Diner food at Champagne prices, one said.
Though much of his senior staff wears suits, and many of his customers dress in luxe outfits from the upscale boutiques nearby, Mr. Balan was wearing jeans and an untucked shirt. His bleached blond hair was cut close and his expression was fierce, almost predatory.
Mr. Balan spat on the sidewalk and returned to the dining room, trailing smoke. He has claimed over the years to be a direct descendant of Vlad the Impaler. It seems entirely possible.
Nello, which opened in 1992, is an ecosystem that is almost incomprehensible to those not a part of it. The food is not very good. Yet the restaurant’s customer base is built of the richest and most coddled people in the city, who love it for its elegance and, perhaps, simplicity.
It is a private club of sorts, where the dues are paid nightly. The meetings are unadvertised. Nello’s dining room can be crowded at 3 p.m. or midnight. It can also be empty at 1 p.m. or 9 p.m. Regular patrons respond to whistles mere customers cannot hear.
The table of four that night was made up of that latter group: New Yorkers relatively new to the restaurant, unknown to the management.
They ate crisp artichokes offered as carciofi alla giudia. These tasted of shirt cardboard. They ate sawdusty chicken livers lashed with balsamic. They sipped at lentil soup familiar to anyone who owns a can opener and shared too-salty saffron risotto, correctly yellow, of no particular flavor.
They gummed at cannelloni with mushrooms that from the grit on them might actually have been harvested wild, as well as at rubbery swordfish drenched in mustard sauce, then laughed about lobster ravioli so tasteless it might have been prop food for an advertisement.
Only an arugula salad with fontina and pears could have been mistaken for something good to eat.
There were waiters and captains and busboys and runners standing at the ready, servants at an 18th-century court. They sprang into action at the merest gesture, smiles blazing, and soon returned with whatever the table needed: another bottle of water, say, or a glass of middling Sancerre, a gin martini.
This began to add up. That water was $12; the glass of wine, $17; the martini, $22.
The restaurant’s best dish by far is tagliolini with butter, truffle oil, shards of black truffle and Parmesan. It costs $100. If that is no matter, the pasta is extremely buttery and delicious. Eat it and discover that Nello can be a fair place to have dinner.
The theater of the place is, in any event, magnificent. It is Stephen Sondheim’s city of strangers played for sociology and laughs: a middle-aged woman in hot-pink fur and very high heels almost wiping out at the stairway that leads from the dining room down to the bathroom. “Champagne,” she giggled in explanation, and tottered away.
During the day, the crowd is women who shop and women who dress like their daughters and men who meet them for lunch. There are air kisses and the tinkle of tennis bracelets against wine glasses. The kitchen trades mostly in salad, wine and the occasional pasta or veal. (The menu is the same as at night.)
If you desire more than a lemon-scented salad and don’t want to spare the $100 for the pasta with truffles, the best bet is a simple bowl of green and white tagliatelle served with prosciutto, green peas, Parmesan and pecorino. Not bad, if very rich. (And $38!) This is food for children raised in boarding schools.
Vitello tonnato, meanwhile, looks good enough straight from the kitchen. It tastes like sliced shoe, though, against a tuna sauce that carries a Miracle Whip tang. It’s grim, especially at $32.
Rage can overtake a person at Nello: the place is what used to be called a rip. (And the desserts are stale to boot.) But if $32 means nothing to you, if it is the equivalent of the dollar the rest of us can spend on a slice of pizza off Times Square, the restaurant is welcoming and the people-watching is nonpareil. There is nothing snobby about it at all, least of all the food.
One night at dinner, there was a very tall woman in elegant clothes, with skin stretched tight over her face in unnatural ways and glasses the size of salad plates to magnify that. She was eating with a small red-faced fellow with dark hair in a center part, who was wearing an ascot and green Tyrolean coat. A cartoonist might render them as an awkward French giraffe and a mischievous Austrian chimp.
The woman drank wine as the man devoured a plate of pasta in tomato sauce. (Decent, and, at $29, maybe a bargain.) They were a good couple. When he finished, she wiped at the corner of his mouth with a napkin.
The man signaled to a waiter. He laughed and slapped the table with his open palm. “AAAH-gain!” he cried, happily. “Once AAAH-gain!” The waiter smiled and withdrew with the empty plate. Within 10 minutes the man was eating again.
There were a great many black cars and luxury sedans out front blocking traffic that night. Across the dining room there was a long table of women in abayas, silently perusing menus. “Saudi princess,” said the maître d’hôtel. They sat on the banquette with their menus, waiting for a signal from her highness, who had the center seat.
There at that table not covered in wines, they sat in two straight lines, Middle Eastern Madelines. It was a picture-book moment in Manhattan, Nello at its finest.