We don't often miss a week but last week we just did. Camille, per usual, was Johnny-on-the-spot with one of her wonderful monthly posts on the New York food scene and I was all ready to hit 'send' when there was a hitch with the images for this installment. They just wouldn't upload--and what's a restaurant post without some visuals to go along? It took a bit of time to sort this out, but now we have...Betony, the darling of Midtown, gets a visit--actually two visits--from Camille...
Nestled in the heart of a midtown Manhattan block, Chef Bryce Shuman is dedicating himself to simple and natural elegance at Betony, a restaurant named for a healing herb. His style brings some character from the six years he most recently spent at Eleven Madison Park under Chef Daniel Humm. However, Shuman's own plates are infused with slightly less playful whimsy and have a more focused, pared down look and flavor. Though the somewhat over the top décor and the extravagant prices may lead you to believe differently, Shuman doesn't seem to have much interest in bells and whistles. There are rarely more than three or four components on each plate and just as few primary ingredients. Any secondary ingredients are used so unobtrusively as to only be detected for adding a depth to the featured flavors.
Impeccably precise cooking and knife techniques are obvious but not showy in Shuman's clean and restrained plating style. Working modernist cuisine techniques to his advantage, he uses them behind-the-scenes to elevate and deepen his simple plates in a non-intrusive way. But occasionally it comes across as contrived and out-of-place. An amuse to begin the meal consisted of two frozen powders (one of green gazpacho and the other of goat cheese) side by side in a pool of cold olive oil, an inelegant and offputting way to begin a meal where the rest of the dishes take a much less self-conscious molecular gastronomic approach.
Other snacks have a more approachable and tasty appeal. Sticks of pickles come fried in a tempura-like batter, and though I was missing the characteristic brininess, they were quite fun and addictive once dragged through the accompanying delicious cactus and poblano pepper dip. Biting into crisp cigars of flaky tuile reveals a spicy filling with pickled carrots grated so fine that the texture is fascinatingly similar to a fish spread. Thin strips of skate wing are fried until crispy and dusted with green curry powder, turning out similar to and as addictive as Ruffles potato chips.
These tasty starters make a nice beginning with one of Betony's superb cocktails. Sitting at the bar during the second visit, I enjoyed the more relaxed and vibrant experience compared to the slightly more stuffy-feeling table I dined at the first night. Sometimes feeling like we had front row seats at an eighties rock concert, fog periodically rolled across and behind the granite countertop as the bartenders enhance their theatrics by the abundant use of liquid nitrogen to freeze ingredients in their shakers. Try the signature milk punch, a deceptively clear drink made by a time-consuming process of separating the milk solids from the whey and then clarifying that whey several times through the solids. The resulting liquid is infused subtly with a smoked tea and citrus juice, then combined with a liquor of your or house choice. I enjoyed a white whisky milk punch that boasted a smooth, clean, and slightly creamy appeal.
The high ceilings and open two-story floor plan of the dining room have such potential for a comfortable space. But the interior design is left-over from the prior occupancy, a short-lived Russian restaurant by the same owner. Modern steel and glass structures dominate the entrance and bar and continue into the main dining room where they are met with plush tan benches, ornately carved wood paneled ceilings and exposed brick. The clashing décor feels contrived and stuffy, and I'm sure that Shuman's food would read better in a simpler environment.
Though I do recommend the experience of sitting at the bar, the available a la carte menu is only a small selection of the offerings on the dining room menu. At a proper table your choices are between a four-course prix fixe and the Chef's Tasting menus. And while the prix fixe is still pricy at $95, it's unfortunately still the better deal to ordering a la carte at the bar, where you're likely to spend more than that on only three courses. The ten-course tasting menu runs for a whopping $195 and have no overlapping menu items with the prix fixe. Since I opted not to do the tasting, I can't speak to that experience, but I did witness from the next table over a tantalizing seafood course grilled over hot charcoals by a chef tableside and a seductive roasted duck breast lacquered with glaze and nestled in a bed of hay.
Chef Shuman has been complimented by critics like The New York Times' Pete Wells, who gave Betony three stars in his 2013 review, for his “clear and pure” approach to flavor. Shuman doesn't overcomplicate or overwhelm the natural essence of his ingredients and uses a very light hand when seasoning and dressing dishes. Sometimes his seasoning is so faint that it leaves the food feeling slightly lackluster, as with the cold buckwheat noodles with strings of summer squash and beans. But in other plates his restraint plays to his advantage, in the case of toasted grains, lightly tossed with vinaigrette, piled atop a smear of labne, and crowned with a huge tuft of unadulterated alfalfa sprouts. It's a dish made for the Hippy in everyone and you'll feel so good on the health karma scale that it will make you feel better about your later indulgence of foie gras bon bons or silky corn pudding with black truffles.
Even the richer dishes have a beautiful simplicity to them. A perfectly succulent wedge of roasted chicken breast is accompanied only by the bird's own jus poured tableside, a sour cherry gel, and a tender leaf of red onion wrapped around a puree of chantarelle mushrooms that tasted as if it might include some of the liver as well. Grilled short rib served off-the-bone melts in your mouth while the braised and pulled portion hides inside of a shatteringly crisp cylindrical shell of potato. Green garlic and black garlic purees lend their pungent vibrance and sweet earthiness respectively to the meat, which like the chicken, is served with the beast's jus.
Possibly the most unforgettable morsel of food at Betony comes free and unlimited throughout your meal. Soft and salty pretzel buns are unbelievably delicious on their own, but once smeared with ricotta mustard they are indescribably incredible. All of the house-made bread at Betony is stunning, including the adorable mini baguettes that come with the classic cheese plate, most recently featuring Hudson Flower, a semi-soft sheep's milk cheese whose rind is coated with herbs, served here with poached strawberries and a strawberry jelly. I much preferred this version over the composed cheese plate in which the Hudson Flower was made into an oversalted foam with some strawberries, hazelnuts, and an overwhelming amount of fresh thyme scattered about. Sadly, this option also comes sans baguette.
Pastry Chef Rebecca Isbell's desserts take a firmly French approach with Asian leanings here and there. Each plate seemingly varies its focus on a different taste bud. The elegantly draped pickled plums that were built to sit flower-like on a sucre cookie with a buttermilk and perilla cream were almost too acidic to be eaten alone, but deliciously balanced when combined with all the components. Equally as stunning is the pandan ice cream molded into the shape of a leaf with a thin shave of pistachio cake and a stout quenelle of milk ice cream. Though one of my favorite desserts, it was overwhelmingly the sweetest. The chocolate, raspberry, and hazelnut dessert relies on such classic and overplayed flavors that I dismissed it on the menu, but praised it as my favorite once I tasted the satisfyingly salty dome of layered chocolate and raspberry sorbets with toasted hazelnuts.
The service staff, under the direction of Eamon Rockey, who is also an EMP alum, are pleasantly friendly, gracious, and fluid in their actions. Though generally exuding a professional manor, mistakes are all too frequent for a restaurant of it's caliber and price point. On my first visit my dining companions and I were set with incorrect silverware twice during the meal and on my second visit our server forgot our food order twice, even though we had only ordered four items in total. But the really baffling bit came after we had finished dessert and tea on the night of my first dinner. We sat at our completely cleared table, as the fairly empty restaurant became ever emptier, for an entire hour before the server came back to our table, still without our check in hand or an apology, despite our attempts to catch him with a passing glace or word, utterly oblivious that we had been waiting for our bill for that inordinate amount of time. The simple exchange of payment which should have taken no more than five to ten minutes ended up consuming a frustrating hour and a half of our time that night.
Bryce Shuman's thoughtful food at Betony has earned him a spot as one of Food & Wine's Best New Chefs of 2015 as well as a Michelin star. I can imagine it has the potential to translate even better in a different environment, but for the time-being it seems that everyone is willing to forgive the odd surroundings to experience what Shuman has to offer. The midtown crowd is eating it up and I recommend you do too.
41 W 57th St.
Mon – Fri: 12 – 2pm
Mon – Thurs: 5:30 – 10pm
Fri – Sun: 5:30 – 10:30
Lunch: 2-course prix fixe: $38
Chef's tasting: $95
Dinner: 4-course prix fixe: $95
Chef's tasting: $195