Story by Morton Hochstein
Photos courtesy of Brasserie 8 1/2
Brasserie 8 1/2
When asked by friends to suggest a restaurant in New York City, I often recommend the oddly named 8˝, a few steps off Fifth Avenue on west 57th street. You can find it by focusing on a huge red number 9 dominating much of the sidewalk in front of the building. The restaurant door sits to one side of the 9. Why the odd name? You can figure it out, but more on that later.
It’s often been my go-to restaurant, a comfortable and quiet place with ample space between tables, no obtrusive music and fine, reasonably priced food. And the art on the walls and in the halls is nothing short of spectacular, but more on that later. I went back recently after too long an absence and found the quality and sophistication of the cuisine demonstrably elevated. The reason is a new chef, Franck Deletrain, whose resume lists The Four Seasons, Patroon, and the Sea Grill, and several other leading Manhattan dining palaces.
Deletrain’s touch and his emphasis on quality resources, showed up early, with the bread---a generous basket of rye, sourdough rye, pumpernickel, and baguettes. Each was incredibly fresh, tasty and crusty and I had to rein in my appetite for the bread and the butter which, I learned, the chef imports from France. I have to credit my wife Rollie on that one, she immediately recognized something special about the butter and asked our server about the source.
Soon after the bread arrived, a small amuse bouche landed on our table, quarter-sized, crusted balls of melted goat cheese and we moved onto appetizers. We were off to a good start. Each of us has favorites on the menu, grilled octopus for me, the crab cakes for Rollie. The octopus, crisp, yet tender, was mated with melt-in-your-mouth butter beans and brussels sprouts. The uniqueness of the combination was heightened by espelette pepper. Espelette is a delicious chili from Basque country in southwest France. It adds a mild red tomato touch, much like paprika, but brighter.
Rollie’s crab cake overflowed with fresh lump crab, and no unwelcome fillers. The crab cake was so large that she decided to forego a main course in favor of designing her own mini seafood plate of shrimp, clams, and oysters. One bad oyster turned up, but was quickly replaced with a fine Kumamoto from Washington state.
Rollie’s other weakness is macaroni and cheese usually a child’s delight and usually plebian. This was a sophisticated mac and cheese, with a rich blend of gruyere, parmesan and a touch of cheddar, doused in truffle butter and topped by a crusty gratinée sauce.
The unfortunate oyster incident reminded me of another reason I like 8 ˝. On weekday afternoons, from 5-7:3o pm, 8 ˝ offers a very special $1 happy hour. The chef serves up a selection of oysters from the East and West coasts and eschews less desirable inexpensive varieties generally used for oyster happy hours.
Our waiter said I might just be able to have soft shelled crab, which was the very popular off-the menu specialty of the night. I took the suggestion, but it was a bit oily which took away from the taste of the crab, as well as an otherwise appealing bed of French haricot verts. Feeling sated after my octopus, I let this disappointment pass.
There was a tarte tatin on the prix fixe menu which offered a generous choice of courses at $42.00 and that would have been my dessert choice, but I didn’t notice it until my evening was up. We split a bosc pear tart with ice cream on the side. And oh yes, another symbol of quality: our server asked, if frequent experience with waiters who brought cold milk.
Some further notes about why the restaurant is special. One is the extraordinary Sunday buffet, a bountiful afternoon of dining at a bargain price of $34 and endless mimosas at $14. The other is the star offering on the prix fixe menu, French Duck, actually duck in two styles, roasted and confit with poached quince, red cabbage, black currants and cranberries.. That’s a French update of traditional Chinese Peking Duck. Wine connoisseurs get a break on Sunday and Monday, which are byob nights when there is no charge for bringing a favorite bottle.
Now about the art, visible and invisible. It starts with that three ton digit planted on the sidewalk. The big red 9 in front of the building was erected to mollify neighbors who feared that the building’s sloping glass walls would reflect the unappealing sides of nearby buildings. The brightly colored sculpture, now a feature on tourist agendas, was designed by graphic artist Ivan Charmayeff.
Real estate magnate Sheldon Solow, who owns the building and the restaurant, has a magnificent art collection, including original works by Francis Bacon, Franz Kline, Matisse, Balthus, Giacometti and Henry Moore. You can see those pieces from the street, looking through huge glass windows showcasing a brightly lit gallery but that’s as close as most of us get to the art, except for a gigantic multi-colored stained glass mural by Leger on one wall of the restaurant. The art visible from the street is not open to the public. Why Mr. Solow shows his collection in such a limited fashion, I’ve never understood.
But I’ll tell you a secret. If you ask to leave the sub-ground restaurant by elevator, rather than ascending the dramatic winding staircase which brought you down into 8 ˝, you must pass through a long sequestered corridor where more of Mr. Solow’s prized masterworks are hung. If you’re friendly with the maître ‘d, he might permit you a peek in those halls. Try, it will be rewarding.
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