a review from Susan Nolan & Kathleen Bershad
Enjoy Kathleen’s review, but be forewarned, I, Susan, “The Amateur,” like to interrupt. What can I say? I’m from Boston.
Recently, I was invited to a James Beard dinner honoring Jason Tilmann, the executive chef at Triomphe restaurant. When I had to decline, a second invitation was issued to experience Jason’s cooking at his restaurant. Since there was a plus-one, the first person I called was Susan, my partner in wine.
I was thrilled to receive the invitation, particularly because wine events with Kathleen typically involve “tastings” where blending in requires spitting out perfectly good – and frequently fantastically tasty – wine. This outing involved actually swallowing the wine, so duh, I was in.
James Beard honor notwithstanding, Triomphe is an easy place to underestimate. Near Times Square, it bills itself as a pre-theater place and is in a hotel – the Iroquois, nestled between the more famous Algonquin and the international Sofitel.
Because I was excited to see Kathleen, as well as to be allowed to drink wine, I failed to do advance research. The online menu sounded lovely, but, with a husband who works at 42nd and 5th, I have experienced many menus describing ambitious cuisine…that turns out to be mediocre food. But hey – this was lunch with Kathleen on a cold rainy day.
The restaurant’s jewel-box size, warm woods, soft autumn colors and friendly vibe provided a welcome refuge from the drizzle.
Warm. That was my first feeling upon entering Triomphe. Sure, “warm” describes the temperature that contrasted with the raw weather outside, but it also fits the atmosphere, the décor and the staff.
Since we were expected, it wasn’t a huge surprise when Jason Tilmann popped up at our table shortly after we sat to give us the lowdown. Triomphe, he said, is about “the perfect bite.” He then walked us through the menu, acknowledging that, as with children, it’s impossible to pick any favorites.
“The perfect bite,” as Jason described his philosophy, seemed a wonderful ideal, but probably unattainable, right? Wrong, at least on several counts. Read on!
The menu is French-American, though other cultures creep into the cuisine. It was heavy on fish and seafood, with a requisite chicken dish and a delicious (and rich) sounding short ribs dish.
The bread was a surprise: cornbread with a compound butter. Susan & I nibbled while perusing the menu, finally settling on four dishes to share.
Oh yes, the cornbread. I tasted truffles! Maybe I’m wrong, but truffles invariably make me think of wine. [Good palate! The butter is seasoned with parsley, truffle oil, salt and pepper.]
We actually started with an entrée, a grilled tuna Caesar salad. This was my least favorite dish of the meal, perhaps because Boston bibb lettuce was substituted for the organic Little Gem greens. The individual pieces worked well: crisp, silky lettuce with the light anchovy vinaigrette (which had little anchovy taste); the slippery, firm tuna; the crisp and creamy burrata crouton. Together, though, they didn’t work for me.
I love Caesar salad. I know. It’s not particularly hip to admit that, but my bar is low! So, I enjoyed the Triomphe version greatly. And now I will demand a burrata crouton every time I order this dish. Get ready, Uncle Tony’s Checkered-Table-Cloth and Tableside-Accordion Joint!
For our wine selections, we turned to Robyn Lynn, the in-house expert. (Officially, she’s the restaurant’s Director of Food & Beverage.) We wanted to try the Paumanok Chenin Blanc, but she suggested chardonnay, providing glasses of both the Olivier Leflaive Bourgogne Blanc “Les Setilles” and the Bishops Peak Chardonnay from California. The Leflaive was a little too minerally for this dish, but not a bad match. The California wine, with its rich, rounded feel, made a much better pairing.
Like Kathleen, I preferred the more complex California wine to the laid-back French version.
Next up was an item from the menu’s small plates section: lobster dumplings with
wakame salad and ginger butter. The wine pairing was Pol Roger Brut Champagne, a classic match for the shellfish. The seaweed offered a nice crunch that offset the dumpling’s softness, though there were some black strips on top of the dumpling that tasted like paper, adding nothing to the dish.
I decided this was the best thing I’d tasted in several months – almost a “perfect bite” – and I liked the “black strips” which I decided must be seaweed. [Ding, ding! It is Nori – dried seaweed.] The Champagne was fantastic both solo and with the dumplings; however, although the bubbly brightened the dumplings and wakame salad in a way that reminded me of why wine exists, the ginger butter performed the opposite trick on the wine, diminishing its sparkle.
Our third course was another small plate, a smoked salmon Carpaccio that we picked simply for its accoutrement: violet mustard mousse. We weren’t disappointed. This dish embodied Jason’s “perfect bite” to, well, perfection. Silky salmon offset by crisp greens, a sharp note from the mustard playing with the salty caviar flavors, candied red onion offering a sweet note and pop of red color contrasting with the salmon’s pink.
I’m totally with Kathleen; this dish was literally the best thing I’ve tasted in a year (sorry, lobster dumplings!), and deserves the “perfect bite” label. It almost makes up for the loss of my beloved spicy salmon tartare at Elephant, the defunct French-Thai place at 1st and 1st.
This was paired to perfection with – at last! – the Paumanok Chenin Blanc, a lively, acidic and slightly fruity wine that managed to elevate the food’s flavors.
Having been pleasantly taken aback by several Long Island wines over my afternoons with “The Pro,” I was all over the North Fork Chenin Blanc. Perfection. Long Island, you’ve come a long way, baby.
It was sort of inevitable that the next dish might be a letdown, but that’s not to say it wasn’t also delicious. First off, who would think that a dish of linguine, lobster and shrimp would pair with a red wine – the Tenura di Trinoro “Le Cupole” SuperTuscan?
Then again, tossing the pasta and seafood with a zesty, thick puttanesca sauce and small bits of chorizo does the trick! It’s another example of Jason’s skill at putting multi-layered dishes, both in terms of flavor and color.
I loved this dish and the matching Super Tuscan. My only complaint, as a born-and-raised Boston girl, is that the lobster was chewier than it should have been. I know from my Uncle Bill, a onetime hobbyist lobsterman from Plymouth, that January through March is the down season for lobsters, so I don’t fault Triomphe for this small imperfection.
As if that weren’t enough, along comes dessert: chocolate croissant bread pudding with a
caramel toffee gelato and crème anglaise. The crème had a gorgeous yellow color and the bread pudding was delicious, though perhaps just a touch dry, and needing – for this chocoholic – just a touch more chocolate.
It was decadently paired with the Vinedo de los Vientos “Alcyone”, a dessert wine from Uruguay made with the Tannat grape.
I’m not much of a sweet tooth, except for dessert wine, so I was more interested in the Alcyone than the bread pudding. Both exceeded my expectations, but I will buy the wine to enjoy at home. It has enough of the requisite sweetness for a dessert wine without any cloying stickiness.
Sadly, it was all too soon time to leave our cozy cocoon. Though not perfect, this meal at Triomphe was among the best I’ve had in some time, and (if I kept such a ranking) that salmon Carpaccio would be in my top 10 favorite dishes ever.
I was surprised that a workaday lunch turned into a truly memorable meal. I’m already planning my return. Based on much Midtown dining, I declare Triomphe the best restaurant in the Theater District. Indeed, I’ll come here even on a non-theater night.
OK, Kathleen, I’ll let you have the last word. 😉
Thanks, since you got the first ones!
For me, this would be a great meeting spot for a meal…and next time, I’d also like to head across the lobby to the Lantern’s Keep, an old school cocktail salon with a deliriously imaginative menu.