Restaurant Review: Formal Dining Shows What It Can Do at Café Carmellini

The formal, European style of restaurant service was perfected in the 19th century, was stiff as a corpse by the end of the 20th and seemed safely buried by the early days of the pandemic. But it won’t stay dead. It is in full swing at Essential by Christophe, Torrisi Bar & Restaurant, Oiji Mi and Café Boulud, all of which have opened in New York City since 2022.

Of all the recent attempts to revive the grand old style, the most opulent is Café Carmellini, which set up shop in November inside a 1907 Renaissance Revival palazzo on lower Fifth Avenue, now enjoying a new life as a hotel. The dining room ceiling is double-height. Or is it triple-height? There’s more than enough space for two full-size artificial trees (or, if you prefer, sculptures of trees) and rows of tiered chandeliers that hang like upside-down wedding cakes.

Up at the level of the treetops is a balcony with secluded tables, each behind its own private railing. Up there, you can watch the action on the royal-blue banquettes and gold-leather armchairs on the dining room floor like one of the cranky old Muppets in their box seats.

Corned, poached veal tongue is served with Castelluccio lentils.Credit…Rachel Vanni for The New York Times
Oysters à la pomme are garnished with tart spheres of green-apple sorbet.Credit…Rachel Vanni for The New York Times

Down below, men in dark suits and tuxedos are everywhere. A maître d’hôtel shows freshly arrived diners to their tables. Captains take their orders. Runners and bussers carry out the intricate footwork of service: bending down to adjust a fish knife, raising a silver cloche, ironing a crease out of a starchy white tablecloth, holding a silver ladle high in the air as a blue trickle of flaming rum pours down on a wedge of sticky toffee pudding.

The Carmellini in the name is of course the chef Andrew Carmellini, a partner in NoHo Hospitality, which owns Locanda Verde, Lafayette and Mister Dips, among other restaurants and bars in New York and elsewhere.

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