I don't make a habit of frequenting hotel restaurants. In the world at large, hotel restaurants are the last resort, the option when everything else is too far away, or closed, or when you've been traveling for 15 hours solid and you're just too tired to give a flying fig.
But sometimes there is a difference between a hotel restaurant and a restaurant that happens to be in a hotel. Take, for example, Saha, an independent restaurant in a boutique hotel that serves up reasonably good food and even a modicum of style. This is no Howard Johnson's.
Scala's Bistro fits somewhere in between. It is, technically, a hotel restaurant. Both it and the hotel that looms above it, the Sir Francis Drake, are owned by the same parent corporation, Kimpton Group. And while there is a certain thread of consistency to all Kimpton properties, there is rarely homogeneity. There is also, often, quality.
DPaul and I have eaten at Scala's probably a couple dozen times over the years. It's become a regular lunch haunt for us, a pleasant way station en route to an afternoon of downtown shopping. (And a lunch destination it shall remain ... our dinner experiences have been less enthralling.) I also occasionally drop in and order a plate at the bar if I have somewhere to be in the area in the evening after work.
Scala's closed for one month this past summer for a "major renovation." Such words strike terror into the heart of a restaurant loyalist. "Renovation" can mean anything from a quick coat of paint to a total teardown, including a complete staff change. It can destabilize an otherwise perfectly functional operation. We hadn't been to Scala's since the reopening, and were unsure what to expect. It was time to revisit.
And so we did, arriving only a little late for our lunchtime reservation. We parked it at one of the booths, and soaked in the environs ... and couldn't tell any difference. Same artwork, same wood paneling, same ornate pressed tin ceiling (thank heavens!). I remarked to DPaul that maybe they had just redone the soft goods, but the pad on his side had a tear in the seat. Chairs were still scuffed and worn.
Yet it's not as if the place was looking long in the tooth or tired. Frankly, we were a little relieved that it was not massively (or even noticeably) changed. We were just mystified.
The menu had changed slightly, though it was hard to tell whether there was an evolutionary shift toward a new position, or merely a seasonal rotation of dishes. I wanted a light lunch, and so opted for a tuna carpaccio followed by a roasted asparagus and frisee salad with jamon serrano and "broken beet vinaigrette," whatever that is. I can't complain about the quality of the fish on the carpaccio -- it was firm, silky and fresh -- but it came as a single, thickish slab rather than ephemerally thin slices, more like a big sheet of sashimi. The salad was enjoyable, the ham and asparagus playing happily together in a coating of vinaigrette dolloped with tiny red pieces of, well, broken beet.
DPaul kicked it off with a grilled little gem lettuce salad with pesto vinaigrette and shaved parmigiano. By dint of sharing a grill with everything else, these delicate little wedges of lettuce took on a satisfyingly meaty flavor. He followed that with the tramezzino (read: sammich) special; pork if I remember correctly. Frankly, I was surprised he didn't get the burger. He always gets the burger, and both he and our friend Kathleen swear it's the best burger in town.
One of the nice touches at Scala's is that all the desserts on their menu are available as "mini-bites" at $3 a pop. That works out great, because their mini-bites are about as much dessert as I can put away. Pair that up with a decent espresso (a rarity in this town) in adorable Illy cups, and I'm good to go.
Cheap? Well, not exactly, but at $50 per person at the end of the day we got two courses apiece, a split of Frog's Leap sauvignon blanc, two mini-bite desserts and espresso (double for him, single for me) -- all the fortification necessary for an afternoon of plastic-bending around Union Square. It's money well spent.