Restaurant & Wine Review: Café Carmellini in NYC

by Ian D’Agata

Café Carmellini

250 5th Ave, New York City

NY 10001

United States

Tel. 001 212-231-9200

The dishes

Sardine Toast

White Asparagus Maltais

Shrimp Colonnata

Veal Tongue Castelluccio

Squab en Croute

Venison Medallions Grand Veneur

The wines

Domaine Sigalas 2022 Assyrtiko Santorini Greece      92

Domaine De Villaine 2021 Bouzeron                   94

Ant Hill Farms 2013 Pinot Noir Harmony Lane Sonoma Coast California             92

Café Carmellini, located in the posh confines of a 1907 Renaissance Revival building now turned into the luxury Fifth Hotel in New York City (appropriately enough on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 28th Street in Manhattan’s NoMad area), is the signature restaurant of star chef Andrew Carmellini. It is, without question, one of the most beautiful restaurants you will eat in New York City. The dining room is reimagined by Martin Brudnizcky, who channelled Old New York style and sophistication with a maximalist style. The two-story dining room really is grand, a very large open space featuring full-height sculptural trees (they look real) and a curated art collection: it’s is just drop-dead gorgeous (the smaller balcony areas on the upper floor offer both a more intimate dining experience and the opportunity to sneak peeks at what’s going on down below in the main room). And while I’ve seen the space routinely described as “opulent”, I feel that word conveys an incorrect aura about the place. Rather than opulent, the dining room is elegant, romantic, beautiful. Once you have gone and seen for yourself, choose which of those three words you believe is more apt in describing Café Carmellini, and leg me know. But I trust you will agree that all three are more à point than “opulent”.

The restaurant’s cuisine is described as a “modern, sophisticated marriage between French and Italian cooking with classic NY sensibility”; in truth, the excellent dishes veer much more towards the French than the Italian. (By contrast, the restaurant’s name is all Italian: it is a nod to the Carmellini family’s 120 years in the coffee importing business in Tuscany.) Carmellini graduated from the Culinary Institute in America and trained at Italy’s ultra-famous San Domenico restaurant, a two Michelin star restaurant in Imola [that just about every sybarite worthy of his mother of pearl caviar (nacre) spoon will tell you, emphatically, deserved three stars]. The young man couldn’t have been any luckier, given that the San Domenico boasts a lineage of restaurant talent like few, if any, other eateries in Italy: Nino Bergese, one of Italy’s all-time greatest chefs, was followed at the stoves by his protegé, the ultra-talented Valentino Marcattilii while the front of the house had arguably Italy’s best maître d’ of all time, Gianluigi Morini. The San Domenico of the time was really the place to get training in. But Carmellini didn’t stop there: he continued to train and learn from the best in the business when he moved back to New York City in 1993, taking on the role of Chef de Partie at another landmark dining destination, Lespinasse. In 1996 he moved to Paris, where he worked at the legendary Arpège, a three-Michelin star dining mecca famous the world over. Obviously feeling like he hadn’t quite worked with, and trained under, enough of the world’s greatest names in cooking and food, in 1997 it was back to NYC for him where he was an opening Sous Chef at Le Cirque, Sirio Maccioni’s legendary address. Over the years, Carmellini and his restaurants have garnered a bevy of awards, including Best New Chef (Food&Wine magazine) and Best Chef (James Beard), as well as stars and other accolades. An accolade of sorts has to be considered too the fact that Robert De Niro thought enough of Carmellini’s abilities to ask him (along with Josh Pickard and Luke Ostrom) to open Locanda Verde. The three went on to form the NoHo Hospitality group in 2010, that today includes numerous different dining spots, such as Locanda Verde, CarneMare, Mister Dips, Lafayette, Bar Primi and many more. Until the most recent new opening of a second Bar Primi on 33rd between 8th/9th avenues, it was Café Carmellini (and The Portrait Bar) that were the last dining destinations of the NoHo Hospitality Group to have opened.

As mentioned above, Café Carmellini’s food blends elements of French and Italian cuisine: we know that Carmellini’s training should allow him to pull such a feat off effortlessly. And it certainly seems like that’s the case, at least based on my recent evening there, when my friends and I had a great time. One winning dish was undoubtedly the cured sardines on toast with a wonderfully lifted lemon jam. The Italian touches play second fiddle to the French strokes in most other dishes, something I know some NYC epicures I know are unimpressed by: but I fail to see the problem, the food is not supposed to be Italian or French, but rather represent Carmellini’s interpretation of classics based on his training and sensibilities. And it really does work marvelously well. True, the cannelloni in a sauce Americaine with caviar is about as un-Italian as any dish you can think of, but labels aside, it is a remarkably tasty creation. Even the excellent corned beef tongue served on a bed of flavourful Castelluccio lentils boasts an ensemble of aromas and flavours that place it much more in Southern France than anywhere in Italy. However, Italy is certainly front, line and center with the legumes in the dish: Castelluccio di Norcia is generally considered to be the grand cru for Italian lentils. The dish was immensely satisfying. And our squab en croute (squab breast sealed with a lobe of foie gras inside a pastry crust) was perfectly cooked.

The wine program is curated by ultra-competent, soft-spoken Wine Director Josh Nadel MS and boasts over 2000 bottles (the restaurant’s website states 1800 bottles, but Nadel tells me they have since grown to the larger number) mostly from France, Italy, and the USA (Barolo-lovers will marvel at the plethora of choices at their disposal).

Josh Nadel MS began working for the group back in April 2009, or to use his own words “…so many moons ago, back when we poured Aglianico del Vulture for $9/glass at our little Trattoria against all odds (out of the banking crisis) in Tribeca, Locanda Verde”. Nadel began life in the NoHo Hospitality Group initially as the Assistant General Manager/Wine & Beverage Manager of Locanda Verde. Then, over the years he enriched that role by becoming General Manager/Beverage & Wine Manager at each new restaurant that opened, while still remaining the Beverage Director of pre-existing operations. With the opening of the seventh restaurant, the role of Beverage Director for the entire hospitality group was created, “…untethered from a specific location”.  At Café Carmellini, Nadel’s aim is to provide the same level of hospitality and accessibility whether a guest is a casual enthusiast, collector, or bookworm. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Josh for at least a decade now, and I can vouch for the fact that when he says “… we are equally as excited about Assyrtiko, Austria, Cru Muscadet, Miani, Mascarello, Côte-Rôtie & Chambolle!” it is completely true. But clearly, given the upscale nature of Café Carmellini, verticals, old and rare wines “… sourced with intention and provenance”, are at the heart of the restaurant’s wine list.

Nadel is capably helped by Head Sommelier Robin Wright, as talented as she is likeable. Compared to Nadel, Wright is a recent acquisition of the group: she has been working with Noho hospitality only since August 2023, when she was hired to open the Café Carmellini project and appointed Wine Director of the Fifth Avenue Hotel. The two of them, Nadel and Wright, make one of the better and nicest wine somm combos in the city. You literally can’t go wrong with either one of them.

The wines we drank on this evening were nothing short of thrilling. No trophy wines as such, but just excellent, well-made, true-to-type wines that speak clearly of the grape varieties they are made with and the places where they are from. The Domaine Sigalas 2022 Assyrtiko Santorini Greece is the sort of wine that explains clearly why Assyrtikjo has gained so many fans over the last few years. It is the flagship wine of the winery, a 100% Assyrtiko that is ripe and dense boasting aromas and flavours of orchard fruit and minerals. It being unoaked makes for a very pure rendition of the grape in the glass. The wine speaks clearly of the old vines (60 years old) from the Imerovigli subregion’s volcanic soil (a mix of ash, lava and pumice) and the five months it spent on the lees. Gorgeous stuff.  The Domaine De Villaine is one of my favourite white wines, because I love what Pierre de Benoist is doing there and because Aligoté Doré is a real passion of mine (Bouzeron is characterized by a specific biotype of Aligoté, Aligoté Doré as opposed to Aligoté Vert: the latter, as its name implies, is characterized by greenish berries and gives wines that are less rich and complex than those made with the Doré subtype).  The Domaine De Villaine 2021 Bouzeron is just dandy. Aromas and flavours of white peach, jasmine, lemon, and petrichor (the smell of stones after rainfall has hit them) are complemented by hints of flint, gooseberry and guava. It is an especially dense example of Bouzeron, the product of even lower yields than normal, mostly because 2021’s tough weather conditions during the growing season meant very few bunches relative to what would be normal (only three per vine instead of the customary ten or slightly more). Thanks to Aligoté Doré’s acidity, the wine matches well with a whole slew of dishes, so it makes a great restaurant wine choice when dining with many other people of multiple, varied, wine tastes. Last but not least, the Ant Hill Farms 2013 Pinot Noir Harmony Lane Sonoma Coast delicious proved perfect with our meat dishes. This is just one of the many exciting Pinot Noir wines coming out of California’s coastal area near Occidental, one of California’s best Pinot Noir wine producers and owned by the world-famous Kistler family. Harmony Lane occupies a one hectare and change site of fine Goldridge soil just below the ridge in between Graton and Occidental, known by several names (such as Occidental Ridge). At Ant Hill, they also produce outstanding Pinot Noir wines from many different North Coast vineyards; the winery’s curious, cute name, derived from the very busy three principals (Devon Marquez, Anthony Filiberti and David Low) always scrambling around like ants to get their work done. The 2013 Harmony Lane Pinot Noir conveys beautifully the cooler climate area its grapes grow in, with a very lifted, nuanced set of whole bunch-accented Pinot Noir aromas and flavours that are bright and pure. And though, as stated, it worked very well with the squab and the venison, truth is, it was so delicious I could have sipped on this Pinot Noir all night long without any food at all!

Manhattan is not short of fine dining destinations, many of which deserve to be included in any short list of the world’s greatest, best-known restaurants. Café Carmellini further increases the city’s tally of world-class dining destinations.


Ian D'Agata

Editor-in-Chief of Terroir Sense Wine Review
President of Terroir Sense Academy
Vice President of Association Internationale des Terroirs
Chief Scientific Officer of TasteSpirit

Ian D’Agata has been writing and educating about wines for over thirty years. Internationally recognized as an distinguished expert, critic and writer on many wine regions, his two most recent, award winning books Native Wine Grapes of Italy and Italy's Native Wine Grape Terroirs (both published by University of California Press) are widely viewed as the "state of the art" textbooks on the subject. The former book won the Louis Roederer International Wine Awards Book of the Year in 2015 and was ranked as the top wine books of the year for the Los Angeles Times, the Financial Times and the New York Times, while the latter was named among the best wine books of the year by Food & Wine Magazine and the NY Times.

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Ian D'Agata