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Stressing over perfect meal/ambiance

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May 11 is my husband's 40th birthday. He'll try anything. He loves food.
We've eaten at many great NYC restaurants; on the higher end we've loved Gramercy Tavern, Aquagrill, Gotham B&G, Union Square Cafe, Bouley (old space), Aureole, Il Mulino, Blue Ribbon, Babbo, Nobu. Some of our favorite meals have been at the bar--we hate stuffy and I'm not sure about this new wave of gastro-chemistry. I'd like to go someplace we haven't been that is romantic, or at least a space that is really pleasant to be in with soft lighting, etc.

Neighborhood doesn't matter. I'm just hoping to find that perfect place the food is good, the wine is good and your totally comfortable--you leave the place blissed out.

So, I've thought about these places and would like opinions and/or other recommendations.

Provence (which is just reopening)
Eleven Madison
Fleur de Sel

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  1. Eleven Madison will be the top choice on this list, guaranteed.

    1. I have been to all the reservations on your list except for Provence, and for French dining, (as regulars on this board know) I am all for Eleven Madison Park. My experience at L'impero was also fantastic, so if you want to have Italian, L'impero will be my choice.

      1. I would definitely go to Eleven Madison Park. If you've been to Bouley in the old space, and you enjoyed it, you might try it again in the new location. Food/service/atmosphere are wonderful. Also wonderful is its sister restaurant around the corner: Danube. Food is also wonderful and the decor is very romantic (IMHO). You also have my favorite restaurant in your list of "already have been to": Aureole.

        4 Replies
          1. re: Aiceegray

            Can you tell me about your experience(s) at the tasting room?

            1. re: Arlen

              Sure, Just to elaborate on Tasting Room, the space is beautiful and the menu format is great for sharing and tasting alot of different things. (Make sure you go to the one on Elizabeth street and not their wine bar on 1st and 1st). The upfront room has a bar and cozy booths with banquettes while the room in the back is airy with charming rustic wooden tables and cute small gold lights on the ceiling--very charming and romantic in an elegant, understated way. The food is seasonally driven new american--I liked it because the chef's style is to just buy top ingredients and let the quality of the food shine --e.g. I am not usually a fan of chicken/poultry at restaurants, but they had a great hen dish with leek and morels that just had the natural pan juices as the sauce and with the thigh meat made into the a sausage). I also loved dishes like the smoked trout eschebeche, and the poached sturgeon with black lentils and smokey bacon. Dishes like Clam pot pie (served in the clam shell as the pot) or the lamb that comes two ways (as a meatball and as just a cut of meat) are also quite creative and whimsical without being over the top. Everything on the menu comes in "taste" size or "share" size so it is easy to order alot of little portions and have a tapas size meal or order a satisfying entree size of something you love alot.

              1. re: Aiceegray

                Thanks for elaborating... sounds wonderful. We enjoy tasting and sharing lots of different plates. Might be the perfect place!

        1. Hi Arlen,
          If you guys will try anything and hate stuffy places, I think you should do Babbo. I found L'impero a little on the stuffy side. Babbo has a great energy and is my favorite restaurant in NYC right now. You'll have a blast. Good luck and enjoy!

          1 Reply
          1. re: JeremyEG

            He LOVES Babbo and eats all the things I find kind of gross. I like it, but not quite as much as he does. I really want a place we haven't been to before. Thanks for chiming in though. Any other suggestions?

            1. If you love Babbo, I think you'd love Felidia...Lidia Bastianich, and you feel like famiglia. Sit upstairs, where there're more space. Wine, lovely Italian selection. Huge bread basket with grissini and flatbread crackers with the ciabatta...and 3 dips, like tapenade and white bean puree, etc. Istrian food consistently outstanding and creative yet true to Italian flavors. I can vouch for the grilled octopus, balsamic pasta with extra-aged balsamic drizzled over, tableside, Istrian wedding pillow ravioli, pecorino and pear ravioli, rock shrimp baked in a tomato, and my favorite entree was definitely the veal. My favorite!
              I'm also a very adventurous and into trying new things. Another place that I found interesting was Yasuda, where the fish selection shocked me...4 preparations of eel, that is never frozen but sliced fresh everyday! (You never find that - most unagi is prepared and shipped frozen to sushi places where they broil 'em up when you order).
              Please keep us posted on where you go and what you get! Tell your hubby happy bday for us!

              1 Reply
              1. re: jthefoodie

                I agree on Felidia for ambience and agree that the key is to sit upstairs. We went a couple of years ago, sat upstairs and noticed that there seemed to be more space/privacy than below. Service was comfortable/comforting and interactive without being intrusive. We felt ... at home. I had an undeniably amazing meal with my father at Yasuda a year ago, but romantic? No.

              2. Blissed out! That's exactly how we feel each time we have left Eleven Madison Park after indulging in Chef Humm's sensational cuisine. Excellent wine list, perfect service, comfortable seating, and gorgeous space! But regardless of how much I adore EMP and how wonderful our experiences there have been, I never think of it as being romantic.

                If you will be dining during the warm weather months, L'Impero's truly charming outdoor terrace overlooking a park is very romantic. A romantic feel also pervades the interior with its low-key, elegant decor and just right lighting. The not-to-be-missed polenta with mushrooms is ecstasy incarnate!

                Best wishes to your husband on his 40th birthday.

                1. I think it would be a mistake to go to Asiate.

                  1. Picholine was great the times i've been there (the cheese plate alone is worth the trip) but i haven't been there since the remodel/new-menu...and while very yummy, it is on the stuffy side...

                    Provence i used to like ages ago, but a small group of us had an service experience (with the manager to be exact) there a few years ago that was so appalling that we left the restaurant immediately: just got up and walked right out...i would never return under any circumstances...

                    i'd suggest adding Il Giglio to your list of options...old school and soft lighting and not stuffy...

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: Simon

                      Provence just re-opened with new owners (folks who run Five Points and Cookshop).

                      1. re: David W

                        Even w/ a new owner, i would have to be 100% positive the old management is gone before i'd go back.

                        1. re: Simon

                          Simon, I've seen a report about the "new" Provence on another food forum. That person's view was that, while the refurbished rooms are lovely, the food needs some work. She did mention that the "people" were "nice." However, if I had had your experience, I'd call and ask specifically if the "new broom had swept [management] clean."

                    2. If you're doing something a little more intimate Annisa really is a great bet. In the heart of the W Village. The tasting menu is spectacular. The space is modern and warm and the staff are cleary as excited about the food but aren't pushy at all. It's my fav in the city.

                      1. While I am a big fan of 11 Madison Park, and the art deco room is georgeous, I do not think it is romantic. I would sencond Blue Hill, or perhaps Fleur de sol.

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: maxine

                          Thank you all so much--I love this site! We have a reservation at Eleven Madison, but I'm thinking of changing it to Blue Hill, Annisa or Fleur de Sel. I'll let you know how it goes.

                          1. re: Arlen

                            Arlen, In my view, the *only* reason not to go to Eleven Madison would be if you are looking for a small space, which it is not. Obviously, the three restaurants you are now considering are small, but keep in mind none has decor that is in the frou frou/flowers everywhere category that many people equate with romantic ambiance.

                            Fleur de Sel is a favorite of ours. I find the sophisticated contemporary decor very appealing, and the lighting, including the interesting chandelier composed of shells, gives the room a soft glow. If you decide to reserve there, ask for the cozy table for two in front of the window. It will add to the romantic feel.

                            Blue Hill's decor didn't make a major impression on my. Our dinner there was several years ago, and my recollection is that was quite plain but pleasant enough. The *major* problem there is the *extremely* tight along the banquettes, which means that you will nearly be sitting in a stranger's lap on either side. Not exactly romantic. The only table where this is less of a problem is the corner table on the left end of the banquette. We were fortunatel to be seated there with the added plus that nobody was seated at the table to our right the entire time we were there. However, we ate very early, so I wouldn't count on the room being sparsely populated, especially if you will be dining prime time.

                            I have not been to Annisa, but I have seen photos, and the decor appears to be very spare and Zen-like. My daughter and her boyfriend celebrated his birthday there a few months ago, and both had high praise for everything about the experience.

                            I'll throw one more restaurant into the mix your consideration: Veritas. Superb New American cuisine, one of the most extraordinary wine lists in the city, excellent service, and a small space with soothing minimalist decor and perfect lighting that provides a romantic feel. If you go, be sure to reserve in the dining room, not in the bar area.


                            I don't think you can go terribly wrong no matter which restaurant you choose. Wherever you end up going, I hope the two of you have a wonderful evening.

                            1. re: RGR

                              Thank you for taking the time to offer your opinion and your good wishes. I will look into Veritas as well. And, I'll be sure to report on our meal wherever we end up!

                        2. I'm going to throw my vote at Sumile. I personally tend to have far superior dining experiences at these smaller sorts of establishments - and at this place in particular, I invariably get the feeling that I'm getting special attention (even if it's how they treat all their customers). It goes without saying that the food is impeccable and the sushi (should you opt for any of it, or if you do one of the tasting menus) is out of this friggin' world. And while the service at places like 11 Mad and all its similarly styled peers is always perfect and polished, you simply can't show up and expect to be fawned over. I like being fawned over. I like being sent special dishes. I like it when the chef comes out and presents his specialty of the jour to me and my dining companion. That is what makes a meal special to me.

                          Anyway, I'm certainly not going to pretend to knock any of the other places on your list. This short list of restaurants encompasses most of my favorite haunts in the city. Well done. And if you don't pick Sumile as the special spot for this particular occasion, you really should go there someday soon.

                          1. I'm also looking for a 40th birthday restaurant, loved all of the suggestions- have been to Aureole and was looking for that sort of place- have Eleven Madison, Danube and Blue Hill on my list. Here is my question- if we are bringing a very well behaved five year old with us (and of course eating early) which restuarant would you recommend. At first I was going to go with Jean George but I think it's a little too over the top for a 5 year old- can anyone recommend a better choice, im not looking for kid friendly, just kid accepting.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: Sandinyc

                              I don't think the restaurants you mention are appropriate for a 5-year-old. I have to be honest and admit that I don't understand why you need to bring your child along instead of getting a sitter, which is what we did when our now-grown daughter was that age if we were going someplace fancy. If that makes me narrow-minded and old-fashioned, well, then color me narrow-minded and old-fashioned. lol Now that I've gotten that out of the way....

                              An upscale restaurant that I think would be accepting is Cafe Boulud. I have seen families with children dining there. Though I don't think any of the kids was quite as young as your child, I don't think it would be a problem, especially if you plan to dine early. (I believe they start serving dinner at 5:45 p.m.)

                              Cafe Boulud's cuisine is superb, and a major plus is that the four menus + daily specials are all a la carte, which means you won't be forced into ordering a full dinner for your child as would be the case in upscale restaurants, like J-G and EMP, where the menus are prix-fixes. Service is cordial, yet polished, and the small space has very attractive, stylish contemporary decor. Overall, an excellent place to celebrate a special occasion.


                              Happy 40th Birthday and Bon Appetit!

                            2. Blue Hill is fantastic. If you can get out of the city for a really special experience go to Blue Hill at Stone Barns (abt 45 minutes from the city.) The dinning room is beautiful and the food is divine!! From your list I like Fleur de Sel!

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: jilleb

                                I would love to have taken him to Stone Barns but they're booked up on his birthday. We'll have to try it another time. Thanks!