Entries in Willis Loughhead (4)


The CafĂ© 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: ***