By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
Though place settings for two are set side by side at the seashell-pattern banquettes, we hungrily eschewed romance, cozying up instead to a fantastic pan-fried crabcake, one of three hot appetizers from the list of six first courses (not counting soup of the day). Molded from lump crabmeat, the succulent starter was browned outside, delicately flavored within. A sweet-tart mango vinaigrette laced the plate, while a salad of chopped asparagus and red pepper supported the cake. More crisscrossing spears of asparagus, verdant and al dente, provided simple garnishes.
Eight main courses (no specials) balance seafare against landfare at the Mayfair. I've always liked Sindaco's way with fish, so we went for a pan-fried fillet of Florida snapper, which duplicated the success of the crabcake. Posed over a stewy tomato nage, crisp-edged snapper was sweet and flaky, sliced in three parts and piled up architecturally. A molded scoop of rice pilaf perfumed with saffron and roasted sweet pepper was complemented by a fricassee of fresh, firm artichoke hearts.
Pepper-seared sea scallops aren't for the hearty eater, or, at $21, for the budgeter A four pale rounds aren't terribly filling. But for the diner to whom one complex bite can seem like a whole meal, this dish is first-rate. Supple scallops, rich as lobster, were flash-finished in a burst of ground pepper and butter and arranged around a delicious risotto cake flecked with chewy nuggets of sun-dried tomato. A merlot sauce reduced with port syrup added even more potency to this already powerful dish.
Knowing too much about Sindaco's history and about my own susceptibility to his culinary wiles, I resolved to judge the Mayfair by undertaking two visits, in part to convince myself that the first meal hadn't been a freak occurrence -- and also to make sure Sindaco was still working in the kitchen. That's when I encountered the mess. Sunday-night dining was tomblike. No people. No piano. And, it turned out, no Sindaco.
"I work like a horse," he says. "I take one Sunday off a month."
I don't doubt that. Nor do I doubt him when he adds, "I've had problems getting a good, dedicated crew." That's apparent. Sindaco's off nights are also the restaurant's.
A garlic-grilled squid appetizer more than lived up to its billing -- the garlic in the oily white-wine sauce was overwhelming. To make matters worse, four baby squid had been overcooked to the point of toughness before being draped with roasted red and yellow peppers. A garnish of anchovy-oregano bruschetta was too toasted, hard as biscotti. Though the effect of the calamari was dramatic and pretty, the dish was a disaster.
Salad was better. Smoked trout, practically a whole fish, was boneless and not fatty, a real treat, its mild smokiness well matched by the youngest, palest green frisee I've had in a long time, accented with string-thin haricots verts. Criticize the cook all you want, but praise the purveyor. Spiced pecans (a little soggy) and an excellent lemon-pepper vinaigrette completed the greens.
Service was lackadaisical and indifferent. "What cut of meat is the veal steak?" we wanted to know.
Our waiter shrugged. "I'm not much into the butchering of animals," he said.
We ordered it anyway. And it was a beauty, a boneless filet sparkling with juice. And pepper. Far too much black pepper. The inches-thick steak, which had been nicely cooked medium-rare, seemed to get hotter with each bite. A ragout of mushrooms and a backdrop of mashed potatoes soothed the overspiced palate, but a gratin of Belgian endive had virtually disintegrated.
Pepper was also the culprit that brought down an otherwise beautifully prepared poultry dish. A chicken breast was marvelously juicy, wrapped inside a thin crust of sliced potatoes, but the bird had been brutalized by a deluge of black pepper. Encountering a bone amid the meat was another unpleasant surprise; given the coating, I'd have expected an absolutely boneless cut. Side dishes, fortunately, saved this entree from ruin: a heap of polenta puddled with a deep red wine sauce, and roasted portobello mushroom slices and a smattering of caramelized shallots.
Now that the banquet season has ended, Sindaco aims to get back to the line, which he admits to having neglected. He's also working on expanding the dessert list, an assortment so bare and mediocre-sounding we didn't broach it. A new wine list, a collaboration between Sindaco and Maltrait, is forthcoming, as well. Perhaps most exciting is the series of guest chef/vintner dinners the restaurant is sponsoring: Don Pintabona from New York City's Tribeca Grill will be cooking on May 16 ($50 per person; call the restaurant for reservations).
Still, a more pessimistic Sindaco sounds a bit uncertain about the Mayfair's future. "I can't be a savior," he says.
I do admire Sindaco's talent -- as they say in the business, he's got the chops -- and I respect his pursuit of the right setting for those abilities. Like all humans (even restaurant critics), chefs are fallible, and Sindaco's bad judgments have been compounded by bad luck. Still, when I go out to eat at a place like the Mayfair, I expect consistency and commitment, as should every diner who plunks down 100 bucks for a meal.
As Ruth Reichl puts it, "Everyone has become a critic. I couldn't be happier. The more people pay attention to what and how they eat, the more attuned they become to their own senses and the world around them."