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NEW YORK'S NEW HOTEL DINING SCENE
By Martin B. Deutsch
March 3, 2011 -- There's an intriguing trend in the lodging industry in general and New York hotels in particular. More and more distinguished chefs and restaurateurs are locating in hotels, moving their skills and food concepts into spaces once reserved for uninspired and indistinct "hotel dining rooms."

Whether the hotels are new, rebuilt from the ground up or established, what is uniform is that they house new restaurants that have attracted a great deal of publicity. And despite the so-called great recession, these new "hotel restaurants" have solid followings that aren't deterred by hard-to-get reservations and generally high prices. Their wine lists are also attractive, with prices to match the cuisine.

It's impossible to cover all of the new chef-driven hotel restaurants in New York, but tuck in your napkin and let's get started with some of the most notable places.

THE MARK RESTAURANT BY JEAN GEORGES
Jean-Georges Vongerichten is no stranger to hotel restaurants in general or hotel-housed New York dining rooms. He has a deal to open restaurants in Starwood Hotel properties around the world and he's the eponymous Jean-Georges who's fronted the dining room in Manhattan's Trump International Hotel since 1997. But The Mark Restaurant by Jean Georges is a modernized version of the once-popular Mark Restaurant that I praised in 2006. The new Mark Restaurant occupies a handsome space with a new entrance on the ground floor of the rebuilt and reopened Mark Hotel. And besides drawing a hotel crowd, the new Mark eatery continues to serve as a neighborhood restaurant for affluent Upper East Side diners.

The dinner menu runs the full gamut of a fine-dining Vongerichten restaurant, but I was in a "casual chic" mood when I visited. For starters, the warm beets with goat cheese fondue, walnuts, grapes and endive ($12) drew high praise from the table. I'm generally not a beet salad kind of guy, but I would go with this particular dish anytime. There's also a raw bar if that tickles your palate.

The main courses we shared also got high marks. They included tagliatelle with tomato, mozzarella and basil ($31); parmesan chicken ($30) and the grilled black sea bass with braised fennel and carrots and Cerignola olives ($36). An interesting sidelight: Many of the meat and fish dishes are available without the bells and whistles. For example, you can order the same black bass, simply grilled, for $2 less. A boon for those counting calories.

The eclectic dinner menu also includes pizza ($13 to $26, for a pie dressed with black truffles and Fontina cheese) and a top hat and tails hamburger for $26 that is topped with a black truffle dressing and brie. Obviously, this is not a burger from Mickey D's.

The desserts, priced at $11, included a Grand Marnier soufflé with mandarin sorbet; a scrumptious warm chocolate cake with caramel ice cream; and so-so profiteroles with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce. If you prefer lighter fare, there's a seasonal fruit plate and artisanal cheeses at $18 each.

At $230 for three (with tip, but with only two glasses of wine), The Mark Restaurant by Jean Georges is not inexpensive, but I'll certainly visit again. Reservations are strongly suggested. The Mark serves brunch, lunch, tea, dinner and a late night menu (until 1 a.m.).

LE CAPRICE AT THE PIERRE
The Pierre hotel, which occupies one of the city's most fashionable Manhattan addresses on Fifth Avenue facing Central Park, is now also the home of Le Caprice, a more casual and neighborhood-oriented version of the Café Pierre, which it essentially succeeded when the hotel reopened after a 2009 renovation.

I have fond memories of Café Pierre, which was formal, expensive and reliably reliable in the cuisine it provided. Le Caprice is an offshoot of the renowned London original, a peculiar decision in light of the worldwide reputation for dining excellence enjoyed by Taj Hotels, which operates The Pierre. A great Indian restaurant, for example, might have made more sense. In fact, Taj operates the Michelin-starred Quilon restaurant in its London hotels, which Joe Brancatelli wrote about last week.

Le Caprice provides outstanding service, as exemplified by our waiter, Daniel, whose command of the eclectic menu led us to start off with the smoked salmon ($12) and the artichoke with goat cheese and truffle dressing ($15). The salmon, accompanied by lemon, capers and toast, was mild and delicious, not at all salty. The artichoke got mixed-but-decent reviews.

On this evening, we took an admittedly conservative approach with the appetizers ($12 to $30). A further perusal of the menu shows more esoteric fare for more adventuresome diners. We didn't, for example, try the baked smoked haddock and quail egg tart ($16), which has won praise from both critics and diners alike.

Our entrees included a Dover sole that was good, but not great--especially given its $55 price, which we felt resided on the outer edges of sanity. This fish tasted fine, but it lacked the firm and distinctive texture that I associate with the best Dover sole. The $55 tag also doesn't fit the relatively moderate overall pricing structure at Le Caprice. Many of the entrees are closer to the $19 for the pork and sage sausage I ordered. There's also an option for a three-course prix-fixe dinner from $29 to $35. We also had a small portion of pappardelle pomodoro ($10), which got a thumbs up from our 11-year-old daughter.

Of the two desserts ($8 to $14) we chose, the honeycomb ice cream ($10) drew a rave review. But a ginger and pear pie ($12) was judged so-so. From the wine list, the Russian River Valley Chardonnay at $18 a glass was excellent, if somewhat pricey.

To be honest, Le Caprice did not reach our gastronomic expectations. But I also think we failed to give the menu a fair trial and we'll return for a second round. Le Caprice also serves breakfast, brunch and lunch. Reservations are advised.

MAIALINO AT THE GRAMERCY PARK HOTEL
The crown prince of New York City restaurateurs, Danny Meyer, has another winner on his hands with Maialino, located in the lobby of the renovated Gramercy Park Hotel.

For starters, our group unanimously cited the superlative, knowledgeable service. (Top-notch service is a hallmark of Meyer's New York eateries, which include the much-honored Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Café.) As important, Maialino scores as the closest thing to a Roman trattoria that puts out a menu in New York today. "This restaurant is Roman, not Roman-style," observed one diner.

Shared appetizers included the perfectly fried, but not greasy, carciofini fritti (artichokes with anchovy sauce), zucchini (a bit bland) and suppli al telefono (rice balls with mozzarella).

On the pasta side, diners singled out the agnolotti, a seasonal version with whipped ricotta-filled ravioli in a sauce of corn and heirloom tomatoes; and the tonnarelli cacio e pepe, a Roman favorite sauced solely with cracked black pepper and pecorino cheese.

For the entrée, the table shared the house specialty, maialino al forno ($85), a sumptuous pork dish that can feed four to six healthy gastronomes. Tender, succulent and perfectly cooked (with crispy skin you can't resist), it's presented with crisp, roasted potatoes, just as it is served in a Roman trattoria. (By the way, maialino means little pig.)

The wine list (starting at $32 a bottle) is, as expected, very deep in Italian wines. And there's a notably great bread basket that includes addictive, house-baked grissini (bread sticks).

Of the desserts, the $8 torta di olio d'oliva (olive oil cake and vanilla bean mascarpone) got a so-so rating. But the table gave high marks to the $9 gianduja budino (warm chocolate and hazelnut bread pudding). It's the dessert that Meyer purportedly insists his friends try when they visit.

Lunch and dinner reservations (taken up to 28 days in advance) for the main dining room are essential. Maialino also serves breakfast and brunch. Can't wait? Try the restaurant's spacious bar area, which welcomes walk-ins. The long bar and its adjacent tables offer an impressive list of wines by the glass and a menu of cicchetti (small-dish snacks), salamis and cheeses.

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ABOUT MARTIN B. DEUTSCH Martin B. Deutsch created Frequent Flyer magazine in 1980 and was editor-in-chief and publisher for 15 years. He also wrote a column called "Up Front" for Frequent Flyer during those years. In a 50-year career, he created, published and edited dozens of other travel publications. Deutsch is based in New York.

THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Martin B. Deutsch in the spirit of free speech and to encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Mr. Deutsch. This column may not be reproduced in any form without the permission of Mr. Deutsch.

This column is Copyright © 2011 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2011 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.