For the past two decades there has been a casual revolution going on in the way America dines out: When was the last time you had to plead with a snooty maitre d’ for a table?
Chefs have tossed their toques, those tall, white, pleated hats signifying classical French training. They’ve removed expensive table linens and thinned the once-customary forest of stemware.
There are a few brave holdouts in this rush to informality. But even at the American Restaurant in Crown Center, a truly grand restaurant, there are subtle signs of the times. My college-age son, who donned a suit and tie for the occasion, gave me a slight nod to tsk the gentleman wearing an oxford shirt, but no tie or jacket. Now there is no dress code, and jeans are welcome.
But if you’re looking for a reason to dress for dinner, make a reservation at the American. The third-floor penthouse space was designed by architect Warren Platner, who incorporated sweeping bentwood arbors that fan across the ceiling and a wall of windows offering a spectacular view of downtown.
Legendary New York restaurateur Joe Baum, creator of Windows on the World in the World Trade Center, and James Beard, considered the father of American cooking, also were part of the all-star consulting team.
To celebrate the restaurant’s 40th anniversary year, a series of monthly dinners will bring back illustrious alums of the American such as Michael Smith, Christopher Elbow, Alex Pope, Colby Garrelts, Debbie Gold, Celina Tio and master sommelier Doug Frost. (It is interesting to note that three chefs walked away from the American with coveted James Beard Best Chef Midwest medallions and moved on to more casual pursuits of their own.)
As we stepped off the elevator, the first thing I saw was an expensive floral arrangement: an anthurium entwined with vines. We approached the reception desk and a soft-spoken yet welcoming woman asked if we had a reservation.
We were a few minutes early, so she invited us to take a seat in the bar and lounge, where someone was tickling the ivories of the white baby grand piano. A nattily dressed bartender took our cocktail orders, suggesting one of the signature anniversary cocktails: the gin- and prosecco-based American Royale or the vodka- and Lillet Blanc-based Sunset on Grand.
Descending the stairs into the dining room felt vaguely like an old Hollywood grand entrance. The dining room was humming, with all of the tables by the windows filled. Perhaps my husband should have said “yes” when asked if we were celebrating a special occasion. On both my visits, we were seated at the same table at the bottom of the stairs.
After I took my seat, I was presented with an iPad loaded with wine offerings ranging from affordable to, well, stratospheric. (One bottle I scrolled past was close to $9,000.) A cart perched near our table displayed an assortment of impressive decanters sweeping upward like museum sculptures. I saw the cart used once that evening — at the table of a gentleman who was seated at what might be argued is the restaurant’s best window seat.
The past two decades of covering guest chefs at the American — such influential names as Rick Bayless, Tom Colicchio, Jose Andres and the late Charlie Trotter — have given me equal reverence for the behind-the-scenes machinations of the kitchen and the service staff. Although there have been many important chefs at the helm of the American, executive chef Michael Corvino is redefining casual elegance one bright, clean bite at a time.
Corvino, 32, arrived last summer from Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas and immediately began to impress the local chef community with creative yet classically refined New American fare served as if it were edible abstract art on a plate.
(One of Corvino’s artistic plates has been imprinted onto a $37 iPhone case for Red Dirt, a local organization that helps those who do not have access to clean water around the world. “My museums — where I am inspired — are restaurants,” he is quoted in an artist’s statement. “I admire French Laundry in Napa, or Bras in Laguiole, France.”)
Corvino’s five-course tasting menus are constantly changing with the seasons, and thus the prices vary depending on ingredients. They are structured around small, carefully composed selections of meat ($75 the nights I visited), seafood ($80) or vegetables ($70).
There’s also the “experience,” a 10-course tasting ($125) that combines highlights from all three menus. Each tasting menu has suggested wine pairings for an additional $55 or $90 a person. There are also a la carte options broken out from those menus.
I’ve noticed a growing menu trend around town: the listing of a string of ingredients without any explanatory verbiage. Despite my fondness for letting the chef drive my meal, this seems counterintuitive in a world with so many dietary concerns, not to mention ethical and local interests. The description “morel black truffle + kumquat + dill weed” is a bit cryptic. Mind you, it was an absolutely mind-blowing dish, one that a female dining companion described as “like sex on a fork.”
Yet interesting details can go undiscovered. For instance, when I remarked on the heavenly woodsy scent of the honey cucumber + pignoli + lime + pine, a dessert by talented pastry chef Nick Wesemann, the server clearing my plate replied that the intriguing essence came from steeped pine needles supplied by Linda Hezel at Prairie Birthday Farm in Kearney.
In an interview with The Star after accepting the chef’s job, Corvino said he emphasized procuring the finest ingredients, whether that’s just outside the restaurant’s door or flown in from across the country. He also dislikes the tagline “farm to table.” Instead of the prevailing rusticity many chefs have embraced in recent years, Corvino’s modernist plate presentations reveal a sophisticated eye for the interplays of color, shape and texture.
“I’ve never been to a place where you can order anything on the menu and it is amazingly good,” remarked one of my dining companions on his first visit to the American.
Each plate that came to the table was ready for a star turn in a high-gloss coffee table cookbook. Corvino’s succession of courses proved he was as much at home with the light, creamy and slightly sour melding of ricotta, green strawberries, citrus and dandelion greens as with the fatty, unctuous pork belly morsel that sat atop a black sesame caramel glaze, flavored with pickled mango and jalapeno pudding for heat and quinoa cereal for a subtle hint of crunch.
Corvino’s ingredient palette includes an array of Asian accents: The flaky, sweet Jonah crab, an Atlantic crustacean closely related to the Dungeness, was served with whipped avocado, coconut milk, hearts of palm and segments of charred grapefruit and topped with caviar.
The meaty scallop with fennel and olives came with black forbidden rice. The sablefish was paired with miso and koshihikari, considered the crown jewel of Japanese short-grain rice with a sweet, nutty taste and slight stickiness.
The sublime American wagyu beef, prized for its fantastic marbling and buttery texture, was accented by hints of black garlic and wasabi, pear and sunchokes. The spring onion consomme poured tableside from a teapot was edible aromatherapy, a light, deliciously fragrant combination of dashi, a Japanese stock that forms the base of miso soup, and bits of kombu, an edible kelp.
When I asked Corvino to create a Thanksgiving turkey recipe for the Food section last fall, he rubbed it with kochujang, a Korean barbecue spice paste that produced one of the best holiday birds I’ve ever tasted.
The servers at the American are, without a doubt, some of the best-trained in the city, knowledgeable about individual ingredients and well-versed in the chef’s vision, although on one visit when I ordered wine pairings, more than once my food arrived before my wine was poured.
But then again, when was the last time servers insisted on taking orders from the women at the table first, and everyone was served at the same time?
Celebrating 40 years
A returning alum, Dave Crum of Crum’s Heirlooms and Arrowhead Specialty Meats, cooks a special four-course family-style meal straight from the farm at 5 p.m. May 14. $75 per person; tax, gratuity and beverages not included. Happy hour begins at 4 p.m. with $3 valet service.
What to drink
For 40 years, the American Restaurant bar has been presided over by the talented and affable Willie Grandison. Over the years, the veteran mixologist has received acclaim for his Stoli vodka martini with a pickled Brussels sprout garnish inspired by the pickled onion that is the traditional garnish for the Gibson. He also won a contest for his Stinging Bee cocktail, a shot of rum, a half shot of triple sec, fresh lemon juice and grenadine with a splash of brandy and lime garnish.
In July, Grandison will retire and Paige Unger, formerly of Michael Smith and Extra Virgin, will take over. Unger has been highly visible in the city’s craft bar movement.
The American maintains a much-lauded 1,000-label wine inventory that has received nods from Wine Spectator while under the direction of Jamie Jamison, general manager and wine director.
Of the eight wines paired with the seafood and vegetable tasting menus, only one, the Rare Wine Co. Sercial Madeira, was American, made in Charleston, S.C. Other pairings included a variety of styles hailing from France, Germany, Argentina, Italy, Spain and Greece.
The American Restaurant
200 E. 25th St.
Food: Fabulous food with a fabulous pricetag, but well worth a special occasion.
Service: 1/2 While it is getting harder to keep casualness at bay, the restaurant still employs some of the best-trained waitstaff in the city.
Atmosphere: Grand surroundings and one of the best views.
Hours: Monday through Saturday dinner only; lounge opens at 4, restaurant at 5:15, until 10 p.m.
Entree average (including nightly specials): $$$$
Vegetarian options: A tasting menu and a few a la carte items; there is a striking absence of green salads.
Handicapped accessible: Yes.
Parking: Valet or self parking in the adjacent garage.
Kids: Well-behaved teens with long attention spans and an appreciation for fine dining.
Noise level: Pleasantly conversational.
Reservations: Preferred, yet walk-ins welcome, especially in the lounge. Make reservations by phone and Open Table.
Star code: Fair, Good, Excellent, Extraordinary
Price code: $ Average entree under $10; $$ under $20; $$$ under $30; $$$$ over $30.
Code of ethics: Starred reviews are written after a minimum of two visits to a restaurant. When required, reservations are made in a name other than the reviewer’s. The Star pays for review meals.