A hotel restaurant is always a tricky proposition for a restaurateur in NYC. Sure, it is one of the easiest ways to get exposure to diners, especially if the hotel is one of those hip, boutique ones that draws tourists and locals alike. On the other hand, there is always a risk that the restaurateur’s previously established identity could be compromised at a hotel restaurant where the hotel management wants to project certain image and style that could challenge such identity. If the hotel is already drawing crowds thanks to its glitzy decor and vibe (a rooftop bar certainly helps), the management may care more about how the restaurant looks than what the kitchen actually cooks. When I heard one of the more seasoned restaurateurs in the city, Gabriel Stulman, decided to leave his comfort zone in West Village (he had already established a mini empire of modest but perpetually popular establishments like Fedora and Joseph Leonard) to open a new restaurant at the Freehand Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, I was intrigued and concerned at the same time. Mr. Stulman’s restaurants have been generally very well-received for consistently good food in casual yet inviting settings. When my wife Jun and I met another couple for dinner at Simon and the Whale, we could tell that the restaurant paid a lot more attention to creating a chic and trendy appearance than Mr. Stulman’s other restaurants, definitely geared to appeal to young crowds from all over the city than West Village locals. Therefore, we started the meal with fairly modest expectations; well, Mr. Stulman showed that he still cares greatly about what his dining guests eat. Simon and the Whale turned out to be quite a delightful dinner experience.
Just like the impression I initially got from the restaurant’s overall environment, I didn’t gain additional confidence from looking at the menu, which seemed like a hodgepodge of safe crowd-pleasers. It turned out, though, that the kitchen had a few tricks to bring unexpected surprises to these dishes. I’ve had a lot of fish crudos by now, but the textural harmony between the silky smooth black bass crudo and the crunchy puffed rice with coconut milk broth underneath was quite pleasant. My favorite dish of the night was the squid confit with mussels, black barley and mushrooms. The flavor from the dish that reminded me of a squid ink seafood dish was quite rich and earthy in a remarkable way without overwhelming my palate. Simon and the Whale is not an Italian restaurant, but the spaghetti noodle for the lone pasta dish we had ordered (accompanied by cherry tomatoes and clams) was more or less perfectly al dente to my liking, and the overall flavor and texture was quite balanced as well.
Even a seemingly boring pork collar Milanese cutlet with aioli was very nicely cooked and fried in an ideal level of texture; anyone who wants to open a restaurant with a pork cutlet on the menu should learn how to do so properly from the kitchen at Simon and the Whale. If you are at the restaurant in groups of more than two, I highly suggest giving a try to the whole fish for two option. The daurade that we ordered, accompanied by charred carrots, couscous and almonds, had an expertly Mediterranean touch where the fish was gently cooked without too much seasoning and the textural combination with couscous only added to make the dish more compelling. Jun, who is quite an expert at carving a fish, did a fabulous job for the entire party, leaving no flesh behind as all of us happily devoured this beautiful dish. For dessert, brioche doughnuts were serviceable but if you feel more adventurous, definitely order the brown butter and rye pudding with pine ice below and nut crumble and honey fried pears on top. It had a sensation of Middle Eastern spice that tasted funky at first but over time became quite addictive.
Simon and the Whale is still one of the newer and hotter restaurants, so I highly suggest booking way in advance. There is full bar at the restaurant with standard wine and cocktail selections; if you have time to chill before or after your meal, I suggest you go easy on alcohol and check out the beautiful (but perpetually crowded) George Washington Bar upstairs at the hotel to enjoy one or two additional glasses of drinks. As noted above, the restaurant certainly doesn’t lack for its ambiance that will appeal to crowds looking for the next trendiest place to eat. Jun and I were very impressed with the consistent cooking at Simon and the Whale that shows how a hotel restaurant should be done right. We look forward the checking out the restaurant again in the near future.
KenScale: 8.5/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.5/10)
- Creativity: 8.0/10
- Execution: 8.5/10
- Ingredients: 8.5/10
- Flavor: 8.5/10
- Texture: 8.5/10
- Value: 8.0/10
Address: 23 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10010
Telephone: (212) 475-1924