Note: The Skeen curse continues. 83½ closed (briefly) after just 4½ months in business. As noted in the comments (below), it has re-opened with a different chef, Will Foden, who is serving an Italian menu.
I’m gonna try to write this post without making a bunch of Ryan Skeen jokes. It’s not easy. The chef has been linked to ten projects since 2008, many of which failed quickly (either the restaurant or Skeen’s involvement). In early 2012, he sat for an interview with Grub Street, clearly aware of his reputation for job-hopping. Taken individually, each failure has a logical explanation. Taken together, there is a shitload of them.
Welcome to Skeen Project #11, 83½, named for the restaurant’s location, halfway along 83rd Street between First and Second Avenues. The place has been open less than a month. Skeen hasn’t quit yet.
No one who knows Skeen’s history would predict a long life for this place. But at least it’s a lot different than most of his recent projects: a brand new, small dining room with 42 seats, where he’s the executive chef, and no one else’s culinary ego is competing with his.
Of course, there is still an owner to contend with, Vincenzo Mangiafridda Jr., who owns Gino’s Pizzeria next door. We weren’t sure if it was Vincenzo or his son who was perched at the bar on a recent Saturday evening, chatting with Ryan in the open kitchen and surveying the scene.
The one-page, focused menu is in four sections: Starting Course ($16), Sea Course ($17), Pasta Course ($18), and Large Courses ($27). But for one dish with a $5 supplement (the rack of lamb), every dish in a category costs the same.
This layout might prompt over-ordering. The server didn’t push that at all, though he did point out that some tables order a pastas—of which there are only two—as a mid-course to share. There are just five entrées, and the kitchen was no longer offering two of them when we arrived a shade early for our 10:30pm reservation.
Given Skeen’s reputation as a meat-hawking chef at Resto and Irving Mill, it may be a bit surprising that about half the menu is seafood, and most of the meat offerings are timid. Is Skeen channeling the Upper East Side, trying to prove he’s settled down, or something else?
The wine list isn’t long, but it’s fairly priced in relation to the food, and it featured a number of producers unfamiliar to me, many of them labeled as organic or biodynamic. At $50 (about 2½ times retail), the Torbreck 2009 Cuvée Juveniles (above right) had a rich, full-bodied flavor.
A Tea Beet & Goat Cheese Salad ($16; above left) was…well, a beet salad. A Liege Salad ($16; above right) was as close to the old Skeen as the menu got, a delightful soupy mix of escarole, arugula, chopped pig’s ears, and a poached egg.
If you’re going to offer just two pastas, there’s full credit for making one of them such a dandy as the Sepia Bucatini ($18; above left) with chili, sea urchin, lemon and basil.
But I was quite disappointed in the Rack of Lamb ($32; above right), the only dish on the menu that carries a supplement. Served off the bone, the lamb didn’t have much flavor, and it was swimming in a watery swamp of bitter greens.
The space doesn’t appear to be perversely designed to amplify the ambient noise, but noisy it was, until the crowd thinned out later in our meal. The dining room is modern, stylish, and attractive, although the tables are close together. The servers are smartly dressed and knowledgeable, a cut above what one often finds at new restaurants these days. This isn’t their first rodeo.
I’m sure 83½ will attract some of the Skeen curiosity seekers, the way it attracted us. The introductory menu doesn’t qualify as destination cuisine, but as Skeen finds his equilibrium perhaps it will become more adventurous. The advantage of a small space is that the menu doesn’t have to be full of crowd-pleasers, as long as he can keep 40-odd seats full.
Less than a month in, 83½ is promising, but perhaps not yet at its full potential. It will bear watching, along with the chef’s mercurial temper.
83½ (345 E. 83rd Street between First & Second Avenues, Upper East Side)
Food: Upscale American cuisine
Wine: A short but worthwhile list of wines, many organic or biodynamic
Service: A strong point, especially for a restaurant this new
Ambaince: A small, stylish dining room with an open kitchen; a bit too loud
Why? A promising menu with some soft spots, but well worth watching