May 15, 2005 • The New York Times
A Spritz From the Past
by David Corcoran
How can you resist a restaurant whose motif is a vintage seltzer bottle- scores of them, in translucent pastels stacked to form a tall divider that refracts multicolored light like a stained-glass window? A restaurant with 1940’s red vinyl banquettes and a big Art Deco clock and one of those white-on-black message boards you see in old diners, its pushed-in letters arranged to spell out an E.E. Cummings poem?
spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little lame balloonman
whistles far and wee
and eddyandbill come
The answer is simple: you can’t. The genius of Raymond’s, a 14-month-old restaurant on the broad-sidewalked silent-movie sat that is Church Street, lies in the artfully artless way it fuses design and food into something welcoming and new.
The genius himself is Raymond Badach, a 42-year-old native of Jersey City who has developed perfect pitch for the wants and needs of this demanding, food-luscious town. He started the original Raymond’s as a kid of 27 back in 1988, serving what might be called hip diner food in a little storefront a few doors away. In 1994 he went way up-market, opening the restaurant 28 in a teal-and-copper space that was known for ambitious, SoHo-influenced cuisine, and the occasional dose of New York attitude.
The new Raymond’s inhabits 28’s old address, the space brilliantly transformed by the design team of Christian Garnett and Ian McPheely. The attitude is gone, and so is some of the ambition; the dinner menu is now straight-ahead bistro with a Mediterranean inflection, and breakfast and lunch menus offer headliners like eggs any style and a meatloaf sandwich. Prices are remarkably gentle, with dinner entrees topping out at $20.
These down-to-earth qualities are somewhat surprising, given the identity of the chef, Matt Seeber. He is quite a catch, even for Montclair: an authentic Manhattan star, having apprenticed to the great Tom Colicchio at Gramercy Tavern and then worked as chef or sous-chef a Bid, Tabla, and Fiamma. He says he did some menu consulting for Mr. Badach and the two just hit it off. That they clearly do.
Dinner here might begin with something as basic and satisfying as chicken soup with light, almost airy dumplings- or with a slightly more involved soup of the day, which on one visit was s suave puree of butternut squash with pumpkin seeds and an unexpected garnish of braised wild mushrooms. Nor would you be unhappy with any of the salads, each one fresh and gorgeously presented: avocado and grapefruit with salty black olives and tart, deep-purple pickled onion; red and yellow roasted beets with ec=ndive and walnuts; or a special-garlic-infused rare lamb tenderloin over a vibrant, multitextured base of cracked wheat and watercress.
A Mediterranean platter incorporated expertly made hummus, baba ghanouj and tabbouli, with a mellow white drizzle of yogurt. Fried calamari were pretty good, too, their cornmeal crust providing welcome crunch. The only starter that didn’t measure up was clams Casino, which were tasty but tough.
In a main-course surprise, the “warm” in warm Niçoise salad was tuna that never saw the inside of a can- a lovely piece of rare seared fish that was lifted to even greater heights by preserved lemon, black olives, capers and thin, crunch green beans. Whole trout was perfectly cooked, and bolstered by its underpinning of lentils, mushrooms and bacon. Two other seafood entrees - sautéed skate and mussels marinara – both struck me as a bit mushy and bland, though their accompaniments were terrific: eggplant purée with the skate, and a great browned heap of crisp, curling French fries with the mussels.
Other main courses were not to be faulted. Roasted chicken came with a nutty, creamy risotto made with the barleylike grain faro. Braised lamb curry, marinated overnight in aromatics and spices, then topped with yogurt-mint raita, delivered layer after layer of flavor. And short ribs were flat wonderful: braised for hours with red wine, they were basted at the end to give them a splendid chewy crust the color of aged mahogany.
The pastry chef, John Sauchelli, worked at no less a culinary temple than Serenade in Chatham, and his expertise shows. Valhrona cake, a yawn nearly everywhere else, has an intense, bitter edge that cuts through the richness and dares you to finish the large portion. (Somehow you manage.) Cheesecake and banana bread pudding are both fine specimens, and warm apple pie is better than fine: tender, crumbly and buttery, with a fragrant crust of cinnamon.
Raymond Badach (pronounced BAD-atch) is very much a presence in his namesake restaurant. A tall, thin man in jeans and a button-down shirt, he moves genially from table to table, chatting with the many regulars and making sure the newcomers have what they need. The other day I asked him why he’d closed 28, such a groundbreaking success in its time. He thought for a moment, then replied with a laugh, “It was getting boring.” At least as far as he was concerned, the mid-90’s SoHo thing had come and gone.
In the same way, Raymond’s, so fresh and compelling now, will one day seem dated, its soda-fountain nostalgia doubly a thing of the past. By the time that happens, you can be sure Mr. Badach will have figured out a new way to tap into the food cravings of his adopted town. And once again it will seem exactly right.
ATMOSPHERE A bright, airy 100-seat space, done up with knowing whimsy as a Depression-era soda fountain. Some tables are cramped, and noise can be high. Dress: casual.
SERVICE Friendly, attentive and efficient.
WINE LIST Bring your own
RECOMMENDED DISHES All soups and salads, Mediterranean platter, grilled trout, salad Niçoise, lamb curry, roasted chicken, short ribs, steak frites, chocolate cake, warm apple pie.