Ozone-destroying scalp-clogging pillowcase-staining spray-on temporary hair color -- why should Ruth Reichl have all the fun? All honest restaurant critics make reservations under fake names and keep their photos out of the papers, but the food critic for the New York Times wields so much power that restaurateurs scheme, posting faded snapshots of her in their kitchens and circulating lists of her aliases. Hence, Reichl keeps a closetful of wigs and disguises. At the last of a long series of dinners at one of Manhattan's greatest restaurants, she later wrote, she masqueraded as so frowzy and frumpish a blonde that her own brother didn't recognize her.
A few days after Reichl's confession saw print, Cypress Club celebrated the promotion of its new executive chef, Stephen Janke, and new pastry chef, Patrick Coston (both alumni of Aqua, among others), with a media dinner. I hesitated to go and be seen -- but I did want to try the new chefs' cooking, and saw a chance to learn whether this popular, pricey downtown spot would afford different treatment to the media than to Joe Blow or Naomi Shmaomi. As we the media departed, proprietor John Cunin (who also owns 2223 Market) said he hoped to see me again. I told him, "I'll be wearing long blond braids and a dirndl skirt." He said he'd look for me.
When I returned a month later, a few nights after Johnny Depp dined there, it wasn't as "Heidi" but as a normal Cypress Club type -- via radically altered hair, makeup, clothing style, accessories, age, weight, birthplace, socio-economic status, political affiliation, and escort. Waiting outside for my friend Chet, I surveyed the limos, taxis, sports cars, and pedestrians arriving from downtown canyons, up-market hotels, or Walnut Creek, discharging corporate wage-slaves, execs, wives, trophies. Age 25, 35, or 55-plus, they wore furs and velvets, or power suits, or shirt sleeves, sweaters, polos, Ann Taylor T-shirts. As real estate agents say, the place has got location; some customers come for the food, others just hang out at the jumping bar, where tourist couples, silver-haired suits, and wannabe trophies carouse to a quartet's short, loud sets of middle-of-the-road jazz (which alternate on the speakers with similar recorded sounds).
Chet, quietly elegant as usual, was already inside. "It's been a long time since I've been to a singles bar," he said. "One woman even tried to pick me up." He, of course, saw through (even liked) my disguise, but Cunin's glance traversed me blankly en route to someone else -- perhaps the Ferdinand Marcos look-alike chatting up the bandleader. But the astute hostess, instantly assessing our souls, seated us exactly where we wanted to sit. Young partiers seem to favor the brightly lighted center tables nearer the band, while a pair of slightly raised terraces running along both sides of the room (their edges draped in vulgar copper-colored plastic) offer somewhat darker, quieter seating for twosomes. At the rear, beyond a copper-plated door frame, private dining rooms can be booked for parties or large groups. Chet and I were shown to a comfortable booth-for-two on the interior-wall terrace, from which we surveyed a midsize room sporting manic cruise-ship decor, its ceiling cluttered with huge rosy-nippled tit-lamps, white half-blimps (or the bottoms of lifeboats), and bulging faux-alabaster pillars like funeral urns for so many Goliaths. The impromptu floor show of the moment featured a pudging-up white-shirted twentysomething ex-collegian, staggering and groaning like Frankenstein as he crossed the floor balancing three full martini glasses and a wadded-up raincoat. When he finally delivered the unspilled drinks to his table, he spun around to take a bow. The assembled masses failed to cheer.
Perhaps the assembled masses realized that the cloakroom and the computer-assisted clockwork service (not warm, but highly efficient) rendered such histrionic struggles superfluous. After we ordered our food and wine from one waiter, others delivered Chet's dishes to Chet and mine to me, and the sommelier correctly gave me (the chooser of the bottle) the cork and tasting-pour.
"So how's the food?" you're wondering. Do the media get the goodies and the plebes get the grubs? The dishes from the media dinner are on the regular menu, and in fact, the "real" dinner was even better. In the interim, the chefs may have found their footing; then too, Chet and I ordered less show-offy items. The plating was certainly no less playful for regular folks -- customers all around us happily razed edible towers topped with veggie rabbit-ears, garnish wigs, herbal antennae. The media dinner began with an adventurist lobster and endive gratin ($9), a loose layer-cake shot through with cracked peppercorns so fresh, they needed to have their faces slapped.
The sour endive shreds, dessert-sweet orange sauce, and luscious lobster squabbled with each other, needing more creaminess to mediate a civil conversation. But a decent-size portion of duck foie gras fillet ($12) was sublime, with dainty flecks of good bacon, tiny green French lentils, and a lovely lemon beurre blanc. Chet and I chose more terrestrial pleasures: Braised veal cheeks ($9), a trendy dish this year, had two chunks of melt-in-your-mouth dark meat with a self-effacing brown butter sauce. Crispy veal sweetbreads ($10) with tiny Brussels sprout leaves (torn like daisy petals from the heads), roasted shiitakes, and mushroom brown butter represented a brilliant break from traditional, leaden, blanch-and-braise "Continental" preparations of young pancreas. The morsels of meat were light-textured and firm-tender (like extra-firm tofu) with a pleasantly meaty, faintly smoky flavor. Flash-fried in a divinely light batter, their ethereal carnality was reminiscent of tempuraed turkey testicles.
The media dinner had engaging whole roast trout ($25), bacon-girdled with a sweet-sour sherry vinaigrette, and a stuffing of herbage and tiny cubes of melty foie gras. But venison saddle ($28) consisted of "cervena" (a newfangled name for one of New Zealand's domesticated deer species), tight-grained, dryish meat with minimal game flavor. Touched with a tangy huckleberry sauce, it came with insipid Yellow Delicious caramelized apples, underdone potato wedges, and bitter cabbage. At our regular dinner, Chet ordered a wonderful Chilean sea bass ($26), a tremblingly tender cube bewigged with shredded black olives, surrounded by succulent braised Florence fennel and artichoke pieces. My "tasting of rabbit" ($23) looked adorable, heaped into a cairn with a chipmunk perched on top -- the latter portrayed by a frizzle of sapid caramelized onions with balsamic vinegar. The sauce was light and appropriate, but the rabbit died; its morsels were ordinary and slightly dry. The accompanying wild mushroom ravioli triplets had fine flavor (including a shock of orange zest) but thick, chewy skins. Maybe thick skins suit the filling, but I'm never going to like them. In both meals, the fish outshone the game meats, but given the wonderful offal we ate, the less exotic meat entrees could also be worth a try.
The wine list is awesome in length and price (e.g., my slightly oxidized house chardonnay was awesomely priced at $8.50 a glass). When Chet and I finished dinner just halfway through a fine bottle of one of the lower-priced merlots (Freemark Abbey, $40), we were delighted to order a cheese-tasting ($7 for three selections, up to $20 for a full tasting platter) to savor with the last of the bottle. Pear slices, walnuts, raisins, and grapes are included, but instead of the traditional sliced baguette, the cheeses are served with seeded crackers, which overpower the subtler flavors, like that of the gorgeous, little-known Jean Grogne, a triple-cream happy death. Our request for bread seemed to startle the staffers; they brought the house's puffy hot rolls, which did the job nicely once cool enough to cut.
Desserts, too, are available as a tasting extravaganza: Normally $7.50 each, $15 brings a grand array for two, balancing crunch and cream, tart and sweet. That night's fabulous flavors included a semisweet dark chocolate and hazelnut timbale, a flute of tangy chilled melon soup, an unorthodox, puffy almond creme brulee, an apple-stuffed hot beggar's purse, a conelet of intense mango sorbet, and a scattering of Santa's little confections (which you can buy to take home) including three exquisite cocoa-dusted toasted almonds and a crisp little cookie of perfect pate sucree.
When I requested a doggie bag for the scant main-course leftovers, the French-accented waiter seemed faintly disapproving -- unaware that the "doggie" languishing at home was in fact a noble primate sacrificing this deluxe dinner to my disguise. But despite this trace of ungraciousness, Chet and I were generally charmed. "The place is purely fun," he said. "It's comfortable for all sorts of people." Along with location, service, and amenities, the music, noise, fanciful plating, exaggerated decor, even the chance to watch some bozo seizing center stage -- all fulfill the current concept of restaurants-as-entertainment. Cypress Club's customers obviously feel free to be themselves (unless they're critics eating incognito). And the food? If you can handle the tab, it's mainly terrific.