UPDATE: Leona’s has since closed, sadly an end to an era.
Being a true New Yorker, I am always happy when I stumble across new locales that turn out to be hidden gems among the sea of options here in the City. Last night turned out to be one of those times when the stars aligned and a truly wonderful experience followed. Now I normally relegate reviews to my Dining section, but wanted to draw some attention to this locale.
As many of you know, I have an affinity for all things classic New York. So when I found myself at a late matinee on Sunday, I did a bit of quick research in order to find something new and different for cocktails and dinner afterwards with my other half. I had heard that the New York Helmsley had recently been re-vamped and though why not give it a go. You can say what you want about Leona Helmsley but there are few names that are truly synonymous with New York and impeccable service. Ah, the days when the Palace was the crown in the Helmsley Hotels crown are now long gone but a recent renovation of the New York Helmsley has yielded quite the surprise. A new and fresh Harry’s Bar and a newly re-named (and re-designed) Leona’s restaurant (formerly Mindy’s) make for a welcome addition to the Midtown East scene.
We arrived around 6 o’clock to indulge in a some liquid libations pre-dinner. The color scheme, design, and overall layout of Harry’s are all perfect. It was not crowded on this occasion but one could easily see how you could feel “alone” even if it was a full house. We were a bit hidden from the view of the bar so it took a little time to catch the servers attention but as we were not in any rush really made no difference. We felt welcomed and relaxed and the service did not disappoint. Drinks were so very well-made and came with a side of water and bar nibbles. It is important to note that service is included in your bill in both the bar (15%) and restaurant (19%). I actually do not mind this as it is the same in many places around the world. Some might argue that there is no incentive for staff to provide exceptional service but, in my experience, this is just not the case. The only thing I would change at the Helmsley is adding an additional line to the receipt to tip above the standard included. Sometimes people go above and beyond and it is nice to recognize their efforts accordingly.
After an hour of so of fabulous (and I do mean fabulous) cocktails we headed into the restaurant and we warmly greeted and shown to our table. The first this we noticed is that we had the restaurant to ourselves – I mean completely to ourselves and would remain so for our entire meal. Now, I might normally find this worrisome as an empty restaurant can mean several things but it was summer in the City and the restaurant is in fact open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Perhaps the new branding is also slow in getting out into the mainstream.
The layout of the restaurant is so thoughtfully planned that I can remember few that were so well laid out. While not a huge room, the design affords a level of intimacy that, even if full, I could see still remaining. The restaurant is actually quite beautiful with small touches like contrasting fabrics and backlit onyx (as was the bar top at Harry’s). Fresh flowers and tea light candles make for a pleasant yet unpretentious welcome. Our waiter and his team could not have been nicer or more knowledgeable in their recommendations. Not to mention my food allergies were a non-issue after I explained them. The bread presentation was soon made, I of course could not indulge, but my partner raved at how fresh and delicious his selection was.
Now I have to admit I was concerned at what might come out of the kitchen seeing as we were the only two in the dining room (though room service did appear to be coming from the kitchen as well). Well, my concerns were soon tossed to the wind as our meal progressed. For starters we both had the baby spinach salad with roasted red beets, shaved red onions, and goat cheese in a red wine vinaigrette. I have to say that the salad was so perfectly dressed that it was a subtle undertone to the earthiness of the spinach and beets. I mean to actually achieve this balance really shows that the kitchen knows that they are doing. The saltiness of the goat cheese made for the perfect accompaniment adding another dimension to this simple yet carefully thought-out salad.
For my entrée I had the New York Strip steak but asked for it without any sauce and with haricots verts instead of asparagus and mashed potatoes. My request was not a problem in the least and my steak was beautifully grilled to a perfect medium as requested – perfectly pink throughout and extremely tender. My partner had the grilled rack of lamb with summer squash and griddled potatoes with a rosemary jus. He raved about the dish and is a true lamb aficionado so not the easiest in the world to please. Not only as the lamb cooked to perfection, there were four chops that comprised the rack which was a very generous portion.
Dessert, while good, was nothing exceptional but quite honestly we could have forgone dessert and just had coffee. I had a simple chocolate ice cream that was nicely presented but seemed to have been pre-scooped in the freezer before service started. My partner had the flourless chocolate cake, which we could not confirm whether it was gluten-free, and he said it tasted a bit old. Again, I am thinking that it was a slow night and the desserts were pre-portioned and sitting for a while.
So all in all the experience was very good and the food well above average. The service is really where this restaurant shines and the layout and design make for a truly transporting experience. I will most definitely be back again and can only hope that word of Leona’s begins to spread because it would be shame to see it change into anything other than what it is.
Update: I have since been back to both Harry’s and Leona’s several times since this inital review and the service and quality of food are still impeccable. It was also good to see the restaurant a bit more crowded on a recent Saturday evening visit.