or mid-course.

The wine list includes plenty of bottles at reasonable prices, though you can splurge if you want to. We enjoyed a 2003 Château Lafleur Pomerol ($60). I don’t believe I’ve ordered a Pomerol before, but this bottle made me want to explore more of them.

Service was generally smooth and professional, but the staff paid decidedly less attention to us near the end of our meal, after the restaurant had started to fill up. Our appetizers came out awfully fast (it seemed like just moments), so we had almost half-an-hour to kill later on, before we headed over to Lincoln Center for our show.

Of the three new Upper West Side restaurants that I mentioned at the top of this post, Dovetail and Eighty One are the most similar, with broadly comparable culinary ambitions, and located within a few blocks of each other near the Museum of Natural History. Indeed, based on one visit apiece, I can’t really separate the two in terms of food, though the service and ambiance at Eighty One are considerably better—with prices to match.

Most of the critics in town will have their swords drawn when they review an expensive place with luxury trappings.  That explains why Adam Platt awarded two stars to Eighty One, though he had given Dovetail three. I suspect that Frank Bruni will do the same. I give them identical 2½-star ratings. You can decide for yourself if Eighty One’s more comfortable atmosphere and smoother service is worth a few extra dollars.

Eighty One (45 W. 81st Street between Columbus Avenue & Central Park West, Upper West Side)

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