Lunch at Café Gray
For strange reasons, I wanted to try Café Gray‘s food since well, it’s very close to campus in Time Warner Center, and people have talked about Chef Gray Kunz’s greatness back in the days of Lespinasse (click here for the review of Lespinasse on the NY Times by Ruth Reichl back in 1998, for the inquiring mind). Being the curious person that I am of Mr. Kunz’s food and the recent Times article mentioned that they are serving lunch again, I managed to splurge here.
As I arrived to Café Gray, a woman maître d’ was waiting at the entrance, welcoming me and walked down the long corridor leading to the head maître d’ to check on my reservation and table. As we proceeded, this café is actually broken down into three separate rooms: a bar (which was the first room you pass by), the main dining area where the open kitchen is located and there’s another room on the right where it’s not opened yet since there aren’t that many diners at this time, since it was lunch at 12:30.
As I’ve been seated toward at the middle of the room, a friendly server greeted me saying, “Welcome to Café Gray. If you would like a drink, you may look at our wine list.” Which actually looks like a wine and Champagne textbook with a short list of their seasonal cocktail drinks. I was tempted to get a drink but since I have class in less than an hour…not a good idea. I just told them that tap water’s fine. As he departed, I glanced at how they set the table (I know it’s strange, but I do pay attention to the details), and I notice that branding is prominent here, from the butter knife and napkin ring, down to the base of the wine glass. How odd. Another thing to note is that even though this restaurant has large windows spanning the views of Central Park, it’s not for the diner. The chefs have that grand spectacle especially with the dark, murky skies that occurred that day.
Then I perused the lunch menu and hope that there would be something that would appeal to me since I was hungry.
After deciding what I wanted to eat, an amiable, gregarious waiter arrived at my table asking me warmly, “How are you today?” and so forth. We had our brief conversation and went down to business of food. I inquired about their Mulligatawny soup but I wasn’t feeling curry since I was still recovering from my cold (I can’t taste complexity to a great extent whenever I’m sick), hence I ended up choosing the summer corn ravioli. The entrée was the mini foie gras meatloaf. As for dessert, I’ve asked his suggestion for what was really delicious since all do sound delicious on the menu. We ended up agreeing that a caramelized key lime pie would be a good idea since the foie gras is texturally heavy on the stomach, and the key lime is a good contrast.
After he left, a different server graced me with a loaf of pre-cut fennel seed bread with butter. I asked him to repeat the actual name of this bread but his accent skewed the pronunciation. What really surprised me was that the bread was served warm! For all the restaurants I’ve been to so far, this was the first encounter of freshly baked bread; the heady, yeasty aroma that filled the air. How enticing. When I tear off the end piece and schmeared a thin layer of butter, I took a bite. This bread was quite extraordinary. The crust was quite thick, crunchy, crisp, and the bread innards were pillowy soft, with a scattering of fennel seeds. The anise flavor from these seeds was quite muted when it’s something that would be expecting to be quite prominent. I like this bread a lot. When it comes to the butter, it was very rich and much sweeter than any butter I ever tasted so far. Wow. This elevated my bread basket experience and now I’m hoping the food would be as great as their bread.
It took almost no time for my appetizer to come out. The summer corn ravioli looks pretty with the blade of lemon grass shooting upwards from the large white bowl. What disappointed me initially was that there’s just two ravioli. But I’ll let it slide for the moment since it might satiate me in terms of flavor. Eating one of those round, plump, fluted-edged pasta, it was quite intriguing. The al dente ravioli was stuffed with a savory-sweet corn purée. Quite good. The interesting elements along with it was the corn kernels, some kind of crunchy meat product that I am assuming fried bacon or something since it was a bit smoky in flavor. Small in portion yet very flavorful.
Then came my foie gras meatloaf. The first thing come to mind when I read this off the menu, it must be one ridiculously decadent meatloaf one would ever eat. And it’s quite true. This meatloaf was mostly composed of ground pork and uniformly diced cubes of carrots, potatoes, and lentils, topped off with ketjap manis. Initially when I ate the parsely-lentil salad, I didn’t think the lentils were lentils since it tasted quite tart and vinegary like capers. Another diner behind me read my thoughts somehow and asked the waiter about it and he did say that they were lentils. Ha, how foodies think alike.
The meatloaf itself was very luxurious to say the least. The meatloaf was silky, smooth, with the chopped vegetables mentioned earlier, and it’s stuffed with a small slab of foie gras, as well as topped with a sautéed one, as you’ll see in the photos. The ketjap manis used on the coating on top of the meatloaf tasted like an extra tart ketchup with a touch of sweetness. It’s very unexpected and innovative to turn something so simple and humble like meatloaf and make it haute cuisine.
When it’s dessert time, another server asked me if I wanted anything to drink with my dessert. I opted for a cup of coffee since I want some caffeine before classes start and as well as getting something bitter to contrast the sweetness of my pie.
As you can see, it’s served on a silver tray with the usual accouterments of light cream, a variety of sugars, but with a small glass of water. This is a very similar style to what I had at Café Sabarsky. I’m pointing that out just because many restaurants don’t serve it like this in a sophisticated way. However, their coffee isn’t up to snuff to Joe‘s or even as potent as Sabarsky. Did I mention that it also cost me $5? I found that out once I paid my check. It’s not worth it.
Anyway, the caramelized key lime pie came in shortly and once again, they present the food in large, shallow bowls with small portioned food. (Why are they doing that?) When I took my first bite, the creamy, tangy, tart custard-like filling hits my tongue first then the chocolate cookie base kicked in later. Quite good but it’s something I can make myself at home. I think this particular dessert was uninspiring for what I’m paying for. But at least it wasn’t horrible.
After I finished my coffee and dessert, I have to haul my butt to class and asked for the check. In case you haven’t really looked at the photo menu, the prix fixe lunch costs $38 for two courses and $12 for any additional course. So, you know how much it cost me at the end.
For what I’ve eaten and paid that day, I would rather go across the street and re-live the Jean Georges experience. But that’s just my opinion.