New York, NY 10012
When John Dory opened immediately following Double Crown, the number of serious restaurants serving British food in New York doubled. It now has halved: John Dory has closed after less than a year. These are telling statistics about the state of British food in the American cultural capital, where legions of restaurants offer dishes from the rest of the world’s cuisines.
Neither John Dory nor Double Crown was conceived, strictly speaking, as a British restaurant. John Dory had a British celebrity chef, April Bloomfield from the Spotted Pig, who cooks seafood; some of her dishes included British accents and a smaller number actually were British, but these offerings in no way dominated the menu. Double Crown, however, offers a bigger selection of British food along with dishes that have some imperial connection from the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere in Asia. Double Crown is a hot number on the mercurial New York restaurant wheel, although the restaurant side seems to have cooled along with the economy; we got a Friday reservation for eight o’clock on the day before.
It has been much remarked that the designers of the restaurant own it, but that is not apparent from either the food or service once past the front desk. The place (not to mention the majority of its customers) is stunning, but in a rare confluence for this kind of enterprise, the food matches the décor. This is the Raj reimagined for a postmodern if not postapocalyptic Bowery. Double Crown could have been a club at the Simla hill station, reopened after a hiatus just long enough for nature to erode the fittings and paneling without quite rendering the facility inoperative. It has a cultivated air of shabby chic. Each of the rooms is an impressive rendering, a stage set that invites the suspension of disbelief without descending into theme park shlock.
The cellar toilets alone are worth a visit. Each one is a private room with different touches; elephant lamps here, votives there. Each one is furnished with a chair, and some of them have a high wardrobe outfitted with conveniently large handles and drawers thoughtfully glued shut to prevent accidental falls; these rooms were not designed for the solitary necessity alone, so by all means take a close friend within.
Not unmindful of the restaurant’s glamorous reputation, we showed up in our best Vivienne Westwood knockoffs and vintage wear, to no avail. Two pretty maitre d’s greeted us, exchanged efficient glances, whispered urgently and then courteously whisked us off to the worst table in the house. This stands alone abreast the service lane near the stairs in a room behind the big one that contains a convivial bar; the backroom is nice, but not as nice as the bigger one. It is also the ghetto where the restaurant exiles insufficiently glamorous interlopers like us, along with pregnant or solitary diners, groups of girls without dates and obvious midwesterners, all of whom appeared perfectly nice and presentable to us.
The restaurant was only half full so we politely refused the table and accepted a slightly better one along the banquette in Siberia. Nobody on the staff seemed to mind our impertinence and we felt bemused more than insulted.
There was absolutely nothing insulting about our waiter, who is one of the best who has served us, not only in this city of frequently nasty service, but also in those strange towns where diners are treated like valued patrons. It is a shame that Double Crown does not print its waiters’ names on the bill because ours’ deserves some recognition. Drinks were offered with speedy grace (a house cocktail that was delicious even though it involved marmalade and a pint of the superb Bengali IPA from Six Points www.sixpointcraftales.com) and our wine appeared, by magic, just before we realized we wanted it. The pacing of the courses was deft and we were invited to linger over coffee and port even though the place was thrumming by the time we ordered them around ten o’clock. We left a big tip.
The service was so pleasant that it obliterated the mood set by the maitre d’s and would have smoothed any shortcomings in the food, if the food had had any shortcomings. Double Crown has a serious and imaginative kitchen that avoids the gimmicks and traps of fusion while reinventing traditional techniques. British, Thai, Chinese and Indian riffs all played in key. Crisp breadsticks hit the table immediately accompanied by a lime pickle mayonnaise, postmodern raita and (somewhat thin) hoisin sauce. Roast bone marrow lost nothing from its unconventional lengthwise cut, a dugout instead of tower, and was perfectly charred without losing its creamy texture. The dish properly included a little urn of sea salt for sprinkling but gained nothing from the accompanying mango cardamom jam, and a firmer toast would have offset the marrow better than the mushy challah, but these are quibbles. Tiny potatoes masala were barely cooked enough and therefore cooked perfectly. Our crab lahkse (hot with chilies but not to the point of pain) and main dishes were good too. The twice-cooked chicken had a texture that was both silken and crunchy, and sat in an elegant broth; and the kitchen accented its pheasant and carrot pie--actually a little pot of stew with a puff paste hat--with a nice hint of fennel, gratuitously described as licorice.
This last dish may have been the most impressive, even though the chicken was better than anything available in Chinatown, in twisting the traditional British flavoring of fennel (this goes back into the forgotten eighteenth century) by the use of an oil infusion while avoiding the usual toughened meat.
The wine list could use more moderately priced choices; we had a good Gewurtzraminer from New Zealand for a reasonable $42 but that bottle was an exception. There is a welcome if similarly pricey listing of half bottles, and Double Crown manages what other American restaurants do not; a selection of decent sherries, by the bottle and glass. We did not find our other drinks overpriced and overall value at Double Crown is good; we got out for a relatively gentle $200, including the extravagant gratuity.
Judging from our visit, Double Crown can prosper from its thriving scene (if it lasts); the romantic cellar space and adjoining Madam Geneva lounge were as mobbed as the main bar, and at an early hour as these things go, but it would be a shame to lose such an appealing kitchen so we hope that its standards remain high.
One of our anonymous reviewers.