The Leopard at des Artistes on Thursday was tolerating a family of four singing “Happy Birthday” loudly and off-key. It was a painful reminder that the storied Cafe des Artistes is history, its feline successor a different animal altogether.
Quiet and cuisine are the holy grails of elite Manhattan dining. That’s why we’re sad that the new owners of this landmarked space off Central Park West stripped away the carpeting and the muting that came with it.
At least Howard Chandler Christy’s naked nymphs still frolic with satyrs on the muraled walls.
The Cafe was a devoutly civilized den: Dark lighting for flattery, space between tables for discretion, fabric for sound absorption, schlag on the savarin for postprandial consumption. It was a place for discreet wooing and Lincoln Center culture mavens. No more.
The lights have been kicked up a few notches. The menu’s nods to Vienna and Paris are banished. The Leopard is just another Italian spot with noisy hardwood floors and tight seating.
Maneuvering to the restrooms is complicated by a minefield of tableside service trays. Watch in amusement as a tuxedoed waiter uses the wrong knife to slice your $90 steak. Still, it’s a nicely charred cut with mineral tang and a side of sea salt for seasoning.
This is less the modern approach to Italy, more the throwback method, with a few Sicilian and Sardinian twists. Veal in its “own sauce” packs almost as much flavor as a strip steak, almost as much tenderness as a filet.
Belly up to the bar for a glass of Taittinger at $22. Does it seem flat? No worries, the glasses might magically refill themselves as the night goes on (with a fresher bottle, thanks). Olives, $5-$6 elsewhere in Manhattan, are a free snack here.
Gianfranco Sorrentino is the capable hand running the front of the house; he’s also the owner of Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), a low-key Midtown joint frequented by hedge funders for quiet client dinners and lavish Dover Sole lunches.
That fine flatfish is the right call at Des Artistes. It doesn’t rank with Manhattan’s top-top, but the $45 price is about ten bucks below the going rate, and the unfussified white flesh delivers the delicate taste you expect. Precede that protein with spaghetti alla chitarra. The sweet-tart tomato sauce is applied judiciously, just enough to coat the noodles. It gives Scott Conant’s version at Scarpetta a run for the money.
The pastas are al dente and that’s part of the problem, as they’re often undercooked to a point that’s not quite crunchy. Bite into the paccheri -- ring-like pasta that look like squid bodies. A pith of semolina flour is still visible. Too bad, as it ruins a lovely dish of salt cod and capers. Same goes for the super-toothsome rigatoni alla norma. Rabbit pappardelle is only average; bucatini with sardines lacks enough acid to cut through the fish’s low-tide musk.
Smart diners will avoid the appetizers altogether. Why spend $12 on a bowl of bland steamed mussels or $15 on a slimy pile of octopus. Arancini are undersalted and texture-free.
Close Your Eyes
Fregola is an advertised starter, yet it’s undetectable in the limp shellfish soup that the kitchen sends out -- Manhattan clam chowder gone wrong. Eggplant and mozzarella timbale tastes good if you close your eyes; it has the unfortunate look and texture of canned dog food.
The salmoriglio seasoning on the swordfish is lovely. Except the fish is black and blue on the inside, in a gelatinous state that won’t flake under the weight of a fork. Send it back for more heat. A $30 shellfish ragout is beyond salvaging, a dry heap of clams and squid over arid couscous.
Order dessert. Replacing the Cafe’s mobile carts of pastries are carts of custard. Sorrentino, with a wink and a nod, subs out the schlag for zabaglione, the Italian dessert made from Marsala wine and egg yolks. It’s prepared tableside. Of course it is. Order that and a round of fragrant sheep’s milk cannoli and call it a night.
Rating: * 1/2 (minus a half star for noise).
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: Pastas around $20, entrees $24-$90.
Sound Level: Noisy, around 80 dB when full.
Date Place: More of a power place.
Inside Tip: Great desserts. Try the peach semifreddo.
Special feature: Free bar olives.
Will I be back? For champagne, spaghetti and sole.
The Leopard at des Artistes is at 1 W. 67th St. Information: +1-212-787-8767; http://www.theleopardnyc.com.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair.
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.)