April 13 (Bloomberg) -- Women are poured free bubbly in the restrooms while Jamie Foxx’s “Blame It (On the Alcohol)” pipes through the sound system.
Welcome to Beauty & Essex on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which so far has not stocked the men’s room. Buy yourself an $85 bottle of Paul Laurent; the citrusy sparkler is just one of two champagnes under $100.
Such are the expensive ways and means at this stadium-sized eatery and urban wildlife scene.
Call up on Friday and get offered a midnight reservation. A door lady guards the entrance with an iPad, the official clipboard of 2011. Guests walk through a pawn shop (items are $75-$795) and pass by a trap door to reach the 280-seat restaurant.
There are six hosts. Two of them wear Secret Service ear sets, which is why they’re not really paying attention. You’re given a belt-clip beeper while you wait. How 1980s.
Beauty is at least more tolerable -- especially in a booth -- than such other noisy, crowed venues as Tao, Lavo, Buddakan and The Hurricane Club.
Chef Chris Santos oversees the ambitious culinary operation. He’s the guy who helped kick off the slider-heavy club-food movement at the nearby Stanton Social, serving annoying little burgers, gyros and lobster rolls.
Here he gives us small plates and “toasts,” which cynics will call open-faced sliders. Beef tartare, full of mustardy tang, becomes a cute canape. Same goes for tomato tartare, anointed with a quail egg. Then there are wan slices of soggy flatbread pizza, heady chicken liver crostini, and gorilla-sized slabs of rib-sticking bone marrow for smearing.
Eat salad with your hands. Each meal begins with a cool, crisp Caesar on a single tiny crouton. That’s the amuse. The petits fours are free match boxes, put to frequent use outside.
Jellyfish-shaped chandeliers and the occasional birthday candle keep the affair dark. The phosphorescence of BlackBerries illuminates the menu, largely an Epcot World Showcase of multiethnic finger food -- even soup is taken out of its bowl and transformed into a lobster bisque dumpling.
Utensils are minimized. Can diners really be expected to cut steak while canoodling in a booth? So stick your fork into a $48 strip of pre-sliced, mineral-tinged ribeye and feed your emaciated companion.
Eat Japanese. That country is represented well with Kobe carpaccio; a preparation that wouldn’t be out of place at Jean Georges. Streaks of white fat melt in the mouth; crunchy wontons and nori add MSG-style savor. The ingredients are clear because waiters take care to describe each element -- an uncommon gesture for club cuisine.
China’s best entry comes with salt and pepper shrimp. Quell the blast of heat and shock of sodium with a glass of Riesling (Rudi Wiest -- $13). General Tso’s monkfish, a failed update of the poultry version of takeout infamy, involves jolting up a bland protein with a crispy coating of sweet and sour sauce.
Italy gets an estimable nod to Emilia-Romagna. A slick of spicy veal Bolognese is all that firm garganelli needs to shine; rigatoni with lamb sausage and mint is an addictive Sicilian homage to North Africa. Then mosey on to the Cote d’Azur for flaky branzino with pommes puree. Spain gets its smoky due via chorizo-topped raw tuna.
Short rib tamales honor Mexico; the oblong batons balance the silk of lard and grit of corn. Lobster tacos? The kitchen takes the delicate shellfish and deep fries the flavor away.
Santos gets things right with America. Try the fluffy chicken meatballs, then follow up with a hamburger whose wallop of flavor comes from a musty, salty swath of goat feta.
Skip the tiny Italian affogato shots for dessert or the leaden French macarons. Feast on our country’s own junk food with an impossibly high cake of moist chocolate and dense mascarpone cream. Call it a Napoleon of Devil Dogs.
Burn off those calories at the second-floor lounge and dance. Watch stiletto-clad patrons navigating the staircases as if they’re mountains to be scaled, grasping the banisters like premature octogenarians. Rating: **
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: Most plates under $30.
Sound Level: Loud, 80-85 decibels.
Date Place: Absolutely.
Inside Tip: Come in a group; get a plush booth.
Special Feature: Oysters stay plump even when fried. Nice.
Will I be back: For reunions with out-of-towners.
Beauty & Essex is at 146 Essex Street near Rivington. Information: +1-212-614-0146 or http://www.beautyandessex.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: Quiet enough to converse sotto voce. 56 to 60: Speak up, please. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: Heads turn because you’re yelling. 76 to 85: Ear-splitting din.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at firstname.lastname@example.org.