Flames, carving and saucing — right before your eyes!
Tableside service, a resilient relic of old-school fine dining, is making a return at the Carlyle hotel’s “new” dining room that’s rebranded as Dowling’s. Hey, is New York back or what?
The best news isn’t the fire on the floor, though. It’s that Dowling’s came through a much-touted, prolonged redesign to emerge as a better incarnation of the old, plush but fussy Carlyle dining room. The jewel-box venue even let go of its tablecloths — the shock! But it’s held onto its luxury and romance.
Robert Whittle Dowling owned the hotel in the 1940s when he “put it on the map as a fashionable destination” for celebs, pols and royalty, the publicity material says. Those bygone days will likely not return.
But to the relief of those who feared the redesign would yield a loud, hard-edged shell of the original, it left the square main dining room and cozy annex as dignified and proper as they were before, just brighter and buzzier. A “jackets recommended” policy puts everyone on their best behavior, including a pair of poodles that were so still beneath a table I didn’t know they were there.
Chief designer William Paley transformed the former gloomy brown monotone decor into a pulsating palette of black, white and brown. Densely packed wall art, pretty and whimsical by turns, includes five lost paintings by Ludwig Bemelmans, for whom the adjoining Bemelmans Bar is named.
Paley also wisely kept the main room’s beloved centerpiece, a quartet of banquettes arranged like a pinwheel with new leather upholstery.
Dowling’s is much busier than its predecessor. The rooms hum to a sexy murmur above a soft jazz soundtrack and again live up to their romantic “I’ll Take Manhattan” ideal that’s been missing from the spot for decades.
New Yorkers have a powerful bond with the Carlyle. I’ve loved it since first hearing reigning performer Bobby Short there in the 1970s. The woman lunching alone near me had a deep connection too: After observing that my arugula-crowned chicken paillard looked “beautiful,” she revealed to the waiters, “I used to live here. I came back for this.”
I’ll go back too. Executive chef Sylvain Delpique last worked at the now-dead “21” Club. The best dishes on his French and American menu include rich, spicy lobster bisque; a plump pumpkin-ricotta raviolo; and mouthwatering, tableside-flamed steak Diane. Lunchtime chicken paillard, pounded near paper-thin and topped with fontina cheese, was indeed as tasty as it looked to my neighbor.
But spiced Colorado lamb shank was twice dry for my taste, a cut of Faroe Islands salmon miserly and mediocre, and salt-baked Branzino chewy and over-soaked in lemon butter after floor-flaming. Dinner appetizer prices from $22 to $30 and entrees from the high $30s to $80 deserve more consistency.
And the floor spectacle needs work. The anachronistic shtick works only when there’s room enough to wheel trolleys through without having to uproot seated customers and alarming them with smoke and fire inches from their noses.
We watched, frustrated, as the staff struggled to squeeze the fat trolley between tables. It took so long to reach us that my wife all but finished her salmon by the time they were ready to flambé two luscious filets of steak Diane and apply Cognac demi-glace. Another time, they flamed a dessert sundae at one table but not at mine, although I’m not sure why a sundae should be set on fire at all.
Dowling’s has other vexations, like balky Wi-Fi and checks with separate tip lines for servers and captains — a needless, ancient ploy to make you overspend.
But Rosewood Hotels was smart to revive a classic that might not have otherwise survived the pandemic at all. Dowling’s, flubs and all, will make you love New York all over again.
35 E. 76th St.; 212-570-7192, RosewoodHotels.com