There’s a small birthday party at the next table during one of my visits to Fowler & Wells. Throughout the evening, I witness more desserts with candles being paraded through the dining room. It’s clearly the current hot spot for special occasions, a suspicion confirmed when a reservationist on a different day asks whether any milestones will be observed on my visit. After all, who wouldn’t want to party in the new culinary cathedral of the Top Chef himself?
And, oh, the room. Decidedly downtown, with exposed brick and industrial piping, its edge is softened with floor-to-ceiling panels of jewel-toned stained glass, vintage statement mirrors, gray velvet banquettes and, yes, white tablecloths. It’s romantic and opulent, formal sans stuffiness. The room itself says: This evening will be a celebration.
The Beekman occupies a landmark 1883 building; Fowler & Wells’ opening menu featured oysters Rockefeller and lobster thermidor, dishes created around the time of the building’s initial construction and cited in nearly every pre-opening write-up. The general implication of the buzz was that Fowler & Wells would provide a dining experience from another era. And it does. Just maybe not the one we were led to expect.
Chef Colicchio, before his ascent to celeb status on Top Chef, rose to culinary fame as chef and co-owner (with restaurateur Danny Meyer) of Gramercy Tavern, whose kitchen he helmed from its opening in 1994 until 2006 (at which point he departed to focus on TV and his burgeoning Craft empire). It’s easy to forget in present times, now that Gramercy Tavern has entered the pantheon of NYC classics, just how novel Colicchio’s approach was back in the day. He was among the forerunners of the “New American” style, of the farm-to-table approach. Of course, in the years since, the usual NYC dining experience has come to involve lots of small, relatively inexpensive plates to be shared in whatever order they come out of the kitchen. We’ve become accustomed to being told where each ingredient was procured and possibly even the name of the farmer himself. Fowler & Wells shreds that modern-day playbook. It’s a throwback to pre-recession times: when diners wouldn’t blink at $40 main courses; when meals mechanically progressed from appetizer to entree to dessert. Save for one reference to Niman Ranch, farms aren’t mentioned.