I’d never considered the basement lobby of The Met Breuer to be one of Midtown’s great dining rooms before visiting its latest tenant, Flora Bar. But Chef Ignacio Matto and partner Thomas Carter have helped the space reach its potential by, appropriately, leaving Marcel Breuer’s Brutalist building undisturbed.
The room feels spacious and sleek, more like a lounge or terrace, than the elegant concrete dungeon it actually is (notice the entryway resembles a drawbridge and moat). The deceptively approachable menu inspires the same sophisticated nonchalance. Start with an Izu Fizz. This fluorescent cocktail of Ford’s gin, yellow chartreuse, wasabi, egg white, and yuzu tonic, garnished with crushed wasabi peas, helped me, and presumably much of the restaurant’s clientele, forget the office. Except that they quickly left their travails behind them, whereas I was trying to ignore the fact that, in order to even pretend that I could afford this meal, I’d have to tell my accountant it was for work.
Everything on the menu sounds good, which makes it hard to order wrong. So, instead of sampling multiple entrees, I ordered the most expensive appetizer on the menu. (It also happens to cost nearly twice as much as almost everything else, including the wagyu steak). Dainty piles of imperial caviar and crème fraîche are served on a gorgeous scallop shell. All the food is dressed for the occasion, and the well-groomed combination made me think, perhaps for the first time, that I might aspire to call myself a “caviar person.” Thick-cut potato chips accompany the more high-leverage ingredients, and complete the rather illustrious bar snack.
No matter how much I try to silver plate the spoon in my mouth, luxury always feeds me with disappointment. It’s not that my next course of burrata wasn’t good — it was luscious. The bitter crunch of celery brought order to the diaphanous cheese and the plating was simple and unpretentious. And though I wasn’t impressed with the purple endive salad at first, my taste for the yuzu vinaigrette and Bayley Hazen blue cheese quickly grew insatiable — I can still feel the sour pucker of citrus at the back of my throat. God help us, though, if the pyramid of leaves was an homage to the landmark building. I might be a little protective of Breuer’s creation, but the leafy ziggurat came suspiciously close to a tribute.
The reality is, I know what I sacrifice for good food. Did I pay my therapy bill the day I went back for lunch? No. But did I enjoy it? Yes, because sometimes a glass of white wine with a sixty dollar snack is the best — the only — way to take the edge off after fifty minutes of psychoanalysis. The main thing that separates the afternoon from the evening menu is the number of sandwiches. I chose the fried maitake mushroom with spicy mayo. The vegetarian option proved quite lavish. Its delicate ruffles briefly retain their hollow volume — what I imagine eating an entire flower to be like, but in a good way. The bun can barely contain the dynamic textures, though at its core, the maitake has more tooth and, yes, tastes like chicken. The only thing I didn’t like was the chocolate parfait with amarena cherries. I hate to complain, but some kind of savory, crunchy melba chip comes out of nowhere. Next time I’ll just dip a Fudgsicle in a bag of Gardetto’s and save myself the surprise. Whatever, I’ll leave the kvetching to the two old Jewish ladies seated next to me: “L.A.’s no place for treatment. Too hot.” Though dessert would prove to be the prettiest portion of my dinner, you’ll just have to see what I mean when I say that the star of lunch is a rather fetching pickle.
Breuer believed his concrete buildings looked better as they aged, though what makes the old Whitney a masterpiece are the uncanny perspectives it still permits of the neighborhood. I chomped on gristly bits of lamb rib underneath the grandiose windows, and once again appreciated the building’s unique views. Though cut with yogurt and smoky mojo verde, the lamb is quantifiably indulgent. The fat has nearly rendered, and the meat practically falls off the bone. My entrée of lobster and crab dumplings could also be served in a royal court. The seafood was handled delicately, and, served in a clear yuzu broth, the angelic flavors belie hours of sophisticated technique — or contemplation, whichever. I’ll also point out the little mushrooms that float around the broth, but only — and I mean this sincerely — because they’re really cute.
At one time, I’d have craved a cigarette at the end of this meal, but dessert would grant that last flush of intoxication instead. At no more than half an inch tall, the half pink, half cream colored disc comes across more as an object than food. Yet, like a zen koan, the modest combination (and contrast) between rhubarb granita and maple ice cream actually uncovers some libidinal maths. It’s hypnotic, and I’d quickly find myself on Madison Avenue carrying a doggy bag full of gratification.