"It's a shame you can't eat the view" was the whimsical comment of my companion on a recent visit to FREDS AT BARNEYS NEW YORK (9570 Wilshire Blvd, BH (310) 777-5816), the trendy New York eatery which has recently opened atop the Barneys New York department store in Beverly Hills. It replaces the long-standing Barney Greengrass, the smoked fish emporium from Manhattan which had resided on the 5th floor since the opening of the store. I must admit, I miss the old place. Yes, it was pricey, but most of the smoked fish, bagels and caviar came from the original New York base and were terrific. They even served an entree of Salmon Collar, the fatty, fleshy cut around the head which is my passion part of the fish. (The only other place around to serve the collar of a fish is Ray's & The Stark Bar, where I had a delicious yellowtail collar this week.) On my first visit to Freds, I wandered around the store and noted that it had been beautifully refitted and revamped; the restaurant is now nicely open to the men's shop (where the merchandise is fine and the prices are out of this world.) They have valet parking in front and, with a validation, it is only $4.
They've done a lovely job of remaking the restaurant space to make it feel even more open to the view, the world, Beverly Hills and beyond. And I still feel that the smallish inside dining room is somewhat claustrophobic, although much brighter, so I will always eat on the patio or, better still, one of the tables along the wall as you come out of the elevator. I had my first meal last week at the bar, where the guys there run almost a separate sensational dining-and-drinking spot. The bar manager and bartender took my food order, mixed my cocktail, and delivered it all well and promptly. I ordered two dishes....one was fine, one was not. The tuna tartare was $19, pricey for a smallish cup of nicely-chopped fresh fish served atop some cucumber rounds and pickled ginger. I happen to like tuna tartare which is spicier, with a touch of mayo, but this is a restaurant which is deficient in all its spicing. Since one test of a restaurant is the quality of the bread, I asked for a bread basket (despite being somewhat on a gluten-free regime.) The so-called foccaccio was proudly pointed out to me although it was cold, dry. I then asked for some of the rye bread....it too was cold. Tasting both, I remarked to the bartender and myself that the bread was not only cold but tasteless, it needed some salt in the dough...and at these prices, to not have warmed good bread is unforgiveable. (Last night at Vibrato, the jazz restaurant, we had warmed La Brea bakery bread - olive rye and sourdough white - which had been nicely warmed and was delicious. It's not that hard. The baker here at FREDS on another day served up one of the best churro desserts I've ever had.)
Then my second dish came...the Grilled Hen-of-the-Woods Mushrooms ($17.50), a pile of arugula and slices of dank, sweetish-sour-tasting mushrooms. I'm a guy who will eat anything once. My guess.,..the mushrooms may have been either over-marinated or fried in bad peanut oil. The menu said it had parmesan but I didn't taste any. Pushed it away, finished my nice bland tuna, had a cup of decent coffee, and asked for a cookie. The chocolate cookie was also cold and dry.
I then sent a copy of my Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter into the kitchen and asked if I could see the chef. Mark Strausman briefly came out, shook my hand, and told me that I should email him to get a publicity conact for the restaurant. I realized this was not the time to discuss the mushrooms with him. I gather that Mark was here temporarily from New York, where he has been the corporate chef for Barneys for the past decade. Went on my way after greeting two lovey friends, Carrie Brillstein and Laurie Grad, who were having lunch in the inner room. They hadn't gotten their Asian chicken salad yet so couldn't get a fix.
One nice thing about this restaurant is that they have retained the wonderful manager from afore, an affable and efficient women name Florence Herve who started here several years ago and worked her way into this top spot. Smiling, running, nice person....she made my visits easy . She told me that they now close at 6 pm but come late November, they would be open 'til 7 pm so people could come for an early dinner. And Sunday brunch is on its way. If you've been to New York recently, you could easily have eaten at Freds (660 Madison Avenue) because it has become one of the city's power dining spots, with a much more extensive menu including full dinner. And they have also opened at Barneys in Chicago. All of the restaurants are under the supervision of the short, tough-looking chef I met briefly, so he must have the goods. I just had to see for myself. I then decided I had to set up a tasting lunch with a friend so we could explore the menu in depth.
Here I am, seated at a terrace table on a sunny Friday afternoon with a friend who frequents the New York version. ....and perusing a ladies-who-lunch menu. Lots of salads, a $32 club sandwich (that's outrageous) , the usual salmon and grilled tuna dishes, and a burger I know I will have to try. At the end of the day, our consensus is that they are using topnotch ingredients and falling flat in the area of seasoning.My friend is a deeply-experienced restaurant maven, and he offered that the lack of strong seasonings in most dishes was a deliberate effort to please the finicky palates of the female customers who make up most of the clientele. I found myself adding sprinkles of salt and pepper to most dishes, and asking for olive oil and lemon also.
We ordered The Freds Beyond Organic Omelette of Day, with salad ($21) asking for it soft; came out well-done but the cheese and heebs were fine, needed a dash of salt and pepper. The Grass-fed Angus Beef Burger ($22.50) was ordered rare, and boy, was that my mistake. It came out grilled on the outside and very rare on the inside. Yet the quality of the beef was superb, the bun was good although it could have used a bit more toasting, and I wish they had just added slice of Americn cheese to make it a perfect cheeseburger. I would order this again in a minute, this time medium rare and ask for the cheese. As I told the manager, the Belgian pommes frites with it were in need of about 30 seconds more in the fryer to achieve a crispnesss they didn't have. The Pan-seared Wild Salmon ($30) we ordered pink-and-rarish never came and we were not charged for it. Most outrageous was the $32 Beverly Hills Club Sandwich, supposed to have chunks of shrimp, crab and avocado with bacon, lettuce, tomato and garlic mayo on seven-grain bread, served with homemade potato chips. The bread was three slices of average toast, the ingrediends were skimpy and I looked in vain for the garlic mayo. There is no garlic in this restaurant anywhere, as was testified to in our next dish,Linguini alla Vongele ($25). The thick pasta strands were well cooked, not al dente, but the sauce was bland to non-existent. This robust dish calls for lots of garlic sauteed in olive oil, with a touch of tomato, which it had. Yet again, the baby clams in it were fresh and plentiful, the dish worked when I asked fo a cup of olive oil and added it. (Took the remnants home for a fiene dinner., where I added some garlic cloves.) The othr pasta dishes include: Rigatoni with heirloom tomatoes and basil ($21), and a Vegan Bolognaise ($24) which is an anomaly, a 'Bolognese' means it has a thick meat sauce; this one had whole wheat penne, a slowly-simmered twelve-vegetable sauce. Perfect for this audience. Yet to be tried (and it will be) is the Freds Spaghetti ($24), with shiitake mushrooms, asparagus, sun-dried tomatoes and pesto sauce. Another note: like the bread, if you offer 'home-made chips,' they should be served warm.
A neighbor had ordered the Emilia Romagna Pizza ($24.50), and offered us a slice....a white pizza with mozzarella, Parmesan and Pecorino cheeses which - according to the server - had been drizzled with12-year old aceto balsamico vinegar. Good thin crust, rather bland. My companion had ordered the same salad he always got in New York, Mark's Madison Avenue Salad ($27), a chopped salad with a dozen vegetables and local greens, topped with imported Italian tuna. Exercising my usual skepticism, I tasted the canned tuna on top and questioned whether it was really imported Italian 'cause I didn't taste any olive oil in the mix, but my companion begged to differ and I deferred to his superior wisdom.
The best of my meal, and perhaps one of the best desserts I have tasted in many months, a tiny plate of just-baked churros served with a cup of hot chocolate sauce. Ethereal, the small bites suffused with good cinnamon...I liked this so much I asked my waitperson if the baker was Mexican; he checked and told me she was. There was a fine Chocolate Profiterole, which a woman in the elevator going down raved about. Coffee was a fair-traded blend; I think Ethiopian, served with a French press. Good stuff.
As I said, the whole experience was interesting and surreal. Medium-expensive dishes, the kitchen faltering on some requests as to preparation...the spicing of the dishes was timid, and yet the place was packed. I don't envy Florence in having to meet the mad rush for reservations every day, and yes, I will return here for an early dinner after Thanksgiving to see what has evolved. FREDS AT BARNEYS NEW YORK is a phenomenon a thrilling view with decent bland food thrown in.
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