IF THE diner dreams of being a restaurant critic, the restaurateur dreams of revenge, of critiquing the restaurant critic's restaurant. But surely that't not why the owners and chefs of some of New York's top restaurants have been seen at Simon's, the tiny (33 seats) new restaurant near Lincoln Center.
Proprietor-chef Jon Simon was, for about a year and a half, restaurant critic for Manhattan's Soho News. Now, at age 25, with 22-year-old partner Neil Kleinberg and a $40,000 investment in a restaurant that came together in three months "because the vibrations were right," Simon is himself at the mercy of the restaurant critic system. Mimi Sheraton has given him one star in the New York Times and introduced him to her public with, "The missing ingredient at Simon's is experience. Talent in the kitchen seems less of a problem." Its crawfish and lobster bisques she lauded as "just about the richest, most superbly spiced . . . we have ever had," adding that the restaurant "has been on the must list of the au courant" ever since Walter Cronkite's farewell party was held there.
Suzanne Hamlin, in the New York Daily News, wrote what has been called a love letter to the restaurant, proclaiming it "a center for big-time eating on the 'other side' of the park." She judged the swordfish a triumph, spoke of the restaurant's charm and promise, dubbed its food New Wave cuisine. Jeff Weinstein of the Village Voice -- and restaurant critic at the Soho Weekly News before Simon -- considers it a fine restaurant, though still with plenty of rough edges (which Simon had as a critic as well, Weinstein implied). And current Soho News critic Jim Quinn summed up Simon's food as "worth the wait. Even worth the money." No insignificant praise, from Quinn.
Whatever else it is, Simon's is brazen -- or daring, depending on your point of view. Down a few steps from 68th Street west of Columbus Avenue, the restaurant is entered by a hallway Simon calls "grungy," a look that is "definitely on purpose." The room which might be generously called compact, is decorated primarily with art deco mirrors, a portable electric organ, and a red color accent carried out in plastic ashtrays and telephones. Waiters and waitresses wear black shirts and white leather ties, affecting a style Simon calls "pirate chic." Simon himself, a thin young man who is disjointed-looking at rest and in motion, appears more an aspiring rock star than chef. Floppy yellow hair, limp black suit and dark glasses are his out-of-the-kitchen uniform.
One of his pet peeves as a restaurant critic was "overflowery menus." So his menu is short and -- to say the least -- understated; "surf and turf" is fanned lobster slices with beurre blanc and two kinds of caviar, plus beef filet in a sauce of three kinds of peppercorns. "So we put people through this hallway here . . . We try to tell them not to expect oo much, and surprise them with what they do get," explained Simon.
At Simon's, you don't know unless you ask, that the oysters are flown in from New Orleans, that the main dishes are garnished with field grass airlifted from France or tomatoes from Israel or tiny bundles of matchstick vegetables "in bondage" -- tied with strands of leek. You don't anticipate the free salad with goat cheese and raspberry vinaigrette. You can't guess that the sauces, like everything else, are made to order, that the only ingredients that come from the freezer are Spanish shrimp and sherbets, the only ones from a can are green peppercorns. Although Simon hates to say no to a customer, when one asked for ketchup he refused, because "I don't know how to make ketchup."
If there is a restaurant kitchen smaller than Simon's, it might have to be called a hot plate. The walk-in refrigerator is in the back yard. There is no Cuisinart -- only a cheaper brand food processor, which Simon could better afford.
Being a restaurant critic, Simon believes, gave him a bit of a head start. The experience warned him that, "When you are working in the kitchen and taste something, you get one sensation, but in the dining room you get a whole different sensation." He understood that when a glass is dirty, people want a clean glass, not an excuse. And he was aware that an interesting late-night menu was rarely found in New York, so he did something about that.
He also learned a lot about what other chefs were doing -- which he openly cribbed, figuring he was offering them flattery -- "The restaurants we emulate are not nervous or insecure," he explained. He learned presentation from Le Plaisir, artichokes with three mushrooms and veal in cream sauce form Lutece. Chanterelle was an influence, but Simon decided to "go weirder," with sole and rhubarb, veal and pears. He has the most trendy dishes: white chocolate mousse, red pepper puree, golden caviar with oysters.
Perhaps most important, he had learned the value and nature of publicity. While most restauranteurs dread a bad review, Simon realized, "Even bad publicity is good publicity." A critic noted that Simon knew whom to contact for publicity, having been on the other side of a newspaper. In fact, one magazine that wanted to do a story on Simon's restaurant asked him to write it himself.
Simon almost wishes he didn't know so much. He usually knows when a restaurant critic is there, and would find it easier if he didn't: "I'm nervous as a cat," he says of critics' visits, and when he tries to do something special for a critic, "ultimately it gets screwed up." Thus, the waitress sent New York magazine critic Gael Greene's food to the wrong table.
Some things he had to learn in a hurry only after he had opened his restaurant. "We hired every blond waitress we could find, and then we learned the efficiency was important, too." It took six weeks to develop a system for reservations, after Simon continually messed up the works by just taking whatever reservations people requested. Now he has three seatings, at 6, 8 and 10 p.m.
The biggest obstacle is still service. Dreams Simon, "We'd like it that no one has to say a word in here. If they wanted a roll, it would be in front of them. It would just come to them." He wishes his service to be quiet and unobtrusive; Sheraton found it "intrusive and insolent." As Simon evaluates his restaurant's service, "It depends on who you get when you come here."
Still, even without a liquor license and the profit that alcohol brings a restaurant, Simon was breaking even after the first month, which he attributes to his having a lot of friends and receiving immediate publicity. He boasts that 60 percent of the women who dine there have fur coats, that his restaurant draws people -- artists, writers, actors, food people -- "who do interesting things." In a year, he maintains, Simon's will definitely be fully booked two weeks ahead of time.
And he is happy with the food he is serving, but says he needs a fuller repertoire. In all, sums up Simon, his is an honest restaurant that gives value for money -- a whole chicken breast, vegetables, salad and homemade cookies to nibble after dinner for $12.
His partner, Kleinberg, would review their restaurant thus: "It is the best new-style restaurant on the West Side."
Simon, hardly prone to modesty, nevertheless is committed to honesty, "There is no other new-style restaurant on the West Side."
"That's why I said it," admitted Kleinberg. OYSTERS CASINO (4 servings) Garlic Butter: 1 stick butter, softened 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon white pepper 2 dashes hot pepper sauce 1/4 cup chopped parsley Oysters: 24 oysters, on the halfshell Breadcrumbs for sprinkling 6 slices bacon, each cut into 4 pieces
To prepare garlic butter, mix all ingredients together.
Sprinkle a fine layer of breadcrumbs on each oyster. Place dollop of garlic butter on each oyster and 1/4 slice of bacon on top of butter. Broil just until bacon is golden-brown and crisp being careful not to overcook. GRILLED SWORDFISH (4 servings) 4 8-ounce swordfish steaks, center cuts Oil and salt 2 teaspoons green peppercorn mustard or dijon Fennel Butter: 1 stick butter, softened 4 tablespoons pernod 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon pepper Pinch of cayenne 1 teaspoon lemon juice 2 teaspoons chopped parsley 1 tabelspoon capers, chopped Pinch of fennel branches, chopped (or substitute fresh dill)
Oil and salt each swordfish steak. Spread 1/2 teaspoon of mustard on 1 side of each steak. Set aside.
To prepare fennel butter, mix all ingredients well. Place fish in broiler, mustard-side-up, close enough to the heat to quickly brown. Broil for 2 minutes. Turn over. Put 1 tablespoon of fennel butter on each steak and broil until melted and fish is just cooked through. Serve with pan juices to pour over fish. Garnish with fennel bulb, cooked in salted water until crunchy-tender, and chopped. LACQUERED DUCK (4 servings) 2 4- to 5-pound ducks Salt and pepper Oil for roasting Sauce: 1/2 cup raspberry vinegar 2 tablespoons fresh ginger, finely chopped 1/4 cup lime juice, freshly squeezed 1 1/2 cups honey
Dry ducks with paper towels, then salt and pepper them inside and out. Prick skin if desired. Pour enough oil into a roasting pan to coat the bottom. Heat roasting pan in a 500-degree oven until oil begins to smoke. Place each duck, breast-side down, in smoking oil. The skin should sear immediately.Continue cooking at 500 degrees for 15 minutes.
Turn over to 400 degrees and turn ducks, breast-side up. Cook for 25 minutes or more, until juices run pink. Drain oil and rest ducks on rack until cool. When cool, bone breasts and cut duck into parts. Set aside.
While duck is roasting and cooling, prepare sauce. Put vinegar, ginger and lime juice in saucepan and bring to a boil. Whisk in honey and rapidly boil until the sauce reduces to a syrupy consistency and coats the back of a spoon.
Place duck on an ovenproof platter and brush each piece with 2 to 3 tablespoons of the sauce. Set back in a 400-degree oven for 2 to 3 minutes, until heated, a little longer if you prefer your duck less rare. Remove from oven and place in broiler until skin is crisp. Brush duck again with the sauce -- enough to coat each piece. The sauce should look shiny. Slice duck breast thinly on the diagonal and other pieces into attractive portions. Serve with wild rice. Garnish plate with sauteed snow peas and blanched and sauteed turnips. RED LEAF SALAD WITH RASPBERRY VINAIGRETTE (4 servings) 4 large leaves red leaf lettuce (or substitute your favorite lettuce, such as bibb or Boston) 2 bunches watercress 1/4 pound goat cheese (they use Montrachet black ash goat cheese) Raspberry Vinaigrette: 1 tablespoon dijon mustard 1/4 raspberry vinegar 1/2 to 3/4 cup mixture of olive oil and salad oil Salt and pepper to taste
Wash and dry lettuce and watercress, and arrange on four plates. Slice cheese into four parts.
To prepare vinaigrette, combine mustard and vinegar and dribble in oil, whisking, until it reaches a thick consistency, or coats the spoon. Season with salt and pepper.
Pour small amount of dressing over each salad. Garnish with cheese slice. STRAWBERRY PROFITEROLES (6 servings) Pate a Choux: 1/2 cup milk 1/2 cup water 4 tablespoons butter 1/2 to 1 tablespoon salt 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar 1 tablespoon strawberry extract (optional) 1 cup flour, sifted 3 eggs 1 1/2 cup strawberry ice cream Strawberry Sauce: 1 pint strawberries, stemmed 1/4 cup Grand Marnier 1/4 cup honey
In a saucepan, bring milk, water, butter, salt, sugar and strawberry extract to a boil. Remove from stove. Add sifted flour all at once. Stir until mixture forms a ball. Add eggs 1 at a time, mixing until eggs are incorporated. Pipe through a pastry bag on cookie sheet, in 1/2-inch-wide-by-1/2-inch-high mounds, leaving plenty of room between them for expansion. Cook in 400-degree oven until brown, about 15 minutes. Remove from oven, cut in half and let cool.
Place strawberry ice cream in bottom half and replace top half.
To prepare sauce, combine ingredients in a food processor or blender. Pour through strainer.
Place sauce on bottom of each plate. Place profiteroles on each. Left-over unfilled puffs can be frozen.