Korean Cuisine Takes Hold at Michael's
by gary walther
Samuel Johnson had his Boswell and Michael McCarty has his Clehane. McCarty, the proprietor of Michael’s and the maestro of Manhattan media moguls, has achieved a status summit unique among New York restaurants: Wednesday lunch—the restaurant’s biggest day—is chronicled, exuberantly, surgically, table-hoppingly, by Diane Clehane on mediabistro.com. She dispenses shout-outs, bouquets, air kisses, and clever slynesses, with a three-cherry payoff, a numbered table-by-table guest list. It comes with one more bit of information that most restaurants consider a state secret: the seating chart.
Yes, Michael McCarty is so confident in the restaurant’s lunch franchise that he lets everyone see who sits where in the Michael’s vassalage on a given Wednesday. And this is thought out with scholastic rigor: “We go through five or six drafts of the seating chart every day,” manager Danny DiVella says. (At lunch, it’s not unusual to do 150 covers; the Wednesday record is 210.) Table 1 is where the gods sit: Ronald Perelman, Barry Diller, and Tom Brokaw. Table 3 is an endowed chair belonging to public relations emeritus professor Joe Armstrong, “the mayor of Michael’s.” And Table 8 is set for New York society chronicler David Patrick Columbia.
Clehane’s column is the logical step up from another Michael’s e-initiative in 2009: The restaurant started tweeting about its lunch guests under the hashtag #InTheHouse. Far from seeing it as exploitative, though, McCarty’s guests shrugged. Gil Schwartz, a CBS executive and a regular, told The New York Times, “There is no privacy at Michael’s.” Some even basked. “It would be an invasion of my public persona if they didn’t mention me,” said Jerry Della Femina.
That, too, is a measure of the Merlin in McCarty: How many other New York restaurateurs have such willing coconspirators in publicity?
Now McCarty is looking to transmute lunch gold into at least dinner gloss. Turning the dining room into a nightspot is part of the rationale for the new menu that McCarty introduced on January 23. It retains classic Michael’s dishes such as the Cobb salad, which Frank Bruni once wrote contained “enough avocado for three ICM agents or five Vogue editors,” but splices in a gaggle of small plates intended to bring the restaurant in line with what McCarty calls “a paradigm shift” in dining. In this, he was inspired by his kids, both in their 20s, who knew a heck of a lot about food, but didn’t have the patience for the traditional three-course meal. They were voracious for bites and bytes, but of the former, they only wanted two.
The new dishes are largely Korean-inspired, courtesy of the restaurant’s young executive chef, Kyung Up Lim. What’s surprising is they are not headlined, but rather integrated into the salmon-pink paper menu. Most of them fall under the rubric “Small Plates.” Go with the duck confit sliders, the Korean steak tacos, and the Korean fried chicken wings, which may just be the ultimate Yankees-season-opener finger food, a coral reef of tangy spices coating melt-in-your-mouth poultry.
There is also a new pizza menu (the result of six months’ practice, says Up Lim; I vote for the prosciutto); japchae, a Korean standard usually made with beef, but here done vegetarian for a clientele that only chews the fat figuratively; and wild mushroom risotto, turbocharged with a fresh organic egg yolk. There are new sides, among them Brussels sprouts, done perfectly al dente, and shishito peppers, which happen to go beautifully with the Willamette Valley Montinore Estate Riesling.
I mention the wine because a small-plate menu inevitably complicates pairing. Your North Star here is wine director Kasi Shelton, who bears a passing resemblance to Demi Moore and has the slightly husky voice of a late-night FM deejay. Shelton effortlessly baton twirls the by-the-glass selections to go with the new dishes: The Château Respide-Médeville white Bordeaux, weighty with 47 percent Sauvignon Blanc, dances brilliantly with the salmon tartare, one of the best new dishes, and the 2008 Michel Gay et Filles Beaune-Coucherias will match those duck confit sliders quack for quack. If you’re old-school (like me) and want a traditional main course, get the seared day-boat scallops (a menu veteran), ask yourself why you’ve never heard of wilted snow pea leaves, and tell Shelton you want to be adventurous with the wine. (She’ll give you the 2009 Coudoulet, the Châteauneuf-du-Pape manqué of Château de Beaucastel, and the 2004 Luis Cañas Reserva Rioja.)
Whether the new menu will create a night shift at Michael’s remains to be seen. The lunch crowd is the restaurant’s not-so-secret ingredient. Dishes tried on Thursday evening, when the place was half full and as laid-back as a spa relax room, taste better at Friday lunch: Same chef, higher voltage. Frank Gifford was at Table 5, Esther Newberg, executive VP of ICM, was still gossiping with two of the Gossip Girls well after 2, and luxury-accessories queen Michele Ateyeh was having a great time at Table 22. As Michael McCarty once said, “No one wants the music to stop.” 24 W. 55th St., 212-767-0555
photography by evan sung
Cover shoot: May/June 2014 issue of Gotham magazine.