Time Warner Center, Fourth Floor, 10 Columbus Circle, New York, NY 10019 (map); 212-823-9482; centerbarnyc.com
Setting: Quiet modern cocktail lounge, brightly lit.
Service: Professional and very prompt.
Compare To: Le Bernadin lounge.
Must-Haves: Piquillo peppers, pork belly, desserts of all kinds.
Cost: Small plates are $12 to $21; expect to order two to three for a meal.
Recommendation: Order carefully and skip the drinks for a great three-course meal under $50.
Center Bar, a small plates cocktail lounge—complete with a piano player—on the fourth floor of the Time Warner Center screams, "Don't go there. It's meant for exhausted shoppers and tourists, not serious eaters."
But that assumption would be wrong. Way wrong. In fact, Center Bar turns out to serve a limited menu of some of the finest small plates I've had in a long time. They're certainly not cheap, the menu is certainly not consistent, and the overpriced cocktails don't help. But the kitchen, under the watchful eye of Porter House New York's Michael Lomonaco, is turning out food that at its best (about half the time) could easily be served at the front room at Gramercy Tavern. It's not Le Bernardin Lounge good, but it's also not Le Bernardin Lounge expensive. And if you skip the decent but mostly overpriced cocktails you can have three excellent courses (if you choose wisely) for about $40 before tax and tip.
Center Bar is right in front of Masa, to the left of Per Se if you're facing out, and to the right of Porter House New York and Stone Rose. You'd think that you'd feel like you're in the bustling middle of a mall. But it's actually quite comfortable, almost serene. The only glaring mistake Lomanoco and company made is the lighting, which is so bright it feels like a theatre with the house lights up. Between the chandeliers, the spotlights, the light from the Masa wall, and the light coming from the front of mall, it's just too damn bright for a cocktail lounge serving serious food.
But I got past the lighting, and so should you, because some serious food awaits you.
Piquillo Peppers ($12) are stuffed with drunken goat cheese and Marcona almonds: a simple plate of food that Lomonaco and company don't screw around with. There's no reason to. The tangy peppers and creamy goat cheese are the best of friends; this is one of the best things you can eat at Center Bar. Also very good is a generously portioned Foie Gras Parfait ($18), the foie bolstered by chicken livers, cognac, and a brittle but fruity port gelée topped with crunchy salt. It admittedly arrived at the table too cold, but once it sat and mellowed, it was a fruity, creamy case of good foie done well.
Ahi Tuna ($17) comes in jewel-like red chunks with sesame seeds and sesame oil, accompanied by a little bowl of Bloody Mary sorbet. Arancini ($11) with porcini mushrooms and pecorino were dotted with prosciutto bits, and had a crispy crust that gave way to creamy rice. They came in a pool of garlic mayo. And the three Roasted Mayan Prawns ($18) are expertly cooked, crisp and sweet, floating in a tart sauce of yellow tomato and red pepper that you could drink as an aperitif—though an extra shrimp or two for the price would be nice. All of these are dishes worth ordering.
The one plate you can't leave here without trying is the Braised Pork Belly ($15). There's so much bad pork belly served in this town—and all over the country for that matter—with poorly rendered fat and no crunch at all. When I come across one that's executed perfectly, I want to oink out loud. It had golden brown edges and a crust with a little ribbon of fat underneath that gave ways to stripes of porky-tasting pork. It came with a nifty composed salad made with pistachios, aged port, endives, and pear mostarda.
Another entrée-esque Snake River Charred Wagyu Beef ($21) is served black and blue rare with a tiny salad and a wasabi remoulade. It was a perfectly decent plate of food, but it pales in comparison to the pork belly. Better is the Slow Roasted Halibut ($17). You can skip the Red Romaine Salad ($14) with anchovies, which is overdressed and overpowering in its fishiness. And stay away from the North Carolina Quail ($15), which is indistinguishable in flavor and texture from the mushrooms that accompany it.
So what about the drinks? Wines by the bottle run from $50 to $150, and $12 to $29 by the glass. There are good things to drink here—see Olga Raffault, Occhipinti, and Kruger-Rumpf—but it's not a wine-nerd's list. The markups are considerable; this isn't a cheap place to plow through a few bottles. Cocktails are pricier than they should be. There's nothing to complain about the apple and herb flavors of the Diamond Cane (Bulleit rye, Boulard Calvados, VEP Chartuese) except its price tag ($18). Similarly, there's nothing wrong with the Gallega Fizz ($15), but Mount Gay rum and raspberries, though paired well here, don't warrant that price.
Skip the drinks and splurge on dessert, which comes from Porter House New York's excellent long-time pastry chef Wayne Brachman. They're understated, really well executed French and Italian classics with a tiny twist thrown in. Chocolate Pot de Creme ($10) with more than a hint of coffee was topped with whipped cream. I was supposed to share it with my wife, but somehow I ate the whole thing. The small plate of delicious macerated fruit was supposed to assuage your guilt, but it didn't work with me.
The Coconut Panna Cotta ($10), surrounded by mango conserve in a five-spice syrup, was light and refreshing in contrast with the rich pot de creme. An Almond Financier ($10) was crispy and very almond-y; it came with a small scoop of excellent strawberry ice cream.
Bourbon Vanilla Rice Pudding ($10) is way better than any Greek coffee shop rice you've ever had (as it should be for $10). It was just sweet and rich enough, the brandied raisins weren't too boozy, and the honey gelato that came in a separate dish was a nice touch.
So here's how to use Center Bar. If you want to have a three course dinner for under $50, stick with water and order the piquillo peppers, the pork belly, halibut, or the prawns, and a dessert of your choice. If you want to spend a little more money, substitute the ahi tuna or foie gras for the piquillos.
Or better yet, hit Center Bar after a movie at either LIncoln Plaza or Sony 68th Street, and have dessert and coffee or a glass of wine. If you want something savory, share the piquillo peppers and the pork belly.
It's good to have Michael Lomonaco back cooking non-steakhouse food. He's a chef's chef, and the best food at the Center Bar reflects that. My guess is that over time the other dishes will rise to the level of the really good stuff you can eat at Center Bar.