Wookiee Hut Cuisine presents:
W Hotel, 17th and Park Avenue South, Gramercy, New York City
Review by SuSu, MaceVindaloo, Diana, Jools, MostlyIrish

There are places which are simply too fabulous for words, where the decor matches the drinks, which matches the customers, which matches the concept ... men and women cram themselves into an all-too-small space where music plays too loud and everything is for-the-moment. There is no past, there is no tomorrow, just be here and now and enjoy your surgically enhanced attributes and the budget-busting couture. The W Hotel is very much like Los Angeles in New York ...

In this impossible scene however, there is redemption. Off the lounge on the other side of the bar is Todd English's restaurant called Olives, which is a chain ... but people mistake "chain" for "fastfood" or "cheap" all the time, but it just ain't so. Being part of a chain means that a successful concept can grow to other venues without being forced to prove one's self. It also means that there is a bit of a commissary approach to food, in that Chef English will develop the food and presentation, and it will be duplicated — with minor variation — more or less at every location. He does this with Figs fairly successfully. But Olives costs more and the chefs they hire have more wherewithall and know-how and talent. So it's supposedly the best of both models — many things produced to English's standards and directions, others varied or created outright by the local on-site chefs.

When one goes to a place as fabulous as this, it's important to go with people who share your love of similar things. We were interested in the food, and are lucky enough to know others who are equally dazzled by the food, as opposed to by the fabu trappings. There were so many things to be tried, that we decided to partake in the "customizable" tasting menu. Meaning there are five courses, and if there is someething you desperately wanted to try from the regular menu, they will include it as one of the courses. Or if you have food allergies, they won't add those things at all.

It turns out that a couple of us DO have allergies: one of us cannot eat mussels (even though we love them) without becoming violently ill. The other cannot have morels — that most prized of mushrooms — without eliciting a similar reaction. In the previous case, the waiter made sure to ask if we could eat razor clams, shrimp, etc. In the latter case, the morels were added to the sauce more or less at the last moment, and thus the person allergic to them had no clue they'd be on her plate. But thankfully, she detected them in advance of putting them into her mouth and the plate was whisked away and a whole new serving created to ensure not a single molectule of morel-ness ended up on her plate. It's great to see restaurants taking food allergies seriously, especially the uncommon allergies. Some restaurants will try to argue that you're making it up, but the staff here were trained to do the right thing.

(We know a woman with a serious aversion to any sort of fish; it's not an allergy, but she won't eat the dish if it has any fish at all in the dish. At an Italian place, they neglected to note that a sauce was flavored with anchovies, and she caused a little scene where she spit out her mouthful and repeatedly dragged her napkin over her tongue to get the offending flavor off. True, it was embarrasing and most of us wanted to just leave ... but the waiter's scoff and, "Anchovies are a seasoning, not a fish!" was too rude. We never went back; imagine if we asked politely? They'd do worse than sneer at us and refuse to change the plate, we think! So Olives's reaction was totally appropriate and a total relief to those who has suffered the previous incident! By the way, we don't invite that woman out to dine with us anywhere anymore, either. To not like fish is one thing, to react like an idiot is inexcusable.)

The bread basket looked spectacular — a lot of height and variety — and was served with olives and tapenade. It was really good, and we like a lot of texture as well as flavor. This bread basket set the mood for the meal and gave us plenty of crunch, chaw, and piquancy while we selected and waited.

The first course was three seafood presentations, including a cooked razor clam, sliced and tossed in vinaigrette and looking like scallions in the dim light; Yellowfin Tuna Tartare "spun" inside a sleeve of cucumber, encasing a crispy rock shrimp, and topped with warm sesame dressing and whitefish caviar; Carpetbagger Oysters, which really did intrigue us, being down-under types: crispy Fisher Island oysters wrapped in beef carpaccio with truffled potatoes. All were a bit over-complicated and different from expectations (especially the oysters), but they were all very, very good. The waiter reminded us not to eat the salt the shellfish were perched upon, too ... does this mean people have actually tried???

Course #2 was the pasta course — spring pea ravioli, and veal agnolotti al plin prosciutto, Parmesan and truffle butter. Alas, the latter dish is the one where they added the morels to the sauce. We wish the dish had stayed, we would have eaten the agnolotti! It was clearly the most delicious thing ever! The pea ravioli was good too, but just didn't hold up against the agnolotti.

The fish course was an oven roasted branzino — a large game fish — with a curry and lobster vanaigrette sauce, placed atop a sort of salad over red lentils and a cauliflower purée. On top of it was a huge grilled prawn, charred just as these oxymoronic "jumbo shrimp" like it best. The meat course was Pistachio Crusted Lamb Loin atop several side dishes: sweet and sour eggplant, sautéed spinach and whipped parsnip. It was topped with a deep fried, battered zucchini blossom. It was all wonderful — tender, tasty, delicious. We wondered what kind of pressure chefs must be under these days to come up with "new" and "original" ways to make the same meats and vegetables "their own." In a place like this, if you simply served fried fish or a steak, would people look hurt ... or relieved?

The "intermezzo" was a little plate of fruits, in the form of two sorbets: mango and white peach. This was served over a diced fruit salad of strawberries, pineapples, and raspberries. We would have liked to have had more as a dessert! But that was still yet to come!

The dessert course was a not quite fusion: Thai Ice Coffee Tiramisu — layers of creamy mascarpone, chocolate and Thai coffee sorbet in thin chocolate panels to form a box. It was lovely to look at and really very good. But after that meal, it was a bit heavy, and it really was a star in it's own right. As we said, more sorbet and fruit would have been more appropriate. The coffee was served in BIG cup-shaped mugs and was a relief to drink after the big, ornate meal.

We were pleased there was no mousse of anything served in demitasse cups. Those are kind of a fashionable abomination these days. We're not sure why people like foamy masses of air an flavored fat in a tiny serving container. Maybe it's the idea of eating real fat and chocolate and sugar, but much less than you thought you would? Anyway, no place for that here, and thankfully, they didn't service it.

The restaurant is really really loud, so conversation was difficult. Then again, on one could overhear you, no matter how loudly you hollered. When waiters came with the dishes and explained what was what, you had to lean in and try very hard to listen and focus. But that's the way this place is, very west coast style noisy. It was also kind of dark; two of us actually carry flashlights to see the menus in these dim places! (Which tells you how ubiquitous the lack of lighting is ... or maybe that we're going blind ...)

All up with drinks at the table, tip, tax, it came to about $100 per person. That was good for the quality of food and the "fabulousness" of the experience, especially when you consider you can easily spend that much drinking and noshing at a club. Definitely a bargain for a place to see and be seen. But you will need a lot of energy to eat here, what with all the noise, the courses, squinting to hear or see, the need to be INVOLVED in the process of eating ... it's just exhausting!

But we have to admit ... it's very hard for us to remember what it was we ate; if we didn't take photos, we'd be really stuck to tell you what we had. Perhaps the "experience" was accomplished too well ...

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