I have literally eaten hundreds of meals at the Fairway Cafe, but most of them have been breakfast, where the pancakes are sublime and the eggs will be scrambled soft if you're willing to send them back the first time, or lunch, when the burgers and fries are both excellent, and the chicken salad not far behind.
But dinner has been the hole in the Fairway Cafe's game. I've always thought that was because Mitchel London, the eccentric but oh-so-talented Fairway Cafe chef, dessert maker, and food maven, never properly focused on the dinner menu. Until now. A couple of weeks ago I had a very good dinner there with my wife Vicky and son Will. So, last night, four serious eaters descended on the Fairway Cafe to see if Mitchel really has raised his game just in time for the U.S. Open.
Although the à la carte menu at the Fairway Cafe may seem a little overpriced given the store-like environs, the three 3-course prix fixe menus--$26, $31, and $39, respectively, with a couple of surcharges thrown in--represent some of the best everyday dining values to be found anywhere in Manhattan.
No matter what you order for dinner here, do not pass on the gratis focaccia your server brings you. It's usually warm right out of the pizza oven (alas, pizza is one thing Mitchel has never mastered), and it's puffy, well-seasoned, and full-flavored. It's usually served with some kind of spread. Last night's was a delicious Provencal-inspired zucchini and onion ratatouille thing.
And even though the onion rings are not on any of the prix fixe menus, they are certainly worth the five bucks charged for them. The menu declares them the "best onion rings in the city," and that claim may be true. Golden brown shards of onion are very lightly battered and fried perfectly, if not greaselessly. We all found it impossible to eat just one.
Among the starters, which are mostly salads with a little cheese thrown in, the surprise winner is a bowl of Boston lettuce leaves with Camembert, olive oil, sea salt, and very good (if not the real stuff) aged balsamic vinegar. It's a typical simple "Why didn't I think of that?" Mitchel London creation.
A special heirloom tomato bruschetta was topped by excellent heirloom tomatoes plucked from the produce bins downstairs, a chiffonade of basil, olive oil, and more of that really good balsamic. A huge chunk (probably a quarter of a head) of iceberg lettuce is topped by a cascade of good housemade blue cheese dressing and housemade bacon bits, though not enough of those.
Among the $26 prix fixe entree choices, the clear winner is the marinated chicken with corn relish. A half chicken is boned and marinated in olive oil, red wine vinegar, and lots of fresh herbs before being roasted. The result is shockingly moist and flavorful meat with super-crispy skin. It's served on a bed of seriously tasty corn relish, made from fresh corn bought from the store downstairs. But an overcharred "Romanian" hanger steak on the same menu was done in by way too much minced garlic.
On the $31 menu we were all crazy about the marinated shoulder lamb chops. London told me, "Earlier this summer I had great shoulder lamb chops in Florence, so I figured if they were good enough to be served in Florence, I could serve them here." He made a wise decision. These shoulder shops were tender, full of clean lamb-y flavor, and cooked medium rare as ordered. As Erin noted, shoulder lamb chops are a little bit more work than loin chops, but so worth it. The same menu features some lackluster crab cakes, which are made of mostly lump crab, but have no crisp edges.
On the $39 menu we splurged for the 20 ounce prime dry-aged, bone-in ribeye, which carries a $4 supplement. It was a fine, fine piece of meat. It could have used a little more aging, but the spinalis dorsis, the ultra-marbled outer ring of meat on a ribeye, was seriously tender and delicious. The steak and the lamb chops both come with a surprisingly meager portion of the Fairway Cafe's terrific, properly salted french fries.
London has always been a first-rate baker and dessert maker, so dessert is worth having here even if you only have a few spoonfuls. Apple pie with firm, cinammon-y apples and a flaky butter crust comes with a scoop of Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream. The hot fudge sundae is also well worth the calories, as is Mitchel's exceptional tarte tatin (served with creme fraiche). Mitchel's chocolate cake is a refreshingly stubby slab of excellent cake with the perfect amount of bittersweet chocolate frosting. (Ratios are what makes any everyday chocolate cake.)
A piece of blueberry-peach pie one night tasted like unsweetened stewed fruit, and a berry peach cobbler another night was a too-sweet skip for sure.
Even the service, which is consistently a problem at the Fairway Cafe--the kitchen can be very slow, and your server can be difficult to locate--seems to have gotten a little smoother, but whether that's a permanent change remains to be seen.
Right now, the dinner food at the Fairway Cafe is better than it's ever been. It's not fancy, and it doesn't aspire to be, but Mitchel London knows that good ingredients are the key first step in making really good food. Luckily, he can find those ingredients downstairs at Fairway. And the man has always known what delicious is.
2127 Broadway, New York NY 10023 (b/n 74th and 75th; map); 212-595-1888
Service: Haphazard and slow, but improving
Must-Haves: Foccaccia, onion rings, Boston lettuce salad, lamb chops, marinated chicken, bone-in ribeye
Cost: $26, $31, and $39 three-course prix fixe menus--or you can just have a damn good burger with fries for $12 at dinner