Three younger women joined me for dinner at The Mark. The first showed up in Ludivine. The second showed up in Diane Von Furstenberg. The third showed up in someone else’s Aston Martin. She usually takes the subway.
I wore an H&M jacket. Sorry, ladies.
Dinner can be quite a show on Manhattan’s Madison Avenue, where Daniel Boulud and his “cafe” have long been the go-to hangout for a post-Gagosian or pre-Bemelmans “snack.” Now another chef with three Michelin stars edges closer to Boulud’s territory: The Mark comes courtesy of Jean-Georges Vongerichten, extending his East Side reach from cozy little JoJo a few blocks away.
Critics of such empire building need only try the raw diver scallops over black truffle toast here. It belongs on his flagship’s $148 tasting menu. Skeptics will swoon over his black truffle pizza. The crust? Thin. The dough? Salted. The fungi? Heady and generously apportioned. The chef ought to sell it from a corner street cart, a fitting luxury for a strip of Madison underserved in the slice market.
The Mark doesn’t challenge the excellent Cafe Boulud for the best mix of high art, high society and high prices. It’s bigger, not as intimate. It’s slightly less ambitious if not less glamorous. And it’s affordable: Most dishes are under $30. Think of it as a bit of Balthazar in the shadow of the Carlyle’s grand towers.
The bars stools require a bit of a climb for the sub-5-foot-10 set (in the minority here, to be sure). Even the martini stems stand higher.
Aspirants for same-day reservations can expect to eat at 10 p.m. Better make that late booking; tables for walk-ins lack chairs with real backs. Dining room seats offer throne-like lumbar support, de rigueur for the older men who use their younger women as human walking sticks.
You order pea soup. It tastes fine, just not like peas. Why? Parmesan foam, a J-G signature. American crabcakes become Latino-Asian with gingered grapefruit and avocado, a welcome twist. Japanese-style hamachi with soy yuzu does the Continental with brilliant bites of bitter raw radish. A juicy burger turns French with a slab of rind-coated brie.
For roast chicken, the cooks lay the crispy bird over Freedom Fries (the French would never condone these underseasoned, forgettable, soon-to-be soggy frites). A carafe of Thanksgiving-style gravy punishes the dry poultry with konbu (that’s Japanese kelp, for the uninitiated).
Italians, on the other hand, would be well advised to adopt Vongerichten’s fettuccine with a slick of Meyer lemon cream and a bite of black pepper. It’s a proper dish for a New York April that seems to span winter, spring and summer.
Like Balthazar, The Mark can get you excited about unexciting food. Beef tenderloin, often a toothless entree for the denture set, bites back with jalapenos. The veal chop, alternately funky, fatty and firm, gets an added dose of flavor with a coating of mushroom glaze. A split lobster is drenched in good Vermont butter; so’s the Savoy cabbage underneath.
Some choices seem meanly capricious. There’s no food at the front bar. Vongerichten blogs about his riff on the croque monsieur, so can we have one, please? Only at lunch. Happily, many of the composed proteins are available “simply-cooked,” which is how the lovely slow-cooked salmon should be ordered; the menu version damages the silky flesh with gritty mashed potatoes.
Skip dessert. The sweets are fine, but who wants a sugar rush when you’ve just finished eating and it’s 1 a.m.?
The Bloomberg Questions
Cost? Most dishes under $30.
Sound level? Moderate. About 65-70 decibels.
Date place? If you want to show her off, no hidden booths.
Inside tip? I hear the croque monsieur is good.
Special feature? Affordable wines; good pinots under $50.
Will I be back? Who’s gonna hook me up with a prime-time rez?
The Mark is at 25 E. 77th St. at Madison Avenue. Information: +1-212-744-4300; http://www.themarkhotel.com/.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. No stars Poor.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels):
51 to 55: Church on a weekday. 56 to 60: The vegetable aisle at the Food Emporium. 61 to 65: Keyboards clacking at the office. 66 to 70: My alarm clock when it goes off inches from my ear. 71 to 75: Corner deli at lunchtime. 76 to 80: Back of a taxi with advertisements at full volume. 81 to 85: Loud, crowded subway with announcements.
(Ryan Sutton writes about restaurants for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)