On Fowler & Wells, incredible food, and the case for restoring old buildings instead of destroying them.

Rabbit schnitzel with pistachios, chanterelles, roasted lemon, and garlic confit.

Rabbit schnitzel with pistachios, chanterelles, roasted lemon, and garlic confit from Fowler & Wells.

One of my favorite blogs to get lost in is Scouting New York, a blog devoted to the five boroughs and beyond framed in the context of a film scout who used to work in New York but has since relocated to LA. Thankfully the archives provide hours of reading on their own, and some of my favorites include a look at the various filming locations of both The Godfather and Taxi Driver then and now, as well as the tale of the two tiny townhouses flanking 30 Rock on 6th Avenue. There’s also a fun story on eight fake store facades, and a walk down one of the few curved streets in Manhattan. During one such internet k-hole session of my own I read about this abandoned building right by City Hall down in the Financial District called 5 Beekman. About six years ago now Scout has been given the chance to enter the building and was completely blown away by what he found inside, including a glorious atrium more than nine stories high. Built in the late 1880s, much of the building has been closed off since 1940 and was completely abandoned from 2000 through 2010, and then a few years ago a couple of hotel developers got their hands on it and decided to bring it back to its former glory. That hotel is now called The Beekman, and I had the great privilege to go there on our second night in New York to meet a good friend for drinks at the lobby bar and eventually have dinner in the then-four-day-old restaurant, Fowler & Wells.

I'm a sucker for stained glass.

I’m a sucker for stained glass.

The main reason why I wanted to go here was for the bar/restaurant specifically, since it was Tom Colicchio’s latest and promised a totally different kind of menu than you would expect at one of his flagship restaurants. In keeping with the era of the building, his focus was on executing vintage recipes without feeling dated, and keeping the focus more narrowed compared to some of his more recent places. In this article he says that usually he lets the food direct the restaurant design process (something that’s very evident if you’ve ever been to craft or craftbar), but given the grandeur of 5 Beekman he had to let the design really influence the food.

Even if you don’t go there to eat or have a cocktail, I would urge you to simply walk in the building itself the next time you’re in the city because it’s a pretty singular place. In a city where so many old buildings are stripped of their history to be re-purposed into glass towers housing frozen yogurt stores, Subways, or banks, it’s thrilling to see a gem brought back to its full glory. The details are excellent–from the tiles to the railings to the elevator floor indicators, you really have little idea of where the original fixtures end and the newer pieces begin, and you’d be hard-pressed not to be dazzled by the stained glass windows specifically commissioned for the Fowler & Wells dining room. (Truthfully, seeing a picture of that part of the space in the Times was what elevated the place up the list of my must-visit places.) The rest of the lobby is warm and cozy and filled with literary references and practically begs you to curl up on one of the sofas with a good book and something on which to sip.

Seriously, this place exists. And most of this atrium boasts the original railings and other ironwork, which is absolutely incredible.

Seriously, this place exists. And most of this atrium boasts the original railings and other ironwork, which is absolutely incredible.

Initially the plan was to meet our friend, catch up over some cocktails, and then maybe grab dinner somewhere else nearby (though truth be told, since none of us spend much time down in that part of the city, we didn’t have a ton of options at our fingertips). At one point during one of Michael’s stories, though, I happen to turn to the side and see Tom Colicchio himself standing with a group of people not twenty feet away. That basically sealed our fate for \that we weren’t going anywhere that evening, because even the chance to be in the same room with him (and potentially get food expedited by him!) was a temptation too good to pass up, given that we easily watch at least five hours of Top Chef on Hulu each week. The celebrity watching didn’t even end there–Sarah Jessica Parker was literally about ten feet away from where we were sitting in the atrium to get a shot of the magnificent view, and Chris Cosentino was in the restaurant proper congratulating Colicchio on a job well done.

Spot the Top Chef head judge in this picture!

Spot the Top Chef head judge in this picture!

So how was everything? We ended up each sticking to an entree since we had enjoyed a late lunch near our hotel, and while we both wanted the rabbit schnitzel I was the only one who got it so we could try two dishes, so Michael got the porclett with apples and braised cabbage instead.

Porcelett with Apples, Hakurei Turnips and Braised Cabbage.

Porcelett with Apples, Hakurei Turnips and Braised Cabbage.

For a minibreak literally packed with wonderful food, we had eaten quite well up until that meal; even the beers and bar food we had enjoyed earlier that day were delicious, if simple, fare. In spite of all of that I wasn’t necessarily prepared for what we were going to eat, but the second after I took my first bite I immediately declared that this exactly what I wanted to eat. The rabbit schnitzel sat on a bed of chanterelles, garlic confit, and pistachios (and I think there was another bean in there as well), and as I ate it I was reminded again why this guy is the head judge on Top Chef and why he gets so mad at people for seasoning issues, because he absolutely Gets It. What makes these dishes transcend their age is that they aren’t bland plates that get covered in butter, oil or sauces to punch up the flavor; instead, the food is seasoned to taste the best it possibly could. Michael’s dish was also fantastic, but admittedly we were both pretty obsessed with mine, so it was a little eclipsed in its influence.

Panna cotta with pears, hazelnuts, honey, and Lillet.

Panna cotta with pears, hazelnuts, honey, and Lillet.

The dessert was a last-minute decision; normally I’m not big on sweets, but the combination of pears, pannacotta, hazelnuts and Lilliet was also too intriguing not to try, and they even presented me with a candle to blow out despite my birthday being over two weeks ago. Spoiler alert: it was fantastic, and I totally saved that candle as a random memento.

It was a splurge, to say the least (I got our dinner while Michael generously picked up our bar tab), but it was totally worth it as a cap off to a fantastic little sojourn in the city. I’ll have more to write about this in the coming weeks (and I’m planning on actually doing that and not just say I’m doing it), but in the meantime I’m making marinated chicken thighs in the style of Craft for dinner this week and I’m going to have to make some lemon confit to keep around in our pantry over the winter. Fortunately Chef Colicchio has a pretty stellar version I’m going to make this weekend in Think Like a Chef.

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