If you occasionally find Westchester dining a little dispiriting, weep no more. The former Kirby’s, slap in the center of Yorktown Heights, is now home to The Gramercy, co-owned by Ray Ahmetaj, of Angelina’s in Tuckahoe fame, and his nephew, J-T. (Me: “J-T , do you go by another name?” J-T: “No, only J-T.”) Well, to murder my Shakespeare, a rose by any name smells sweet, and J-T and his uncle are restaurant pros. The Gramercy already has the sweet scent of success about it.
Dinner on a Thursday evening six weeks in — The Gramercy opened in March — made me wonder why it had taken so long for this restaurant to come onto my radar. The crowd was cool without being raucous, the lighting was low — but not so low I needed my iPhone flashlight to see what was on my plate — and Stan Getz was playing on the sound system. If bossa nova doesn’t make a party go with a swing, nothing will.
Then, of course there’s the food. The Gramercy — the name inspired by Gramercy Park, which is two blocks from where J-T grew up in Manhattan — styles itself as an American brasserie, which is telling. It serves upscale American fare with a French twist. Wholesome food, generous portions with a soupçon — more like a dollop, actually — of French culinary magic and savoir faire. And all of this in a brasserie setting, implying space to spread out (as opposed to a bistro, where there’s barely room to slice a baguette). Also, like a real French brasserie, the restaurant is open all day, serving lunch and dinner each weekday until 10 p.m. (11 p.m. on weekends), with Sunday brunch coming shortly. There are also plans for a patio, which will be a boon in good weather.
On my first visit, a superb French onion soup and woody, nicely al dente wild mushroom ravioli paved the way for a salmon en papillote entrée, a generous tranche of glistening fish served with blood orange and fennel. Others in the party swore the hush puppy crab cake — a Gramercy best-seller — and the rich duck cassoulet were the way to go. Along with the salads and artisan pastas, like the pingingly fresh bibb and Stilton salad and the vast portion of spirally regenetti pasta I’ve enjoyed on subsequent visits, the menu also lists four dishes for sharing, including the trending Heritage Amish chicken and a Provençal bouillabaisse.
True, the short wine list tilts heavily towards Italy, but the Louis Jadot Beaujolais Villages flies the tricolor and California makes its voice heard, with a Simi Cabernet Sauvignon offering black stone fruit, cocoa and leather on the nose. Alternatively, if you have good wine at home, consider bringing it and paying the $25 corkage.
Now that the weather is getting warmer, some lighter dishes will start to appear on the menu. Watch out for more salads and mushroom dishes, as well as the escargots, which chef Thierry Ricard is going to bake in the flakiest pastry. No matter what he cooks, his mantra is no more than five ingredients in a dish, which chimes with the “three elements maximum on the plate,” which Juan Mari Arzak, the daddy of New Basque cooking, once told me was his principle on a culinary tour of northern Spain. Less, in other words, is almost certainly more.
Speaking of plates, another plus point for The Gramercy is its attractive round tableware — not a square plate in sight — since square and rectangular plates, as every cool, bossa nova-loving restaurant-goer knows, are terribly, terribly over.
Nice heavy silverware and butcher’s apron-style napkins complete the mise-en-place on the otherwise undressed tables. (“I think we’re all moving away from white tablecloths,” J-T observes shrewdly. “Nowadays it’s all about a vibe or scene.”) Cloths or no cloths, the sea moss chairs and banquettes give the room a very tony atmosphere, while service, from a smiling, well-drilled team, is oiled and efficient.
And then there’s The Gramercy bar, on the right as you enter. With deep couches for cozying up to your date, as well as traditional bar stools, it’s a glorious space, the bar itself running the entire length of the restaurant, with enough ambient back-lighting to power a small country. Cocktails, prepared with premium brand spirits, include the summery Life in Pink, made with Tito’s vodka, watermelon and rosewater; and the slightly more robust Parisian Purple Mojito, 3-year-old Havana Club rum shaken with blueberry, mint and lime. Ernest Hemingway — who loved a long bar, and wasn’t averse to a spot of rum either — would have definitely approved.
The taglines on the drinks list, however — “Alcohol you later,” “Wish you were beer,” etc. — are toe-curlingly awful, and would have had the man of letters frothing at the gills. That’s why I’m awarding the rather wonderful Gramercy only 9.5 out of 10, subtracting half a point for weak puns. In all other respects, it’s a doozy of an American brasserie.
The Gramercy is at 345 Kear St. For reservations and more, call 914-302-7189.