[Free Stuff by Wilfrid: March 27, 2012]
I've had Desmond's on my radar for a while now. Although widely described as a society spot, and located in a high-ceilinged old banking hall, across the street from Bloomingdale's loading docks, it looked smart and welcoming in the photos I saw. And it's only a step from the Subway Inn.
I got my chance with an invitation from GDine, the Chicago-based group dining community which recently launched in New York. GDine negotiates group dining packages at reduced rates and provides an online booking interface rather than distributing coupons or vouchers.
The menu offered by Desmond's, for those keeping count, offered roughly a $90 value at $68 (for two people). That was for food: a choice of five appetizers, five mains, four desserts. The wines by the glass start with Babich Sauvignon Blanc at $11, or a Chapoutier Côtes du Rhône at $13. A 2009 Abbona ‘Rinaldi’ Barbera D'Asti seemed expensive at $17, but was unusually good (and checking later I found the price to be fair).
Although I'd read the reviews, and noticed chef David Hart's Soho House background (and it is Soho, not SoHo), I hadn't expected a British-themed restaurant. Despite the Dover sole, and Sam Sifton's reference to London's Caprice, I had anticipated Upper East preppy. A younger Swifty's, perhaps. An enormous Union Jack on one wall set me straight.
The full menu does incorporate American classics -- Caesar salad, lobster Cobb -- and new standards -- pork belly; but the Brit influence is vivid too. Fish and chips, salmon fishcake, shepherd's pie (albeit with duck rather than lamb). The bread service consisted of hot biscuits with honey butter.
I went with the London flow. English pea fritters made me think of the mushy peas in batter which are a traditional accompaniment to fish and chips. If you must know, mushy peas are a kind of slurry made from dried marrowfat peas, which are reconstituted by soaking then beaten to a pulp.
Oh joy, these fitters contained a mash of real peas. Vividly flavored with a nice touch of mint.
Served in a cast-iron skillet, they didn't photograph well, but I think you can see that the interior was vibrant.
The unpromisingly named "leftover salad" had a bit of everything in it, including peppery strips of cabbage and plenty of beets.
I only got a half-forkful of the tomato and fennel risotto, but apparently it was very good. The flavors, I am told, "exploded." I certainly noticed the fennel, and the rice was nicely done.
I rarely order chicken breast in restaurants, but the version here was about as well executed as one might ask. Cooked on the bone, it was seared, but juicy right through - no white cardboard here. It rested on spinach; the moat was a bacon and tarragon reduction. One might wish a menu was more adventurous, but can hardly object if the kitchen executes well.
I thought the fries (offered with the chicken) were just slightly overdone, an opinion rejected out of hand by the happy risotto-eater.
A classic British dessert just begged to be ordered. I sometimes describe Eton Mess as a sort of deconstructed trifle, but actually it's simpler than that. Chopped strawberries and cream are mixed with pieces of broken meringue. It's a nineteenth century indulgence, and nobody need ask why it's called a "mess" (although the name might have something to do with a military "mess" or dining and social area).
Sticky toffee pudding, caramel sauce, vanilla ice cream? Really well done. Couldn't fault it.
This isn't the kind of food I'd choose to eat every week, but I was curious about Desmond's, and pleased to find that it's executing its proffer well. I don't know if the society crowd has moved on - it was quiet the evening I dined here - but I can imagine it does a good lunch business in that neighborhood. It certainly deserves to.
Here's the Website.