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Commuters gorge on US$96 prime rib at ambitious eatery

LA Fonda Del Sol, adjacent to Manhattan's Grand Central Terminal, is an ambitious pre-train restaurant. That's like a pre-theater restaurant, but with more booze. The drinks help you sleep on the ride home.

As a rule, I'm suspicious of pre-theater and other pre-activity venues, not because of their food but because of who they attract: those who seek food as merely fuel. They dine and rush off to something supposedly more important than gustatory enlightenment.

Suits pack the bar at La Fonda. They shout, watch sports on flat-screen TVs, drink vodka martinis spiked with fino sherry. La Fonda is a Spanish-themed eatery with high culinary aspirations and is a resurrection of the 1960s original.

Josh DeChellis, late of Jovia and BarFry, serves US$34 turbot and it's pretty darn good. Light, flaky and barely cooked through, it sits in a sweet pool of tomato and saffron tea. It's fish disguised as candy.

There are two dining rooms. For a more sedate affair, a quiet back room with tablecloths and rugs. Up front, a loud one with bare tabletops and hard floors. Adam Tihany gives us his signature dark woods and shiny metal. Pretty? Somewhat. Functional? Extremely.

But for every convenience, there is an inconvenience. Contrary to popular practice, the dining room menu is not offered at the bar, which serves tapas. La Fonda relies on the somewhat arbitrary maxim: fancy food in a fancy setting, casual food in a casual setting. Hey, you're next to a train station!

I had a bad craving for suckling pig. Could I have a little swine at the bar instead of in the dining room? Nope. Dining room clients get an amuse bouche of sweet and sour daikon radish with smoked almonds and Serrano ham; as a bar patron, I got none.

Steaks are confined to the back room at dinner. Figure that out. The manly prime rib would pair well with a Yankee game on the flat-screens.

It's a mammoth cut: 48 ounces (1,360 grams) to 56 ounces. Each slice is about 3 inches (7.6 centimeters) high, 6 inches wide. It's perfectly marbled, juicy, charred on the outside, rare on the inside. Rubbed with garlic and coriander it's very aromatic and, with pimenton salt, very smoky.

Cost? US$96, though it's listed as US$48 per person. Whatever, it's US$100 after tax for whoever's paying.

The best desserts were the soft apricot jellies and coconut marshmallows. They're the free petits fours. I've only been offered them in the dining room. Too bad.

Cost? Dishes from US$3 to US$96. Sound level? Gipsy Kings playing at the bar; quieter in the dining room. Date place? No, a pre-train place. Will I be back? For a big steak when they're served at the bar.


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