Flavor. Texture. Style. These are all important words when it comes to food that nurtures the pleasure centers as well as the corporeal elements of the body. Maximizing these elements is what all chefs strive for. Many do it well, some more than others. Chef Bryce Shuman at the recently opened NYC restaurant, Betony, on 57th St. in Manhattan does it very, very well. His approach is not one of shock and awe with the latest, hard to find, exotic ingredients, nor does he dazzle with a deluge of ultra-luxe devilry. Neither insects nor foraged foods find their way to the menu. Chef Shuman, who had worked at Eleven Madison Park since 2007, is not pushing the envelope on what we eat – the food I ate was entirely familiar. Instead, he is pushing the envelope of the perception of what we eat, making the familiar fresh and vibrant in ways that few before have achieved.
The restaurant is managed by Eamon Rockey, a veteran of a number of NYC’s better restaurants including Gilt, Eleven Madison Park, Atera and most recently Aska, the latter two, like Betony, he opened. Rockey has a special interest in cocktails and wine and it shows in the approach at the restaurant, where he is also specifically in charge of the cocktail program. We started with cocktails ordered not by name, but by the qualities we desired in a cocktail. The specific cocktails were then chosen for us.
I was looking for something refreshing, but not sweet, with a savory slant. Rockey delivered a Desert Shandy with Orgeat, Sherry Vinegar, Apricot Liqueur and Draft IPA over packed, crushed ice. The vinegar and the beer provided the savory components, while the Orgeat and Apricot Liqueur added some balance. My son, who wanted a refreshing gin based cocktail that steamy evening was given the remarkably crystal clear, but delicious Betony Milk Punch. A variety of balanced ingredients had been clarified using a technique with milk. Photographing the cocktail felt like photographing a glass of water, but drinking it was something entirely different and decidedly more delicious. Our cocktail selections were rounded out with a Rye based Orange Julep with house-made orange liqueur. Like the other cocktails, this was creative and quite tasty. We were each satisfied with the selections that started our meal.
Our first nibbles involved ultra thin and ultra delicious cheese crisps in both stick and sheet forms. These were elegant and irresistible as well as perfect companions to our cocktails.
The menu’s format and construction owes a debt to that from Eleven Madison Park, though it is not a direct facsimile. It is composed of columns going from left to right in order of their position in the meal. Unlike the totally minimalist construction of EMP’s menu, Chef Shuman adds a touch more information. In addition to the centerpiece ingredient found on the EMP menu, Chef Shuman includes the major supporting ingredients too. We each ordered an item from each category and each had a taste of all the dishes.
The wine list, composed by Wine Director Luke Wohlers, is extensive and interesting with something worthwhile for a wide variety of budgets. To go with the evening’s steamy weather pattern and the eclectic meal that we had ordered, Mr. Wohlers and I chose a Rosé from Bandol. We chose very well as the Mourvedre based wine stood up nicely to a variety of flavors and treatments.
Served with brioche and fontina cheese, this dish was unordered by us, but sent from the kitchen. I am glad that it, because it would have been a shame to miss it. Chef Shuman’s flavors were bright and delicious and his textures rolled through like waves on a beach.
Foie gras bonbons with cashew and black pepper were ordered and were rich and wonderful, but they weren’t my favorite of the snacks.
Chickpea panisse with Mangalitsa ham and broccoli were also superb. They were crisp and greaseless with a load of delicious flavor reminiscent of Sicilian panelle, but as excellent as they were, they weren’t my favorite either.
No, my favorite snack was the cigar shaped lobster rolls with creme fraiche and salt and pepper. The other dishes all had great flavors and textures, but the texture of the lobster rolls with its wonderfully crisp exterior and the creamy smooth interior, served at a perfect temperature was delicate and sophisticated without being pretentious. These were all extremely elegant, perhaps even surprisingly so given that they were all finger foods.
Another bonus course, this green tomato gazpacho with frozen goat’s milk yogurt and black pepper was as bright and refreshing as a cool drink on a hot summer day at the beach. Chef Shuman showed the ability to coax depth of flavor beyond what seems possible and this dish was a superb reflection of that as well as impeccable balance.
Moving on to the appetizers that formed the center of the menu, we ordered three and received an additional one as well. The potato gnocchi served with corn and purslane were a study in lightness with flavor more restrained than some of the other dishes. This is not to imply that the dish lacked flavor or was any the less for being subtle. On the contrary, it was a delightful, well crafted taste of late summer. In contrast was a dish of marinated sardines with tomato and fennel, that I somehow managed to not photograph. The sardines were strongly flavored and every bit as wonderful as the gnocchi for that.
Chef Shuman believes in minimizing waste and uses various parts of his animal products in different spots on the menu. This certainly is good for the restaurant’s bottom line, but more importantly for the diner, it is good for creating a nice variety of dishes. The lobster rolls served as menu snacks were a byproduct of the main course lobster and the appetizer of chicken liver mousse is a byproduct of the whole chickens that are purchased and used for the main course. This practice makes total sense, especially when the products are put to as good use as Shuman puts them. The mousse was rich, delicious and smooth, buffeted by the airy lightness of the delicate toasts served with them, brightness from green apples and earthiness from the mousse’s parsley coating and chervil on the plate. Not to be forgotten is the crunchy chicken skin strewn on the plate for additional textural contrast and heightened flavor. Shuman uses his chicken parts well.
The extra dish was grain salad with labne and sprouts. This was good, especially for such a “healthy” constellation of ingredients, but it lacked the finesse of the gnocchi, the punch of the sardines and the richness of the chicken liver mousse.
In many restaurants the starters are wonderful, while mains can be somewhat less exciting. Not so at Betony. Yes, the starters are superb, but the real stars and accolades come with the mains. Bryce Shuman’s mains are not one or two note efforts that quickly get dull. No, these have endurance and persistent depth. The chicken that yielded the livers for the appetizer course was as good as chicken gets. The bird has become so ubiquitous in American food, that it has become typically ho-hum. I rarely order it in fine dining restaurants, but Betony allows the bird to soar to unaccustomed heights. Shuman takes top notch birds and treats them as well as they can be treated in a kitchen, serving them with chanterelles and a dandelion leaf atop a chanterelle purée and alongside black radish. In Germany, I was astounded by Thomas Bühner’s Pure Venison at La Vie. The dish lived up to its name. It would not be hyperbole for Shuman’s dish to be called Pure Chicken. He, along with a few others have put chicken back into prime time.
A side dish that appears to utilize the rest of the chicken as well an egg wasn’t really necessary, but it wasn’t unwelcome either.
Like the chicken that had some of its parts show up earlier in the meal, so too the lobster. Once again, though, Shuman did amazing work to make an almost always excellent ingredient stand out amongst its peers. Reminiscent of the incredible lobster my son and I had at La Grenouillere in France this past winter, Shuman’s lobster was killed fresh and butter braised to the perfect texture and flavor. While Chef Alex Gauthier’s lobster came to the table amidst burning pine boughs, Shuman’s came nearly buried under a mountain of dill that had been warmed and scented by a hot oven. Once at the table, Shuman’s lobster had a creamy lobster sauce poured through the fragrant dill, which was then removed from the plate to reveal additional lobster and a cornucopia of summer beans. This was a powerfully delicious dish.
The chicken and the lobster are marvelous, memorable dishes, but neither is the dish that Bryce Shuman and Betony will be most remembered for. That honor, at least from current dishes that I sampled, will belong to his incredible Beef Short Ribs with charred romaine lettuce and a sweetbread. While I understand the craft of making short ribs and the respect chefs, in particular, have for a well made rendition, they are rarely something that I swoon over. Chef Shuman’s short ribs made me swoon. Packed with flavor and as tender as a twenty pound cochinillo, these are short ribs for the ages. You can see how they are prepared here.
Bryce Shuman’s savories aren’t particularly trendy. They are not composed of the most obscure and unusual ingredients available from around the world. All they are is deeply delicious and extremely well prepared. Chef Shuman learned his lessons well during his time under Chefs Humm and Kent at Eleven Madison Park. So long as he continues cooking savories like these courses, his restaurant will be a Mecca for those looking for pure deliciousness.
The one hiccough, though, and it is a relative one, is the dessert program. That is not to say that it is bad. It is not. It is still quite good and though it, too, is under the direction of Chef Shuman, it lacks the extreme purity of vision that his savories have. A pre-dessert of “Strawberries and Champagne” was quite tasty, but didn’t capture the same depths of flavor and tones of balance that was there with the savories. It consisted of strawberry panna cotta with strawberry and Champagne sorbet, meringue and Champagne espuma.
Chocolate brownie with coconut and pecans was creative and tasty, but it too lacked the power, elegance and finesse of the savories.
Red Plum Cake came with ricotta and perilla, but the ricotta flavor and texture that I yearned for eluded me as did the tart qualities of red plum that I had hoped for.
My favorite dessert was the Rice Pudding with lavender and Meyer lemon, which had both depth of flavor and textural complexity approaching the savory courses.
The desserts may not have been quite up to the rest of the meal, but they were still good. It was more a function that the savories were real standouts than it was that the desserts were poor. With a less stellar savory menu, the desserts would have shone.
Our service, led by our captain, Preston Wilson, was smooth and efficient with just the right amount of warmth, which is no surprise given the restaurant’s genetic relationship to the Danny Meyer service standard. The room, though a touch dark for my preference, is comfortable and elegant without going overboard. Aside from the difficulties dark restaurants present with photography, my main issue with low lighting levels is that it inhibits full appreciation of a chef’s artful presentation. Chef Shuman composes his plates beautifully, but the lighting issue is of less significance for his food than it might be for some others, as the color palette he uses tends to be relatively limited and muted, thus less likely to suffer in lower light. Tables are spaced so that diners can converse without feeling cramped. With only a few picky things to harp on, there is a lot to love with this restaurant, even if it is not on a cutting edge of trendy cooking. Betony is still very young, yet it is already superb. That there may be some room for further improvement is actually scary given the quality of the restaurant as a whole. This is one that will be much fun to watch mature.