There's a Place for Us

In its quiet beauty, Campton Place, may be the perfect restaurant

We arrived at Campton Place on an evening of deluge, a clutch of cheap umbrellas dripping in our clammy hands. The maitre d' soothed us with sympathetic noises as she took each umbrella, shook it off, and stood it in the stand next to her podium. We nodded gratefully, hoping not to look too bedraggled. If she thought we did, she disguised it magnificently and led us to our table. It was like arriving at a house party in the country: swift, impeccable hospitality that was friendly without ever drifting into overfamiliarity or pretentiousness.

Campton Place may be the perfect restaurant -- mutedly plush, a civilized distance between tables, flawless food that's imaginative without being mired in cleverness, and equally flawless service. Is it worth the price? Always an awkward question. Other places serve comparable food and have comparable service; still others offer more atmospherics. But Campton Place assembles all the ingredients of dining with a distinctively quiet beauty that justifies the cost -- which, high as it might be, is not out of line with other top restaurants in the city.

Because the restaurant is in the Campton Place Hotel, just off Union Square, I had the idea that it would be full of posh businessmen talking on cellular phones between bites of excellent food they were paying no attention to. But the crowd was varied: a few tables of business travelers, but several others of families, and still more that defied classification. The blustery rain outside made the place seem intimate; it's not big to begin with, and the soft Monet-like colors of green and gold, along with warm indirect lighting, make it feel cozy. Yet private too: a room full of whispers.

Campton Place has already launched two of its chefs -- Bradley Ogden and Jan Birnbaum -- into celebrity orbit. Sometimes restaurants can lose their stability and direction when a chef departs, but not Campton Place: It recently earned four stars from the Mobil Travel Guide (along with Silks, Masa's, and Postrio; among the city's restaurants, only the Ritz-Carlton Dining Room took all five).

The restaurant offers a full dinner menu, along with a three-course prix fixe supper ($29) -- the sort of guided choice that appeals to my Aristotelian side. Moderation in all things, including freedom to choose. (It's almost always a bad sign to go into a restaurant and confront five pages of menu, single-spaced on both sides; "choice" may be an American shibboleth, in food as in health care or automobiles, but I would rather be offered a few dishes the kitchen believes in and has perfected than several dozen it throws together like prison food.)

On a cold, wet evening, potato-leek soup (part of the prix fixe) made a bracing first course. Potato-leek soup seems to be on menus all over town these days -- comfort food for the '90s -- but Campton Place's version distinguished itself by its perfect seasoning (no salt or pepper needed at table) and, more strikingly, by the large chunks of leek, tender but still bright green, suspended in the creamy liquid. The color invigorated a dish that might otherwise have looked a little bland and porridgelike.

The Dungeness crab cake ($13.50) sat on a bed of mixed greens, garnished with a scattering of rock shrimp. The cake itself was a squat cylinder that resembled a breaded sea scallop. But it tasted beautifully of ginger -- a clear, piercing note, like the peal of a bell.

The kitchen is expert at showcasing particular flavors or seasonings. The turbot and rouget ($25), for instance -- two deftly grilled, moist filets of fish arranged on a puree of root vegetables -- tasted richly of thyme: a welcome hint of coming spring in the deep of winter.

And the beef short ribs ($26) were finished with a huckleberry sauce of vivid tanginess -- like a barbecue potion, but fruitier and more suggestive. The meat itself was tender, as if it had been braised for hours, and the mashed potatoes were astoundingly good -- buttery and creamy. What was in them? As with sausage, we decided it was better not to know.

The prix fixe pot-au-feu joined slices of duck breast (cooked medium rare and arranged in a shallow fan shape) with a whole squab. For a mixed poultry dish, there seemed to be, along with a peppery consommŽ and braised cabbage, a good deal of red meat in the bowl: both the duck and the squab had a rich gaminess.

As for steak, there was the venison ($30), which our table's red-meat-eater ordered rare, with a glance at the server that asked, Is it possible? He got what he asked for: slices of loin meat, seared on the outside but ruby-red at the center, arranged like a line of fallen dominoes on a bed of braised cabbage. (While we waited for the main courses, we reviewed our store of anecdotes about being told by waiters in France, "Ce n'est pas possible!" -- usually a response to a request for well-done meat. All the guidebooks agree: If the waiter says it's not possible, then it's not, and further resistance is useless.)

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