Country is just the kind of restaurant you would find in the countryside - if you were staying at Madonna's estate.
Geoffrey Zakarian's new restaurant in the boutique Carlton Hotel on New York's Madison Avenue makes it a destination, even for those who are never going to stay overnight.
The original structure was built in the early 20th Century, when Madison Avenue at 29th Street was a fashionable neighborhood, then considered "uptown" - Tiffany & Co. and other shopping meccas were all nearby. The area subsequently became a demoted backwater, and the hotel had become a single-room-occupancy for the indigent.
To walk into the ritzy two-story lobby today, however, one would never have an inkling that hard times had ever befallen the place. One can enter the restaurant, recently redesigned by Rockwell Group (New York) from the corner of 29th Street, but that misses the main lobby, a double-height hall with a sweeping balustrade staircase that evokes turn-of-the-century ironwork balconies.
From the lobby, a visitor can see right into the first of four bars of the Country complex. (Country was created from Zakarian's desire to complement his first restaurant, Town, with a second restaurant that had a more relaxed atmosphere and bistro-style menu.) Everywhere you look, a cocktail is being shaken and it's impossible to stay there long without ordering a drink. That first bar off the lobby is a dark-wood antique beauty with carved classical flourishes. Found in an architectural salvage shop, it approximates the era of the original building. To contrast with the bar are Bertoia grid-metal high-backed bar stools with leather cushions. To the left are jumbo soft-focus images of orchids affixed directly to the wood-paneled walls like a series of tall, narrow Japanese screens. In the far right corner is a 1930s green Chesterfield tufted sofa with shiny nail-heads and a glossy stainless-steel Arco floor lamp by Achille Castiglioni swooping overhead.
The more formal restaurant is situated in the old hotel's ballroom, crowned by a Tiffany-style stained glass dome, restored to its original splendor. It works seamlessly with the elaborate period moldings (a complete Rockwell reproduction concoction). A voluptuously curvy white marble bar is a dominant feature.
Resonances abound: The table linens have a damask pattern that complements the restored original mosaic floor. Many turn-of-the-century kitchens were tiled with white subway tiles (a distinct oblong proportion that is unmistakable to any New Yorker) and for the open display kitchen here Rockwell found ones that exactly replicate those proportions, only in blue-green glass. The ceiling chandeliers hang within half-frosted boxy hurricanes and wall spotlighting was created with a modern re-rigging of salvaged cut-crystal drops, again veiled by glass.
The menu works well with the architecture - the dining experience is a carefully orchestrated series of circumvented expectations. And Rockwell Group matches Zakarian's menu wink for wink. The chef's table is the most countrified element: a rough-hewn plank of a tree, highly polished to exaggerate the grain and sheer sculptural mass of wood. The chilled wine closet is not a hidden cellar, but a glassed-in pantry closet, visible from the dining room with an adjoining faux-smoke house, complete with birch logs and hanging meats.
Rockwell and Zakarian have made it possible for the Gotham-harried to "get away from it all" without ever leaving the city, welcoming them to relax for few hours in the Country.
Client: The Carlton Hotel, New York
Design and Architecture: The Rockwell Group, New York
David Rockwell, ceo
Carmen Aguilar, principal
General Contractor: Shawmut Design and Construction, Boston
Outside Design Consultants: Focus Lighting, New York (lighting)
Audio/Visual: Cableworx, New York
Ceilings: Prestige Painting, Birmingham, Ala.
Fixtures: Creative Lighting, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Flooring: Wide Plank International Flooring, New York
Glass Bridge: Architectural Metal Fabricators, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Lighting: Focus Lighting, New York
Wallcoverings and Materials: Prestige Painting, Birmingham, Ala.
Photography: Eric Laignel, (c)Rockwell Group, New York