I should have done my research before I so very casually agreed to meet my mother for lunch at Asiate restaurant in Manhattan during our recent long weekend there. Had I done my research (instead of replying to her link-filled “Dining Options” e-mail with “Wherever you want to eat is fine with me — I’m excited to taste what you choose!”), not only would I have known that our destination had a rather spectacular aerial view of Manhattan, but also that it is fancy. Signs at the entrance to the hotel warn that appropriate dress is expected within. I remember thinking that if a person needs clarification for “appropriate,” then said person is in the wrong place. I was in the wrong place. Had I known, I would have at least worn a t-shirt that didn’t have the collar hacked out of it, and maybe shoes that were made out of leather instead of my beloved synthetic Crocs. I might have brushed my hair, too, after our red-eye flight and rather exhilarating cab ride into the city from JFK.
Perhaps it is redundant to note that as we entered the building, still adjusting to East Coast daylight and the unrelenting crush of bodies – that essential quality of New York City that we delight in then try to escape from – I felt acutely out of place. I’m from Portland, right? Where I go out to eat, they only ask that patrons be dressed, not that we dress in a particular fashion. Honestly, I don’t know what Asiate’s “Smart Business” is even supposed to mean.
Asiate, and what I saw of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in which it is housed, is beautiful. Their interiors are modern and clean and made me feel sort of special just because I was inside, enjoying the view and using the fancy soaps in the luxurious restrooms. The massive glass wall of wine bottles at the entry to the restaurant welcomes guests with a not-so-subtle insistence: drink our wine. And then, from the thirty-fifth floor, with floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides of the space, the views of Central Park and downtown are even more impressive. We would have liked to sit next to a window, but the hostess evidently didn’t think we warranted a view. I do not wish to sound whiny here — in her place, I wouldn’t have given our bunch the greatest table either.
Our server, a woman who achieved a demeanor at once stern and cheery, was about forty and spoke with a nondescript European accent. She appeared not long after we were seated and offered to help me choose a glass of wine. I told her I that like dry reds and she steered me towards a St. Julien wine from the Bordeaux region in France. I heard her say the word “figs” in describing the nose or the aroma or something — then I stopped listening. I figured that, compared to the five-to-ten dollar-per-bottle brews I usually drink, anything she’d serve me would taste pretty great. Also, I do not have a firm command of wine-speak and I’d rather not bother trying to sound like I know what I am talking about when I am perfectly comfortable admitting that I do not. Having lunch out at a fancy restaurant is not about working hard.
I regret not paying more attention to the wine list, but I was counting on finding it on their website. Whatever it was that I had was delicious – more than delicious. It tasted of dried figs and was so subtly sweet. I’d tell you more about it, but I’ve already said that I don’t know what I am talking about. Suffice it to say that whatever was in my glass sort of rocked my world. I would have liked to track down a bottle for a special occasion, but, alas, neither the menu nor the wine list are published in the Interwebs.
Soon after we were served our wine and had placed our orders, there were little gruyere-filled herbed pâte à choux puffs. Then prawn goyza and panko-crusted salt cod fritters (served with spicy watercress and a rather bland sauce), then demitasses of red bell pepper soup. A waiter wandered the dining room carrying a wooden box of baguette pieces, brioche rolls, and focaccia squares. He served each customer individually, using a pair of spoons like tongs to place bread on square glass plates. At one o’clock the dining room was nearly full. Four Blackberry-toting young businessmen were seated at the table next to ours. They joked in French while their phones flashed on the tablecloth next to their soup bowls.
For our main courses, the Squeeze and I ordered wild salmon and duck wontons, respectively. The piece of salmon that came on his plate couldn’t have weighed less than eight ounces, the tapered ends of the filet flopping over the rim of the plate before him. It was glazed in a too-sweet honey sauce and cooked in such a way that it became utterly mushy. Underneath the sauce the fish itself tasted good, despite the distracting texture. Perhaps this is salmon cookery en vogue, but I could not help but wonder if this particular fish had been on it’s way to spawn when it was plucked from the ocean and made into lunch. The duck filling in my wantons was, as far as I could judge, unseasoned. The wontons sat in a shallow bowl of rich herbed coconut broth, along with carrots chunks and quartered pattypan squashes. The vegetables were perfectly al dente. I appreciated that.
Both the restaurant and the food we ate were very pretty. The staff was well turned out, the dining room tastefully and attractively appointed — it’s a nice place to be. But my only conclusion after having lunch there is that I am certainly not the sort of person that the restaurant exists for. I would have been much happier to pay the same amount of money for food that was more delicious and less handled. I’ve realized, too, that a place like Asiate is not a restaurant where one goes for top-of-the-line cuisine. There are other places in New York City for that, places like Thomas Keller’s Per Se, just a few doors down. A gal would go see Keller if she wanted to have a gastronomic experience. She goes to Asiate for the view of the City and the Park, for the totally adorable (and perfectly fine) demis of bell pepper soup, for the roaming waiter with his shiny spoons and box of brioche. And, compared to Keller’s prix-fixe prices, Asiate’s a bargain.
80 Columbus Circle at 60th Street
New York, New York 10023
212 805 8800