Rare’s rose velvet banquettes and dark wood furnishings are set off by a multitude of red votives and red glass lampshades. The place glows red through its big corner windows, even in the morning when chafing dishes, fresh fruit and coffee carafes transform the bar to a breakfast buffet. This is hotel dining, and at dinnertime, there are mostly business types in the restaurant, but more casually dressed neighborhood folk fill the bar area. Paul McCartney’s tinkerings with his old hits are on the speakers, which some people think refreshing but I still find disconcerting.
A glass of Toscolo Chianti ($8) is rough varnish but drinkable. It’s Passover, and a plate of matzoh is brought to each table. On the specials chalkboard is an "American Kobe" burger ($16.95), which the servers swear is more flavorful. Presumably the same breed of cow, but it’s likely the Yankee beasts aren’t treated to mood music or sake massages. You can also get it with truffle sauce and/or foie gras. (It is only a matter of time before you’ll be able to supersize your McFoie meal.) Other specials tonight are roast chicken, salmon in barbecue sauce and matzoh ball soup.
I forego the Kobe for the Roquefort stuffed burger ($9.50). It comes with tomato, white onion and curly lettuce on a shiny, sesame-seeded, eggy roll, but the big meat patty is the star. It’s cooked as ordered, unbelievably juicy, the cheese melty–at first mild, then pungent. This is the best burger I’ve had in years. Our waitress is very sweet and explains the contents of the squeeze bottles of condiments when she detects some confusion. There’s New Mexican ketchup with a strong kick, hot chipotle aioli, creamy dijon that begins kindly and assaults the tongue at the finish, and "Rare’s special sauce"–a thousand island-type dressing. And of course there are squat bottles of Heinz on every table.
An even better "burger" is the salmon burger ($14.50), which is not a patty, but a square of salmon fillet coated completely with sesame seeds and toastily seared, served over a light spreading of wasabi and green mayo on an open-faced bun. Again, tomato and onion accompany, as well as a mound of crisp homemade coleslaw. The fillet is moist and tender, and the sushi-inspired preparation is now the only way I want to eat salmon. There’s also a shrimp and crab burger ($17.50) made with fresh lump crabmeat and a caper-dill aioli. My companion asks for unadorned steamed string beans ($4) and that’s exactly what she gets. They are fresh and not overcooked, but they come untrimmed. Burgers do not come with sides, and toppings like cheeses and bacon are extra, so your bill can quietly add up. Excellently executed shoestring fries ($3.50) are well-salted, skin-on, hot, soft and sumptuous. Onion rings are big, golden and puffy. Cottage fries, sweet potato fries, baked potatos and sauteed spinach are some other side options.
Most of Rare’s offerings are portioned in indulgent, big-ass American servings, but the homemade desserts ($7) are ridiculously mammoth. A slab of apple cobbler is composed of yummy hot apples covered with a platform of cinnamony oatmeal-pecan crumble and topped with two scoops of vanilla ice cream. It’s about the size and shape of Arkansas. A chocolate chip bread pudding with caramel sauce is also made on the premises, and there’s cheesecake, as well as shakes ($4).
Mugs of coffee ($2) are standard restaurant grade. I’ve downed three ice waters during dinner, and a server brings me a fresh glass "just in case you’re thirsty" long after we’ve paid the check. Rare offers bottled, but I love New York City water–so sweet and clean, I always stick with tap. But I tend to forget that not every place gets their water from upstate, and force of habit makes for trouble. I recall an involuntary spit-take in Jacksonville, and once at a party in Carlstadt I wandered over to the faucet, and as I put the glass to my lips a table full of folks screeched in horror and ordered me to the resident hot/cold Poland Spring dispenser.
On a return visit to Rare, I try the spinach and artichoke dip ($9.50), which is served in an unfinishable portion. It comes with some pretty good heavyweight golden tortilla chips, and some tangy crumbles of just-browned cheese on top, but the dip itself is overly milky and bland. ESPN Zone and Heartland Chophouse both do the spinach-dip thing extraordinarily well; Houston’s is not so good. During our lunch, the Norah Jones CD plays; both Itty and I fail to see why it’s a big deal.
Rare’s Cobb salad ($14.50) is endless, served up in a huge bowl. It features loads of grilled chicken, shredded cheddar, tomato, avocado and smoky bites of bacon with watercress in a lightly applied, unassuming dressing. They offer a Caesar salad ($6) too. A couple of tall, refreshing glasses of maraschinoed, lime-garnished carnation-pink fruit punch are brought "on the house, ladies." It’s a good blend, not too sweet, and we both like it. Itty loves her "Classic" eight-ounce burger ($7.50) but, being Itty-sized, she’s able to finish only half.
303 Lexington Ave. (37th St.), 212-481-1999.
On a weekend afternoon, a gazillion people stop to peer into Pie (subtitled "pie by the pound") and check out the menu, but it’s the young and happy and chattery that enter to eat. The room is cheerfully white, orange, mod and slightly unfinished. In the front is space-age window seating; to the rear, the de rigeur communal table and an open kitchen that is a beehive of activity. A long row of interestingly topped oblong pizzas that induce kid-in-a-candy-store glee are on display behind the counter, and you can indicate the preferred size of your slice–"Oh! They use scissors." Servers have a knack for sizing you up and anticipating how much you’ll want (unless your eyes are bigger than your stomach).
"Good choices," says the friendly cashier as she weighs my picks. Well, I had some help from the counter guy.
The key to good pizza is the sauce, and here it is exceptional–just a bit sweet and a bit peppery, which makes the plain pie a great option. This is thin-crust pizza, but it’s not crackery. Strips are substantial enough to be filling; the crust is crisp on the bottom and soft enough on the top to soak up the sauce. Potato pie features splotches of creamy ricotta covered with curls of homemade potato chips–partly crunchy, partly pliant. Fresh rosemary provides the perfect accent. A strip of Caprese pie has tomato chunks, a bit of rubber to the small cubes of fresh mozzarella, but the snips of basil compensate and provoke an herbal pizza high. Another pie has thin rounds of Genoa salami sitting over a brown, bubbly coat of mozzarella. The Five Cheese has glowing green ovals of gorgonzola poking through provolone, fresh and regular mozzarellas and parmesan. The prettiest of the pies is the Three Pepper, with copious slim rings of red, yellow and green peppers stuck in a carpet of melted mozzarella. From other tables I overhear, "Awesome," "It’s really good," "This is very good. And that looks delicious."
Salads are made a lot more fun by piling the green stuff full and high on top of a thinly sauced crust. There’s one with tomato, onion, carrot shavings and green olives, and then there’s a Greek version with feta and black olives. The greens are garden-fresh, and servers can drizzle on a dressing of your choice if desired. Some paninis with Italian meats are listed on the menu, and I see a press grill, but the cashier says they’re not serving them yet. And that goes for coffee, too, but they do have Boylan’s sodas.
So what’s for dessert here? Pizza. Today’s has a frosting of ricotta-spiked Nutella topped with sliced bananas. Confectioner’s sugar is dotted here and there for color contrast. It tastes as good as it sounds; I mean, how bad could something covered with Nutella be? On other days you may find pies of cinnamon or vanilla gelato and caramel. Pie’s a newcomer but has already become a favorite for kid’s birthday party fare.
I love that I can get a thinnish strip (cut for you into manageable squares) of each of a few of the gourmet pies, and it’s fun to trade bites with your group. Only two problems here as I can tell–there’s no beer, and the ventilation needs to be addressed, as smoke gets in your eyes.
124 4th Ave. (betw. 12th & 13th Sts.), 212-475-4977.