For the new Hotel Boutique, the term "sleeper" comes to mind for a few reasons. Located on Lexington Avenue across from Grand Central Station, it's just about the closest place for the weary train traveler to get their sleep on. And, if truth be told, though the affordable rooms are nicely appointed, they are also just about as big as sleeper cars (typically sized, in other words, for a Manhattan boutique hotel).
And then there's the restaurant. Davio's Manhattan, the latest branch of a high-end group of Italian steakhouses founded in Boston, is nested like a hibernating beast in a low-ceilinged basement den of a space. Though there's a small cafe presence streetside, you could walk by this sleeper a zillion times and never pay it any mind.
That would be a shame because the young executive chef, Chad Brown (formerly of Del Posto, Ketch, Bond 45, and elsewhere) is doing his mightiest to rouse the palates of the office workers and commuters who might stumble in. A meal here perked me right up, starting with the dreamy vegetable plate. Carrots are everywhere the veg du jour, but Brown gives the standard smear of carrot purée a lift with a whisking of orange-scented olive oil. Two other purées share the plate: mint-laced edamame, and a light, bright romanesco. These add color for a Hobbitville array of caramelized nuggets—celeriac, blanched tomato, maitake and hedgehog mushrooms—drizzled with an intense black truffle butter and a contrasting dash of sherry vinegar. Bright, fresh pea leaves and tendrils help the earthy vegetables snap to it.
“This is like quantum physics,” said my lunch pal, oracle-like but also making sense. The dish felt meticulous and racy.
Brown also worked the contrasts in the off-menu pasta course: caramelle, small rectangular pasta sheets twisted at the ends to resemble candy wrappers, had a stalwart al dente bite that gave structure to the out-of-bounds richness of their filling, a funky, gooey blend of Gorgonzola, ricotta, marscarpone, and cream. For the white truffle butter that sauced the pasta, the chef cooks the pungent fungi in butter to soften them, and then whips them and freezes the whip so that he can dress plates in that luxe flavor far beyond the truffle season. It’s a great tip for a lucky home cook like me, who happened to come by a few choice truffles this year and had a bit leftover after shaving them over risotto.
The fish course brought with it another eye opener. Chef takes a classic bagna cauda—a “warm bath” of anchovies, garlic, olive oil, and butter, usually meant for dipping raw and cooked vegetables—and purées it with chicken stock to make a sauce. That sauce bumped up the oceanic beauty of a meaty, lily-white halibut filet dotted with pancetta, sliced raw sunchokes, and dehydrated tangerine. He’s using the season’s citrus to fine effect; a dressing of tangerine juice and olive oil added a sunny sweetness.
One of the really fun things here is the list of reserve wines by the glass. Like other restaurants in town, Davio's has procured the Coravin, an ingenious contraption that injects argon gas through a surgical needle shot straight through the foil and into the cork of an unopened bottle of wine. The argon helps the wine release from the bottle through the needle and a small spout. Once the needle is removed from the bottle, the cork, being naturally self-healing, closes up around the needle hole, and the bottle is effectively sealed, keeping the remaining wine inside it fresh and free from exposure to oxygen. The newfangled gadget is revolutionizing glass lists because restaurants can afford to pour higher-priced wines in single servings without risking spoilage of the rest of the bottle.
To wit, with the meat course, we enjoyed a Hewitt Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2010. Peppery with exotic floral aromas, it paired right up with tender pink veal medallions crusted in urfa biber, a crushed Turkish chile pepper that delivers persistent, but not painful, heat.
We giddily ordered glasses of Chateau d'Yquem—a legendary sauternes—to go with dessert: a fat puck of deep chocolate cake with a high-gloss chocolate glaze that was like a ritzy Ring Ding. White chocolate powder, fondant tuiles, candied macadamia nuts, and some wonderful spheres of chocolate-coated espresso ice cream gave the dessert a tartuffo-like charm. We stumbled afterwards out onto Lexington Avenue blinking into the white winter afternoon, our palates awakened and then very much sated, our bodies ready for a nap.
Davio's Northern Italian Steakhouse
451 Lexington Avenue
New York, NY 10017