Talking about how good the chef Thomas Keller’s new restaurant is would be easier if it weren’t also painfully out of step with the city’s mood. TAK Room is so determined to be “timeless,” as Mr. Keller has often called it, that it seems clueless.
TAK Room opened in March, one of 11 restaurants inside the 720,000-square-foot mall at 20 Hudson Yards. Parts of Hudson Yards are still under construction, but enough has been finished for most New Yorkers to figure out that this fistful of glass needles stabbed into the West Side wasn’t built for them.
Just as the helipad the city offered to build for Amazon crystallized anger about the cruddy state of our subways, the glittering new home on 10th Avenue for global luxury brands, investment funds, law firms, business travelers and hunters of seven- or eight-figure apartments spurred a lot of New Yorkers to ask, What’s in it for us?
Mr. Keller’s answer is a restaurant that looks and acts like a millionaire’s hangout in an old New Yorker cartoon. It charges like one, too, with adjustments for inflation. An eggplant Parmesan is the least expensive main course, at $30, followed by the New Zealand salmon for $42. After that, please turn off all electronic devices and place your tray tables in the upright, locked position, because we are going up to $66 and $75 before reaching a cruising altitude of $85. Look down there — don’t the people look just like ants?
TAK Room’s timing is off in other ways, too. Hudson Yards has stirred up New Yorkers’ latent resentment of chain stores from beyond the Hudson, and what does Mr. Keller offer them but a clone of his restaurant in Florida, the Surf Club? The name has been changed, but the menus are nearly identical; they glorify the strait-laced, spice-free food that rich white Americans used to feed on when nobody was shaming them into being adventurous. It is the food of “21,” of three-martini lunches, steakhouses and country clubs: prime rib and Dover sole, iceberg lettuce and oysters Rockefeller.
Of course, being a Thomas Keller production, TAK Room serves the most refined, meticulous country club food you’ve ever seen. Most of it is very good, and a few things are so inexplicably delicious that you have the sensation of slipping the knots of gravity and floating an inch or so above your seat.
The entrance is on the fifth floor, just past Neiman Marcus. But the action is on the sixth floor, up a Deco-cubist staircase so grand that you may feel a little underdressed unless you have Carole Lombard on one arm. (There is no dress code.)
At the top, you find yourself in a lounge where a pianist and upright bassist glide through satiny jazz standards. Bartenders whip up streamlined, uncomplicated drinks that are either genuine classics, like the Pendennis Club, or modern drinks built along classic proportions, like the Tritter rickey, a tall, fizzy gin number that shimmies with absinthe. Around sunset, when pink light trickles through the western windows, it has to be the most pleasant room within a mile for fighting vainly the old ennui.
They let people eat in this room, too, and it is tempting. But there is more to see, room after room, all laid out by the London interior-design firm David Collins Studio. There are leather banquettes deep enough to lose a small child in. Facing them are mohair-velvet chairs that swivel so you can quietly surveil the room without craning your neck. Each table gets a white linen cloth and a flickering oil lamp behind a white porcelain shade. The other colors are black walnut, midnight blue and law-firm green.
At some point a captain in a crisply tailored suit will deposit the wine list. It mostly avoids the latest fashions, like a croquet party on Nantucket. Later there will be a preamble to the menu. Under the day-to-day care of Jarrod Huth, TAK Room’s chef de cuisine, it has a continental theme and an à la carte format. Highlights will be pointed out, and the prime rib will certainly be mentioned, as will the restored 1930s silver trolley on which it is ferried from table to table.
Here comes a French onion dip surrounded by newly fried potato chips that are dark without a hint of charring. This is TAK Room in one extremely crunchy, lusciously creamy bite: an hors d’oeuvre from the age of Naugahyde and polyester, transformed into something so good and pure it’s beyond reproach.
The Parker House rolls are gravity-defying orbs served with soft cultured butter that, in the evening’s best magic trick, rises from a custom-made dish in six identical ridged curls, like shrimp performing a Busby Berkeley routine.
Bespoke flourishes like that are a TAK Room hallmark; see also the oyster crackers, like down pillows shrunk to the size of Chiclets, served with the silk-smooth New England clam chowder that is one of the most likable appetizers and, at $16, the best value.
Another hallmark, though, is unevenness. Avocado Louie with a small bouquet of other vegetables is thrillingly right, thanks to a Thousand Island dressing that crackles with energy; the Caesar salad, made while you watch, has almost no personality. Grated Parmesan and anchovies vanish into it without a trace, along with dull croutons that could take some pointers from the oyster crackers.
Something called “warm soft boiled egg” is a quietly joyous celebration of luxurious flavors and textures, the yolk running like lava over a buckwheat blin and a heap of warm osetra caviar in crème fraîche. (Yes, warm. It’s wonderful.) And the chilled prawn cocktail is going to be my platonic ideal of the dish from now on. But the crab cake had very little crab flavor, on two different nights, although it contained almost nothing else.
Lobster thermidor (now there’s a name I’ve not heard in a long, long time) is so tender, its sauce so fluffy and rich, that eating it becomes an intimate act. Dover sole meunière, though, has neither the crisped skin nor the juicy flesh that can make this fish so alluring.
Yes, life cannot be one giant plate of dancing butter-shrimp. Still, the gap between great and non-great items — nothing comes close to bad — is a bit too wide and comes into view a bit too often.
Regulars will learn to work the menu the way golfers learn their way around the eighth hole at Pebble Beach. Some will love the prime rib, which could not be any more moist without breaking several laws of chemistry. Others will wish that it had more concentrated beef flavor and that the flaps and handles had not been trimmed off, perhaps in pursuit of some Kellerian quest for bovine symmetry.
A large number will settle on the roast chicken for two. The meat is juicy but not gushy, the flavor full but not salty, the jus dark but not over-reduced. After the chicken, the pastry chef, Alex McClenaghan, can offer a highly refined coconut cake or an urbane lemon meringue tart, but you’d almost have to be insane not to get the chocolate cake. Certainly a close relative of devil’s food cake, his version weaves dark-chocolate cremeux between its many, many layers, all of them wrapped in a dark-chocolate frosting.
And there will be regulars, because the rewards of TAK Room, if you can find them and pay for them, are as intense as the chocolate in that cake. The core audience may turn out to be travelers on loan from the Surf Club and Mr. Keller’s California strongholds, or they may just be people who like the feeling of crashing the country club. Anti-plutocrat fevers come and go, but the trappings of American aristocracy are always in style somewhere.